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Town founder lost everything

July 26, 2004|by HEATHER C. SMATHERS

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




heathers@herald-mail.com

SMITHSBURG - The only memorial to the man who founded Smithsburg is in the name.

Christopher Smith was born around 1750 in the area where he eventually developed a town. Poor record keeping at the time makes it impossible to determine Smith's exact birthday, according to Charles Slick, president of the Smithsburg Historical Society.

Smith purchased a tract of land known as Shadrach's Lot from Samuel B. McClanahan of Chester County, Pa., in 1813. Immediately upon purchasing the land, he began to divide the lots and lay out a town, Slick said.

After laying out the town, Smith sold the lots at a profit, according to documents from the Smithsburg Historical Society.

Seeking additional treasure, Smith reinvested his money in a distillery. When he was forced to close his distillery in 1820, he lost his fortune, documents show.

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Smith's wife and children moved out west to pursue the "beckoning promise of wealth in the making," documents show. A disillusioned Smith stayed in the town he founded, Slick said. He died in the poorhouse of Washington County in 1831. He is buried at the Lutheran Church in Smithsburg in an unmarked grave, Slick said. No physical reminders of the man who settled the town exist.

In 1846, the town was incorporated.

Improvised hospitals were set up to care for the wounded from both armies after the Civil War battles of South Mountain and Antietam in September 1862. Less than a year later, on July 5, 1863, Smithsburg had its own small skirmish, records say.

"There was about a 45-minute battle in Smithsburg, during Lee's retreat from Gettysburg (Pa.)," Slick said.

The Confederate forces of Gen. James Ewell Brown "JEB" Stuart, situated on Nicodemus Hill, and the Union forces of Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, on Gardenhours Hill, exchanged fire, according to historical documents. During the battle, a Confederate shell hit the home of Leonard Vogel, records show. The home and shell can be seen today, Slick said.

An important early figure in Smithsburg was George Pearson, who came to Smithsburg from Pennsylvania in 1837, historical documents show. Pearson was the schoolmaster in Smithsburg for 46 years, instructing several thousand students, documents show.

One of Pearson's students, Peter Geiser, designed and built the Geiser separator in 1850, documents show. He designed the separator to make the process of harvesting grain easier and less time-consuming. Geiser received his first patent in 1852 for his separator, documents show.

Another notable event in Smithsburg's agricultural history occurred around 1880, records show. Mitchell Stover, who owned a nursery near Greencastle, Pa., found himself with a surplus of peach trees. Stover convinced John A. Nicodemus to plant the trees on his mountain property as an experiment, records show.

To their surprise, the planting was a success, and the beginning of the fruit industry in Smithsburg was born. By 1888, Smithsburg peaches were popular with produce buyers in Baltimore and Philadelphia, documents show.

Smithsburg still is known for its fruit industry, Slick said.

Main Street has several original buildings that date to the late 18th century, prior to the town being laid out, Slick said.

During the latter half of the 20th century Smithsburg's population increased dramatically. Census figures from 1950 show Smithsburg's population was 641. Since 1986, the town has annexed more than 300 acres of land, Slick said. New housing developments have led to the expansion of three schools in the area. Today, Smithsburg's population is about 2,500, he said.

Next week: A look at Williamsport.

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