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Leitersburg store gets new lease on life

December 10, 2010|By Pat Schooley | Special to The Herald-Mail

This is the 184th in a series of articles about the historical and architectural treasures of Washington County.

The Greencastle-Baltimore Road was built in 1807 to intersect with Nicholson's Gap Road in northeast Hagerstown. This intersection was on Jacob Leiter's property, part of a land tract called "Well Taught."

Jacob's son, Andrew, purchased the land around the crossroads in 1811 from his father. Four years later, he laid out a town of 53 lots at this intersection. The little town developed to serve travelers' needs for hotels and stores. It was also a place to sell the products of the many mills and distilleries in the area.

The Maryland Legislature incorporated Leitersburg in 1853. This new government paved roads and curbed sidewalks, but interest waned and, as one author described, "within a few years the town government lapsed." Leitersburg has remained a collection of independent individuals ever since, even refusing public water when it was offered and continuing to exist on cisterns, septic systems and a few wells.

Beginning in 1896, the Golden Rod Council, No. 42, Junior Order United American Mechanics, purchased three small parcels of land, each about 10 perches, over the course of 15 months. These parcels were contiguous, all part of Lot 40, a large parcel that stood on the southwest corner of the Leitersburg square and extended to an alley on the west. These parcels cost $616.

Herbert Bell's "1898 History of the Leitersburg District" reports that the Golden Rod Council erected a hall in 1897 at a cost of $2,000. He describes it as "a two-story frame building of which the first floor constitutes an auditorium in which public meetings of a general character are held; the council rooms occupy the second floor . It was dedicated with appropriate ceremonies on the 12th of September, 1897." He entered this information under the heading, "Secret Societies."

Because the present building doesn't appear in the 1877 Atlas and seems to have been built around the turn of the 20th century, the Golden Rod Council must have built this second structure, which faces the square just to the east of their original hall, soon after. A 1930s photo from Mrs. Dorothy Smith shows it as a general store with two gas pumps on Leiter Street and with the shuttered Golden Rod Council hall behind it. Arthur Newcomer, a cousin of Mrs. Smith's father, ran the store at that time.

The Golden Rod Council sold the property in 1945 to the Leitersburg Grange No. 361. Eight years later, the grange sold it for $4,000 to J. Leonhard Schmid and his wife, Mildred. The Schmids ran a plastics factory on that parcel and held the property until 1980. Milmar Plastics still exists in Leitersburg and is run by the Schmids' grandson, Douglas Henneberger.
Karel Henneberger, the Schmids' daughter, recalls the plastics company using both floors of the building, with a mezzanine and a stage with two pit toilets behind it. Ironically, she remembers her father selling it to the adjoining neighbors, Ray and Nancy Taylor, so that they could install a septic system for their home. After tearing down the Golden Rod Council building, which had cost them $5,600, they were not permitted to build the septic field. Ray died and Nancy Taylor sold it in 1987 to William and Alma Ravgiala for $2,000.  

The remaining five-bay building is covered with yellow-painted German siding and topped by a red metal roof. Three doors and two large store-front windows face the square. Another door opens north onto Leiter Street. A new porch wraps around these sides of the building, welcoming friends and customers alike.

The two eastern doors lead into the single large downstairs room. Narrow boards laid diagonally form the floor. Flat woodwork trims openings and serves as a mop board. The land to the west of the building rises into a small hillock, which must be rock, for the west wall of this first floor has been built out into the room by about a foot, so that it can go over the outcrop. Narrow shelves line the wall above this build-out, and a single window to the left looks into the garden in the back.

The southern-most door facing the square leads directly to the stairs to the upper floor. At the top of these stairs is a small room with a peephole that looks down the steps. A wooden cover swings across the hole when it's not in use. Many names are written in pencil on the walls of this room, many with dates. The rest of the second floor is a single space. Local lore says that the Red Men Club, another patriotic and fraternal organization, once met in these environs.
The large rectangular room has both walls and ceiling covered with unpainted beaded board. A brick chimney with a thimble rises on the north, suggesting a wood stove for heat. Looking up from the stairs, one sees the remains of another brick chimney between the metal roof and the rafters as though the original chimney had been taken out and the bricks reused.

Electric lights once hung low from the ceiling upstairs as if over tables. Singed spots on the ceiling suggest that these lights once were lanterns whose flames scorched the beaded board above.

The building had no plumbing, bathroom facilities or central heat. Warmth was probably provided by stoves whose stovepipes connected to thimbles in the chimney on each floor.
John and Jennifer Thomas purchased the dilapidated property in 2005, before they married.
John had grown up in Hagerstown but lived in Bristol, Va., while Jennifer was from New York. They each saw promise in the building, and the location seemed an appropriate meeting place for two people from two such different areas.

Once they married, they rented a home in Hagerstown while working on the store. Things went slowly; the permitting process was arduous. Finally, the parson's house for St. Paul's Lutheran Church, just two doors away, came on the market, and the Thomases were happy to buy a home so close to their project. Still without water or septic, they built a catch tank and got approval for a cistern to hold water for the bath they put in the small room at the head of the stairs. The rebuilding phase is almost over.

John thinks of himself as "a plant man," a man interested in anything that grows. He started his first plant business, Earthworks, in downtown Hagerstown in 1982. He began Natural Settings in 1988 while in Southern Virginia and has built gardens, water-features, ponds and waterfalls all over the east coast, some as large as football fields. He loves all things natural and has landscaped the tiny back yard with plants, a waterfall and a pond. A small garden building stands where the Golden Rod hall once was. Now a licensed Maryland State contractor, he still calls his business Natural Settings.

Jennifer buys collectibles, curios and giftware and offers them on the Internet under the name of The Antique Garden. She also teaches history at Hagerstown Community College. They will open a business soon, a new, bright spot on Leitersburg's square.
They can be contacted by e-mail at antiquegarden@myactv.net.

Terms to know

  • Nicholson's Gap Road: became Leitersburg Turnpike in 1847. Nicholson's Gap is the most northern Washington County gap in South Mountain. Early settlers used these valleys in the mountain to migrate west. This road became Leiter Street through Leitersburg when Md. 60 bypassed the town in the 1950s. Greencastle-Baltimore Road is now Leitersburg-Smithsburg Road.
  • Perch: an area of land equal to one square rod, 16.5 feet  by 16.5 feet.
  • Beaded board: tongue and groove board decorated with a bead at one edge and in the middle, often used as wainscoting and porch ceilings in the 19th century.
  • Thimble: a terra cotta or metal pipe placed horizontally in a chimney to receive a stovepipe.
  • Golden Rod Council:  Records from the Golden Rod Council indicate that it was a patriotic and fraternal organization of native-born American men who favored limited immigration policies and supported the Constitution as well as the Bible. The organization still exists, but now doesn't limit its membership. Google has an extensive discussion of it at Jr. O.U.A.M. They still run an orphans' home in Lexington, N.C.

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