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Mountaintop festival a hope to move forward at Fort Ritchie

June 25, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

For the first time in nearly a decade, fireworks will rocket from the parade grounds at the former Fort Ritchie army base next weekend.

It will be a time for both remembering and forgetting.

One Mountain Foundation has organized the long-weekend Mountaintop Heritage Festival primarily as a way of highlighting the area's rich history. But the group won't be sorry if it also helps the community lay to rest the divisive years that have followed the base closure.

Four years ago, the group asked the PenMar Redevelopment for permission to host fireworks and was summarily turned down. This time, with some new blood on the board and a base developer waiting in the wings, the outcome was different.

The board met briefly in closed session, telling festival supporters "this won't take long." When they emerged, they not only agreed to allow use of the parade grounds, but also said they would help pay for the fireworks.

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PenMar and Corporate Offices Property Trust, it seems, wanted to be part of, not lord over, the community.

Needless to say, people will still have issues with the whole redevelopment process of the past eight years, and one gesture does not a faith-healing make.

But One Mountain wants the chance to say, "Look, there are plenty of positive hitching posts up here to which to tie our horse. We can't change the past, but we can move forward."

And they deserve that chance.

Four counties and two states come together in the area that Washington Countians generally think of as Cascade, Frederick Countians think of as Sabillisville and Franklin Countians (Pa.) think of as Blue Ridge Summit.

In the days before air conditioning, the mountaintop was the summer home to Washington, D.C., aristocracy. Grand hotels were everywhere, as were foreign emissaries and domestic dignitaries.

The old Buena Vista Hotel boasted that it played host to seven U.S. presidents, and from Camp David to Blue Ridge Summit, it's said that half of all our commanders in chief have strolled the ridge.

The history of the PenMar amusement park and the fort are relatively well-known, but the role the area played in the Civil War has received less acclaim.

By the sound of it, it can be argued that Gen. Robert E. Lee's retreat from the Battle of Gettysburg was more masterful than his performance in the fight itself.

A new book by Kent Masterson Brown, "Retreat from Gettysburg," chronicles the Confederate's dicey withdrawal from Pennsylvania, which was bird-dogged at every turn by the Union troops under the command of Gen. George Meade.

Brown's research indicates a Confederate wagon/ambulance train and tens of thousands of animals stretching out over 57 miles, heading back to Virginia.

Meade, looking for the coup de grace to Gettysburg, was frustrated by Lee's positioning and attention to terrain as he managed to back away without getting crushed in the process.

The retreat meandered through South Mountain passes before descending into Hagerstown and Williamsport and back across the Potomac.

Early on, the Battle of Monterey near Blue Ridge Summit - the second largest Civil War battle in Pennsylvania - featured a cavalry charge by a blond-haired chap, maybe you've heard of him, Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

Some lesser-known heroes made names for themselves as well, including 12-year-old Hetty Zeilinger, who guided 4,000 Union horsemen through Monterey Pass.

At this point, the only commemoration to the event "is a rusty marker that sits in a trailer park," said Gary Muller, of One Mountain Foundation.

He said the route of retreat can be traced by the 30 to 50 soldier cemeteries that serve as grisly mile markers.

For those who want to learn more, on Monday, July 3, at 10 a.m., National Park rangers will lead a battlefield walk beginning at Hawley Memorial Chapel on Charmain Lane in Blue Ridge Summit.

Brown will be on hand to sign copies of his book, and he will be lecturing on the retreat after the walk and also on Sunday, July 2 at 6:30 p.m. at the Monterey Country Club.

Events are planned on the mountain Saturday through Monday, with the standard festival accessories, and the fireworks begin Saturday night at 8:45.

After eight years of the wrong kind of fireworks, Muller said he hopes the event will be both unifying and a positive indicator of greater things to come.

Until lawsuits involving base redevelopment are resolved, stagnation will persist. - the latest casualty was a local pizza shop, unable to persist thorough the post-base doldrums.

But considering the already high housing growth in the area, the mountain could once again thrive when redevelopment moves forward.

A century ago, the community was a jewel. Perhaps, as Muller hopes, it's not to much to think that with its scenery, history, cool mountain breezes and - eventually - a solid source of jobs, it can become a jewel once again.

For more information about the Mountaintop Heritage Festival, phone Lilypad Flowers and Gifts, at 1-717-794-5459.

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