How Dunker Church was saved

May 25, 2012|Linda Irvin-Craig
  • The Washington County Historical Society obtained the deed to the Dunker Church at Antietam National Battlefield in 1951.
Submitted photo

In the 1950s, purchase of the Dunker Church and gifting of the church and the Burnside Bridge were made possible through the work of Mary Vernon Mish and Dr. Walter H. Shealy of Sharpsburg, third and fourth presidents of the society, respectively.

With the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) impacting local heritage tourism in a far more positive way than did the actual events, it is fitting to recognize one of these particular projects of WCHS, among many others, at this time. The Burnside Bridge will be covered in another column.

Saving Dunker Church

As Shealy took the helm of WCHS in 1949, he was determined to keep Mish engaged in the preservation work that had brought accolades to the organization. His observation of conditions occurring in and around the site of the Dunker Church alarmed him.

The little church was falling apart from neglect and wind damage from a storm in 1921. Several previous attempts at restoration had fallen by the wayside. He also felt the site was surrounded by elements that detracted greatly from the reverence the hallowed ground there deserved.

On Feb. 25, 1951, acting on a notice that the State Roads Department was going to condemn the site of the old church, the Washington County Historical Society authorized a committee. Headed by Shealy, the committee was to spend up to $5,000 to purchase the "Old Dunkard Church." Meanwhile, Mish continued to work on the Hager House restoration and the Harpers Ferry acquisition projects.

The Hager House fund continued to support the project there, including an archaeological dig in the cellar, before the floor was redone. The Harpers Ferry Monument was moving along in West Virginia, though one land owner in Maryland was blocking the incorporation of the Maryland Heights portion. Resolution for all of these issues needed to be found.

By June, after negotiations with the State Roads Commission and the property owner, the society obtained the deed and began to prepare a transfer of the church and some surrounding lots to the U.S. government. Owner Charles Turner was required to remove a temporary structure from the area before the deal was completed. The WCHS paid Turner $4,000 and acquired a mortgage for another $2,000 to cover early restoration.

Meetings began with representatives of the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, with the intent of investigating the eventual transfer of the property and acquisition of some items salvaged from the inside of the church. 

Photographs of the original structure were procured from Grafton Smith of Sharpsburg.  And assessment notes for the foundation lot of .325 acre and two adjacent properties were developed. The temporary dwelling (little house trailer) had been removed in the sales agreement with Turner. However, there remained a dwelling created from an old gas station and shed sitting on a 100-foot-by100-foot plot and the remaining Turner farm of 15.75 acres, which included a house, small barn, wash house and other outbuildings.

Raising the money

Next on the agenda was fundraising for the complete restoration of the church. Society members engaged the Brethren Community, some prominent families among the Brethren churches and the community-at-large.  The mortgage was covered by a bond issue and the help of U.S. Sen. J. Glenn Beall of Maryland was enlisted in working with the U.S. Congress and the National Park Service to begin the restoration.

The challenge of simultaneously raising money for the Dunker Church and Hager House restorations were further challenged by a request to look for more land for veteran burials in the area and to save the threatened Rochester House at the southwest corner of Washington and Prospects streets. The Antietam National Cemetery was declared full and had been closed to further burials.

Numerous items of local historic importance were also being marketed to WCHS, with many challenges for funds and authentication of the artifacts, including a harpsichord said to have been owned by the Hager family. A commemorative plate was issued related to the Hager House. This was sold for fundraising and some were given to members and community leaders who made significant contributions of time, talent and money to the many projects underway.

In January 1954, the Hager House restoration was declared complete, with the budget staying within the $20,000 estimate overall. By this time it had been opened to more than 2,000 visitors. Then in June, the directors passed a resolution that the house be transferred in fee simple to the City of Hagerstown, pending the acceptance of the Mayor and Council.

The offer was accepted and the City decided to clear an additional ten acres around the site. In September, a new committee, to be known as Friends of the Hager House, was established to continue raising funds for appropriate furnishings, other period acquisitions and long-term maintenance.

The exhibits

Another committee prepared a major exhibit at the Mansion House at City Park of the many artifacts accumulating in the Society Collection. Summer attendance to the exhibit numbered 2,215.  The success of this project prompted the Parks Board to offer storage and security to keep the exhibit at the Mansion House and reopen it the following summer. 

With the arrival of one of the significant tall case clocks, this one owned by the prominent potter John Bell, the value of the collection was rapidly growing. The Mansion House continued to be the home of WCHS for a number of years.

And, through the diligent and systematic efforts of long-time member Electa Zeigler, old German church records were translated and recorded for researching local ancestry. The availability of these records and the numerous books, letters, documents, old newspapers and almanacs prompted member Simms Jamieson to begin the process of creating a library in a small room at the Mansion House and scheduling access to the public one day a week.

In addition, the City of Hagerstown and the WCHS decided to work together to prepare an exhibit to travel to sister city Wesel, Germany, for the following year. That exhibit was viewed by more than 30,000 people during its stay in that city.

In 1956, the work of the society was truly bittersweet. The successful bicentennial for Fort Frederick produced a small profit and planning was under way for the centennial of Antietam. Visitors to the Mansion House exhibits and library and to the Hager House continued to increase.

However, having received little or no support from the City of Rochester, N.Y., to preserve the Rochester House and with society projects already under way, it left little local resources to save this historic home. This house, built by Nathaniel Rochester about 1807 to 1810, founder of the first Hagerstown Bank and the New York city that bears his name, had been the home of the Kennedy family for a number of generations.

The Kennedys

The prominence of the Kennedys on the national and state scene is substantiated in the two volumes of their correspondence in the archival collection of the WCHS. Thomas Kennedy, who served a term in the Maryland Legislature, was the sponsor of the "Jew Bill," passed in 1826, a very early piece of civil rights legislation in this country. The bill relieved those of the Jewish faith from having to take an oath to the Christian faith in order to serve in either elected or military office. 

In addition, the Kennedys opened their home to the wounded from the Battle of Antietam for lengthy convalescence periods. Many stayed until they were well enough for traveling by train to their homes. One significant patient came to them after he was treated in a field hospital near the battle site for a neck wound. Oliver Wendell Holmes continued to write frequently, sometimes with invitations to share in important family events, to those who had nursed him in Hagerstown even well after he was appointed Supreme Court Justice.

With all of the competing local interests for funds, the best that WCHS could do against the eminent destruction of that grand structure was to draft a letter of protest to the City of Hagerstown. They also implored for help from the National Trust for the Preservation of Historic Sites. Local sentiment for preservation mayor and council were too far along in their plans and razed the building.

Progress continued on the identification of owners and negotiation toward acquisition of the properties on Maryland Heights to be a part of the Harpers Ferry National Monument, with John Swain, Society member, and attorneys Harold Hoffman, Ernest Wachs and William Kreykenbohm giving much time to this effort.The State of Maryland had committed a total appropriation of $65,000 for purchase of properties by 1957. 

Next, the Washington County Historical Society turned its attention to the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. A planning committee was appointed to include the public schools and the Civil War Roundtable as they readied for an event in 1962.

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

The properties on Maryland Heights were to be a part of the Harpers Ferry National Monument by 1957. 

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