By Victor Block
In 1733, a Quaker named Amos Janney settled in an isolated corner of Virginia and built grist and saw mills beside a narrow creek. About a decade later, a group of German immigrants established a community in Maryland that became a resting place for pioneers driving wagon trains to the West.
In 1761, English colonist Robert Harper launched a ferry service across the Potomac River and the settlement that evolved there still carries his name.
These historic towns within a short drive of Washington, D.C. relate chapters of American history as interesting as those explored in the Nation’ s Capital.
Waterford, the hamlet that grew around Janney’s Mill, is a bucolic hamlet of about 300 residents. The community has changed little in size and shape since its founding.
Visitors encounter traces of life as it used to be. Miniscule smokehouses and icehouses still stand in some backyards. A small stone structure that was built in the early 18th century serves as the kitchen of a 19th-century brick home. The Bank House and Doctor’s House are among homes whose names indicate their past function.
At the Waterford Market, antiquated soft drink machines dispense beverages for 50 cents. Linda Landreth, the jovial proprietor, is often on hand spinning wool provided by sheep she raises. She knits socks, ear warmers and other items that are for sale.
The sign identifying the little post office, which has been in operation since 1897, lacks a zip code because it was installed before they came into use.
Many Americans inaccurately believe that the Boston Tea Party was the first act of rebellion against Great Britain, which led to the Revolution. But, eight years before that event, in December 1773, colonists in Frederick, Maryland, repudiated the Stamp Act, which imposed a tax on legal transactions and printed material. Frederick County Court judges declared the law to be null and void, and angry residents reportedly hung the tax collector in effigy.
That often-overlooked fact is one of many that comes to life during a visit to Frederick. Originally laid out in 1745, the community was settled by German and Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants. During the American Revolution, the British stationed a Hessian regiment in town, and two stone barracks still stand as reminders of their presence.
During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate troops marched through. As battles raged in the area, the many churches in downtown Frederick became temporary hospitals. That tale is recounted at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.
One of the best-known anecdotes relating to the Civil War probably is fictional. Many people are familiar with the poem by John Greenleaf Whittier which lauds the bravery of Barbara Fritchie — a frail 95-year-old Unionist — as Confederate troops marched through the town in 1862. Most historians doubt that, as Whittier wrote, she waved the Stars and Stripes from an upstairs window and uttered the memorable challenge to “ Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag.” Nevertheless, a replica of the house where this incident did, or did not, occur continues to be a favorite site among visitors.
Whittier’s poem notes that the “clustered spires of Frederick stand greenwalled in the hills of Maryland,” and the church steeples still watch over the town. Many of the 2,500-plus other historic properties have been restored, and visitors encounter a streetscape little changed from its early days.
While most associate Harper’s Ferry with the quixotic story of the abolitionist John Brown, the West Virginia town also played a starring role in other chapters of the nation’s history. The town was the site of several Civil War skirmishes, is a treasure-trove of stories relating to African-American history, and is associated with important advances in American manufacturing.
While the town provided refuge for runaway slaves, it is the story of John Brown that most people know. In October 1859, he led a raid on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal, hoping to use captured weapons to launch a slave uprising throughout the South. Most of the raiders were killed or wounded, and Brown was convicted of treason and hung. But while his plan failed, it helped to focus attention on the issue of slavery and became a catalyst for the Civil War.
In terms of manufacturing, John Hall devised a way to manufacture rifles with interchangeable parts, using machinery to replace workers using hand-held tools. That invention helped to transform the United States from an economy of workshop craftsmen to one of industrialized mass production.