Even in this geographically challenged age, any elementary school student can tell you that the capital of the United States is Washington, D.C. However, according to the residents of a tiny town in Maryland, for one fleeting day in the early 19th century, their bucolic burg held that title. The town in question, Brookeville (population: 54), lies less than 20 miles outside the present-day capital, straight out Georgia Avenue. After passing through Silver Spring, Wheaton, Glenmont, Aspen Hill and Olney, you will know that you have arrived in Brookeville when you reach the sign that tells the town's story. (If you hit the S-curve, you'll know you have gone too far.)
In heading due north out of the District, you will be following the same path that President James Madison likely took as he fled a burning Washington on Aug. 26, 1814. In the low point of the War of 1812, the British marched triumphantly into Washington, burning the Capitol and the White House, among other national treasures. Madison and his family fled north to Brookeville, finding safe haven in the home of the town's first postmaster, Caleb Bentley.
Present-day Brookeville boasts several points of interest. These include brick and stone homes that would seem more at home in Georgetown than in the farmland of upper Montgomery County, and the town's recently abandoned post office, which owes more to the era of the Pony Express than to that of "going postal."
Just south of the town lies Salem Cemetery, with graves dating back to the early and mid-18th century, including those of many first-generation European immigrants. Perhaps the most enchanting yet disturbing tombstone in the cemetery is that of Agnes Connel (1790-1870), which reads:
"Behold all you that pass me by/ As you are now, so once was I/ As I am now, so you must be/ Prepare for death and follow me."
A final item of interest: Lying just north of the "downtown" on Brookeville Road, just short of Greyheaven Manor Road, is Oakley Cabin, a rare surviving example of slave housing from surrounding area farms. The cabin is considered to possibly have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. A true log cabin, the Oakley Cabin lies on the grounds of a former farm owned by the Brooke family, for whom the town is named. (For information on touring the cabin, call 301-840-5848.)
So the next time you have relatives in town who are aching to see the highlights of the nation's capital, head outside the Beltway, beat the traffic, don't worry about parking and take a step back in time, to the day when Brookeville was the seat of American democracy.
--Josh Gibson, Washington
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