It was going on 10 p.m. and Park Ranger Walt Brown was at his wits' end trying to stir up the local mammals. He'd already driven by the garbage bins and fruit groves looking for raccoons and groundhogs, but found nary a one. He scanned darkened fields, marshes and treetops with a high-intensity spotlight searching for bats, owls, turkeys and other wild creatures, but succeeded only in illuminating millions of mosquitos and alarming a stray black cat.
Things were getting pretty sticky, for in the rear of Brown's station wagon sat nine unimpressed citizens who had journeyed to Seneca Creek State Park that night especially for a "Night Visual" of wilderness happenings. So far there had been practically zilch, and to make matters worse the most prominent call of the wild was coming from the ranger's own back seat where 9-year-old Carmel Lichterman was suffering a bad case of the hiccups.
"C'mon fellas, don't let me down," Brown beseeched the mammals, but still they didn't respond. So the ranger decided on a very desperate act. He abruptly turned the station wagon into a field of tall brown grass and drove slowly through with the lamp shining straight ahead. In an instant one, two, three, then four white tail deer hopped up with extraordinary grace, stared back at the car with green glowing eyes, then scampered away into the blackened forest triggering a brief but furious round of screeches and chirps from within.
Immediately, there were oohs and ahs from the citizens and a satisfied smile from Ranger Brown. "See," he triumphantly told everyone in the wagon. "Your mammals are out there; you just gotta know where to find 'em."
Pretty much the same can be said of Seneca Creek Park, the only state park in Montgomery County and probably one of the county's best kept secrets. Barely two years old, this belt of green amid the county's Rockville and Gaithersburg sprawl spans 6,000 acres of forest, marshland, fields and streams in the western part of the county, stretching 12 miles from Rte. I-270 to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Five hundred of these acres are open to picnickers, birdwatchers, hikers and fishermen but as Brown says, "We're a pretty new park and not everyone knows about us."
Only a mile or so from the fast food joints and car dealers of the Quince Orchard Shopping Center, the park attracted 90,000 visitors last year, barely 6,000 more than its initial 12 months. It has 374 parking slots which have been completely filled only a couple of times in Seneca Creek's brief history, according to park service officials and a summer naturalist suitably named Susan Sparrow who are keeping themselves busy this summer advising city folks that a patch of wilderness actually does exist in their own backyard and that they don't have to motor all the way out to Chincoteague or the Appalachian Trail to spy an indigo bunting or be horrified by a slithery black snake.
Even more intriguing is the history here. This is a place with a rough and tumble past of Indians, pioneers, slaves named Kitty, Sam and Singleton, slaveowners named Clopper, a Renaissance man called Hutton, and soldiers in blue and gray. Prior to the recent "night visual," Brown, a folksy mustacheoed man, explained to the tourgoers that 36 archeological sites have been identified in the park--sites filled with pottery shards and arrowheads dating back to the times when the land was hunted and harvested by the Piscataway and Susquehanna Indians.
The park land, according to the Montgomery County Historical Society, was first settled by white pioneers in the mid-1700's, most notably by one Zachariah McKubbin who ambitiously built a grist mill on Seneca Creek in 1784. Eventually poor McKubbin lost the mill to a family named Benson when he failed to fork over the necessary cash for a tract of land he promised to purchase from them. In 1812, the Bensons sold the tract and the mill and 500 other acres of land to a Philadelphia tobacco merchant named Francis Cassatt Clopper, who, finding his business snarled by trade embargoes during the War of 1812, skedaddled back to country life while the getting was good. Near the site where the park's visitor center now stands, Clopper erected quite a mansion for himself and his wife in which 150 years worth of Cloppers subsequently lived and died.
In time Clopper, whose estate was known as "The Woodlands," became quite a prosperous farmer and miller, aided by the sweat of more than a score of slaves. In 1823, during a Montgomery County famine, he apparently helped to save the day by supplying bread to his indigent neighbors. "There was collected enough to supply 500 mouths with bread," Clopper's wife, Ann, wrote in a letter to her niece dated that year. "Many persons had to apply for it who never knew before what it was to be in want. But the great people at the Court House have found great fault with your uncle and all concerned in making the collection; they think it is a disgrace to the county."
Clopper also started a woolen blanket business that absolutely boomed during the Civil War, when representatives of both sides of the conflict apparently came to him to buy. In a remarkable history of the Clopper clan put together in 1962 for the county historical society, Clopper's great-great granddaughter Helen Caulfield Madine wrote the following: "One winter General Bank's Union Army camped near Darnestown. Many of the soldiers deserted and in order to make good their escape, were glad to exchange their uniforms for the homespun clothes of the young negroes, who for their part loved the blue coats with brass buttons.
"One day a squad of Confederate soldiers came upon a group of young negro men playing ball. Seeing the blue uniforms, they fired upon them.
"Of course," Madine wrote, "the darkies (sic) fled, many of them into our attic down under the eaves of the roof and behind a huge water-tank. One, after running until exhausted, climbed a tree and lay on a limb until all the soldiers had passed under him; but his brother, Sam, ran around the house followed by a soldier. His mother, Kitty, burst into the dining room calling "Marse Douglas, save Sam, they's going to kill him." When the family got to the old smokehouse there was Sam and opposite him the soldier with a pistol pointed at Sam saying, "If you are not a Yankee soldier take off that coat!"
But Sam the slave was a very proud soul. He stood his ground and defiantly insisted that he was "the same man in the coat as I am out of it." Eventually, according to Madine, "it was up to my great-great uncle Douglas to set the matter right."
On another occasion during the Civil War, Madine, quoting the slavewoman Kitty as if she were a distant ancestor of Butterfly McQueen, wrote that Kitty "came in to say to my great-great grandmother "Miss Mary 'Gusta! A soldier is out here say can he die on your porch!" Going out they found a Boy in Gray who had fallen off his horse. They brought him into the front hall and tried to stop the bleeding from his wound . . . . Soon thereafter a group of Confederates came by, and surgeons extracted the ball which had gone through the liver and out through his stomach . . . . The wounded man's family was Baptist, but he had never been baptised." Accordingly, the Cloppers baptized the soldier, who died in the mansion's west room the next day. "Mr. Hutton and the negro wagoner, Singleton," Madine wrote, "made a coffin and the next night he was secretly buried in the churchyard."
Years later, the ever-vigilant Daughters of the Confederacy erected a suitably glorious stone over the grave of the "Boy in Gray."
After his death in 1868, Clopper was succeeded as head of the clan by William Rich Hutton, a man of refinement and terrific achievement who married one of Clopper's daughters. Hutton, an engineer by trade and avid collector of antiques, traveled widely in his youth as a paymasters' clerk with the U.S. volunteer forces who went out to occupy California in 1846. He produced hundreds of drawings of what he saw there, drawings that eventually ended up in the possession of San Marino, California's Huntington Library, which has published most of them in book form. He returned to Washington in 1853 and embarked on an engineering career which, according to Madine, "brought him fame and a modest fortune." Among his other works, Hutton, who resided at The Woodlands until his death, helped design and construct the Washington Aqueduct and the Cabin John Bridge, and was chief engineer of the C & O Canal, the Western Maryland Railroad, and New York City's Hudson River railroad tunnel.
The Clopper-Hutton clan abandoned The Woodlands for good in the early 1960's when the state began purchasing the land for Seneca Creek State Park, a transaction that didn't take place without a fight. "I lived in the Woodlands until I was 23. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was leave," Helen Madine said over the phone recently from her Fincastle, Va., home.
"Ever since I was a child it was instilled in me that the Woodlands was mine, that I had a duty to carry on there. My ancestors are all buried there. I can still hear my great-aunt Mamie talking about the wounded Confederate soldier and how she heard the boots marching through the west room and the clanging of the swords. It was a terribly sad experience, leaving. We fought the state in the courts for three years but it all came down to the fact that they could always just condemn the property and exercise their right of eminent domain. There was nothing we could do."
She last visited Seneca Creek State Park one evening last fall with her husband, she said. The night was wet and gusty and not a soul was about. Years before, the Woodlands mansion had been vandalized and burned to the ground, but that autumn night she did see the tall Linden tree in front of the park visitor center that once provided shade in the mansion's side yard. She walked through brush and weeds to the smokehouse, and discovered an old millstone. On an old driveway now overgrown with grass and weeds she found the granite foot stones which generations of Clopper ladies once used to mount their horses. But it wasn't until she saw the man-made lake, Clopper Lake it is called, that she first started to enjoy Seneca Creek Park. "It was just so beautiful and quiet," she said.
Now, it seems, life on the land occupied by Seneca Creek State Park has finally returned to square-one. Gone are the Cloppers and the Huttons, the slaves and the Indians. The trees and the streams remain, as do the descendants of the deer, foxes, hawks and muskrats that lived here long before man ever arrived. Of course, on the recent evening that the nine city dwellers came to take part in Ranger Brown's night visual, it was difficult to validate that fact, for Brown's mammals appeared to be in hiding. At one point during the two-hour park tour, four sets of animal eyes stared back at Brown's lamp from high up in one of Clopper's old apple trees, but it was hard to tell whether they were possums or raccoons. At another point, a wild turkey flapped its wings across the glare of the lamp before disappearing into a glen. Farther up the road, beyond Clopper Lake, a big speckled owl appeared briefly in the spotlight, but all in all, Brown said, there should've been more mammals out and about that night.
"There's usually a lot more going on," he said in frustration. "Everybody must've known we were coming and bedded down for the night." That seemed to be a fair enough explanation, although Sharon Lichterman, mother of Carmel, probably put it better. "It's sort of like a Walt Disney movie, honey," she whispered to Carmel, whose hiccups stopped sometime between the owl and turkey sightings. "One animal tells another animal who tells another and another, and pretty soon they all know we're coming and go away and hide."
Sparrow, the naturalist, had the last word, however. As the station wagon cruised past Clopper Lake and turned back toward the visitor center on Clopper Road, she suggested, and everyone quickly agreed, that the night visual was actually performed by the animals.