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County's history summed up in flag

September 24, 2006|by TARA REILLY

Perhaps Washington County's 230-year history can be summed up in a lesson on its flag.

The green, red and blue flag, although only 18 years old, contains symbols and colors representing the county's historical roots.

A portrait of George Washington, after whom the county was named, is on the left of the flag.

The nine stars around the portrait represent the county's nine incorporated municipalities, with the largest star representing the City of Hagerstown, according to the county's Web site.

The lower green background on the flag represents the county's agricultural, mountainous and wooded land; the red, which runs across the flag and forms a "W" for Washington, represents the blood spilled in the county for the cause of freedom; and the upper blue background stands for the Potomac River and other bodies of water, according to the site.

"It also reminds us of our industry and transportation, because water power first turned our wheels of industry and carried our goods and travelers," according to the county's site. "Water was the magnet that drew early settlers to this valley."

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An increase in the number of settlers led to the official founding of Washington County, said John Frye, curator of the Western Maryland Room at the Washington County Free Library.

Frye said a growing population in Frederick County, Md., sparked legislation that broke up that county and established Washington County in September 1776. It was the first county in the United States to be named after the first president, Frye said.

Montgomery County was founded at the same time east of Frederick County, Frye said.

Hagerstown, Washington County's county seat, had already been established by Jonathan Hager.

Washington County was largely an agricultural county when it was settled by farmers and trappers, and other industry began springing up mainly around Hagertown, Frye said.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, much of which runs through Washington County, served as a transportation route from 1828 to 1924. The canal was used mainly to haul coal from Western Maryland to Washington, D.C., according to the National Park Service.

Mules pulled boats along the 184.5-mile canal from a towpath that ran parallel to the canal.

The emergence of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad caused the canal to stop commercial operations, according to the park service.

The county has grown from several thousand residents around the time it was established to a population of 141,895 people as of 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That's up from 121,393 residents in 1990.

Frye said he thinks growth has turned the county into a bedroom community for the cities to the east. The last 50 years have seen a decrease in agricultural land, detracting from the county's identity, he said.

"So, we no longer have an identity," Frye said. "We've lost it."

The county has 775 farms totaling 125,159 acres, said Jeff Semler, agricultural and natural resour-ces extension educator for the Washington County Cooperative Extension, part of the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension.

The county has lost at least 48 farms, or about 3,000 acres, since 1997, he said.

Semler said it was ironic that the people moving into the county for its rural characteristics are also responsible for farmland being developed.

While the county's characteristics are changing, Semler said farming remains a strong industry in the county, bringing in $60 million in sales annually.

He said the county is the second-largest dairy county in the state with about 16,000 dairy cows and produces more apples and hogs than any county in the state.

Government

When the county was established, it was governed by a levy court, Frye said.

The levy court performed the duties typical of local governments at the time, such as collecting taxes and administering the road system.

The levy court stayed in place until the 1830s, when it was replaced by the county commissioner form of government, which is in place today, Frye said.

The Board of County Commissioners has five members who are elected every four years. The county, however, is exploring whether to make a switch to charter home rule, a change that would lessen the county's dependency on state legislators in making local laws.

Under charter home rule, the county would be governed according to what's written in a charter. The commissioners' name would change to the County Council, and the council would have more authority in creating local laws than currently permitted, but residents could challenge those laws and force a referendum.

The commissioners in June unanimously endorsed making the change to charter home rule.

It's now up to the commissioners to pick a charter board to write the charter, which would require approval by voters.

County residents could vote on a charter in the November 2008 presidential election, the county has said.

Recreation

Many of the historical sites in the county have been turned into recreational opportunities for residents and tourists.

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