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Quiet, small-town Clear Spring once bustled with excitement

June 14, 2004|by HEATHER C. SMATHERS

CLEAR SPRING

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of stories examining the history of towns in Washington County.

heathers@herald-mail.com

Visitors to Clear Spring will find a quiet bedroom community of 400 inhabitants, the personification of small-town America, but at the beginning of the 19th century, the new town was bustling with excitement.

David Wiles, president of the Clear Spring District Historical Society and a seventh-generation Clear Spring resident, said the first settler to the area, Evan Shelby Sr., arrived in 1739. Shelby purchased 1,200 acres of land on which he ran a trading business and operated a farm.

More than 50 years passed before a town was established, but little by little the population began to grow.

In 1752, Nathaniel Nesbitt bought land from Shelby and cleared his own farm. Nesbitt built a log home on his land that remained in his family for generations, Wiles said.

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The Shelby family did not establish such roots.

After an Indian uprising in 1763, during which Evan Shelby Jr. lost inventory from his father's trading business and his home burned to the ground, he and his family moved to Tennessee, Wiles said.

Martin Myers settled in the Clear Spring area in 1790. In 1820, Bank Road - the portion of the National Road from Conococheague Creek to Cumberland, Md. - was constructed through Myers' property.

"He seized the opportunity to become a land developer and a businessman," Wiles said. In 1821, Myers parceled his land into 72 lots and named his new town Myersville.

One of the first people to buy a lot was a free black man, which was unusual in a town with many slaves, Wiles said.

Wiles said Myers set up his own business of making and selling crocks in the most valuable spot in town - next to the clear spring.

Aside from Myers, other businesses benefited from the proximity of the spring. Covered wagons, horses and stagecoaches passed through Myersville on Bank Road, and the appeal of clear water enticed many to stop in town.

The Brewer Hotel advertised itself as the "Hotel at the Clear Spring," Wiles said. By 1825, there were no references to Myersville and the town became known as Clear Spring, according to historical documents.

Clear Spring became an incorporated town in 1838.

Most buildings on Bank Road were stores, Wiles said.

"There were seven hotels along the road that rented space, not single rooms. People would sleep three or more to a bed, and when bed space ran out, the innkeepers rented floor space," he said.

One important part of Clear Spring's early history is the stagecoach, Wiles said.

"It was the Internet of the day. All of the major lines stopped in town, bringing news from Washington, D.C., and Baltimore," he said.

The railroad destroyed the stagecoach and wagon, Wiles said.

"From the Civil War until the 20th century, the Bank Road was covered in weeds. Only locals traveled on it with their horses," he said.

The pride of the Clear Spring Historical Society is Plumb Grove Mansion, built in 1831 by Jonathan Nesbitt Jr., grandson of Nathaniel Nesbitt.

During the Civil War, the Nesbitts were able to hear the Battle of Antietam at Plumb Grove. The Historical Society acquired the property in 1981 and restored it to its 19th-century appearance, Wiles said.

The Clear Spring District Historical Society also has purchased a historic log home on Mill Street, which was once owned by the "washer woman," Wiles said. The washer woman, whose real name no longer is known, was said to cast spells on local people. She was known to venture into the streets and look for clothes to wash, he said.

Superstitions run deep in the history of Clear Spring. Wiles said local superstitions were taken very seriously.

"A lot of superstitions revolved around marriage. For example, if a woman's second toe was longer than her big toe, it meant she would be a bossy wife and would have no suitors," Wiles said.

Another superstition held that if a person had a stomachache and put a knife under his bed before going to sleep, the ache would be gone in the morning, he said.

During World War I, Aberdeen Proving Ground used an area near Clear Spring to test weapons and new munitions, Wiles said.

"Local women were happy. There were a lot of soldiers in town during those years," he said.

Nothing but one ditch remains of the proving ground today.

"If you didn't know what you were looking at, you would never know what it was," Wiles said.

Today, Clear Spring is three blocks long, with many of the original buildings still in use. The Historical Society's offices are in the original post office building and the hardware store has been in operation since the 1820s.

"We try not to forget the past," Wiles said. "We're trying to recapture it."

Next week: A look at Funkstown.

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