Home is a haven of hope

August 11, 2003|by JESSICA DAVIS

Editor's note: Washington County was the first and is the oldest of 31 counties in the United States to be named after the country's first president, George Washington. This weekly series each Monday seeks out other places and items in the county that hold the title of "the oldest."

BOONSBORO - Formerly known as the Washington County Home for Orphans and Friendless Children, San Mar has been a haven for more than 2,000 boys and girls for almost 120 years.

In the late 1800s, a group of citizens was concerned about the care of the impoverished children in the county. At that time, needy children were placed in the Alms House in Hagerstown, alongside the homeless and some "unsavory characters," according to Bruce Anderson, current president and chief executive officer of the children's home.

Talk of building a new group home continued for several years until Ben Newcomer, a wealthy railroad executive born in the Beaver Creek area, gave an endowment to construct a children's home on Potomac Street in Hagerstown.


The home opened Nov. 8, 1883, under the direction of Superintendent David Emmert, Anderson said. The first occupants were a sister and brother named Edith and Eddie. More children moved into the home over the next several days and by the end of the year, 69 children were admitted to the home, he said.

The upkeep of the house was paid for in part through the generosity of the community and outplacement services, he said.

Outplacement, or the "forerunner of modern-day foster care," according to Anderson, was a process through which the superintendent interviewed prospective guardians and decided if a child should be placed in their care. If so, the new guardians would pay a fee to take the child into their custody.

Many times, the child would be used as a laborer on a farm, Anderson said, but the superintendent would do periodic checks to make sure the child was being treated properly. The practice of outplacement stopped over time as child labor laws regulated the hours children could work and social services programs helped single parents care for their children rather than placing them in group-home settings.

The Potomac Street home operated for several years but continuously struggled to collect enough money to make ends meet, Anderson said. Toward the end of the 19th century, the home was getting too crowded and a proposal was made to relocate it to the country.

Peter Gray, a lifelong Washington County resident, and his wife, Anne, never had children but raised a young orphaned boy as their own. At one point, Gray was injured while doing carpentry work and decided to look for a less strenuous job.

He bought a grocery store on Jonathan Street and 66 acres of land near Boonsboro, previously owned by the affluent Fahrney family of that area.

A man named Dr. Fahrney had an office on the land that Gray bought but had torn down the structure in 1878. He hauled the bricks across the street to build the Sanitarium of Maryland. The surrounding area soon became known as "San Mar," according to Anderson.

In his will, Gray stipulated that within a year following the death of his wife, a mechanical institute and orphans home was to be built upon that land, Anderson said.

Gray left his entire $60,000 estate for this purpose and indentified, by name, unsuspecting members of the future home's board of directors in his will.

Gray died Aug. 10, 1910, according to Herald-Mail archives, and his wife died in 1923. That same year, work began on the mechanical institute.

Construction soon hit a snag when the estate ran out of money. Meanwhile, the Washington County Orphans Board, in charge of the Potomac Street home, inherited money from a wealthy donor. The camps struck a deal in which the Orphans Board would give the new home $40,000 on the condition that when it was finished, the Orphans Board would provide the "program, kids and staff," Anderson said.

By 1927, the Hagerstown children's home was closed and relocated to the San Mar home, known as the Peter Gray Orphans Home and Mechanical Institute.

"From the very first day, people from all races and backgrounds were able to come through the doors," Anderson said.

In 1981, the home officially became known as San Mar Children's Home Inc., according to Herald-Mail archives. The new name reflected the change from an orphanage to a children's home, as most of the children had at least one living parent who could not provide care for varied reasons. In 1997, the name was changed again to San Mar Inc.

Children from both genders were welcome until 1987, when the home allowed only female occupants.

"I thought, given the issues that the kids had, it was probably more beneficial to serve only one gender in one building," Anderson said.

Girls in the home as young as 2 years old can be placed in foster homes. The on-site group homes house girls from 13 to 18 years old.

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