On a Quest For Hidden Hometown Treasures

The Taylor family, the first to pick up a copy of the map for the Great Frederick Historic Treasure Hunt.
The Taylor family, the first to pick up a copy of the map for the Great Frederick Historic Treasure Hunt. (By Nancy Eller)
By Mary K. Feeney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 9, 2006

Frederick is known for its restaurants, galleries, antiques stores and shops offering everything from imported linens to bobblehead dolls. It's also renowned for its history, displayed against a backdrop of quaint storefronts, elegant church spires and homes from another age.

Shoppers and tourists, intent on soaking up modern-day culture in the bustling downtown, often neglect the charming side streets that reveal the city's past. And like native New Yorkers who have never been to the top of the Empire State Building, some Frederick residents haven't taken the time to investigate the tradition in their midst.

So when Jennifer Kelly of Frederick learned about a history-themed treasure hunt last fall, she was intrigued. In late October, on a beautiful Indian summer day, she picked up her children, Johnathan, 5, and Eden, 4, from school and embarked on an adventure in her home town. And later, they were lavishly rewarded.

The Great Frederick Historic Treasure Hunt, which began in October and continues through Sept. 30, is a self-guided tour that combines history with a quest for clues in buildings, monuments, parks and landmarks. The hunt, a project of the volunteer organization FrederickStory, winds through the streets of the city and can be completed on foot in about two hours or at a more leisurely pace over several days. Free maps, available at the Tourism Council of Frederick County, 19 E. Church St., guide the way to stops at 20 "treasures."

At each site, participants search for an answer to a question: What animal guards the entrance to the house at 112 W. Church St.? Which movie held its 1995 world premiere at the art deco-era Weinberg Center for the Arts?

When the hunt is done, players drop off their maps, questions completed, at the tourism council. And, yes, there is a real treasure. Each month, a winner is drawn for prizes donated by local businesses and organizations.

Kelly and her children split the hunt over two days. Johnathan and Eden enjoyed the challenge, spotting symbols on buildings and counting the number of children depicted on a dedication plaque at Baker Park.

"There were lots of things they were able to do without having to know anything. Certainly they're younger for some of [the questions], but some of it was completely age-appropriate," Kelly said. An unexpected benefit: The Kellys won the first of the monthly prize drawings in November, receiving more than $1,500 in gifts, including a birthday party, dance lessons, theater tickets, children's books, gift baskets, meal coupons and a two-person sled.

"It was really special because [the organizers] came over and set everything up in the living room while my husband was with the kids upstairs," Kelly said. When the children came downstairs, they were excited. "It was like an early Christmas. They really made it quite special."

Members of FrederickStory wanted to do something to draw attention to the history of Frederick, which was established in 1745. They thought about doing a play but settled on a treasure hunt, said Nancy Eller, chairwoman of FrederickStory. She said that many families, Scout troops and school groups have been on the hunt but that the average age, "forty-something," surprised her. So far, more than 500 people have turned in their maps, which originally were printed in the Frederick News-Post; many more probably use them as a self-guided tour without entering the contest, she said.

Frederick (population about 57,000) and Frederick County have historical connections to many notable Marylanders, including the state's first elected governor (Thomas Johnson), the country's first president under the Articles of the Confederation (John Hanson), the author of "The Star Spangled Banner" (Francis Scott Key), America's first native-born saint (Elizabeth Ann Seton) and the fifth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (Roger Brooke Taney, who presided over the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln).

"Shoot, if you must, this old gray head / But spare your country's flag, she said." Sound familiar? That was part of poet John Greenleaf Whittier's tribute to Barbara Fritchie, a 96-year-old widow who reputedly waved a Union flag from her window on West Patrick Street as Stonewall Jackson and his troops marched into Frederick. Her house stands today.

Frederick played a major role in the Civil War and in the conflicts before and after. A marker in the city's War Memorial Park reveals that Frederick residents fought in every major conflict affecting the country, including the war with the Barbary pirates in the early 19th century and the Boxer Rebellion in China at the turn of the 20th century.

Local history curricula have been cut or reduced in many school programs, and for some students at West Frederick Middle School, the treasure quest offers a chance to learn and get extra credit. Ellen Georgi of Buckeystown, a sixth-grade social studies teacher, says her students can do the hunt on their own time, with friends or family tagging along. Georgi, a recent transplant from Berkeley, Calif., and also a member of FrederickStory, said the activity helped her become familiar with the city. When friends or relatives visit, the tour is a fun way to show them the sights, she said.

Many of her students "get a little excited and grossed out," Georgi said, over exhibits at one of the stops, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. Along with some "pretty graphic information," the museum outlines how treatment and hospitals improved over the course of the war. "It's one of the lessons learned about war -- that war gives us leapfrogs in technology and the Civil War gave us leapfrogs in medicine."

For children involved in Scouting, the event is a nifty way to earn merit badges and more. In early November, the eight members of Girl Scout Troop 1800, all from Oakdale Middle School outside Frederick, were working on a history badge. It was a glorious day, and they spent several hours in the search, even debating the correct answers. In January, they found out they had won more than $1,100 in prizes, including a rope-climbing challenge course and adventure party for 10 and tickets to see the 1953 movie "It Came From Outer Space" in 3-D at the Weinberg Center.

"It was like, wow, I won the lottery for the kids," said troop co-leader Linda Sly of nearby New Market. "In my opinion, on a beautiful day, this is a really neat thing for families and groups to do. It is exercise and education combined. What could be better?"

THE GREAT FREDERICK HISTORIC TREASURE HUNT Through Sept. 30 in Frederick, about 48 miles northwest of Washington. Maps are available at the Tourism Council of Frederick County, 19 E. Church St. Open daily 9 to 5. 301-228-2888 or 800-999-3613.http://www.frederickstory.comorhttp://www.fredericktourism.org.

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