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Ah, Frederick In the Spring

Amid Emerald Hills, Change Is in the Air

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page GZ76

Just when you think you've got Frederick County pegged as the antithesis of suburban Maryland liberalism, somebody like the Green-Walled Garden Club ladies will remind you that in a community growing as quickly as this one, all is not as it sometimes seems.

Last year the Garden Club adorned its holiday cookbook with photos of members in the buff, and wound up making a mint. Subversives all, they join artists living in the former crack-house district and the synagogue that runs one of the county's hottest bingo games as examples of Frederick Counterintuitive. So too does the local government, dominated by county commissioners and old-boy aldermen but led by Mayor Jennifer Dougherty, a Washington transplant -- itself a first for the office -- known as much for her streetfighting political style as for her homey Irish gift shop.

In the shadows of the Catoctin range, Thurmont is a growing hamlet of longtime residents and newcomers alike. Below, shoppers on East Patrick Street in Frederick's downtown historic district. (Photos Timothy Jacobsen For The Washington Post)

It is true, the Democrats haven't carried this county since the early 1990s, and before then its congressman was a Reagan Democrat. Also true that many of Frederick's old-timers won't tell you what they once did for a living, because they worked at Fort Detrick, a premier bioweapons center. Richard Nixon's decision to stop Detrick's germ programs was, they'll say, the dumbest thing he ever did, Watergate included. And true again, that story about the reputed madam and the black book and the politicians.

But what is that, in the window of the goldsmith's shop? A life-size John Kerry figure, bearing the slogan "Help Is on the Way"? Today the scientists at Detrick work to counter bioweapons, not build them, and throw their waste dumps open for public inspection. And the black book . . . well, there's a bit of Peyton Place just about everywhere, isn't there?

Size, too, is an ever-changing feature of Frederick County. The population has doubled over the past three decades, reaching 195,000 in 2000. As Washington exurban development continues its march toward the Pennsylvania border, those who live outside the city of Frederick dwarf its 50,000 population.

Many of these newbies are, like their longer-term neighbors, politically and socially conservative. This is a place where "God bless you" is an accepted sign-off, where "Support Our Troops" decals take pride of place next to "W" bumper stickers, where nobody speaks of "holidays" and everybody speaks of Christmas.

But to see the real, more varied character of Frederick, you must travel around a little.

Today, pausing to take in the vista from the overlook off Interstate 270, a few miles south of Frederick, one sees the panorama of new housing, schools and burgeoning high-tech businesses that draw people here in the first place: Job growth in the county last year was the 10th highest in the nation, according to U.S. figures. But beyond that, and behind it, are the features that help lure, and keep, people here. Like the hills of the northern county, where one can hike and camp in Catoctin Mountain Park, near Camp David, whose neighbors scan the skies for the president's helicopter. On the way, visit the Catoctin Mountain Zoo on Route 15 in Thurmont, home of toothy exotics like the four-foot alligator local kids found lazing in a county ditch a few years ago. Or visit the Family's Choice furniture shop, where one can buy a reconditioned mahogany bookcase, goose-neck chair or conference table for 20 that conjures up a smoke-filled room in the House of Representatives -- which is indeed where it came from (ask them to show you the warehouse, too).

Of course most outsiders shop for antiques at the opposite end of the county, in New Market, where one can easily spend a full weekend browsing. But not many have gone to New Market for dinner at Mealey's, another study in contrasts that serves new American cuisine in a period building.

After you've loosened your belt, come on back into Frederick and take in a show at the Weinberg Center for the Arts, a city-sponsored theater whose repertoire runs from former Top 40 acts to locally produced plays. All around it, the historic retail district has, over the last several years, branched out from soap-and-candle to true eclecticism. Now you can buy African floorcloths and English upholstery, artisan baked goods and custom tattoos. At shops like The Muse, much of the jewelry and clothing is made by local artists. For furnishings that look like they've weathered the ages (many have), dig -- as Bill and Hillary Clinton once did -- though the dusty piles at Great Stuff by Paul, to unearth French bistro tables, Mexican sugar mold candles and Eastern European urinals (billed as planters.)

In the summer, spend an evening watching the Frederick Keys, the county's minor league baseball team. Played in a modern stadium, attended by longtime residents and newcomers, a home game is nonetheless an old-time experience, especially on Bark in the Park night, when most people bring their dogs along.

If it's historic sites you prefer, stop into the tourist office off Church and Market streets, where they'll be happy to set you off on a walking tour. For a peaceful stroll steeped in old Frederick history, visit Mount Olivet Cemetery, whose 38,000 graves rival the number of living city residents. Mount Olivet holds the remains of many of Frederick's once-prominent, including Francis Scott Key, who penned our national anthem, and the feisty Civil War heroine immortalized in John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "Barbara Fritchie."

When invading rebel troops shot at her American flag, the 90-year-old Fritchie leaned out her Frederick window "She said: 'Shoot if you must, this old gray head / But spare your country's flag.' "

In fact, it is the poem's description of Frederick ("The clustered spires of Frederick stand / Green-walled by the hills of Maryland") that inspired the name of the Green-Walled Garden Club. But unlike her modern-day counterparts, Fritchie is believed to have made her contribution to Frederick history while fully clothed.

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