Nothing needs to be said about the weather this Berwyn Heights Day, except it was ill suited for the occasion. Regardless, an intrepid crew of Historical Committee members set up a tent and exhibits and chatted with residents who came out to celebrate.
The highlight was a tour of the Berwyn Heights museum. A half dozen participants crowded into the small room to listen to a presentation by Kerstin Harper on the museum’s holdings. Committee member Sharmila Bhatia pointed out that a significant number of the artifacts were donated by the Lofgren family. The latest addition were a recently-mounted set of long-handled tools. The tools were once used by the Berwyn Heights Association to erect poles for street lights after Pepco got around to bringing electricity into the community in 1921. Other artifacts from the Taylor Lofgren house include a wooden Waugh Avenue street sign (which served as a stopper board in a wood stack before it was rescued), and a 1910 United Realty map of the Berwyn Heights subdivision showing the original street names.
Ms. Harper said the extent of the BHHC collection is not obvious from the artifacts displayed in the museum, as it comprises many documents, photos, maps and books stored in a cabinet, or in electronic format. A series of minute books from the Town’s early years were found stashed away in a Town safe a couple of years ago. The BHHC scanned them and will make the electronic copies available to anyone interested in reading them.
This year’s exhibit featured the Edward Graves’ mansion (see puzzle ‘varges snowmain’ in April Bulletin), better known as St. Ann’s orphanage. The mansion was raised in 1958 to make way for Berwyn Heights Elementary School. Next to James Waugh, Graves (1845-1910) was the founder of the Charlton Heights suburb, who most influenced its development. He had the land subdivided in 1887, served as treasurer of the Charlton Heights Improvement Company (CHIC) – the real estate company for the development – and bought back half of the land when CHIC went out of business in 1892. Unlike for Waugh, for Graves Charlton Heights was not the main source of income. He was co-owner with his uncle Benjamin Charlton of the prosperous Havenner Bakery in north-west D.C. He and his wife Katherine kept selling lots and leasing homes in the development until around 1907.
“This charming bungalow nestling in a setting of trees represents one of the best pieces of work of our master designers. Individuality is portrayed in all its lines and it is distinctly American in character. Sunshine implies cheerfulness, happiness and light. Could a more fitting name be given to this home?” (1920 Aladdin Co. Catalogue)
This 3-bedroom, 1-bath craftsman bungalow with south-facing front porch sits on lot 9 in block 32 at 5906 Pontiac Street. It was one of the properties conveyed by William H. Willard to the Berwyn Heights Company in December 1919 to form part of the start-up inventory of this resident-owed real estate company. Willard was a carpenter by trade and built several homes in Berwyn Heights, possibly including the Sunshine. His background was certainly useful, when he joined the Berwyn Heights Company in November 1919. He served as the Company’s Secretary until 1925, and supervised construction and remodeling activities in Company-owned homes.
The Sunshine was owned by Frank Chandler, a draftsman for the Granite Company, when Willard purchased an option in the property, which he then turned over to the Berwyn Heights Company. The Company listed the property for $3,700 in April 1920, including the adjacent lots 6,7 and 8. George and Mary Donovan bought it in May, 1920 and had it until April 1929. More recently, it has been owned by former Berwyn Heights Mayor, Jadie McDougald, who sold it to the Enderson family in 1978.
Berwyn Heights Company Minute Book
Prince George’s County Land Records
Join us on Sunday, March 26 at 2 p.m for a wine and cheese reception and help us remember the post-War era in Berwyn Heights. Our oral history team will host a moderated discussion about what our Town was like in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. We have so many questions:
- Which restaurants and shops were on Greenbelt Road?
- How was Sports Park built?
- Who led the Cub Scouts, Blue Birds and Boys & Girls Club?
- Community center on the Doyle property?
- What was school like?
- What was the Berwyn Heights Citizen Association doing?
- Town taxes for storm water system construction?
The November 13 premiere of the BHHC highlights reel (click to view) of interviews with long-time residents was attended by some 30 appreciative guests. In the conversation that followed the presentation, they shared memories of movie nights at the Town Center, cub scouts, sledding on un-plowed streets, hand delivery of the Town’s tax bills, and a story about how Good Luck Road got its name. Many expressed interest in participating in a new round of oral histories the BHHC plans to conduct.
Join us Sunday, November 13 for our wine and cheese reception. Our members have worked hard to produce an interesting “highlights reel” of oral histories with long-time residents of Berwyn Heights. It will be shown on an old screen that was possibly in service when one interviewee, Bill Armistead, helped host movie nights at the Town Center. (We hope to confirm this with those attending the event)
Another of the interviewees is the late Bettie Procise, who grew up in the 1940s with sisters Leah and Ruth Sauer on a half-acre farm on Ruatan Street. The rural look of the Town at that time is captured in a book of drawings Bettie’s Sister Ruth Ellsworth produced for the BHHC in 2005, which will be on display.
Bettie Procise’s interview partner is Mary Lou Milstead, daughter of former Town commissioner and Volunteer Fire Department president Fred Frost. You might catch up with her at this event.
Imagine an aerial cableway in Berwyn Heights transporting sand from block 34, located across from the Elementary School front entrance, to a brick making factory at the railroad tracks. This came close to being reality in early 1907 when the Columbia Brick Company purchased 25 acres at Berwyn Heights. “This property comprises a splendid factory site located on the Baltimore & Ohio, and some sand hills back of this site…The sand will be conveyed from the hills by a gravity-cable-bucket conveyor to the factory. The factory itself will have a capacity of 80,000 bricks per day… and is expected to be in full operation by the end of March…”1
The undertaking was another brainchild of Congressman Samuel S. Yoder, whose syndicate of developers left no avenue untried in revitalizing the suburb of Berwyn Heights. With partners W. W. Poultney and B. M. Harvey, Yoder incorporated the Berwyn Land & Manufacturing Corporation in 1905, a development cooperative to fund improvements and promote industry in the subdivision. Any investor purchasing lots valued at least $250 in the subdivision was issued $100 of stock in the Corporation to help finance the construction of a sand lime brick factory, a concrete hollow block factory, a terra cotta plant and a gravel wash plant, taking advantage of the sand, gravel and clay found here in abundance.2
To get the brick making business underway, Yoder granted an equal share in the properties to Clayton E. Emig (1862-1940), a prominent D.C. Lawyer and President of the North Washington Citizen Association. The properties were subject to a first lien of $7,775 out of the money arising from the organization of the brick factory, payable to Yoder before Emig and the Columbia Brick Company would reap any benefit out of the premises.3 Although the brick factory and cargo tramway were not built, it shows that other futures were possible for this now quiet, residential community. The land granted to Emig was later absorbed by the Berwyn Heights Company.
The remnants of the old central files of the Town of Berwyn Heights contain a document dated 1928 and entitled “Lots and Owners in the Town of Berwyn Heights, Prince George’s County, MD.” It is a list of property owners, arranged by block and lot, assembled for the purpose of assessment and taxation. Interesting in many respects, it is noteworthy for showing a very large number of lots belonging to the Berwyn Heights Company. How did this come about?
The Berwyn Heights Company was incorporated in November 1919 to buy, sell and improve real estate in Berwyn Heights. Fred Benson was President, Elwood Taylor, Vice President, William Willard, Secretary and John McNitt Treasurer. John Gardiner acted as General Counsel. Major Clarence Benson, son of Fred and Margeret Benson, also served on the board and would later become President.1 All these men were also key members of the Berwyn Heights (Citizens) Association, which they helped establish in 1915.
Most of the land the Berwyn Heights Company came to own previously belonged to the United Realty Company of Washington, D.C. and was purchased for $11,700 from John Seymore T. Waters, Trustee, at public auction in October 1919. (The land was placed in trust with Waters in 1913 by United Realty managers to secure a debt.) The transaction included 509 mostly unimproved lots comprising 125 acres, or nearly a third of the land making up the subdivision.2 At the same time, Berwyn Heights Company Treasurer John McNitt bought the Sportland subidivision with 135 lots and comprising some 15 acres from August J. Wiegman, who had subdivided it after purchasing it from Campbell Carrington in 1903.3
In the months following incorporation, the Company continued to acquire smaller sets of lots, some from its board members, and some from tax sales. Another substantial acquisition came by assignment from Clayton E. Emig for all or most lots in blocks 1, 2, 12 and 34. Emig had been granted an equal share in these properties by Berwyn Heights developer and former Congressman Samuel S. Yoder in 1907 to promote the establishment of a brick making factory.4
It was not an accident that the Berwyn Heights Company ended up with United Realty Company assets. Fred Benson, who presided over both the Berwyn Heights Association and the Berwyn Heights Company, had served on the board of directors of United Realty when Congressman Yoder and associates launched the Berwyn Heights venture in 1906.5 He was certainly familiar with the plans to make Berwyn Heights a suburban destination, as well as an early investor. He purchased the property (lots 22, 23, 26, 27, block 14) where he would move his family from William W. Poultney in July 1907.6
Poultny was a core member of the United Realty management team, and served variously as President, Vice President and Secretary. His name appears on many deeds of the properties United Realty purchased from the Tome Institute starting in 1906. Benson had worked with Poultney in the Office of the Secretary of the Treasury Department,7 and after earning his law degree from Columbian University (George Washington University) in 1905, became a partner in a D.C. law firm with Richard P. Evans and William W. Poultney.8 In October 1909, Benson and Poultney incorporated the Berwyn Heights Building & Improvement Company with Robert Armour, Charles Eldridge and William Smyser, who also served on the board of United Realty.9 In short, Fred Benson had a close and long-standing connection with the group of investors that sought to restart the development of Berwyn Heights. So, when a big chunk of United Realty properties were sold at auction, the Berwyn Heights Company was ready to buy them.
1 Minutes of the First Meeting of the Board of Directors, Berwyn Heights Company (BH Co.) Minute Book, 20 November 1919.
2 “Berwyn Heights Company Purchases 125 Acres,” Evening Star, 1 November 1919. and Deed dated 28 October 1919, J.S.T. Waters et.al. Trustee to BH Co, Prince George’s County Land Records, Book 168, p. 148.
3 Deed dated 28 October 1919, A.J. Wiegman to J. McNitt, PGC Land Records, Book 143, p. 166.
4 Assignment dated 17 February 1920, C.E. Emig to BH Co., PGC Land Records, Book 151, p. 43.
5 “Berwyn Heights, A Suburb of Washington, D.C., the Nation’s Capital,” United Realty Co. Pamphlet, ca. 1906, p. 12.
6 Deed 3 July 1907, W.W. Poultney to F.H. Benson, PGC Land Records, Book 40, p. 360.
7 U.S. Register of Civil, Military and Naval Service, 1901, p. 61.
8 Law Firm Advertisement, The Washington Herald, 3 January 1907, p. 3.
9 Incorporation Notice, The Washington Herald, 29 October 1909, p. 11.
“The Detroit No. 1 is a sensible and certainly very attractive story-and-a-half house. Its lines are well-proportioned, its interior rooms carefully placed, and it has never failed to give the best satisfaction to all owners.” (1923 Aladdin Co. Catalogue)
Town resident William H. Willard (1862-1963) built this home on lots 1-3 in block 20 and sold it to the Berwyn Heights Company in December 1919 as part of a larger package of properties that came to make up the Company’s startup inventory. Willard was a leading member of the Berwyn Heights Association before he, Fred Benson, Clarence Benson, Elwood Taylor, and John McNitt organized the Berwyn Heights Co. He continued to own and develop lots privately, as well, and was appointed one of three assessors serving the first Town government following the 1924 election.
From 1919 until 1922 the Berwyn Heights Company built and acquired several kit homes in Berwyn Heights, which it then leased or sold. Upon completion in 1921, the Detroit was put on the market for $6,500 and leased to a Mr. Nicholson. In May 1923, Anna M. Myers purchased the house for 5,750, but lost it in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash. The Prince George’s Bank foreclosed on her mortgage and auctioned off the property. Clarence Benson, President of the Berwyn Heights Company at the time, bought it back for $2,900 (the remainder of the mortgage) with private funds, until the Company had enough money take it off his hands.
The Detroit was then leased to Fred Frost, a former Town Commissioner, and sold to him and his wife for $5,000 in June 1938. The Detroit was again sold in December 1944 to Charles H. Millard and wife. This ended the involvement of the Berwyn Heights Co. with this property. The house continued to change hands and was sold most recently this spring for $254,000.
Berwyn Heights Co. Minute Book
Maryland Land Records
With luck, the Historical Committee celebrated another successful Berwyn Heights Day. The tents of vendors and community groups were set up on Berwyn Road bridge because Sports Park field was too muddy after a week of steady rains. Fortunately, the rain had stopped and the sun was out between patches of clouds.
Last year the BHHC celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Berwyn Heights Association. This year we dedicated the street marker and published a brochure that highlights the important accomplishments of the Association between 1915 and 1924.
Descendants of Fred H. Benson, the first President of the Association, honored the dedication ceremony with their presence. Steven Ring, his daughter Nicole, and brother Patrick had made the trip from Fairfax, Gaithersburg, and Annapolis to be here. Steve and Patrick are the sons of Doris Benson Ring, daughter of Howard Benson, son of Fred and Margaret Benson.
In our tent, we showcased the pole climbers (see puzzle in the April Bulletin) the Association used to repair the street lights. This and other Association equipment was donated to the BHHC museum by the Lofgren family, who found them in their shed. The Lofgrens bought the property that previously belonged to Elwood Taylor. Taylor served first as treasurer and then as president of the Berwyn Heights Association, and was in charge of planning a carnival the Association held each summer to raise money for essential community projects. The street marker will be posted in front of this home.
“The Berwyn Heights subdivision consists of [approximately] 400 acres, divided into 1,600 lots, improved by 13 miles of 60 to 70 feet wide streets, graded, graveled and guttered sidewalks, with 80 residences on the Heights and nearby vicinity, occupied by a sprinkling of Congressmen and army officers, but principally by U.S. Government employees.”
This description comes from a letter written by Congressman Samuel S. Yoder to the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) in November 1920. It was one of a series of letters in a campaign organized by the Berwyn Heights Association (BHA) to stop the closing of the Washington Interurban Railroad (formerly Washington, Spa Spring & Gretta Railroad) between Riverdale and Berwyn Heights.
The Berwyn Heights Association will be the subject of the next BHHC street marker. This citizen association functioned as the quasi-government of Berwyn Heights between 1915 – 1924. Its core business was to maintain the walks and streets in the subdivision, but frequently the Association worked with County and State agencies to improve living conditions in the community.
One concern repeatedly addressed at Association meetings was the sub-par streetcar service of the Washington Interurban Railway. The streetcar was the reason many residents had bought property in Berwyn Heights, believing that it would spur renewed development. However, the streetcar had gone bankrupt in 1914 and was sold to a subsidiary of the Washington Railway & Electric Company (WRECO). There were problems with the line almost from the start, including unreliable service, under-powered and outdated cars and later neglected tracks. Not surprisingly, this resulted in low ridership and a truncated schedule.
In September 1920, the streetcar owners asked the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) for permission to close the segment between Riverdale and Berwyn Heights. The request was approved in March 1921, but not before the BHA had put up a valiant fight. It organized a letter-writing campaign, conducted a survey of riders, enlisted the good offices of its Congressman, Sidney Mudd, and demanded the PSC hold a public hearing on the closure. When the PSC nonetheless approved the closure, the Association appealed the decision and delayed the end for a couple more months.
The PSC case file on the streetcar closure contains a wealth of information on Berwyn Heights, including a number of images of the streetcar line and newly built homes, many of which were kit houses ordered by mail.
Minutes of the Berwyn Heights Association, 1915-24.
Public Service Commission Case File 1900, Maryland State Archives