The Anne Arundel County town of Woodland Beach, about five miles from Annapolis on the South River, began as a Depression-era development project of The Washington Post.
Subscribers to the newspaper, which was then in dire straits and looking for ways to increase its circulation, could buy 20-by-100-foot lots for $93 outright, or $9 down and $3.50 per month. Elsewhere in Anne Arundel, the old Washington Herald did something similar, resulting in Herald Harbor, a neighborhood on the Severn River. Almost daily for a year, The Post promoted Woodland Beach in front-page articles that paraded as news but clearly intended to sell subscriptions and lots. "Woodland Beach promises to become a mecca of Capital residents seeking relaxation during the heat of the summer months," gushed the first of the series, published May 19, 1931.
Despite all the promotion and the construction of a white-columned colonial clubhouse, the community -- now considered part of the Edgewater area -- was slow to develop. When it did, it became a haven for working-class Washingtonians. With the coming of sewer lines in the 1970s, its development accelerated, and it is now a bulging and densely populated peninsula of 2,034 homes (265 built before 1940) with about 6,000 people.
While there are many newer and larger homes, most of the dwellings are modest. So are the prices by today's standards, with an average sales price of $243,685 in 12 months ended Oct. 5, compared with $371,230 for all of Anne Arundel County.
The community -- also known as Londontown, for the lost town that existed there in colonial times -- stands in marked contrast to the adjoining, much pricier South River Colony, built in the mid-1990s. There, townhouses sell from the low $300,000s to the mid $500,000s and single-family houses go for as much as $2 million.
"Even though it's one of the more modest communities in Edgewater, Londontown, with five miles of waterfront, is very popular," said Sandy Lofgren-Sargent, who has been active in the real estate market for 20 years.
For all of its appeal, Woodland Beach has had a rowdy reputation. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were five bars lining Mayo Road, and the community was known, fairly or otherwise, as "Hoodlum Beach."
A string of arsons on July 4, 1974, when four homes and the beloved clubhouse were torched, didn't help the town's reputation, either. In 1986, police arrested 30 people on charges of distributing drugs in the Woodland Beach area.
Still, said former property owners association president Mary Ellen Brady, 60, "It was certainly never a dangerous place to live and isn't now. Neighbors still keep their doors unlocked. I love it here."
Brady moved into one of the small cottages in 1968. She now lives in a house overlooking the water that she and her husband, Ralph, built in 1976. Her grown children, raised in Woodland Beach, still live in the community.
"This was the best place in the world to grow up," said Patricia Brady Pettebone, 34, who was visiting her mother's house. "I guess we were luckier than most kids, with the water, piers, beach and shoreline."
Until 1965, a large brick colonial house at the point of the peninsula -- Londontown's only surviving structure, built around 1760 by tavern keeper William Brown -- was the county "almshouse," a home for the poor and mentally ill. The county's decision to close the poorhouse and make it into a public park, and then an archaeological excavation site in the 1990s, breathed new life into the old name.
"People have been trying to promote this as a place to take up residence for 300 years now," said Al Luckenbach, county archaeologist and director of its "Lost Towns" project.
So to improve its image, the modern-day property owners voted to change the name back to "London Towne," ye olde "e" and all, evoking the major tobacco port and ferry crossing established in 1683 but that had faded into history by 1800. The name change came "with a great big argument," recalls Curtis Dye, 84, a former Woodland Beach fire chief who owned a hardware store in the community.
Thus it is today that the London Towne Property Owners' Association, chartered in 1932 under the Woodland Beach name, exists. The association is governed by a 35-member board, seven from each of the community's five beaches. The association publishes a quarterly newsletter, "the Conciliator," and it owns the rebuilt clubhouse. Not as elegant as the old one, the clubhouse still draws a crowd for Monday night bingo.
The beaches are a big feature of community life. As promised in the early Post ads, "the entire beach front has been set aside for the exclusive use of lot owners." Or, as another Post headline said, on July 27, 1931, "City Care Banished at Woodland Beach: Post's Summer Home Site on South River is Refuge from Trouble."
There are netted areas for swimming, sand for sunning, piers for crabbing and docks, where property owners pay $5 to $10 per foot a month to park their boats, considerably less than at many private marinas. There are also several small community playgrounds. For access to all of this, property owners pay $25 a year per lot.
As the Post headline of July 17, 1931, put it: "Happiness Is Cheap at Woodland Beach."
As far as the name goes, "Of course, I guess people use Londontown, but old-timers who live here all call it Woodland Beach," said Joe Wilmer, who moved into the community in 1937 and moved out in 1966, but still owns property and a business. He's the last surviving founder of the Woodland Beach Fire Department, started in 1946.
Though real estate ads now regularly tout "Historic Londontowne," the Woodland Beach Community Church, a white-frame structure built in 1938, has kept its name. So has the Woodland Beach Volunteer Fire Department. "Twelve or 13 years ago, someone came to us to change our name from Woodland Beach to Londontown," said station commander Bobby Howlin, 30. "That'll never happen. If you ask a lot of people who've been around here, this is Woodland Beach and will always be Woodland Beach."
Jerry McCoy doesn't know from Londontown, or London Towne. The Silver Spring resident knows only Woodland Beach after finding several signs with the name behind the plaster of his suburban home while remodeling its kitchen.
McCoy's bungalow, it turns out, once belonged to a D.C. police officer with a connection to the bayside community, which was, according to The Washington Post's 1931 sub-headline, "Just 32 Miles From Capital by Auto," a drive McCoy has taken since his unlikely discovery.
A history buff, McCoy is holding onto his Woodland Beach signs. He's even hanging one in his new kitchen. And, he plans to give one each to the Woodland Beach Fire Department and the Woodland Beach Community Church, two institutions that, London Towne notwithstanding, have clung proudly to the name.