Where We Live

In Washington Grove, Working Around the Trees

The small town of Washington Grove is made up of about 225 homes, many of them only a few feet from their neighbors.
The small town of Washington Grove is made up of about 225 homes, many of them only a few feet from their neighbors. (Photos By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

By Janet Lubman Rathner
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 13, 2006

For those who like manicured yards, expect to park right at their house and prefer more than a few feet of separation from the neighbors, Washington Grove is not the place to call home.

In fact, according to Kathy Lehman, town clerk of Washington Grove, life in her town would be downright aggravating and impractical for those people.

"Parking is an issue. For some, you can't park anywhere near your house. You're really close to your neighbor. Some cottages are only a foot or two apart. If you don't like that and you're afraid of big trees falling on your houses, you shouldn't live here," said Lehman, 50, who has spent most of her life in and around the Montgomery County town.

In her case, the advantages of this little municipality -- about 225 homes surrounded by more than 200 acres of forest and parkland -- far outweigh the inconveniences.

"This is a live-and-let-live area," Lehman said. "Eclectic people live here. We're all a little nutty."

Washington Grove, just outside Gaithersburg, is a mix of century-old Carpenter Gothic cottages and bungalows surrounded by ranchers, Cape Cods and Colonials. There is no mail delivery. Residents go to the town post office -- it's in the lone commercial strip, along with a hair salon, consignment shop, catering business and insurance office.

The town started in the 1870s as a religious retreat for Washington's Methodist families. To escape the area's steamy summers, they would hop on the Metropolitan Branch of the B&O Railroad and find respite and religion in a tree-canopied tent colony set up around a sacred circle and tabernacle. The facility was administered by the Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association. Over the years, the camp became a stop on the Chautauqua lecture circuit. The tents were replaced by a hotel that no longer stands and by cottages, many of which remain occupied today.

Eventually, the Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association dissolved, and in 1937, the town incorporated. In 1980, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today a bureaucracy of 2 1/2 people keeps Washington Grove running: a maintenance man and a town clerk, who are full-time employees, and a treasurer, who is not.

John Compton, Washington Grove's volunteer mayor, has lived in the community for 15 years. He said resident involvement makes up for any shortfall in paid staff. "The town wouldn't be what it is without volunteers," he said. "We have committees that look into zoning, recreation, forestry, the Maple Lake," where Washington Grove children go for swimming lessons in the summer and ice skating in the winter.

"There are so many activities in town," said Shelley Winkler, an eight-year resident.

"The recreation committee just had a falconer who gave a hawk talk. In May, there will be a flower show, and my children always make their own creations," she said.

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