Ever since the interstates paved the way for the suburbs where most Americans live, history has been just one more barrier to a good clean bulldozing. Even in this history-drenched region, the past often becomes little more than a weapon wielded in development battles -- "let us build 80 more houses and we'll save that log cabin," or, "you may add three stories to that building if you salvage the old facade."
History becomes a disconnected collection of preserves -- the battlefields, presidential houses and national parks where the past is permitted to show its face.
Peggy Erickson wants you to break out of history's ghetto and see the past right where you live, not just in ironic names of suburban developments or in roadside markers that cannot be read without risking your life against speeding traffic.
Erickson runs Heritage Montgomery, a nonprofit charged with letting us in on secrets tucked away in a county better known for McMansions and townhouses than for, say, a surviving slave cabin or a breathtaking 1833 aqueduct.
"We're so big and so cosmopolitan, and this is such small-town stuff," says Erickson, who formerly worked as chief of staff to ex-county council member Nancy Dacek. "People can live here for years and not know that all of this history is right here."
Without mounting expeditions to Williamsburg or Gettysburg, it's possible to find impressive Colonial and Civil War sites in Montgomery County, which was an important way station on the underground railroad out of slavery. A house in Brookville served as the White House for one day in 1814, when the British sacked Washington and President James Madison fled to the safety of a small town.
In Sandy Spring, the town museum -- on land donated by the widow of an early 20th-century Washington Senators pitcher named Jack Bentley -- feels like an old country doctor's office, a bastion of generalism featuring an art gallery, a history of the town's Quaker roots, a survey of the struggle with slavery, some Civil War surgeons' instruments, a working forge, a 1912 Ford Torpedo Roadster, and Bentley's uniform and his 1915 contract with the American League (he made $1,400 that year).
A few blocks away, alongside his home, Delmas Wood has built three little buildings to house his FDR Museum, a shrine that contains all manner of Franklin Roosevelt memorabilia, from his dog Fala's bed (Wood paid $7,000 for it on eBay) to copies of the president's wheelchair and leg braces. The museum is not here because FDR often traveled to the Olney Inn for dinner, though he did, but rather because Wood, a 73-year-old retired insurance man, found a second career as a public speaker playing the role of our only four-term president.
Wood, who after 20 years of playing the role even looks like FDR, got started almost by chance. With no previous interest in the man, he was casting about for a character to play in a public speaking contest. Wood chose FDR's declaration of war speech, won the contest and fell ever deeper into his new identity. "I'm the same height, same hat size, same shoe size," he says.
But while his enormous collection draws visitors and school groups from around the world -- the museum is open by appointment -- Wood is moving soon, to Leisure World, and he figures he will have to sell or donate his collection.
Several of Montgomery's attractions -- such as the Sandy Spring Slave Museum, featuring a cross-section of a slave clipper ship -- are similarly born of one person's passion. Others are publicly run, such as Oakley Cabin, a slave quarters in Brookville, or Stonestreet Museum, a 19th-century doctor's office in Rockville.
Montgomery's past gets little respect, even in official circles; in the last five years, the state has given Baltimore more than seven times as much money for its historical sites as it's given Montgomery. But Erickson campaigns undaunted for resources and visitors. She can show you how to assemble a dinner entirely from foods made in the county -- vegetables, meat, cheese, wine. (The county has two wineries, in Silver Spring and Brookville, where Catoctin Winery produces a wine called Eye of the Oriole. Will they now add Ear of a Nat?)
Thirty-three historic sites in Montgomery are open for Heritage Days, Saturday and Sunday (www.heritagemontgomery.org).