Washington County Historical Society finds a home

July 30, 2012|Linda Irvin-Craig

Special to The Herald-Mail

For the first 55 years of the existence of the Washington County Historical Society, the group had no home and functioned under nomadic conditions. Early meetings were held in the Washington County Free Library, in churches and in members' homes and offices.

As time went on, the group continued at parish halls, local hotels, restaurants, the health department, City Hall, the Rose Room of the YMCA, the Women's Club, and boardrooms of local businesses and banks. Donated archives and artifacts were stored at the library, City Hall, the Mansion House in City Park and sometimes in members' homes.

Locations for exhibits included City Hall, the Mansion House, churches and hotels and wherever the group could inventively set up. The use of the Mansion House and City Hall was critical to the success of the organization for many years.

Rolling through the 1950s with Dr. W.H. Shealy as president, the Washington County Historical Society maintained standing committees, in addition to the usual membership, finance, programs and general history, to cover continued work on the Hager House, Harpers Ferry, Fort Frederick and the growing library of archival materials and exhibit quality artifacts. Members were also collecting data on old houses, old mills and churches.

By 1956, the historical library had accumulated about 330 books, 1,900 photographic negatives and other materials. The bicentennial celebration of Fort Frederick was imminent and having three different locations in which items were catalogued, exhibited and stored began to raise the issue of security.

The group explored the idea of again heading up the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, looked at what involvement they should have with the preservation efforts for the C&O Canal and responded to a request to participate in erecting a memorial for Father Abram J. Ryan, who was born in Hagerstown and known as the poet laureate of the Confederacy.

Nellie Lemen of Williamsport presented a volume of poems by Ryan to the society and the group decided that it would support preservation efforts for the canal. At the historical society's annual meeting in January 1959, the program, "Father Ryan and Maryland," was presented by Edward A. Egan of Chicago.

The issues having to do with the 100th anniversary of Antietam depended much on actions of a committee of the U.S. Congress and a state commission, still in formation. Later, decisions of the commission suggested that the historical society work on window displays.  Meanwhile, in this same time frame, improvements to and relocations of parts of U.S. 40 would likely disturb many of the original milestones over a considerable distance and that became a concern.

By 1960, committee work on the Harpers Ferry project and the work of park historian Alfred Mongin had evaluated about 800 acres of Maryland Heights.  As a result, the annual meeting in June was to recognize that progress and Mongin was selected as guest speaker for the event.

In May of 1961, the historical society was invited to host the groundbreaking for the restoration of the Dunker Church.  Old bridges were added to the list of historic structures for recording and preservation.  Then "Maryland in the Civil War" was the presentation topic of Harold Manakee of Baltimore for the 1962 annual meeting.

A large donation of furniture that had to be stored at the Mansion House made it impossible to present the usual summer exhibits.  A space crunch was becoming evident, even at the Hager House, where donations and archaeological finds competed for care and display. The additional museum and caretakers cottage planned there was likely to cost more than expected.  Fortunately, the Board of Education did step in with the trades classes to assist with this problem.

At the annual meeting in 1963, the board announced that the first-ever Maryland Heritage Award from the Maryland Historical Society had been presented to Mary Mish for her work on the special project of the Hager House. But all was not well. Her response was couched in concern for keeping the house accessible to visitors and secure. 

A city councilmember had demanded that the historical society borrow money to fund the needs of the house and there appeared to be an on-going issue between the Parks Board and some of the council about this and, possibly, other unrelated concerns. The fate of the Hager House seemed enmeshed in a potential political quagmire.

Resolution was found in the creation of a Board of Managers created from the Parks Board, the City Council and the Historical Society through the intervention of Mayor Winslow Burhans and his wife, Jane, during the summer of that year. Going forward, all three bodies would have input to the progress and care of the house.

Growing pains

Then in September of 1963, the City of Hagerstown notified the historical society that by Oct. 1, 1963, the society had to give up its space at City Hall, because the city needed the room. This new space crisis came in the midst of the historical society trying to retrieve local historical documents that had been sent to the state Hall of Records in Annapolis because the county needed space in the courthouse.

However, storage space at City Hall continued for some time after this issue arose. Apparently, other space was found and the artifacts moved within the building.

Meanwhile, the genealogy and research library was averaging 23 visitors per day at the Mansion House. And Hager House visitation and care required that they design a job description to hire a caretaker/curator.) And, significant archival relics belonging to the society, such as the Henry Kyd Douglas papers, the 1757 Joseph Chapline Muster Roll (French and Indian War period), the files created by E. Russell Hicks and documented negotiations on Maryland Heights all needed safe storage.

The historical society clearly needed a headquarters of its own.  They considered an old mill in Funkstown and then the old Cumberland Valley Railroad Station that was vacant, but needed extensive repairs to be occupied.  There was no money to make that kind of investment.

They decided to investigate the possibility of the old library building as a headquarters and to hire a part-time librarian for the Mansion House. Dr. and Mrs. Richard B. Prather were selected to be the curators for the Hager House. The organization also explored the costs of issuing a membership newsletter.

Then in August 1965, Victor D. Miller III, came to a meeting as an invited guest and presented an amazing proposal to the Board. His interest in history of Washington County and Hagerstown was centered in the remarkable details of history surrounding his ancestral, 14-room home at 135 W. Washington St. He hoped that he and his siblings might be able to provide this house as a headquarters for the historical society.

It was agreed that members of the society would meet with Miller's brother and sister to discuss this proposal and seek their feelings on the matter. Then, to further accentuate the need for space, the group was informed that a collection of old Hagerstown newspapers from the early 1800s had arrived from Cleveland, Ohio, to an initial storage location that exposed them to the elements. Action was taken immediately to remedy this last situation by removing them to Mary Mish's home for temporary storage.

At a subsequent meeting, members reported on their conversations with the Miller family heirs about the offer of the family home.  Col. Henry L. Miller agreed to a gift of his 1/3 of the property, but the sister, Mrs. Helen Miller Mathias, wanted her portion to go to her children. A mortgage for that part of the property would be necessary as a part of a conditional 2/3 gift from the brothers.

Others conditions required that the society occupy and maintain the property and not be allowed to sell it, without it reverting to the heirs.  The brothers also asked that the house be recognized as a commemorative to the Miller and Rench families, whose ancestry dated to the early settlements of Washington County. At this point, Victor D. Miller III was asked to fill a vacancy on the board due to a recent resignation.

The speaker for January 1966 was Maryland State Delegate Goodloe Byron, who was a former president of the Frederick Historical Society. Byron's address outlined the place of the historical society in community life, and he encouraged those efforts.

At the following meeting, Miller was elected president and the mortgage was executed through documents issued by Maryland National Bank.  Mary Kneisley Bowman was appointed to fill the unexpired term of another board member, who had resigned. Age and health issues were catching up with many who had given long years of service to the organization, including Dr. W. H. Shealy of Sharpsburg, who had served as president of the organization from 1949 to 1966. His passing was noted in the minutes the month after his resignation from the board.

Moving days were set for furniture stored at the Mansion House and other items from other locations. Plans for a formal opening of the Miller House were set for June 19, 1966, with the Miller brothers and their wives to act as the receiving line for members and other invited guests. New donations rolled in and the membership rolls went up.

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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