Phones are ringing all around Emmitsburg, and e-mails are whizzing through cyberspace, loaded with colorful criticisms of Mike Hillman, amateur local historian and gadfly par excellence.
A few folks have flat-out told Hillman, 45, where to go. Others vigorously defend him, applauding what they see as a courageous effort to broaden the town's history and set the record straight.
The source of all this ruckus: Hillman's assertion that the town, in northern Frederick County, was not founded in 1757, as generations of Emmitsburgians have been taught, but 22 years later, in 1785.
Hillman argues in a paper posted on the town's Internet site that Emmitsburg, population 2,290, has for more than a century mistakenly listed its founding date as 1757. He believes deed records indicate otherwise.
In another town or in another time, the argument might garner less than passing notice. But like much of Frederick County, Emmitsburg is undergoing rapid metamorphoses brought about by newcomers such as Hillman, an engineer who moved to the area from Pennsylvania in 1988.
Hillman's effort to have the town formally change its founding date has tapped directly into fears that Emmitsburg -- a place where a local family still runs the hardware store downtown and where a few doctors still make house calls -- is being overrun by new arrivals.
"I don't think it's well-received from Mike because he's not from here," said barber Kerry Shorb, a lifelong Emmitsburg resident and a friend of Hillman's.
"I think you're always going to have tension between people who are moving in and people who have been here a long time."
Hillman, who lives in a restored farmhouse outside Emmitsburg's corporate limits and commutes 80 miles, round trip, each day to Germantown, argues that deed records show that the town was not formally laid out until 1785.
The town has traditionally used 1757 as its founding date because that is the year that Samuel Emmit, an Irish immigrant, bought 2,250 acres around present-day Emmitsburg. Local histories have generally skirted the issue of whether there were houses on what today is Emmitsburg proper when Emmit bought the land; Hillman asserts that deed records indicate there was no town until 1785, when Emmit's son, William, subdivided the land for development.
He says it is "a lie" that the town was founded in 1757.
"Using the 1757 date is like someone celebrating their birthday on the date their father was born," said Hillman, a wiry, urgent man who speaks in staccato bursts. "It just has no basis in fact."
Some are skeptical and don't want to rush out and change the town's welcome signs, which give 1757 as the founding date.
"There was a settlement here, maybe not in the exact spot where the main [town] square is," said the Rev. Daniel Nusbaum, a professor at Mount St. Mary's College near Emmitsburg who is writing the college's official history. "But there was a community living in this area starting in the 1740s or earlier."
Like others who have cast doubt on Hillman's assertions, Nusbaum is quick to note that he admires and appreciates the work Hillman has done digging up tax records and deeds.
It is Hillman's attitude toward the locally accepted history that has put off some.
The 1757 date "emerged from the community's consciousness," said Linda Junker, a 20-year resident of Emmitsburg and local history enthusiast. "It came out of a community experience. . . . [Hillman] has done a tremendous amount of work, there is no question. But I think he's arguing more than he has proof for."
Unlike south-central Frederick County, which has been growing steadily for 20 years or more, Emmitsburg's experience with newcomers is more recent. A few new subdivisions have cropped up within sight of Main Street, but the real influx is just now beginning.
This spring, voters will consider a referendum to annex 67 acres of farmland north of town. If the measure passes, about 130 homes will be built -- a large development for little Emmitsburg.
Just a few miles south of the Pennsylvania line, the town has long been isolated from the county's population center, the city of Frederick, and has only recently begun attracting outsiders in search of inexpensive land and housing.
Many of the newcomers are, like Hillman, highly educated and often have broad experience in the world beyond Emmitsburg, while many natives of the town have lived nowhere else and treasure the community that their parents and grandparents knew.
"My family has been here for seven generations," said Patrick Boyle, the Town Council president. "I'm so . . . tired of the new people coming and wanting to change tradition; tradition means a lot to me."
At the same time, some natives and newcomers, including Hillman, agree that the town needs to grow to survive. Boyle, in fact, favors the annexation -- but then he owns the land the town may annex.
"Agriculture is no longer the primary source of income, and hasn't been for close to 50 years," said former mayor William Carr. Emmitsburg "survived one way years and years ago, but we can't continue to survive that way. The tax base has to expand somewhat."
To draw new people, Hillman and others argue, the town needs to be willing to skirt tradition.
In his quest to bring in the new, Hillman has been unafraid to dissect local mythology. He suggests in some of his writings, for instance, that the son of the town's founder was born illegitimately, and that the founder was a slave trader. Neither assertion shows up much in traditional local histories.
Hillman has created a Web site, emmitsburg.net, which posts anecdotes and historical narratives from a wide variety of residents and incorporates many of the town's institutions into a single presence on the Web. Hillman, in effect, single-handedly introduced greater Emmitsburg to the Internet.
Hillman regularly comments on town affairs and played a crucial role in getting Mayor James Hoover elected.
"The old-boy way of doing business is no longer acceptable," Hillman said. "We're going to do it right. We're going to dot our i's and cross our t's and do things appropriately."
But Mark Hudson, executive director of the Frederick County Historical Society, said there is no objective "appropriate" means for determining a town's founding date.
"It is something that the community itself elects to define," Hudson said. "It's not as if there's a standard across the board."
The fact that Emmitsburg is reexamining its history suggests that Hillman's quixotic quest has some pluses, Hudson said.
"As the complexion of a community changes . . . it can become more and more difficult to hang onto history," Hudson said. "Sometimes there's value in getting the viewpoint of an outsider, someone who can look at things in a fresh way."