Historical society ¿ mission, tragedy and growth

September 21, 2012|Linda Irvin-Craig

The annual meeting of the Washington County Historical Society in January 1967 featured a presentation on the Mason-Dixon Line, which described he hardships experienced by the surveyors as they passed through the mountainous portions of the terrain and encounters with the American Indians in the 1700s. This sparked a suggestion that the State of Maryland might be encouraged to establish a state park to recognize the Mason-Dixon Line.

With Victor D. Miller III at the helm as president, and coupled with a renewed interest in establishing an Elizabeth Town village near the Hager House, the historical society board was looking at the possibility of adopting new projects as they went forward. 

Judge Irvine Rutledge was appointed chair of a committee to look at potential locations in Washington County, which incorporates about 40 miles of the Mason-Dixon Line, more than any other county. One idea put forward was Blair's Valley, where a large lake was planned on game preserve lands already purchased by the state. The 114th and 115th milestones sat within those lands, and are still there today.

Meanwhile, work continued on the Hager House Museum under Mary Mish and on prepping more rooms in the Miller House for displays under Vic Miller and Simms Jamieson, the first vice president. 

A program for the opening of the C&O Canal Exhibit would feature Judge George Henderson speaking on the origins of the canal. And, there was the on-going moving project of displays, housed elsewhere, and the staging of the Valley Store Museum at the Mansion House in City Park to join the display of the Pearl Clock Collection, a recent gift.

The mayor and council were considering turning the land near the Hager House over to a local service club to set up athletic fields and a clubhouse for boys. This prompted an appeal from WCHS to save those lands, just as the group was offered two circa-1850 log cabins that needed a quick response for removal.

A request then came to the group from the County Commissioners to help identify the historic sites that should be preserved in the county, with special and immediate attention to the area that would be impacted by the proposed Potomac Edison 500 kv transmission line from Maryland Heights to Williamsport.

So many plans, so much to do, so much initiative benefitted from the steady leadership of Miller. There was little pause in forward movement during the year with the exception of the loss of member and major contributor, former Gov. William Preston Lane. He helped greatly with the Hager House project and a resolution was drawn for presentation to the family.

The board chose to accept the log cabins on a provisional motion relating to having a location for placement and being able to cover the cost of moving them. Later examination found that only some of the logs from one could be used, so salvage of that material, other woodwork and hardware was all that could be done. The second cabin could be moved and with the financial help of donors and movers, the work was scheduled to remove the cabin to the vicinity of the Hager House.

Next, a garden committee was appointed to discern the best way to proceed with a garden at the rear of the Miller House. And, an offer to donate Hagerstown's first taxi to the collection caused concern for where it would be stored.

Continuing into 1968, the Job Corps from Harpers Ferry was to work on stabilization and restoration of the log cabin and plans were made to improve access to the area and for other desired buildings to join the cabin at a future date.  Even two city council members became interested in the process.

Board members drew up a resolution commending the Morris Frock American Legion for their work in moving the World War I 105mm German howitzer cannon from its station of nearly 50 years at the corner of South Potomac Street and Wilson Boulevard to the driveway of the legion post building.  Increased traffic at the city intersection, with heavy trucks just driving over the parkway median, had endangered the cannon and the Woodrow Wilson Monument that sat there, as well.

Bronze plaques were ordered for the Hager House and the Miller House to recognize their significance to the community. In April, Mary Mish reported that the Elizabeth Town project was to include a cobbler's shop, a smoke house, a cooperage, a grist mill, printing shop, fire engine house, country store, comfort station, blacksmith's shop and wagon shed. A 10-year plan for development of the "village," with a potential investment of $480,000 over the period, came from committee recommendations.

Then tragedy struck. The sudden deaths of Mary Mish on June 1, 1968, and Vic Miller on July 17 of that same year created difficult voids. Sympathies poured from the Maryland Historic Trust, the County Commissioners, the City of Hagerstown, the community-at-large and the members of the historical society. Resolutions were composed for each, but didn't begin to cover the implication of the losses to the organization.

In an interview with David Cottingham in The Daily Mail just one year before, Vic Miller was referred to as "the dynamic new president of the Washington County Historical Society." His modesty about the significance of the gift of the Miller House to the society rang through in his quoted praise of the history of the organization and those responsible and of Mary Mish's accomplishments with the Hager House. He also felt that the effort to save the Valley Store Museum and the public support to both projects were of greater importance.

He did express excitement at the way in which the Miller House was coming together as a result of the many donations of furniture and artifacts from local families and hard work of the House Committee to accommodate each new idea and display.

The organization had a good succession plan. Simms Jamieson was quickly inducted as president. But, the significance of these two individuals dug deep into the fabric of its processes. 

Mary Mish had been an integral energy for so many years, credited with, not only the Hager House, but as the driving force behind the research on the Maryland Heights acquisitions for Harpers Ferry. Vic Miller had been on board a short time, but he was legacy. His father, Dr. Victor D. Miller Jr., had served on the Board and his uncle, Dr. DeWitt Clinton Rench Miller, was one of the founders. The gift of the Miller House by him and his brother, Col. Henry L. Miller, filled an incredible need and sparked a new era for the society.

Being a member

The larger part of the interview with Vic Miller in 1967 was an emphasis on widening the audience and membership and so we repeat and enlarge his plea today.

 History matters in Washington County. Washington County Historical Society offers history buffs and anyone interested in preservation an open door to the past and, thus, the future. Expert training is not required. You can come aboard and learn how to keep the proud traditions and history of the county alive and accessible. All that is needed is energy and interest. We invite you to share the load.

Because Maryland was one of the original 13 colonies and this piece of American geography that became Washington County on Sept. 6, 1776, was the frontier in the early settlement process, we are inextricably entwined in national and even world events of the history of this so-called great democratic experiment.

Fur trappers and traders might have been here as early as the late 1600s. Major settlements were in evidence as soon as the 1730s through the arrival of industrious people drawn by the fertile valley and abundant water supply. Then by the 1750s the land was scarred with attempts by envious French and their Indian allies making incursions to wrest these lands over to the French or back to the native warriors. Fort Frederick might have been lost to us if historians had not intervened.

History matters here. Early manufacturing evidence is found in the ruins and still standing stone mills along the powerful waterways of the Beaver, Antietam, Conococheague, Licking and Tonoloway creeks and some of their tributaries. Stone structures from the 1730s to the mid-1800s proved the proficiency of the ancestors in the use of natural materials. These ranged from the mills and houses to bridges and fences.

Those mills converted the crops and timber into saleable products for consumption nearby and far down river to the east. There were even various grades of marble from which to make the millstones.

Early craftsmen produced some of the most beautiful tall case and shelf clocks, true to their German and Swiss heritage.  The potters, silversmiths and blacksmiths created fine and practical items for households, agriculture and industry, but didn't forget that artistry fit into their trades.

We raised militia companies for the French and Indian War, the American Revolution and the War of 1812. We honored our namesake George Washington in January 1800, the month after his death, with a community funeral.

And, of course, the American Civil War marched through the streets of nearly every town and village inflicting scars of family strife over the right and wrong of it and leaving many to starve in the aftermath. The childhood deaths in the Sharpsburg district during the winter of 1862 to 1863, while only a small sampling, thus anecdotal, gives pause to the claim of no civilian deaths as a part of the Battle of Antietam.

Every major defense of this land drew citizens to service. The citizens of Washington County have never shirked their duty, including the massive and quick turn-around of every potential war materials production site here at the behest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

No other organization in the county has a longer record of dedication to the preservation of our history than the Washington County Historical Society.  This organization is in the midst of a major friend-raising campaign … looking for new members. Dues are truly affordable and membership benefits have grown. Tours and events are free or discounted to members. Residents of Washington County who have any interest in history will find something within the collections, archives, programs and events where they can participate. WCHS provides both senior citizens and students with a center for activities.

WCHS also salutes the cherished partners in the county who have taken up the cause over the years to preserve and maintain 37 museums and historic sites for future generations to experience and study and to enhance our tourism destination standard. We often have visitors who spend a week with us from every state, including many from the West Coast, as they research their family roots.

How can members help? Your dues are the first level of support, but beyond that there are opportunities to work with programs for children and adults, care and preservation of the Miller House, Beaver Creek School and the collections in each -— a physical presence once a week or once a month, depending on preference.  Working with our partners such the Hager House, Discovery Station and the Rural Heritage Museum, where permanent loans from our collections are kept, to make sure that those collections are maintained and accessible, would require a semi-annual review, at minimum, to helping to staff docents on a regular basis, in the extreme.

There is on-going cataloging and documentation of artifacts and archival materials. Committees for annual events plan and execute those events. Each will soon have its own committee, drawn from the membership. And, annually WCHS recruits from its membership for Board members, who serve as the committee chairs. The Board has a rotation requirement and so needs new blood each July.

The annual meeting, annual report and newsletter provide more opportunities for members to contribute their talents. And, those with historic research and information to impart fit nicely into the lecture series and a speakers bureau.


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

Want to be a member?

The Washington County Historical Society is seeking members. Annual dues are $15 for student or seniors; $20 to $34 for individual; $35 to $99 for family; $100 to $499 for friend and $500 and more for patron. Send checks to Washington County Historical Society, 135 W. Washington St., Hagerstown, MD 21740. Make checks payable to the Washington County Historical Society. Include your name, address, city, state, zip code, phone number and email address.

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