It is a wonderful house. Built of fieldstone in 1830, it was standing when McClellan stopped Lee's army nearby in the battle of Antietam in September 1862.
It was still standing more than a century after that when in March of this year, Richard G. Winger, owner of the house, walked across the lawn to his mailbox one Saturday morning to find an electric bill from the Potomac Edison Co. for $2,203.88.
"I read their letter and said, 'My Lord, that can't be right,"' Winger remembered. "Then I looked at the bill and I really went bananas. I just felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. It's a good thing I don't have heart trouble."
The details of utility regulation and energy costs can be complex and arcane, but the story of Winger and his stone house is something else again -- the tale of an individual's struggle to function in a strange new world where energy resources, once seemingly limitless, are suddenly scarce and expensive.
What happened to Winger has not happened widely -- but it could. In Winger's case, the huge bill provoked a months-long dispute with the utility before it finally was paid last October.
Now, with another winter approaching, Winger and his wife, Nancy, have drastically cut their energy use by installing an old-fashioned wood stove that keeps most of their rooms comfortably warm for $6 a month. The stove is also beautifully appropriate to the antique charm of the house. But with all the changes, the Wingers' ire at the utility company has not yet cooled.
Potomac Edison, the small utility company that services Western Maryland -- including the northernmost portions of Montgomery County -- made headlines last winter by sending $500 to $800 bills to many customers after the coal strike forced it to buy expensive power from other companies.
Now Potomac Edison -- PE as it is commonly known -- has asked for a 16 percent rate increase, insisting that it can't meet its customers' needs without it. This assertion has led state regulatory officials to consider taking away part of the company's service area and turning it over to another utility.
Perhaps sensitive over the publicity it received last winter when its first abnormally high bills came out, PE officials responded aggressively to a local newspaper story about the Wingers.
"A person who chooses to buy a gasguzzling car doesn't have much basis for blaming the oil company for his high monthly gasoline bill," PE Executive Vice President John M. McCardell wrote in a letter to the local paper.
"Similarly, a person who chooses to buy or build a house which is not suited for electric heat doesn't have much basis for blaming the electric company for the high bill his excessive usage of electricity has caused."
McCardell's letter went on to explain that the previous owner of the house, Glenn Haddix, talked to a PE representative in the early 1970s about the costs and benefits of converting the house to electric heat.
But McCardell's letter contradicts PE spokesman Donald Whipp and Haddix when it gets into the details of exactly what the PE representative recommended and whether Haddix actually insulated the house.
According to Whipp, the PE representative who visited Haddix recommended that he install electric heat only after having the house thoroughly insulated.
Whipp said this recommendation was part of a PE "conversion" program to "promote" the sale of electricity in the pre-oil embargo days when electricity was still cheap. PE was not alone in this kind of promotion -- electric utilities across the country took similar actions until the 1973 embargo brought new public pressure for energy conservation.
Even during that period, Whipp said, the company was careful to recommend adequate insulation "so the homeowner won't install electric heat and then be faced with horrendous bills." He added that sometimes the company would advise against electric heat installation altogether.
McCardell's letter to the local paper claimed that this is what the PE representative eventually did, after Haddix declined to have the old stone home insulated.
Haddix, however, strongly contradicts this. Not only did he install electric baseboard heating as recommended, he said, he also insulated the house thoroughly.
"We did what the electric company suggested," he said. "Man, there is insulation everywhere on those outside walls, except for the kitchen....It's insulated between the floors, even underneath on the ground. [The insulation contractors] put plastic on the ground and blew that full of insulation under there in the crawl space. And around all the windows there is insulation struck in there so that no air can get through... Don't let [PE] give you that bunch of baloney."
After the house was thoroughly insulated, Haddix said, he put in electric baseboard heat. The house had no central heating before that, and the series of renters who occupied it apparently used space heaters and the house's many large fireplaces to keep warm.
All this has been very traumatic for Winger, 47, a friendly man with a homespun manner who makes $17,000 a year as a school supply salesman in this rural area of rolling hills and farmland 75 miles northwest of Washington. His wife does not hold a job.
"The first time I drove by this place I went nuts over it," said Winger, who roamed this area selling supplies for four years before the couple moved here in late December of 1976. "Four years later I drove by and it was for sale."
The Wingers paid $59,500 for the 11-room stone house with its three acres of pastureland, an old stone outbuilding where slaves once lived, pony sheds, a swimming pool and an enormous stone-based barn that Winger has now filled with antiques. He hopes to open an antique business.
Soon after moving in, Winger called PE and had the electricity put in his name. A PE representative persuaded him to pay under the "budget plan" at the rate of $75 a month, with an additional payment or refund on an "anniversary bill" at the end of each year to keep the account in balance with actual costs.
It was that anniversary bill, sent to Winger a year after he moved in, that came to $2,203.88. Actually, Winger knew something bad was coming because there was a large gap each month between the $75 he paid and his actual charge for electricity used -- a discrepancy that was recorded on each bill and that grew larger until it had become $1,179.26 by the time of the anniversary bill.
Winger had somehow blocked that out of his mind, not even daring to think of how he would pay it. But when the anniversary bill came it added to that figure an additional $1,024.62 for 23,840 kilowatt hours of electricity used in the months of January and February alone, even though he had installed storm windows and doors, shut off several rooms of the house and kept the temperature in the remainder of the building between 65 and 68 degrees.
After the public relations battle began, PE sent a man out who roamed over Winger's grounds without asking permission to do so, which Winger thinks was illegal. PE spokesman Whipp said the company has a legal right to inspect its meter.
After that visit, McCardell's letter mentioned "the very important fact" that Winger's bill was for electricity to three structures, including a trailer his son lives in and the barn. Winger said there are only three light bulbs in the barn and that his son uses little electricity in the trailer.
When Winger received the big bill, he didn't tell his wife for two weeks. "No sense both of us worrying," he said. "I just went out and kept busy, wondering how I would ever pay it."
Shortly afterward, an aunt died and left Winger an inheritance. He negotiated with the company, managing to stall until October when the inheritance came through. When it did, he paid in full.
He also unhooked everything electric in the house and bought a wood stove for $680. It now sits in the kitchen under the arch of an enormous brick fireplace.
Winger said it heats most rooms of the house adequately, the heat rising from the kitchen up nearby stairs to the upper floor. Nancy Winger said the stove takes two logs every four hours, except at night. "In the morning you get the coals in the back, rake them forward, and load it with wood and it burns from front to back like a cigar."
Winger buys a truckload of firewood for $25 and he said it lasts for several months. He unplugged his electric range and substituted one that uses propane gas.
The Wingers are facing this winter with a new sense of assurance, even a spirit of adventure. If it is somewhat like returning to colonial times, that is "just fine" with Winger.
PE seems content, too. "We are pleased to see that this customer is now converting to another type of heating," said the McCardell letter. "We are also grateful for the fact that he has paid his bill in full."