When I was a child, my favorite storybook featured a young heroine who visited a hidden land through a door in the back of a closet at the end of a long corridor. The notion of escaping to a parallel universe has stuck with me--especially when I drive the metaphorical corridor of I-270, slip through the closet door at Exit 22 and am transported to the alternative world of rural western Montgomery County and beyond.
There, less than one (non-rush) hour from the District line and after a few leisurely turns along narrow country roads, I can ford a stream, drive through tunnels of stately tree branches and pass dairy farms and historic schoolhouses. These acres of rolling country and one-light towns still exist in large part through the foresight of the Montgomery County Council, which established an agricultural reserve here in 1981.
On my most recent journey to the near West, I checked with Margaret Coleman, owner of Pleasant Springs Farm and a former member of the county's agricultural advisory board. "Agricultural preservation and historic preservation go hand in hand," said Coleman, who owns and manages a bed-and-breakfast inn on her farm. Her restored 18th-century cabin, on a sloping meadow overlooking a pond, opened for overnight visitors in September 1998. Mature trees frame the cabin now, with sheep grazing nearby.
Coleman said the cabin was about to collapse back in 1980 when she bought the still-working farm. "Rotted foundations, shot full of holes, and the porch, windows and doors were gone," said Coleman. "A family of vultures lived upstairs, and there were feathers up to my hip from old mattresses."
Everyone told Coleman and her husband, retired scientist Jim, to junk the cabin, but its connection to the region's history appealed to them. Then Coleman chanced to meet a man who was related to Malcolm Walters, the first official Montgomery County photographer--whose grandparents, it turned out, had lived in this cabin. Coleman did some digging, and sure enough, found a photo Walters had taken long ago of the cabin. Restoration began, and the decision to make it a bed-and-breakfast inn seemed a natural next step.
After breakfast of home-baked goods and cheese made from the milk of resident goats, Coleman agreed to show me local history firsthand. (Usually, she offers guests directions, advice and a map marked with driving and cycling routes.) We headed northwest from Boyds toward Barnesville, a tiny crossroads with its original well. We crunched along one of Montgomery County's last dirt roads (West Harris Road) and passed a farm where rare old breeds of Devon cattle grazed. In a tree nearby, a community of goldfinches fluttered and chattered away; I lost count at 20. Coleman pointed out one of the few dairy farms still operating in Montgomery County, Johnson Dairy Farm--owned by Ed Johnson, the son of baseball legend Walter Johnson.
Here and farther west into Frederick County and south into Virginia and West Virginia, details of Civil War skirmishes are noted on roadside historic markers. Southeast of Antietam Creek, where Antietam National Battlefield Park memorializes the war's bloodiest day, are such spots as Monocacy Battlefield (near Frederick) and Balls Bluff, Va., both the sites of devastating clashes. Barnesville's Episcopalian Christ Church, Coleman told me, was built to replace the Monocacy Chapel in Beallsville (pronounced Bells-ville), burned down by Union troops. Confederate troops surged through the region, too, intending to head down what is now Route 355 to the capital city.
A Civil War signal station crowned the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, the highest point in the area on the Maryland side of the Potomac. For much of the forest, exotics, azaleas and rhododendron on Sugarloaf now, we can thank Gordon Strong, a Washingtonian who purchased tracts of land around the mountain, consolidated and preserved them as public nature areas.
In Poolesville, we strolled quietly through a small arboretum and herb garden behind the historic John Poole House. Along Partnership Road, we talked about nearby sandstone quarries, which supplied the red stone for the Smithsonian castle and many buildings in post-Civil War Washington. I could have spent another whole day prowling the underbrush and trails linking Riley's Lock, the Canal Turning Basin, the ruins of Seneca Stone Mill and Tschiffely Mill.
This area was once the hub of industry, and some children of those quarry workers and canalboat hands attended one-room Seneca Sandstone School, built in 1863 and closed in 1900. The building is now surrounded by oak and black walnut trees, their massive girth suggesting that they once provided shade for the 19th-century school kids who shouted and played in this yard. I kicked aside a few fallen black walnuts in their yellow-green casing and peered through the mottled glass windows at the wood-burning stove and jumbled wooden desks.
We visited the not-exactly-parallel universe of segregation as well--the Boyd Negro School having been erected in 1896 for the other local children and used until 1936 when a larger (and still segregated) school was built in Clarksburg. The restored gray clapboard schoolhouse on White Grounds Road lacks the robust presence of the stone schoolhouse, but the desks with inkwells and the raised teacher's platform far from the pot-bellied stove etch a deeper message.
Sunday afternoon, I dropped down to White's Ferry on the C&O Canal towpath, for a bicycle tour. Ferry service dates to the colonial era; after the Civil War, it was taken over by Col. Elijah Veirs White, a Poolesville native who led a Virginia cavalry in the war.
Alert for wildlife while pedaling, I noticed a small deer dance backward from the edge of the towpath. A civet odor announced passage by a fox or polecat, as we used to call feral felines when I was a child. Yellow goldenrod and feathery purple asters lined the path where elderberries bloom in summer.
Soon enough, I reentered the parallel world at Exit 22 and headed back to suburbia on I-270--pleasantly tired, but happy to have discovered that the secret closet door is much closer than I thought.
Among the highlights of this weekend's Rehoboth Beach Film Festival (302-645-9095, www.rehobothfilm.com): Saturday night's "Ben Hur" accompanied by an 11-piece orchestra led by conductor Gillian Anderson, and visual effects guy Greg Kimble's Friday night sneak of his work-in-progress on the magic of the '50s Cinerama process. Most of the festival's 100 screenings are $6; "Ben Hur" is $15. Rehoboth has lots of year-round inn space (check the festival web site), and there are even some entirely satisfactory $69-a-night rooms at the Holiday Inn Express (302-227-4030) out on U.S. 1, within wide-angle range of all those outlet malls.
WAYS AND MEANS
GETTING THERE: From the Beltway, take I-270 north to Exit 22 and Route 109 south to Barnesville. Much more scenic: Take River Road west from Potomac to Route 112 north. Follow Route 28 west towards Barnesville, or Route 107 to Poolesville and Whites Ferry.
BEING THERE: Pleasant View Farm in Barnesville (301-349-2376) offers horseback riding lessons at $25 to $30 an hour. (Poor Boy, upriver near Sharpsburg, is the closest stable offering trail rides: $35 gets you two hours along the C&O Canal; 301-223-9089.) John Poole House (301-972-8588) is north of the Poolesville town hall on an unmarked lane and is open 1 to 5 Sundays (free); the garden is always open.
WHERE TO STAY: Pleasant Springs Farm Bed & Breakfast in Boyds (301-972-3452, doubles $125 or $150, closed mid-December to mid-April) is a restored 18th-century cabin set in 30 acres of woods and meadows. Two rooms with queen beds and antique, footed bathtub come with a country breakfast (at the higher rate) that includes eggs and goat cheese from the farm. No TV, young children or pets.
Beallsville's Sanctuary (301-407-0662) is a private, non-religious spiritual retreat center offering a secluded wooded estate for rest and contemplation at $90 for a double in a guest house with shared bath. Kitchen available for self-catering and some meals provided for an extra fee.
WHERE TO EAT: Comus Inn (301-349-5100) offers entrees for $13 to $23, has private rooms available for parties and uses organic vegetables in season. Other choices include the Meadow Lark Inn in Poolesville (301-428-8900), Staub's Country Restaurant in Beallsville (301-349-5303) and Turning Point Inn in Frederick (301-874-2421). All are closed Mondays.
DETAILS: For lots of information on cycling, walking and canoeing routes in the area, see the second edition of "Circling Historic Landscapes: Bicycling, Canoeing, Walking & Rail Trails Near Sugarloaf Mountain, Md.," edited by Margaret Coleman (send $19.95 plus $4 postage payable to Sugarloaf Regional Trails, c/o Tom Proctor, 22901 Old Hundred Rd., Barnesville, Md. 20838). The Montgomery County Historical Society in Rockville (301-340-6534) offers short regional tours on various historic themes, usually on weekends. For more information, contact the Montgomery County Conference and Visitors Bureau (301-428-9702, www.cvbmontco.com) or the Tourism Council of Frederick County (1-800-999-3613, www.visitfrederick.org).