She had perhaps the best view in town. Eighteen feet above the ground, she was there every day for 53 years as the quiet farming commmunity around her turned into a bustling urban center. Streetcars were replaced by buses. Wisconsin Avenue grew from two lanes to six. The first traffic lights were installed -- all before the eyes of The Madonna of the Trail.
Until recently, the madonna, a five-ton poured stone figure on a 12-ton base, stood beside the Bethesda post office to commemorate the contributions of 19th-century pioneer mothers who traveled in Conestoga wagons to help settle the West.
But the madonna will miss the latest technological changes taking place around Wisconsin and Montgomery Avenues.
In fact, she will remain out of sight until construction of the Bethesda Metro stop is completed -- at least 2 1/2 years away.
In March, Montgomery County Transportation Department employes carefully packed the statue into a crate, loaded it onto a flatbed truck and escorted it to a parking lot at the Public Service Academy in Darnestown, where it will remain protected behind a chain-link fence until Metro and the local developers are ready for its return.
"I miss it," said State Senator Howard A. Denis. "It's one of the closest things we have to a county treasure."
At the request of a constituent, Denis recently asked County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist about the possibility of displaying the madonna at another site until the development around the Metro stop is finished.
The Daughters of the American Revolution, which owns the Bethesda madonna, along with 11 other replicas across the nation, opposes that idea.
"I don't think the DAR is at all upset with her being stored. . . . She's a heavy lady to start with and more likely to be damaged in moving ," said DAR public relations coordinator Laura Patten.
The DAR sent a representative to the construction site in March to make sure the madonna was not damaged during the move.
The Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission already has designated a spot for the madonna in the public plaza to be constructed over the Bethesda Metro station. Both structures are expected to be completed at about the same time, according to developer Alan Kay of the firm of Rozansky and Kay.
The plaza over the Metro station will include a 12-story Hyatt hotel and a 17-story office building, an ice skating rink and a variety of restaurants and stores.
The Bethesa station is part of the 14-mile Red Line segment from Van Ness to Shady Grove, the construction of which has been delayed several times. The opening date was recently pushed back a year to 1984 because a strike at the brake factory will delay the arrival of the subway cars.
The madonna had stood at the same Wisconsin Avenue site since the week of April 19, 1929. It was the last of 12 madonnas erected along the National Old Trails Road, established by the DAR in 1911 as the National Memorial Highway. The Bethesda monument commemorates the spot where pioneers spent their first night out of Georgetown on their way west.
The monuments were erected at a cost of about $1,000 each in each of the 12 states the highway passed through. Through the years, development has forced several other madonnas to be moved. All have been relocated near their original sites along the trail.
Before the Bethesda monument was to be moved, DAR informed construction workers that they should look for a time capsule containing artifacts from the 1920s that supposedly was placed in the foundation of the monument when it was erected.
No capsule was spotted during the move. In May, however, a bulldozer turned up a copper container that turned out to be the missing box, according to DAR archivist Nancy Sudbrink.
The box contained mostly newspaper clippings and DAR programs. "There were no real goodies. . . . We were a little disappointed," she said.
The contents have been dumped in a bucket and locked inside a closet at the DAR headquarters for further study.