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Hour Town

It's about 60 minutes to downtown Frederick from downtown D.C. But it feels farther away -- and longer ago.

By Hannah Schardt
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 5, 2004; Page C02

Visitors to downtown Frederick last weekend were offered -- free of charge -- the following: a big bouquet of daisies, chrysanthemums and roses; a meal (or several) of cheese, bread, fruit and cocktail sausages; wine; a garden tour; and a bluegrass show. And fireworks.

The bouquets and bluegrass were thanks to MayFest, a sort of all-day open house where shop owners handed out flowers to customers and browsers. By afternoon, nearly every downtown stroller clutched an eclectic bouquet and a handful of shopping bags. But the free food, set out on long tables at several art galleries all around downtown, is a regular thing. Shops and galleries stay open late on the first Saturday of every month for a gallery walk that makes these sidewalks more crowded at dinner time than they are at midday. And the fireworks?

Downtown Frederick is the kind of good-strolling district where you can spend all day doing not much at all. Right, the view from Baker Park. (Courtesy Of Tourism Council Of Frederick County)

"Frederick will use any excuse to have fireworks," said one woman, visiting from California, after the 10-minute aerial display had faded over Market Street. With a sister in Frederick, she'd seen fireworks displays on other non-Fourth-of-July visits. These fireworks were officially in honor of Sunday's Frederick Marathon, though most people didn't seem to know the reason. Frederick is just the kind of town where warm evenings end with fireworks. And from May to October at least, it's the kind of town that wants to entertain visitors almost every weekend, with walking tours, carriage rides, music festivals and gallery strolls. Even in spring, it feels like the home town of summer.

Frederick is the second-largest city in Maryland, with 52,000 people and plenty of big box stores. But from the center of its old downtown, surrounded by 19th-century rowhouses, candy shops and flower boxes, it feels more like an exceptionally well-stocked Small Town USA.

Just 45 minutes from the Beltway (or twice that, depending on the I-270 backups), Frederick's downtown manages to feel sealed in a sort of mid-century amber. It's not like Georgetown, with modern shopping malls hidden behind old buildings. Frederick is more like Mayberry, if Mayberry had a wine bar.

Downtown Frederick has escaped the competing scourges of urban centers: retail flight and retail bland. There are virtually no vacant storefronts in the 50-block historic district, nor is there a Banana Republic. Instead, shop after trim shop sells handmade fudge, homemade ice cream, used books, hip clothes, vintage clothes, sherbet-colored clothes that belong on a cruise ship, teas, junk and art -- all small-time, defiantly local and very well preserved. After 10 hours of strolling, sitting and eating, it comes as a surprise to realize that all you've done is strolled, sat and eaten -- and that's just fine.

The city has enough history -- it survived the Civil War mostly intact -- that history has become one of its most important exports. You can visit the grave of Frederick native Francis Scott Key and (by appointment) the house of Barbara Fritchie, the "old gray head" in the Civil War poem by John Greenleaf Whittier. And selling bits of actual history, or at least old stuff, is a town specialty. Emporium Antiques, a huge brick warehouse, offers antiques from more than 100 vendors. Just across Patrick Street at Mondo Buca, owner Vince Reynolds has been collecting stuff since he was 5. "It started with, you know, broken light bulbs," Reynolds said.

He now sells the kind of "antiques" that thrill people too young or too ironic to covet Federal-style bureaus or 1940s damask linens. Here it's more Viewmasters (Lassie in 3-D!) and mid-20th-century religious paintings. This is a place where you can buy a working manual typewriter or a zodiac-themed Rolodex. For people over 30, it's nostalgia. Younger, and it's history.

"Oh, my gosh, Dad," said one young member of the Eggo Generation, examining a waffle iron. "It makes two waffles at once!"

Where antiques-buyers go, antique inns tend to follow, and downtown Frederick is no exception. At least three 19th-century B&Bs are in the heart of town: the Hill House, the Tyler Spite House and McCleery's Flat. Common rooms at McCleery's are large and welcoming, stuffed with antiques, art and houseplants. Breakfast is served at 9 a.m. sharp -- and that's a compromise (the owner is retired military). Rooms seem authentically 1880-ish with some exceptions: The three-room McCleery suite features a whirlpool bath and a teddy bear tea party at the foot of the bed. It's right across the street from Emporium Antiques, which makes it easy to lug home that wrought iron bed or cigar store Indian.

Even the movies in Frederick are antiques. The Weinberg Center for the Arts, a 1926 movie palace, still plays classic movies on weekends. (And across the street, at the Maryland Ensemble, a production of "Psycho Beach Party" plays through May -- "One part 'Gidget,' one part 'Beach Blanket Bingo,' one part 'Mommie Dearest' and six parts fun!" says the promo). But you have to make a point to see a flick or a show here. The shopping -- or, at least, walking around outdoors and looking at shops -- is so pleasant in Frederick it can easily dominate a weekend.

Any town with one independent toy store should count itself lucky; Frederick has two extraordinary ones within walking distance of each other. The Dancing Bear on Market Street sells beautifully made wooden games, puzzles and toys -- the sort that a parent might not mind seeing on the living room floor. Flights of Fancy, a few blocks away in Everedy Square, is a strange mix of gallery and toy shop.

Across the street is the Frederick Fudge and Ice Cream Co., owned by Culleen and Ron Tobin, retirees who took a fudge seminar in Connecticut and then opened shop a year ago. Despite the brutal winters, the shop stays open as a gathering place year-round. "We're the "Cheers" of ice cream," said Culleen, as she patiently sliced off samples of vanilla fudge.

Then perhaps Brewer's Alley, a microbrewery and restaurant on Market, is the 'Cheers' of, well, beer. Locals walk in and get a nod and a "Hey, there." Kids going to prom (or, at least, dressed that way) walk in to smiles and stares (and no beer). And tourists walk in for cold India pale ale, crab dip and pizza.

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