This historic canal town, which still resembles the turn-of-the-century town depicted on postcards for sale at Eakles Drug Store on Conococheague Street, has forced the mass resignation of the commission created last year to preserve its vintage looks.
A hundred miles up the Potomac River from Washington, Williamsport (founded in 1786 by Gen. Otho Holland Williams in the Revolutionary War) has happily languished in obscurity -- bypassed by newcomers and new ways that have transformed much of America -- ever since the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal closed her business in 1924.
But plans by the National Park Service to turn this stretch of the canal into a major tourist attraction have stirred new tensions and conflicts among the 2,200 citizens of this formerly quiet river town.
The historic district commission, appointed last December by the mayor and Town Council to preserve the "architectural integrity" of Williamsport's buildings, ran afoul of townsfolk proud of their heritage, but fiercely opposed to government controls. Property rights turned out to have priority over preservation.
Resident commissioners who sought to bar vinyl siding from century-old dwellings have been called "communistic" and derided as outsiders in a place where to be born elsewhere is, by definition, to be an outsider.
The commissioners have warned in turn that lack of controls could turn the town into another gaudy Gettysburg, full of ticky-tacky commercialism, and they have suggested the townfolk are being misled by self-serving politicians and other unscrupulous people.
"You know what?" asked Warren (Bus) Seymour, going about his business as usual at the Town Hall despite his recent retirement as town administrator. "I can stand here in Williamsport and give somebody hell, but don't you try it, if you're an outsider. Then, everyone's against you."
The commission not only suffered from its outsider image, Seymour said. "They tried to change night into day, that's what they tried to do, and you run into trouble when you do that. In Williamsport, you can't cram things down people's throat. You got to go along gradual or you ain't gonna get nowhere."
The commercial pressures, the outgoing commissioners and their allies fear, won't be gradual when they come.
Williamsport is strategically located near the intersection of Interstates 70 and 81, a fact the state of Maryland says could give it "a competitive advantage in penetrating the highway traveler market." Once the National Park Service completes construction of its major "interpretive center" here in another five or 10 years, the state says, more than 500,000 visitors are expected to come here annually.
"The thing we cannot get across to the town is the tremendous outside interest in Williamsport," said Bradford Downey, a former commission member who, as a Republican stockbroker, found the "communistic" label particularly inappropriate.
The Williamsport Historic Commission was born in December without controversy. It succeeded a committee composed of almost the same people and its membership was unanimously approved by the mayor and council.
"We were told they [the commissioners] wouldn't be a dictatorial power, that they were only interested in keeping riff-raffs and honky-tonks out," said Jack French, a county bus driver and town council member, pausing between runs at Jeanne's Confectionery.
"It takes an education campaign to let the people know what it's all about before you sort of start in," suggested Bernard Callan, president of the Maryland Association of Historic District Commissions, of which there are 28 in the state. "In Williamsport, they started doing their job right away, and some people just blew things all out of proportion."
The commission, composed entirely of resident "outsiders" because nobody else volunteered, approved eight of nine applications for exterior renovation that came before it.
In mid-May, however, it met its match in William (Bodie) Turner. A retired bartender who looks like Santa Claus, Turner had won $50,000 in the Maryland lottery two years ago, more than enough after taxes to fix up his house on South Vermont Street.
The commission said the German siding on Turner's house was historic millwork unique to this area. But Bodie Turner didn't think it was historic. He thought it was just old and ugly and made his house expensive to maintain and heat, what with the peeling paint and cold penetrating the walls.
Instead, he wanted vinyl siding, and nothing the commission could say -- that it wasn't really energy efficient or good for old houses -- could dissuade him.
"I was born here and we didn't need their help this many years," Turner scoffed.
The commission deadlocked 2 to 2 on Turner's request. Chairman Robert Cochran, a five-year resident of Williamsport who works in his family's insurance business in Hagerstown, cast the tie-breaking vote against Turner.
"I told them the night before (the vote) if they turned it down, they might as well kiss the commission goodbye," said panel member Jeanne House, who voted to let Turner go ahead.
House, a resident for 10 years and proprietor of the candy store and gathering place that bears her name for almost that long, is from Hagerstown, six miles away, and therefore still an outsider. But she is widely liked and respected and knows her adopted community.
"I don't want to see Williamsport become another Tin Pan Alley," she said, "but you can't fight the whole town, and there's no point in trying."
The Bodie Turner decision, as predicted, evoked a storm of protest. Ken Smith, manager of the town's all-country music radio station, editorialized over the air against the commission. Opponents began circulating petitions to rescind the ordinance under which the commission was created. In a few weeks 831 residents signed petitions, in a town where 400 votes will get you elected mayor.
The battle cry became, "A man's home is his castle." To which the commission and its defenders replied, "If there are no controls, you better build a moat around your castle."
"It's kept me awake nights," said Howard Weaver, an architect who said he moved to Williamsport two years ago because he wanted to live in a small town. "Everyone sees [the commercial threat] except the town. I really don't know the answer."
The answer, Janie Rupp felt, was simply to abolish the "communistic" commission. "I don't think we're ever gonna have 500,000 cars in here," said Rupp, a leader of the abolition drive.
And if outsiders offer huge sums to buy buildings in "historic Williamsport," as the ads are beginning to describe it, she's sure that it is the newcomers and not the old residents who will take the money and run.
"I think I'm kind of historic," added Rupp, who grew up poor, the daughter and granddaughter of canal workers. "We set our own sauerkraut, can our own tomatoes and cure our town hams," she said proudly.
Hoping to win over Rupp and friends, commission proponents prefaced a town meeting over the petition in July with slides and talks from Frederick and New Market officials about how preservation works in their community. The net effect was to anger the citizens who came to speak their piece.
Facing the imminent demise of their panel, the commissioners chose to resign instead. They did so after Callan, their outside ally, secured a state legal opinion, saying the mayor and Town Council members could fill their posts.
And that is exactly what happened the other week, with Jack French abstaining, but to the apparent relief of many townspeople who registered their views at Jeanne's Confectionery.
There remain questions of legality and politics. Unresolved, too, is whether this town, which once competed for capital of the United States, will change into an undistinguished tourist mecca.
Meanwhile, Bodie Turner has gone adhead and put the vinyl siding on his house, "I wasn't gonna wait another winter," he said.