The tiny river town of Glen Echo, just over the District line, has been many places since it got its start in Victorian times -- a summer retreat, an enlightened community, the home of a venerable amusement park complete with a Spanish ballroom where countless love stories began.
The town encompasses a sense of all of those places today, plus 22 acres, 103 buildings -- many of them rambling eccentrically from their original small floor plans -- and a couple of hundred souls who call the place home.
Many of these same souls turned out yesterday to celebrate the centennial of Glen Echo's charter as a town. And they did so in a way befitting life there. They sat on the grass in front of the little Town Hall, ate ice cream and chatted to the gentle harmonies of the local barbershop quartet, the Glen Echoes.
"Here we are, a small town right next to the big city," mused resident Debbie Lange. "We feel very lucky we're here."
As children decorated their bicycles for a parade, adults savored their collective accomplishments, including their work to save and restore the vintage carousel at Glen Echo Park, and some of the more prosaic accomplishments -- such as collecting taxes and repairing potholes -- that have gone with a century of self-government, led by a four-member Town Council and a mayor.
"We're all volunteers," said Nancy Long, who grew up in the town and has served on the council since 1969.
Glen Echo was chartered by the state of Maryland in 1904. But the community got its start in 1889, when inventor Edwin Baltzley cashed in the money he made from the manufacturing of a mechanical eggbeater and, joined by his brother, Edward, got into real estate. The brothers bought the land for the new settlement they named Glen-Echo-on-the-Potomac, envisioning a woodsy summer community that would offer a respite from steamy Washington.
They developed a railroad to bring in visitors and constructed a lavishly rustic restaurant called the Pa-taw-o-meck Cafe. But the restaurant, built of 30,000 cedar logs, burned to the ground four months after it opened, in 1890. The brothers regrouped, allying their town with the Chautauqua educational movement. They built an amphitheater and Hall of Philosophy and attracted hundreds of visitors to pitch tents and attend summer programs taught by scholars and social leaders. American Red Cross founder Clara Barton bought land in the community and built a house there.
But again the success was short-lived because of rumors about a malaria outbreak in 1892. Visitors stopped coming, but in the new century, the place that became known as Glen Echo endured.
Long, who grew up in the 1930s and '40s, has seen the town change over the decades. The streetcar she used to ride with her mother to the District is gone. So are many of the tradespeople who lived there.
Yet much is unchanged, including the 1921 carousel, with its menagerie of horses, ostriches and deer, in Glen Echo Park.
In the 1960s, after civil rights protests forced the amusement park's owners to end years of segregation, the park became a victim of changing social and economic times. By 1970, the National Park Service had taken over administration of the park, in the midst of an effort by Long and other residents to save the carousel.
"Children of all generations should know the special magic and exquisite joy of the sight, sound and feel of a carousel ride," Long wrote in a fundraising letter at the time. She and others began collecting money to save the carousel. Its painstaking restoration was completed last year.
Montgomery County Council member Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda), on hand yesterday to read a declaration honoring the centennial, praised the town's cohesion. "You not only have a community spirit, you have the structure that is able to leverage and marshal forces."
The centennial celebration, anticipated for months, came off softly, amid the cooing of mourning doves, the click of playing cards in the spokes of kids' bicycles and the singing of the Glen Echoes: "Let there be children. Let there be laughter. . . . Let there be music. Let there be love."