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Many Washington County Historical Society founders were also innovators

August 26, 2011|Linda Irvin-Craig

Editor's note:  This is the 11th in a 12-part series about Washington County Historical Society's founders.


A special exhibit on the founders of the Washington County Historical Society opened this month at the Miller House, 135 W. Washington St., downtown Hagerstown.  

The exhibit will remain open until the end of the year and pay tribute to the many pursuits that these 29 individuals followed in pursuing their service and leadership roles in the community. A number of them held public office at the local and state level, many gave military service and some were involved in national events, such as one of those included in this column.

On a local level, these individuals served the Washington County Free Library, the Washington County Hospital, the Red Cross, the Humane Society of Washington County, the Rotary Club and the fields of law, banking and education. Many were innovators in their chosen professions and advocated on behalf of improved transportation, business and agriculture.

As we continue to recall the society's signatories, this week we meet J. Spangler Kieffer, Frederic J. Halm and John Van Lear.


J. Spangler Kieffer

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Spangler Kieffer came to Hagerstown in 1867 as the 11th pastor of Zion Reformed Church and served in that position for 52 years until his death in 1919. He was one of the seven original directors of the Washington County Historical Society.

In 1860, he graduated from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., as valedictorian. A native of Mifflinburg, Pa.,  Kieffer taught for two years and then entered the seminary at Mercersburg Academy. His first charge was at Huntingdon, Pa., where he met and married his wife.

Kieffer was one of the leading pastors of the Reformed Church in America, serving as associate editor of the Reformed Church Messenger and authoring several books, best known among them was "Head and Heart." He also served as president of the Potomac Synod of the Reformed Church and on the Board of the RFA Foreign Missions and as a member of the Board of Visitors for their seminary in Lancaster.

Included among his other pursuits was the founding of the Washington County Red Cross and serving on the Board of Regents at Mercersburg Academy. He and his wife were awarded a trip to the Holy Land by an appreciative congregation for his many activities in their interest and for the entire community, overall.


Frederic J. Halm  

Frederic Joseph Halm first shows up in the history of the area serving on the music committee for the dedication of the Washington Confederate Cemetery at Rose Hill Cemetery. He wrote the music, Henry Kyd Douglas wrote the lyrics, and a choir of 60 local voices sang the Dedication Dirge for the 1877 ceremonies under Halm's direction.

Born in Washington County, he was educated in Alsace, France, at the Pensionat des Freres, Guebwiler, and finished his education at Rock Hill College in Ellicott City, Md.

Halm qualified as an attorney in Washington County in 1875 and augmented his income as a teacher in the Hagerstown public schools in the year 1881. It seems that he preferred to follow in the footsteps of his father, who had been a professor of music. By 1910, he had sold his home in Hagerstown and moved to Emmitsburg, Md., to teach at Mount Saint Mary's College. He taught mathematics, music and German.

Why he returned to take part in the formation of the Washington County Historical Society is not known. His first wife had died earlier in 1911 and was brought back to Hagerstown for burial at Rose Hill. He remarried in the 1920s and lived out his life in Carroll County, Md.


John Van Lear  

Maj. John Van Lear served as one of the officers detailed to stand guard with President Abraham Lincoln's body while it was lying in state at the White House. In addition to his military service during the Civil War, he held responsible positions with the U.S. Treasury Department as a result of his long history in banking.

From an old Williamsport family, Van Lear had served for many years as the first cashier for the Second National Bank of Hagerstown, which he helped to organize. Prior to that, he had worked with the Hagerstown Bank. He also served as paymaster for the Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad, as a branch of his family had migrated to Ohio.

Educated in the local schools, he was a graduate of Washington and Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pa., near Pittsburgh.

Van Lear Manor, just north of Williamsport, was the ancestral home of this family for many generations. The family was also associated with many other early Conococheague settlers from the colonial era.



Linda C. Irvin-Craig is executive director of the Washington County Historical Society. She can be reached at 301-797-8782.

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