Don't Make Little of This Town

Riddle: What encompasses only one-third of a square mile, has 1,240 residents, 831 cars, 288 families and no schools but has been visited by presidents?

Answer: The Prince George's town of Cottage City, among the tiniest incorporated jurisdictions in the state.

Don't let the size fool you, residents said. The town is big on history, and its residents are big on pride in their rich heritage. Many of them can rattle off facts about the town's history faster than you can say George Washington, who slept there, by the way. As did U.S. Grant.

"Cottage City is a great little town," said Town Commission Chairman William H. Hall Sr., who also is the police commissioner. "Not a lot of places like this anymore."

Nestled between the District of Columbia line and Bladensburg, Cottage City is bordered by Eastern Avenue, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks, the Anacostia River and Bladensburg Road, once known as the Baltimore and Washington Turnpike.

Cottage City is a collection of cottage-style homes built in the 1920s on tree-lined streets where neighbors regularly share food and fellowship and the biggest annual event is the Halloween party for children.

It got its first town hall building 15 years ago, has four full-time police officers and shares a fire department with a neighboring town. The average home sells for $88,000.

According to figures from the 1990 census, the town has 1,236 residents, including 279 school-age children. Almost 200 residents spoke a foreign language, including 80 who speak Spanish and 40 who speak in an Asian dialect. Twenty-nine people identified their heritage as sub-Saharan African.

Sixty-six percent of the residents are high school graduates, and 9.7 percent hold college degrees. There were 143 veterans. The median family income was $38,036, and there were 136 people living below the poverty level, census figures show.

Crime and other big-city problems have been kept at bay, Hall said. A drug-dealing problem inside a few homes was met with a swift response with the help of the Prince George's County police, said Hall, a retired Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission worker who lives in a cottage next door to the town hall.

Everybody knows everybody in Cottage City, residents said. "Cottage City has a small-town atmosphere in the size, but also in the way people relate to each other," said Alice Shannon, the town's clerk and treasurer, who moved to the town 37 years ago from Seabrook and raised two children there. "That was a big draw for us. Everybody knows their neighbors, and they are like family."

According to historical records, the town wasn't always so peaceful. Once a swamp at the eastern branch of the Anacostia River, the area was visited in 1608 by explorer John Smith, who wrote about the Native Americans living there. Less than 100 years later, the area, known as Yarrow, was starting to grow because of its proximity to Garrison's Landing across the Anacostia, a bustling port town and major tobacco export site later renamed Bladensburg.

In the early 1700s, a grist mill, believed to be the first in the area, was constructed on land at what is now Bunker Hill Road and 43rd Avenue. In the early 1800s, the Baltimore and Washington Turnpike was a major thoroughfare for travelers heading east and north of the Capitol. Until Congress outlawed dueling in 1839, an area of Cottage City was known as Dueling Creek, where many gentlemen lost their lives settling "affairs of honor," according to Cottage City historical records.

In August 1814, the Battle of Bladensburg was fought in an area that later became part of Cottage City, which the mill seized for use as a British hospital.

In 1820, Friends House, a two-story mansion with stately porches, was constructed at what is now Parkwood Street and 38th Avenue. "Cottage City historians consider the Friends House the Camp David of the 1870s," town literature said. Grant is said to have stayed there often.

The town's foundry, which dates to the 19th century, also was the site of the construction of the Statue of Freedom, the bronze sculpture that stands atop the Capitol Building 40 blocks to the west.

Today Cottage City continues to tout itself as a port town, along with Bladensburg and tiny Colmar Manor down the road. The three jurisdictions formed the Port Towns Community Development Corp., which was awarded a $1.8 million grant by the state for renovation and revitalization. The project is to include the repaving of Bladensburg Road--which travels through all three communities--upgrading infrastructure and assisting local businesses, Hall said.

--Avis Thomas-Lester


Reconciling Differences For a Cause

When it comes to local politics in Mount Rainier, a hamlet with 8,000 residents that straddles Rhode Island Avenue and hugs the District line, Carol Gandee and Bryan Knedler are almost always at odds.

Still, the two City Council members shunned the urge to argue about taxes and city management long enough to serve as grand marshals in this year's Capital Pride Parade, a Washington area celebration of the gay community.

"We had a good time," Gandee said of their trek down Pennsylvania Avenue, riding in a Saab convertible and waving to a crowd of about 200,000.

"I made sure we talked about things we agreed on. . . . I didn't want to push him out of the car."

Gandee and Knedler were two of the six local, openly gay elected officials from the metropolitan area to lead the parade.

"That's a pretty good per-capita representation," said Michael Cover, spokesman for the Whitman-Walker Clinic , one of the event's major sponsors. "One of the things we celebrate that day is diversity, including diversity of opinion.

"It is what we as gay men and lesbians demand from the public, so it is one way to celebrate."

Gandee and Knedler both make light of their sometimes intense disagreements and consider their bouts politics at its best.

"Well, he started it with that message on his Web site," Gandee said of a pre-election critique by Knedler of Gandee's accessibility to the public, "and I thought it was time to take off the gloves."

And take off the gloves she did, promoting another candidate for Knedler's council spot in May's election and writing editorials in local papers about what she called his micromanagement of town staff.

Still, both politicos faced the same anti-gay sentiment when they ran for their first terms in 1997, they said, giving them at least two areas of common ground. The other mutual love: Mount Rainier.

"It gets the word out there that Mount Rainier is a progressive place," Knedler said of his involvement in Capital Pride. "I think most people know Mount Rainier from driving down Rhode Island Avenue and seeing all of the liquor stores, but there are a lot of wonderful little bungalows here.

"A lot of people look at it as a blue-collar Takoma Park now."

-- Mary Louise Schumacher

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CAPTION: "Cottage City is a great little town. Not a lot of places like this anymore," Town Commission Chairman William H. Hall Sr. said.

CAPTION: Mount Rainier City Council members Bryan Knedler, left, and Carol Gandee served as grand marshals in this year's Capital Pride Parade.