The Camp Schley Inn, named after the Frederick-born naval hero of the Spanish-American War, has recently become the Casa Marotta, a Tex-Mex restaurant. It's a far cry from the elegant hotel it once was -- or the classy bed and breakfast operation the new proprietors hope someday to start.
But when Mike (J.R.) Marotta, from San Antonio by way of Rockville, reopened the restaurant portion of the building two weeks ago, tentative new life was breathed into this former resort town atop Braddock Mountain, which hasn't seen a new enterprise succeed in years.
The turn-of-the-century Frederick County town was built by a utility company to boost the ridership on its Hagerstown and Frederick Railway, but the interurban trolley line is long gone, along with the summer boarders and the amusement park that drew day trippers by the thousands. The 70-room Hotel Braddock burned down in 1929, the Valley View Inn in 1941. The Vindobona, a big hotel visited on occasion by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is now a nursing home. The park officially closed in 1964.
What's left of the park are the ruins of the old dance hall and merry-go-round buildings and the roller-skating rink built in 1902, said to be the oldest operating in the country. A basement bowling alley goes unused.
Instead of a summer colony, Braddock Heights is now a year-round unincorporated place of 2,000 or so people, many of them commuters and couples who've retired from commuting. It's pleasant on the mountain, with temperatures said to be six degrees cooler than in Frederick, 15 minutes and 10 miles to the east.
Before air-conditioning and other modern amenities, city dwellers who could afford it flocked to mountain resorts like Braddock Heights or Pen-Mar, a similar operation built by the Western Maryland Railroad on the Mason-Dixon Line, that is now a county park.
Today, rush-hour traffic spills over the mountain along alternate U.S. Rte. 40, from Frederick and I-70 into the Middletown Valley, almost all of it bypassing the entrance to Braddock Heights marked by stone pillars at Maryland Avenue.
Huge old houses with wrap-around porches line the avenue and Jefferson Boulevard along the north-south ridge. On many are simple signs that seem to suggest another, perhaps more genteel era: Buena Vista, Happy Hollow, Wind Haven, Edgewood and Ingle Nook. There are about 600 homes in Braddock Heights, many occupied by families whose breadwinners drive to jobs in Montgomery County or the District.
The center of community life is the old brick Potomac Edison building, which houses the post office and Beachley's Variety Store, owned by Keith Davis. His stepmother, Frances Davis, is postmaster.
Frank Beachley, who was postmaster from 1946 until 1972, owns the building, which he bought from the utility, but he spends winters in Florida. When he started as postmaster, there were 60 postal boxes. There are 364 now, reflecting the increase in the permanent population.
With the weekend and summer crowds gone, life in Braddock Heights is less hectic, its streets less congested. Grafton Cost, who moved here in 1947, says he no longer worries about finding a parking space in front of his house, which is located directly across Schley Avenue from the old parkland.
The sloping lawn his house faces was once filled with trees, "The Grove of Golden Stars," each planted in memory of a World War I soldier. Now, it's just a lawn, mowed regularly by Chris (Fuzzy) Moser.
Moser, 36, whose grizzled face seemed to justify his nickname, moved up from the streets of Rockville to the rooms of Schley Inn, at a time when it was also a ski lodge complete with beginners and advanced slopes. Now, he lives in a room under the skating rink and earns his keep doing odd jobs.
"It's better than living in the street," Moser said. "I've been here seven years, but I'm just passing through. I think it's horrible. This is like a no-man's land, where the action used to be. It's a nice place to drink because nobody bothers you. But it's too quiet for me."
Behind the quiet comings and goings that punctuate life in Braddock Heights, there are occasional issues. The Braddock Heights Community Association, which owns the 63-year-old community pool, and the volunteer fire department are the two local power centers.
Members have sometimes clashed over who does most for the town. The citizens are generally united, however, in their opposition to the Ku Klux Klan, which rallied here four summers ago and threatens to meet here again this summer, according to local newspaper accounts.
Then for years, members of the Pagans motorcycle gang occasionally thundered through town on their way to social events at the former Schley Inn.
"When the Pagans rode up Maryland Avenue, it frightened everyone who lived there," said Frances Davis.
Last fall, community outrage was focused on tax assessments, which rose as much as 300 percent, reflecting the growth in Frederick County, which of late has become part of the Washington standard metropolitan statistical area. Frederick City has had plans to expand its boundaries up the mountain, but residents, thus far, have held back the seemingly inexorable urban advance of the annexation-minded county seat.
Still, the old amusement park property, rising to the mountain peak and offering panoramic views of the countryside, looks like a developer's dream. The current owners bought the land in 1966, in part to block plans for a shopping center and houses, said Robert J. McCutcheon, whose family has lived here since 1910. McCutcheon is president of McCutcheon Apple Products in Frederick, supplier of apple juice and cider to many retail stores in the Washington area.
When McCutcheon and eight other investors bought the park, the dance hall was still in use. They put $2,000 into a new roof and had teen dances into the 1970s.
"There was just so much vandalism, we couldn't keep up with it," McCutcheon said.
"We're sort of biding our time with the park property," said McCutcheon, whose brick rambler sits on the former front lawn of the old Braddock Hotel. "I'd like to see it remain as green as possible."
"I just think Braddock Heights is a quiet, peaceful place," said Keith Davis, his "mostly collie" dog Alex snoozing happily nearby on the floor of the variety store. "When business gets a little slow, I go out in the park and hit some golf balls."