Granted: There's no beach to entice you, no amusement park, no breathtaking terrain. But just the same, Hagerstown -- yes, Hagerstown -- has a special allure in summer and fall. In fact, for a weekend of bargains and crabs, history, a stay at a farmstead bed and breakfast -- in short, a relaxing weekend just over an hour from Washington -- this blue-collar city of 34,000 is a stand-out.
Not many cities in the region have turn-of-the-century band concerts, a restored theater, a Class A baseball team (a farm team of the Baltimore Orioles), an Izod outlet store and a family-run bakery with a hidden alley kitchen that is a must-stop. But Hagerstown -- a city that many know only for its economic woes or its decades-old reputation as a producer of pipe organs and kitchen cabinets -- has all this, plus exceptional local museums, a crab house of distinction and an enticing city market.
And that's the place to start your visit. It's worth driving up early on a Saturday morning to get to the market before local fans have picked it clean. On West Church Street in the downtown area, the historic market is open on Saturday mornings from 6 to 11, but don't get there much after 9 if you want your choice of the sugar snap peas, nitrate-free meats, fragrant breads, homemade horseradish, chemical-free cabbage, squash and other farm bounty sold by Mennonite families and others.
The market was first established in 1875 and has been at its present location since 1928. In recent years it had dwindled to 12 vendors, but all 56 stalls have been rented since Joe Dattilio, a local florist, prevailed on the city to renovate the building two years ago. Produce, baked goods, flowers, crafts, meats, farm eggs, coffees and herbs are sold. There is a small sit-down breakfast stall from which to watch the shopping parade.
On a recent Saturday, we explored the market early and then spent the rest of the morning discovering downtown Hagerstown. At first glance, you may notice only the 1950s fac,ades. But look again: Not only are there a number of historic sites within several blocks of the market, there is renovation and building taking place. The city appears to be making a comeback from the recession that hung on here longer than in other regions.
The best guide is "A Walking Tour of Downtown Hagerstown," prepared by the Conococheague Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It covers the area where Jonathan Hager, the German-born founder, laid out the town in 1762.
The tour starts at City Hall, with its weathervane in the shape of a Prussian soldier -- a replica of Little Heiskell -- that serves as Hagerstown's symbol. The Little Heiskell symbol is found in front of each of the 18 stops on the tour.
The walk takes you past a 19th-century county courthouse, the historical society museum, several churches and private homes. The standout is the Federal-style Miller House -- built in 1818 and now the home of the Washington County Historical Society -- with its magnificent hanging stairway, high-ceilinged drawing rooms and garden of English boxwood and brick walks.
Hundreds of 19th-century clocks take up several rooms, as does a large collection of antique dolls. The home, which has been on the National Register since 1976, has a basement that contains a reconstructed rural store of the 1800s, complete with mahogany caskets and Rube Goldberg-style contraptions to store cheese and other perishables. The stable in the back houses an 1823 fire truck and Hagerstown's first taxi, a sporty 1910 blue Regal convertible with gas lights.
Wander beyond the official walking tour and you'll find that streetside Hagerstown offers any number of rare delights:
*The Maryland Theatre. Walking down Potomac Street, few would be instantly drawn to the theater, as its original lobby and part of its 70-year-old exterior were destroyed by fire in 1974 and have been replaced by functional brick. The fanciful colored plaster marquee of the former theater across the street, now used by a church, is more appealing. But walk inside the Maryland, beyond the fire wall that saved this 1,400-seat theater, and view the exquisite Rococo interior.
*H. Earl Cromer's store on East Franklin Street. Here you can buy fresh roasted peanuts from a shiny silver roaster bolted to the sidewalk. Inside, there is everything from ice cream to bait.
*The sidewalk barbecue. We were lucky enough to be in town for the barbecue put on one Friday and Saturday a month by Leon Fearnow in front of his store, Leon's Hoagie Shop on West Franklin Street. Fearnow, who also is a local police officer, fires up three large outdoor grills and roasts chicken and ribs that are painted with his own sauce; $2.50 will buy a half a chicken, $3 a pound of spicy ribs.
*World Treasures. Basket-lovers should not miss this nonprofit store on West Franklin Street run by the Mennonite Central Committee to market crafts from developing countries. Items for sale range from large woven baskets from Bangladesh, Senegal and Chad for $3.50 to sturdy, $24 laundry baskets and quilts, wooden bowls, rugs and brass artifacts. (The prices charged cover shipping costs from the place of origin, customs tariffs and the store's overhead costs.) Both price and quality are very good.
If you are in the mood for a sit-down meal, two restaurants on West Franklin Street, the Broad Axe and The Fez, have moderately priced lunches, attractive bars and similar decors of exposed brick, hanging plants and pool tables. The Cellar Door, near the Maryland Theatre on Potomac Street, is part of a four-restaurant chain that is the choice of many locals. Try its miniature Maryland crab cakes and "The Little Heiskell," a spicy roast pork club sandwich.
Outside the town center, other bargains are to be found at the many top-label clothing outlets in the area, extending into neighboring West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania. Several are in Hagerstown, including Fashion Flair, an Izod outlet, on Rte. 40. Apparel for men, women and children is sold at 40 to 60 percent of the usual retail cost. It is busiest on Saturday afternoons; Sundays are less hectic.
Just south of Hagerstown, out Frederick Street, is Funkstown, a village with a dozen antique shops all within an easy walk of one another. Try the Hudson House Galleries and Ruth's Antique Shop, both of which have large selections of country and formal pieces from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.
But for baseball fans, the highlight of a weekend -- in the summer -- will be Saturday night.
The Hagerstown Suns, advertised as "Maryland's Other Professional Baseball Team," are a locally owned Class A Baltimore Orioles farm team in the Carolina League. (The Suns play from mid-April through the end of August, so you'll have to wait until next year to scout future O's.)
Understand that Class A is three steps from the big leagues and the play can be spotty. But Larry Sheets, Ken Dixon and Al Pardo are three recent products of the Suns now playing in Baltimore.
Most games start at 7:30 p.m. General admission tickets are only $2.50, and you won't get caught in a Baltimore Memorial Stadium traffic jam. Hagerstown's Memorial Stadium is a classic small-town park, with beer, hot dogs, peanuts and an outfield fence ablaze with ads of all sizes, shapes and colors, including the ever-present Marlboro Man. (Foul balls regularly hit cars parked close to the stadium, so you might want to park a bit further afield.)
The Suns organization makes a special effort to see that you have a good time. On our weekend, pregame activities included a country and western show and The Hollywood Cover Girls playing something that vaguely resembled softball. (But it is disconcerting to hear the team's cheerleaders, the Sunshine Girls, advertised as waitresses who can be summoned by patrons to fetch soft drinks and hot dogs.)
After the game, we drove a few miles south to our bed and breakfast. We were greeted by Coulter Huyler, a 73-year-old retired foreign service officer, and by assorted animals, including Chicken Little, a tame rooster who will follow you into the house if you let him.
Huyler looked for two years for just the right farm house for his retirement, and he found it in the rolling hills of Hagerstown's countryside. The center section of the limestone house was built in 1807 and a wing was added in 1848. Huyler, who is only the fourth owner, has been here for 17 years.
The bed and breakfast is starting its third year. With six bedrooms, he has had as many as 12 guests at one time, but he is most happy with just two or three couples. There are a wide front porch and several sitting rooms for reading, and one weekend won't nearly exhaust the tales that Huyler tells with relish about his life in the foreign service and the farm he calls "Scratchankle" (the name of his father's North Carolina farm).
The next morning we awoke to the sounds of Beaver Creek, which runs right by the house. Huyler is up early Sunday mornings, ready to accommodate the breakfast wishes of his visitors with fresh raspberries, blueberry muffins, country ham and eggs. After breakfast, Huyler will lead you on a tour of his farm.
He has a fine 1922-era red barn, a swimming hole, hayfields, 80 acres under cultivation and a menagerie that includes 28 peacocks, four horses, goats, a heron that visits every summer, a lamb named Buttercup and endless ducks and chickens. And his bed and breakfast is a good value, at $50 per couple a night, with no charge for the good conversation.
After leaving Scratchankle, we headed for Wilson's Store, a country store established in 1852 that is located on Rte. 40, six miles west of Hagerstown, just past the Hagerstown Speedway. Recently restored and reopened after 10 years, the front section is a small museum that includes a restored post office. The rest of the store sells the necessities of country life: flannel shirts, blue jeans, brown eggs, sodas in the bottle, calico, penny candy, buckets and animal medicines.
From there we drove 30 minutes southwest, past the Antietam National Battlefield, through the beautiful countryside to Shepherdstown, W. Va. This small college town has become a popular destination for Sunday drives, particularly because of the Yellow Brick Bank Restaurant (and now three-room inn) at the corner of German and Princess streets. This former bank is now filled with white wicker booths, ceiling fans, imaginatively tiled floors and chefs familiar with fresh California cuisine. The food is imaginative (salmon with walnut horseradish dressing; lamb benedict, an appealing twist on an old brunch standby) and nicely presented. It is well worth the trip.
We returned to Hagerstown in time to explore one of America's great urban parks. This is a model of what a park should be, and the large number of people walking the paths, using the playgrounds and feeding the multitude of ducks and red-beaked black swans attests to its popularity. Many special events are held here: The Western Maryland Shakespeare Company was performing in the park as we walked by on our way to the Jonathan Hager House and Museum at the park's edge.
This fieldstone house was built by Hagerstown's founder shortly after he arrived in what is now Washington County in 1739. The house was built as a frontier fort able to resist Indian attacks with thick walls and two springs in the basement. Hager used the building as a home and as the base of his fur-trading business. In the master bedroom, he hosted music recitals and all-day sermons by visiting preachers.
By good luck, the structure remains much as it was in the 18th century. This part of Hagerstown, near the railroad tracks, was known as "Hobo Jungle" during the 1930s. As a result, no one ever bothered to add electricity or plumbing to the house.
It was restored by the County Historical Society and opened to the public in 1962. In back is the Hager Museum, which houses the original Little Heiskell weather vane, made in 1769 and full of bullet holes from Civil War soldiers using it as target practice. The small museum has a collection of 18th-century glass, china, pottery and ironwork, as well as a history of Jonathan Hager.
Before leaving the park area, you should walk through the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, which overlooks the lake. Built in 1931, it has an excellent small collection.
You can spend the rest of the day discovering the beauty of the city's fine homes and buildings. To see three blocks of houses where Hagerstown's leading citizens lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries, drive down South Prospect Street. This lovely tree-shaded street sits on a hill overlooking the historic downtown. With the coming of the automobile, the affluent moved north across the railroad tracks to an area known as The Terrace. Here there are several streets of breathtaking elegance with houses in a variety of pre-World War I styles, including Georgian, Spanish, colonial and Tudor Revival.
For dinner -- and for a look at larger-than-life roadside art -- follow the circle outside the park to Summit Avenue until you see a 400-pound red crab on the top of Chic's Seafood. From crab soup for $1.75 to some of the best and biggest steamed crabs ($12 a dozen) that these Maryland crab aficionados have eaten, this family-style restaurant and bar treats fresh seafood with respect. Rolls of mill paper are on hand to cover tables for serious crab eaters. Those with other tastes -- for mussels, oysters, clams -- also will be well-served.
To top off the weekend, join the rest of Hagerstown at the Sunday night concert by the Hagerstown Municipal Band. For the last 70 years, this band has entertained generations of Hagerstown residents. Some 45 performers, all dressed in white, assemble every summer Sunday night at 8 p.m. in the band shell in the city park. Get a raspberry or lime snow cone at the concession stand and settle in on a park bench with a thousand others to await an hour of big band, patriotic and marching music.
One last taste of Hagerstown awaits you, as many of the concert crowd make a beeline to Krumpe's Donuts, a small orange and white cinder-block building off First Street, in an alley between Spruce and Market streets. There is no sign, so follow the intoxicating fragrance or watch for the alley across from the Grace Brethren Church.
Just-baked cake donuts are available at 7 p.m.; all others are fresh from 8:30 p.m. till 3 a.m. The Krumpes turn out 1,500 dozen donuts a night in glazed, twisted, powdered, apple, chocolate and cake forms. Eaten hot, and smelling of yeast and sugar, they are one of life's delights.
The Krumpes have been at their business for 34 years -- well known to Hagerstown residents and the nearby towns they supply, but hardly a household name in Washington. Their splendid products make the short ride home even faster and make you wonder how crazy it is to think about quick midnight runs to Hagerstown, just to restock.