My husband and I set out to see where a quarter-tank of gas would take us. What we found was Hagerstown.
Hagerstown is a sleeper. Nestled in the Cumberland Valley, enfolded by the purpleblue Alleghenies, it's a place where there still is, for instance, a confectionery store. And a swan lake, with an art museum at one end and the restored home of the city's founder on the other. The Stars and Stripes wave proudly from the second-story porch of a doctor's office. Civil War ghosts haunt nearby Antietam battlefield. And there are local vegetables and fresh-baked desserts at most restaurants. Americana a' la mode.
We knew we were in for a treat the minute we set foot in the Sheraton Inn lobby on U.S. 40. A tourist information desk is stacked with brochures on the area and there's a friendly guide just waiting for someone to talk to. We learned that Nick's Airport Inn was the place for lunch and that a left at the eighth traffic light would take us to City Park, heart of the restored area.
Because the reports on Nick's were so glowing, lunch came first. They've been serving up food in this renovated house across from Haterstown's regional airport since the 1920s, when aces in leather helmets lounged at the counter. Now customers find their way by car or private plane from as far as New York just to sample seafood that's "trucked in fresh daily" from Baltimore.
We weren't disappointed. Crab cakes crammed with backfin lumps and baby haddock Provencal with fresh beets were worth the detour out Route 11. Amid pine paneling, English prints, a grandfather clock and what may be the world's largest gilt-framed Victorian mirror, we lingered over dense, honey-dripping wedges of baklava.
At last ready for the past, we drove back toward the center of town, looking neither left nor right for fear the tempting signs adorning white-post porches would lead us astray. Yesterday lives in the crafts of Hagerstown's people. The "Handmade Grandfather Clocks" and "Handmade Quilts and Afghans," as well as the lady who reads palms, will have to wait until next time.
North Jonathan Street, the leafy, hilly way to City Park, has the small-town Victorian ambiance you wish you'd grown up in.
City Park is Hagerstown's historical core. On the far side of a willow-ringed lake stands the Washington County Museum of Fine Art, one of only three such county museums in the country and surely the only one where weddings are held under the rear portico. To the left, the Valley Store Museum is a restored turn-of-the-century emporium crammed with authentic pieces.
Across the lake is Hager House, where John Hager laid the groundwork for the beginning of "Hager's Fancy." Officially the season is May through September, when there are Sunday concerts in the bandshell pavillion and Hager House holds monthly pioneer craft days. But any time is right for the proud swans and busy mallards gliding on the lake. Walks and benches circle the water, and jutting rocks -- just right for a wine-and-cheese picnic -- made us sorry we had none. A play area is set back among trees. The park has earned national awards.
Lured by the beautiful setting or the two natural springs, in 1740 German immigrant John Hager built a stone house and fort here. To make ends meet, he installed a trading post in the front room and a blacksmith shop in the basement.
Stepping into Hager House is a trip back to the 18th century. The table is set in the kitchen gathering room as if the Hagers had left yesterday. Dried herbs, for spices and medicine, hang from rafters. Rope and straw beds, spinning wheels and a pencil-post bed with handmade canopy are in the upstairs bedrooms. But the drawing card is the basement, where clear spring water flows across and under dank stone flooring. Inside running water was a rarity then, and especially precious during Indian attacks.
Mrs Prather, who directs Hager House with her husband, insisted we see Hager Museum, a few steps away. Proudly she unlocked the door to a large modern room filled with glass cases of Hager memorabilia. Arrowheads and weapons, family crockery, German Bibles, ornate waistcoats worn by Hagers father and son and the original plat of Hagerstown are neatly catalogued. Many are items unearthed from the foundations, discarded by the family.
Looking is just a start here. Mrs Prather's loving descriptions of Hagerstown's beginnings are thorough. We were treated to a virtual who-was-who and what-was-what in the town. Suddenly we were contemporaries, caught up and enriched by the past.
"We're in the lap of history, midway on the Old Post Road between Frederick and Fort Frederick," Mrs. Prather announced. We were convinced. We could almost hear the sound of distant guns roll in from the fields of nearby Antietam.
More history was in order, but the Valley Store Museum was closed. So we walked along the lake to the flagstone steps leading up to the Washington County Museum of Fine Art. A bronze Diana of the Hunt welcomed us to this gem of Georgian architecture. The museum is devoted to American art, Maryland's only museum outside Baltimore. George Inness landscapes, a small Sloan and several fine examples from the Hudson River School testify to its aims, but the mix is eclectic; Europe tapestries, oriental rugs and Louis XV furniture.
It's not a pretentious museum, and that can be a relief. Wooden toys by a local carver are sold at the front desk. In the ceramics room were leftovers from a previous show: Meissen porcelain, oriental robes, Boehm birds and Italian faience urns, most donated by local citizenry.
Exhibits rotate in the concert, north and skylit south galleries. This day, bold temperas by elementary school children shared honors with old masters. Current shows include an exhibition of 17th-to19th-century European drawings on paper and, in another gallery, one of contemporary graphics.
From art to artillery is a short jump here. No visit to Hagerstown is complete without a ride through Antietam, site of the Civil War's bloodiest single day of battle. Route 34 took us to the now quiet battlefields, looking much as they did before the clash.
Driving back on Route 67, past fieldstone fences and the same South Mountain passes that rebels and Yankees poured through on the way to the fray, we discovered Old South Mountain Inn. Who could resist it? More country food in the right setting. This old stagecoach stop was a proper finish if only for the peanut cream pie.
Stuffed and relaxed, we headed home on our last quarter-tank.
GETTING THERE-Take I-270 to I-70; exit at 32W to U.S. 40.
WASHINGTON COUNTY MUSEUM OF FINE ART: Tuesday through Saturday 10 to 5, Sunday 1 to 6.
HAGER HOUSE AND MUSEUM: April through October, 10 to 4 daily except Monday, and Sunday 2 to 5.
:VALLEY STORE MUSEUM: For information on hours call 301/797-8782.