In Once-Rural Montgomery, a Rich History

By Melissa B. Robinson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 26, 2007

Montgomery's history can be seen across the county: in the sign marking the mica-flecked spring that gave Silver Spring its name; in the preserved Oakley Cabin in Brookeville that was once home to slaves; in the hustle on weekends at the Montgomery Farm Women's Cooperative Market in Bethesda, set up during the Depression by farm women looking to sell their produce.

It's been 231 years since Montgomery was created. The county's history is rich with tales of early settler families such as the Pooles, Gaithers and Clarkes and those who followed them to help shape the local culture.

Following is a quick glance at some significant events in Montgomery's past.

Created by the nation's founding fathers in 1776, Montgomery County has grown from a land of Indian quarries, tobacco farms and country inns on the outskirts of the nation's capital to become Maryland's largest jurisdiction, with nearly 1 million people.

By the time the first settlers arrived here from the British Isles in the late 1600s, American Indians had traversed the area, which served as a buffer between two great nations: the Iroquois to the north and the Sequoyah to the south, said Karen Yaffe Lottes, education director for the Montgomery County Historical Society.

The first patent for land, a parcel along Rock Creek, was recorded in 1688, according to "Montgomery County, Maryland: Our History and Government," a joint county-historical society publication.

In 1695, the county was part of a larger area designated as Prince George's County, which encompassed today's Montgomery, Frederick and Prince George's counties and the District of Columbia. In 1748, the western part of the county became Frederick County. In 1776, the Continental Congress approved a proposal by Maryland's Thomas Sprigg Wootton to divide Frederick into three counties: Frederick, Montgomery and Washington counties.

Montgomery was named for a popular Revolutionary War general, Richard Montgomery, who never set foot in the county that bears his name.

Agriculture dominated the county in its early period, with little towns springing up around crossroads and marketplaces.

In the county seat of Rockville, Owen's Ordinary tavern and inn opened in the mid-1700s. Charles Hungerford and others opened establishments to serve travelers who passed through on their way to Frederick or the tobacco port at Georgetown, or who came to town to settle business.

"By 1776 you have to come here if you are going to file your deeds, probate your wills, argue with your neighbor," said Eileen McGuckian, executive director of Peerless Rockville, a preservation organization.

By the 1830s, tobacco had so depleted the soil that the county became known as the "Sahara of Maryland," McGuckian said, and people started to leave. Innovations such as fertilizing with South American guano helped restore nutrients, and farmers began cultivating grains, including wheat, oats and corn. Later, dairy farms sprang up. The completion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in 1850 made it easier to get agricultural products to market.

During the Civil War, the county was the site of troop movements and skirmishes, but no major battles. Confederate cavalry officer J.E.B. Stuart captured 150 Union wagons just south of today's intersection of Route 355 and Veirs Mill Road on his way to Gettysburg, Pa., according to "Montgomery County, Maryland: Our History and Government."

Like the rest of Maryland, the county was a slaveholding jurisdiction, and President Abraham Lincoln stationed thousands of Union troops here as early as 1861.

"He couldn't afford to have his capital in-between two Confederate states," McGuckian said. Maryland never seceded, although many county residents were Confederate sympathizers. Some men joined rebel troops in Virginia by crossing the Potomac at Poolesville, Lottes said.

"It's hard to imagine liberal Montgomery County as slaveholders, but they were," she said.

The Quakers were the major exception. They settled in Sandy Spring in the 1720s and had largely freed their slaves by the early 1800s. (Later, Sandy Spring women became active in the women's suffrage and temperance movements and started the nation's oldest, continuously meeting women's group.) During the Civil War, some Sandy Spring Quakers were abolitionists and evidence suggests the town was a stop on the route known as the Underground Railroad. Another prominent tale of slavery has roots in Bethesda, where slave Josiah Henson, who later escaped to Canada, lived in a cabin that stands today. Henson's memoir is thought to be the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

In 1873, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad opened its Metropolitan Branch from the District to Point of Rocks, ushering in major change. Towns such as Takoma Park, Kensington, Silver Spring and Garrett Park grew up around train stops. Later, a trolley opened, giving rise to towns along its stops, including Chevy Chase.

Social changes were also taking place. After the Civil War, black parents successfully petitioned the Freedmen's Bureau for funding to open a school for their children in Rockville, pledging to cover teacher living expenses, and heating and lighting for the schoolhouse.

In 1872, the state established a public school system for blacks (one for whites was started just before the Civil War), and the county followed. After the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954, county schools were fully integrated by 1961.

The county was spared major civil rights and Vietnam War demonstrations of the 1960s that occurred in the District . Still, there were some. In Glen Echo, during the summer of 1960, local whites joined black Howard University students on picket lines, forcing the park's integration. In Rockville, a new High Boy restaurant was picketed after managers tried to usher black patrons through a back door.

Today, Montgomery County is one of the most affluent and educated jurisdictions in the country and one of the most diverse in Maryland.

By 2020, planners project that minorities will make up 40 percent of the population.

For more information on Montgomery County history visit:,,http://www.sandyspringmuseum.organd

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