Mary Mish and the Hager House

April 27, 2012|Linda Irvin-Craig
  • Mary Vernon Mish, past president of the Washington County Historical Society and chairman of the Restoration Committee of the Hager House, kneels next to the newel post in the house in May of 1952, revealing "Jacobean Paneling" at the head of the stairs on the upper floor of the house.
Submitted photo

The society also lost its president of six years when Edward Tenney died in 1942. The previous president, Harvey Bomberger, had served for 25 years. The group was accustomed to great continuity.

Mary Vernon Mish lived on the West Virginia shore of the Potomac River across from Williamsport. She was so involved in historic preservation on both sides of the river, in Berkeley County, W.Va., and Washington County, that she was the apparent choice to succeed Tenney. Interestingly, Mish was the first and only woman to serve as president of WCHS. Elected in 1942, Mish soon revitalized the preservation mission.

Her energy and resourcefulness abounded, as she began looking at important historic sites that had been orphaned by neglect, resulting from a lack of interest or lack of finances, or both. Mish convinced the Historical Society to stop resting on its laurels of success in saving Fort Frederick and the Washington Monument and in producing the extravagant "On Wings of Time" exposition. 

 According to the W.F. Horn Papers, reports of the time indicated that the Jonathan Hager family had built a home before the French and Indian War over a stream of fresh water during the time of Indian threats; a home on a site north of what is now City Park in Hagerstown fit the description.

Saving the Hager House

Mish set out to save the little stone house near the park, now known as the Hager House. Horn was from Topeka, Kansas, and his writings about early Washington County and the founding of Hagerstown were published by George Putman and Co. in 1945.His research was purportedly based on documents written or collected by his ancestor, Jacob Horn. Hager and his wife Elizabeth did live in the stone house for a time, but whether he built the house is a discussion that will remain.

When Hager married, he decided to move away from the abode that would later bear his name. The house of native limestone was well-constructed to protect his family and to project the importance of his position in the area. He later moved to a site just west of town, near what is now Western Maryland Parkway.

Over time, the house had fallen into disrepair partially because of the area in which it sat. It sas a rental unit owned by the Rohrer family, the other possible builder. Mish's first priority was to raise the money to buy the house from private ownership, which was then held by the West End Improvement Co. Following the purchase, there was a need to drain the area in what had become "a swamp." All this had to happen before much rehabilitation for the circa-1739 structure could move forward. Because it was a marshy area, early investigators had to fight off the mosquitoes.

Negotiations to buy the Hager House property and another adjacent piece began in 1942 and continued while donations for the effort accumulated. The donations were placed in a restricted account.

Setting her sights on the crumbling Hager House, Mish planned and produced a four-day historical event at the Hotel Alexander in 1944. Although the war had not yet ended, she and  society members raised about $14,000, of which $10,000 was invested in War Bonds. The society then began setting aside funds for the restoration work, which was postponed until after the war. They were also simultaneously raising funds for a flag presentation and for a memorial stone for Jacob Friend, one of the county's earliest settlers.

Tenants were allowed to remain in the Hager House in hopes of protecting the property, but several admonishments were given because of conditions of maintenance. Low rent had been negotiated in exchange for maintaining the property.

The society followed with another exhibition in 1945 at St. John's Lutheran Church auditorium and again in 1946 at Zion Reformed Church. To add to their list of activities. WCHS members began a survey of old homes and of old portraits.

Hager House restoration

With the help of the Maryland Historical Society, WCHS began in 1946 the search for an appropriate architect to supervise the restoration of the Hager House. An antique sale was organized to serve as another fund raiser and the tenants were asked to move out. The tenants left the house unlocked when they vacated, allowing vandals or squatters to enter.

After a small fire, the Board decided to hire a caretaker to live there nearly rent free. This proved satisfactory, with an agreement for care and understanding that the caretaker might need to move once restoration began.

Meanwhile, individual committees had begun work on collecting historic data potentially connected to the Hager House: genealogy, maps, old clocks, church records, filing data on the growing artifact collection and recording of all of the data into distributive publications, including an historic pamphlet that became an important part of the Chamber of Commerce package to interested businesses. Efforts to place a marker at Jonathan Hager's burial site were also under way.

An estimate for the restoration of the Hager House was finally obtained in 1947. Gov. William Preston Lane of Hagerstown agreed to assist with the effort to raise the $25,000. Radio programs were prepared for both WJEJ and WARK to work with the fund raising campaign. The WJEJ program, called "The Ramparts of Time," reported excellent listener response.

Both the City of Hagerstown and the Board of Washington County Commissioners were asked to contribute to the work.

By December 1948, the Restoration Fund held more than $8,900 after dispersing some fundraising costs and paying for immediate necessary repairs to maintain the building. Historical Society membership had climbed to more than 500 as a part of the campaign to save the Hager House. The society committed another $2,000 from the general fund, provided the city and county each contributed $5,000.

A term ends

At this point, Mary Mish decided to step down as president. During a ceremony, her seven-year term at the helm was rewarded with a corsage and accolades. During this ceremony, Mish's contributions were noted, including recognition from the American Association for State and Local History, which gave its Award of Merit at their Denver conference in 1947 to the Washington County Historical Society as one of the most active organizations of its kind in the South Atlantic States during her tenure. A picture of the Washington Monument by the Saturday Evening Post was also presented as a part of that celebration.

Dr. W.H. Shealy of Sharpsburg, who had served as first vice president with Mrs. Mish, was elected to succeed her in the office of president. However, Mish did not retire from the organization or its mission. She remained on the board of directors and continued to work on the restoration of the Hager House, being in direct contact with the historical architect who confirmed the construction to be about 1730. It would still take a while longer to complete the actual restoration project.

She also continued to work with a group in process of getting Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and lands along the Potomac River and Maryland Heights included as a national monument. Additionally, Mish joined with the Historical Society of Frederick County to work on the establishment of a state park at Gathland, the home of George Alfred Townsend, on South Mountain.

Then with the encouragement of Shealy, she also turned her sights to the Antietam Battlefield and issues of preservation there.

Linda Irvin-Craig is executive director of the Washington County Historical Society. For more information, call 301-797-8782  or go to

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