The families were young and large, and had just moved into new brick houses in the Connecticut Avenues Estates subdivision of Wheaton. Money for evenings out was tight.
And so in the summer of 1956 the monthly block parties began. They were a chance for two dozen couples who lived on Crisfield Road and adjacent streets to relax without having to worry about finding baby sitters, for there were nearly 100 children on that block alone.
More than 30 years later, most of the couples have moved elsewhere in Montgomery County, and their children have had children. But the monthly parties have never stopped, and the two dozen people who still come to the gatherings, now mostly in their sixties and seventies, say they cherish the relationships they established in those days.
"These are my best friends," said Barbara Shearn, who raised five children in the neighborhood with her late husband William and now lives in Ashton. "We all took a cruise together last April to celebrate our 30th anniversary. We had been planning for 20 years to do something like this."
" . . . The friendship of these people is just unreal."
"In the beginning, the parties were much wilder than they are now," said Dorothy Witte, a Wheaton resident who helped organize the first gatherings. "We danced, we jitterbugged, we dressed up for Halloween. We didn't eat until midnight and didn't break up until morning."
"We're older and wiser now," said Robert E. Booton, a cousin of Barbara Shearn. "We get home by 11."
Ten of the early group have died over the years, and today, the Wheaton Marching and Chowder Society -- a name reminiscent of the social organizations of Boston, frivolously imposed in the early years -- has evolved largely into a group of friends of the original group. They get together the first Saturday of each month for a dinner party and a jocular meeting, mostly to plan the next meeting and kid each other. Sometimes, the secretary even bothers to take notes.
Nobody talks much about politics or religion, said Edward V. Curran, a Wheaton resident who is in charge of training air traffic controllers for the Federal Aviation Administration. Even when the controllers strike was in full swing in the early 1980s, "there was no business talk" about it when he came to the parties, Curran said.
"We have buried people, gone through serious illnesses, lost children -- these are the things that have made us really, really close," said Witte. The group rallied round her while her husband Joseph was sick for two years and when he died at Christmas, she said.
Now at the parties, "We talk about grandchildren, health, what's new in your life," Witte said. "Half are retired; we travel a lot . . . and pictures are passed around."
The Wittes, Shearns and their neighbors were the postwar pioneers who helped settle the subdivisions of lower Montgomery County in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
It was a time, University of Miami geographer Peter O. Muller writes in his book "Contemporary Suburban America," when "more than a decade's worth of pent-up demand was quickly unleashed" and 10 million households were formed.
These were "earnest young war veterans possessing strong familistic values," Muller says, "who desired to educate themselves, work hard, and achieve the 'good life.' "
Like their contemporaries elsewhere, the new Wheaton residents had improved their lives with Veterans Administration home financing and GI Bill-funded educations.
Many who moved to the $18,000 front-to-back split levels of Crisfield and environs were buying their first and second houses from the Kay Construction Co., which had built nearby subdivisions.
The men worked as accountants and government employes, engineers, teachers and insurance salesmen. All of the women stayed home to care for their children.
"In those days you were considered very poor if your wife worked," said Robert G. Williamson, the only group member who still lives on Crisfield.
It was a neighborhood where front doors didn't have to be locked, and while the Saturday night block parties were in full swing, delegations of fathers would go from house to house checking on the sleeping children.
There were theme parties and group exchanges of Christmas presents every year, with one of the men playing Santa Claus, Hilda Booton, a Springfield resident, recalled. None of the couples was ever divorced.
A number of people on the block became active in St. Catherine Laboure Catholic Church on Viers Mill Road. But in the beginning, the children were their strongest bond.
On weekdays after the men had gone to work, seven or eight of the women would gather to drink coffee while kids played in the back yard. Some of the women say they will never forget the support of those years.
When Crisfield Road resident Margaret Fisk died giving birth to her sixth child, "all the neighbors took turns sending meals and babysitting for at least a year," said Witte, who lived two doors away. Fisk's husband Art later remarried and moved to Norfolk, "but he still comes back for all the funerals, all the weddings, anything that's important to us," Witte said.
Witte, who now lives in Kemp Mill Estates, a subdivision two miles from Crisfield to which a number of neighborhood residents eventually moved, recalled the time her 3-year-old son unearthed some oven cleaner and drank it. He survived, thanks to the quick thinking of the women who lived near her.
"I was in shock," she said. "The neighbors took over and rushed him to the hospital. There were 20 people in the kitchen working over my kid. Everybody just pitched in."
Thirty years later, she said, "they are my best friends. We all feel the same way. We were happy then, and still are."
Summers, "the children swarmed over the neighborhood," said Witte, who had six. "When one had chicken pox, it spread like wildfire. They were always together. They had little pools, and the dogs were treated like the kids.
"After nap time, the gates opened up. Closed gates were a signal not to enter."
With households averaging four or five children each by the end of the '50s, the traffic of candy-seekers on Halloween was awesome, Witte said: "They just kept coming and coming."
Activities at St. Catherine's school and at nearby Weller Road Elementary School and later, Belt Junior High School, also drew the neighborhood into group activities.
The proximity of the elementary school was one of the reasons we all moved in here," said Williamson, a retired professor of psychology and education. "It was a population growth period. There was a herd of children."
During those years on the block, "People were very friendly," he said. "We were all about the same age. It was the time of the great rise of the lower middle class. . . . Most of the people were coming back from the war, no one was well-to-do. Those small houses represented a gain."
Some had "moved here to get away from the slums," he said. "It was a step up in life."
The demographics of the neighborhood, where the $18,000 houses now sell for $100,000, have changed in one regard -- it was once all white, and now there are black, Asian and East Indian families living there -- "but the character of the neighborhood doesn't change," Williamson said. "It's still upper-mobility, lower middle-class."
The early Wheaton residents "got to be good friends by working together, not just by being introduced at coffee klatches" after Mass "like they do now," said retired Monsignor W. Joyce Russell, who was pastor at St. Catherine's in those days. Today, most churches hire professional fund raisers to help finance new buildings, he said, but back then, money drives helped unite members of the parish.
After women started taking jobs outside the home in great numbers, the texture of the parish's social fabric began to change, he said.
Today, Williamson says, "the neighborhood looks better than it used to, the trees and bushes are all grown," but "now there's not that many raising children, and you don't have the closeness that you used to."
Among those who are trying to perpetuate the closeness of the '50s and '60s are the children of the Wheaton Marching and Chowder Society, none of whom live in the old neighborhood. Much to the delight of their parents, they bring their kids to the annual summer picnic and hold second-generation parties of their own.
And on streets such as Parker Avenue several miles away, the spirit of the society endures. There, former Crisfield neighborhood resident Peggy Neagle joined her neighbors in getting a permit to have the street closed off one summer day last year and arranging for a band.
"It went on all afternoon," she said. "And it was as much fun as the old times. I'd love to do it again."