Prussian Echoes in a Handed-Down Hamlet
Saturday, September 1, 2001
It's spelled Silesia and pronounced Sil-isha. At least that's how the folks who live around the intersection of Livingston and Fort Washington roads in Prince George's County say it, and they should know. They are by ancestry or marriage Tilches, Walzels or Adlers, and they make up a close-knit community.
They and their ancestors have lived in these parts for more than a century, ever since the man they still refer to as "Uncle Robert" bought the nearby Harmony Hall manor house in the 1890s and encouraged his relatives to emigrate from the other Silesia, in Prussia, now part of Poland.
According to Ray Tilch, 54, who owns Silesia Liquors with brother Mike, 52, the population of Silesia, Md., now numbers about 40. The boundaries are defined by four Silesia signs planted about 100 yards from the intersection in each direction.
"We're our own little hamlet," Mike Tilch said.
Ray's wife, Karen, manages the Silesia Carry-Out next to the liquor store. Family members also operated an animal-feed store around the corner until they closed it in June. The corner has always been commercial, commencing with the White Horse Tavern in the 18th century. Across the street, there's a Texaco station formerly owned by Robert Tilch, since deceased, but the station is no longer in the family.
For years, many of the Silesians were truck farmers, producing vegetables for sale at roadside markets. Today, only Freddie Walzel, 62, who retired in 1988 as chief of the White House police, farms, along with his son Joe and other members of his immediate family.
The Silesians live in houses strung out along Fort Washington and Livingston roads. Most of them are basic brick ramblers, set back up on grassy knolls or along lanes. There's one large Sears catalogue house directly across Livingston Road from the county's Harmony Hall Regional Center, located in a converted school building next to the old Harmony Hall mansion.
The mansion is the reason that Silesia exists. Robert Stein, born in 1857 in Rengersdorf, Silesia, studied for the priesthood at Georgetown but wound up with a medical degree and knowledge of 12 languages. In 1892, he and his brother Richard, and Joseph Adler, who would marry their sister, bought the farm that included Harmony Hall, a 1760 manor house.
Robert lived in Washington, while Richard and Joseph occupied the mansion overlooking the Potomac. The family grew and spread out, with other relatives joining it from Europe. Franz Walzel and his bride, Marie Teuber, a Tilch cousin, arrived in 1912, followed by Marie's brother in 1915. Richard Tilch built the original family store in 1903 at the corner now occupied by the liquor store and carryout.
Robert Stein, who never married, distinguished himself as an Arctic explorer, author and interpreter of Eskimo tongues for Adm. Robert E. Peary. Said to be despondent over the outlook for world peace, Stein committed suicide in 1917. His ashes were scattered over the family's property in Maryland.
It was Stein who successfully petitioned to have the settlement officially named Silesia, and a post office and schoolhouse bearing that name opened in 1903. The post office is long gone. The school closed in 1925, but the building still stands, on property owned by Fort Washington Baptist church.
There's the Silesia Fire Department on Fort Washington Road, and at the intersection with Livingston there will soon be a new county police station, which residents hope will also bear the Silesia name. It will be on land farmed until recently by a Walzel.