I meet many older students of history when doing research for the Berwyn Heights Historical Committee. But here I want to give a shoutout to a young man who is writing for WETA’s local history blog Boundary Stones.
Ben Shaw hails from College Park Estates (just south of our border) and grew up among us. He graduated from Eleanor Roosevelt High School and is about to finish his studies at the University of Maryland, College Park with a double major in English and History. His blog posts are about personalities, institutions and events that left an imprint on Washington and its outlying areas, with a focus on Prince George’s County. They range from the Wright brothers training of military pilots at College Park airport to the rise of UMD alumnus Jim Henson and his Muppets. Last year, Ben spent the summer as an intern at Archives II on Metzerott Road, which led to an article on how storage of government records evolved from “sticking them in a basement” to the high tech conservation of the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents at the National Archives today. He writes:
“…Initially, there was no real plan for preserving the Constitution. After its approval by the Continental Congress in 1787, it was kept for a few years by the secretary of the Constitutional Convention, Roger Alden. It passed briefly into the hands of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, after which it was shuttled from unremarkable storage building to unremarkable storage building for years. In 1814, when government officials and documents were being evacuated from Washington ahead of the advancing British army, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were unceremoniously stuffed in a sack along with assorted other documents and tossed on a cart. The Constitution spent the next century being shoved into storage space. It returned to the North Wing of the Treasury for forty years, and then spent an eleven-year stint at the Washington Orphan Asylum; from 1875 until 1921, the Constitution sat in the State Department’s basement, until it was finally moved to a place of honor in the Library of Congress…”
Ben’s articles are thoroughly researched and fun to read. You should check them out.
The Charlton Heights Improvement Company, the instrument for developing and marketing the subdivision of Charlton Heights between 1888 and 1892, had its main office at 933 F Street, near its intended clientele. At the time, F Street was a center of commerce in downtown Washington, not far from the Patent Office, the Census Office and the Pension Building, whose employees would have shopped and dined in the stores that lined the street. Also on this block was the old Masonic temple (still standing), a popular venue for meetings and celebrations of the numerous fraternal organizations then in existence. Several of the directors of the Charlton Heights Improvement Company, James Waugh, George Gibson, Chas Duncanson and John Miller, were prominent masons and likely frequented the temple to participate in masonic functions.
As it happens, native Washingtonian and local history enthusiast John De Ferrari features an F Street Stroll in his Streets of Washington blog It gives a detailed description of this section of the city at the turn of the 19th century and is well worth a look.
The day began with a glitch that had BHHC members scrounging for a canopy under which to set up the exhibits. A slightly damaged one was located in the Town office, which served just fine for the remainder of this bright, sunshiny day. Many visitors stopped by to chat, peruse the exhibits and pick up brochures.
This year the BHHC re-issued the Waugh Avenue (Berwyn Road) historic marker. The original one was dedicated in 2004 as the Committee’s first historic marker. Since then, we have learned much more about Waugh and the Charlton Heights venture, which makes up the first chapter in our Town’s history. The new marker corrects previous errors and puts Waugh’s role into context.
Waugh Avenue was named for James E. Waugh, one of seven Washington investors who in 1888 established the railroad suburb of Charlton Heights.¹ Waugh was the most committed to the project in the group. As the Secretary and General Manager of the Charlton Heights Improvement Company, he promoted the place tirelessly in the face of a deflating real estate market. He and a few associates pushed hard to sell properties to District residents, targeting particularly employees in the Treasury Department, where several of the Company’s directors had worked. Prospective buyers were shown around the development and promised a long list of planned improvements – from a first class opera house to a pleasure lake for boating and fishing – which never materialized. More troubling, buyers were asked to sign contracts binding them to monthly payments on lots purchased for which a deed of title was not always given. When the Charlton Heights Improvement Company went out of business in April 1892, law suits promptly piled into the D.C. Supreme Court, alleging fraud and demanding restitution.²
Waugh largely escaped the legal consequences through stalling maneuvers and withholding of documents. But he had gone deeply into debt to buy back a large number of lots from the Charlton Heights Improvement Company upon its dissolution.³ Many of these lots became the property of Jacob Tome, a wealthy Maryland Banker who had financed Waugh’s real estate dealings. Waugh died suddenly of a heart attack in May 1895. Much of his estate was distributed to creditors. In 1896, residents made a fresh start and had the subdivision incorporated as the Town of Berwyn Heights.
¹ “Charlton Heights Improvement Company Articles of Incorporation“, Library of Virginia.
² “Equity Case Files re: lawsuits against Charlton Heights Improvement Company, Charlton Heights Investment & Building Association,” Record Group 21, Entry 69, U.S. National Archives & Records Administration.
³ “Prince George’s County Land Records: JWB Book 22, Pages 44, 53,” Maryland State Archives.
On March 15, the BHHC had the pleasure of hosting Maya Davis for a rescheduled presentation on Slavery during the War of 1812.
Ms. Davis is a Research Archivist in the Legacy of Slavery at the Maryland State Archives. She also serves on an exhibition team for the soon to open Harriet Tubman State Park Visitor Center near Cambridge, MD. The visitor center will commemorate Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad helping fugitive slaves escape to freedom before emancipation.
Maya Davis said that her research into the War of 1812 yielded an unexpected wealth of information on the state of slavery in ante-bellum Maryland. A “Definitive List of Slaves and Property,” proved especially useful. It compiled claims of indemnity submitted by slave owners to the Department of State for the loss of slaves to the British. No less than 700 Maryland slaves, including women and children, escaped during the war, or were taken aboard British ships that had sailed into the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River for a blockade of Baltimore and the Capital City. Once freed, they became British soldiers, worked on the ships, or resettled in British colonies in Canada and the Caribbean.
Thanks to the work of Ms. Davis and her colleagues, the fate of many runaway slaves can now be traced in over 250 case studies posted at the Maryland State Archives website. The War of 1812 is but one aspect of a broader investigation into the history and legacy of slavery in Maryland. A group of scholars, archivists and volunteers has been engaged in an organized study of census and court records, laws, newspapers, and maps since 2001, and collected a body of information on slaves and the flight to freedom that can now be accessed at their website. A updated guide to Researching African American Families was published in 2018.
Despite freezing temperatures and icy roads, the BHHC’s annual Presidents’ Day reception was a round success. Guests came from California, Virginia, D.C. and Maryland to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Berwyn Heights Association. Many were descendants of the first President of the Association, Fred Hodges Benson, and enjoyed meeting up with distant relatives for the occasion and viewing the artifacts on display.
James Benson, who compiled a genealogy of his family, showed a video about his great grandparents Fred and Maude and their lives in Berwyn Heights. Another great-grandchild, Maureen Tobin, brought a most unexpected treasure: the minute book of the Berwyn Heights Company, passed down to her from her grandfather Clarence Benson. The Berwyn Heights Company was incorporated in November 1919 by Fred Benson, his son Clarence, and Association members Elwood Taylor, William Willard, and John McNitt, to buy, sell, lease and improve land in Berwyn Heights. It had purchased the remaining properties of the United Realty Company from a previous group of developers led by Congressman Samuel Yoder. Ms. Tobin graciously offered to loan the book to the BHHC to make a copy, which is sure to add valuable information to our historic record.
The event was capped by a presentation from former Councilman Darald Lofgren. Darald and his wife Sarah live in the house of Elwood J. Taylor, who was one of the most influential members of the Berwyn Heights Association. He variously served as its Treasurer and President and was in charge of the annual carnivals the Association held to raise funds for essential community projects. Darald and Sarah brought an old set of tools they found in their basement, and once were used by the Association to erect poles and string electric wires in Berwyn Heights. Darald summed it all up when he said it is amazing how one find – in this case the minute book of the Berwyn Heights Association – leads to another and helps piece together the past.
On January 28, 1915, residents of Berwyn Heights gathered at the home of Fred H. Benson and established the Berwyn Heights Association. Fred Benson was elected President and would lead the Association for most of its existence.
“The object of this association,” according to Article II of the Bylaws, was “to promote the interests of the residents of that sub-division of Prince George’s County, Maryland, known as Berwyn Heights and to form a body of representative citizens in this sub-division whose collective and combined influence and action will promote better conditions in the community.” To accomplish this, the Association sponsored a lineup of community events each year to raise the funds needed to maintain the roads, fix the school and clean up the Town. It also negotiated with State and County agencies to improve streetcar service, build a new school and, finally, to recharter the Town, which led to the establishment of the first functioning government in 1924.
The meetings of the Berwyn Heights Association were recorded in a minute book, believed lost and then found, which will be on display during the BHHC’s February 15, 2015 Presidents’ Day reception. James Benson, a great grand son of Fred and Margaret “Maude” Benson, plans to be present and share his memories about visiting Berwyn Heights as a child. Join the BHHC to celebrate this 100th birthday of the Association and rediscover this chapter of our Town’s past.
Here is an interesting video produced by UMBC’s Imaging Research Center (IRC) in 2010 visualizing early Washington DC. The IRC has worked with architectural historians, cartographers, engineers, and ecologists to assess the often-unreliable eyewitness accounts and sparse historical evidence to recreate a “best guess” glimpse of the early city. It ends with a surprising view of the U.S. Capitol and surroundings as it would have looked shortly before being burned down by the British.
On Saturday, September 20, the BHHC hosted the Cornell Club of Washington for lunch at the Town Center. The Club was touring the sites where Ezra Cornell lived and worked when he helped build the first telegraph line in 1843-44. The tour helped kick off the 150th anniversary celebrations of Cornell University, founded by Ezra Cornell in 1865.
Samuel Morse hired Cornell in 1843 to lay the cables for his experimental telegraph line along the tracks of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (now owned by CSX). Cornell built a plow to lay cables encased in a lead pipe in a trench between the B&O north and south-going tracks But during construction he encountered problems with the insulation of the wires. After further study, Cornell became convinced that it was better to string the wires on overhead poles. With Morse’s approval, he ended up building the telegraph line above ground in the spring of 1844, the wires strung atop glass insulators on the cross arms of chestnut poles.
While working in the Washington area, Cornell had interactions with Charles Benedict Calvert, who supported the inventors and gave permission for the telegraph line to cross his Riversdale estate. The first test message was sent from Riversdale to Washington on April 9, 1844, 45 days prior to the official initiation of Morse’s telegraph on May 24, 1844 with the sending of the message “What hath God wrought.”
Cornell went on to build more telegraph lines along the east cost and the mid west. He invested heavily in the business and pushed for consolidation and standardization. After merging with the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company in 1855, Cornell’s Western Union Telegraph Company became the dominant telegraph company in the country, and rapidly expanded its operations throughout most parts of the United States and Canada.
Robert Shea graciously shared a collection of memorabilia about his ancestor, Congressman Yoder, when he visited Berwyn Heights for this year’s historic marker dedication. The collection adds a personal dimension to the information already publicly available. Here then is the story of the talented and enterprising man who left behind the hardships of his childhood in a frontier farming community to rise to a position of wealth and influence in the nation’s capital.
Samuel Yoder was born in Berlin, Ohio on August 16, 1841, the second of 13 children of his Amish parents Yost Yoder and Nancy Hochstetler. His forebears came from Steffisburg, Switzerland in the early 18th century and initially settled in Pennsylvania. Samuel’s father died when he was 9 years old, and his mother re-married a widower, who had 11 children of his own. With so many children in one household, the oldest children, including Samuel, were placed with other families and made to work to earn their keep.¹ Samuel’s older brother Noah remembered with bitterness the low regard and mistreatment they received because their family was poor.²
The four oldest Yoder brothers soon left the community and, contrary to Amish teachings against taking up arms, joined the Union Army during the Civil War. Samuel enlisted on April 19, 1862 as a private in Company D of the 128th Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry and rose to Second Lieutenant in the 178th Regiment. He managed to get through the war without a major injury, but his younger brothers Moses and Jacob died. Noah was severely injured in battle and lost a leg.³
After the war, Samuel studied medicine at Michigan State University. In 1868, he settled in Bluffton, Ohio and started practicing medicine. On October 6, 1870, he married Minerva Maxwell (1851-1919), daughter of Abner and Matilda Maxwell. Their first two children died in infancy. The first child that lived, Early D., was born on February 19, 1875, followed by Elfie A. on August 15, 1878, and Samuel S. Jr. on February 9, 1886.
Although his medical practice was thriving, Yoder’s life took a different direction after he was elected Mayor of Bluffton in 1874. He became interested in politics and began to study the law in Lima, Ohio. He was admitted to the bar in 1880, elected Probate Judge of Allen County in 1881 and re-elected in 1885. While residing in Lima, he became a leading member of the Allen County Democratic Party and served as chair of the Central Committee until 1886.
In 1886, Judge Yoder was elected to Congress as the democratic representative of Ohio’s 4th district. He moved his family to Washington, and purchased a stately brick home at 203 Maryland Avenue, NE, just a short walk from the Capitol. He served in the 50th and 51st Congress, where he earned a reputation as an advocate for civil war veterans. As chair of the Invalid Pensions Committee, he passed an Increase Pension bill for civil war veterans. He declined to run for a third term but served as Sergeant-at-Arms in the 52nd Congress.
His congressional career behind him, Yoder turned his attention to private business. For the next 20 years, he incorporated, invested in, and led several for-profit corporations. He served as President of the Board of Directors of the National Glass Company, a trust that controlled the glass and ceramic manufacture in the country; General Manager of the United Realty Company of D.C.; Washington Branch Manager of the Pneumatic Water Works Company of New York; and finally President of the Berwyn Heights Land and Manufacturing Company and the Washington, Spa Spring and Gretta Railroad.
In one of his ventures, Yoder journeyed to remote Sand Forks, WV in November 1900, where oil had just been discovered. The Copley Gusher initially produced close to 6,000 barrels of oil a day and attracted many prospectors. Yoder secured a claim on a nearby farm, and wrote about it in the Lima Times Democrat.4 (He may have been inspired by, or had a connection to the Lima oil field, which at the time, was one of the most productive in the country.5)
Throughout his life, Yoder maintained an affiliation with a variety of voluntary organizations. He was a life-long member of the Union Veterans Union in which he served as commander-in-chief (“General Yoder”) from 1891-1893, as well as of the Grand Army of the Republic, Burnside Post No. 8, both organizations that represented Civil War soldiers. Yoder was also a 32° mason and a member of several masonic and fraternal organizations in Ohio and Washington.6
Samuel Yoder’s last years were marked by the failure of the Berwyn Heights venture, ill health and the death of his wife in 1919. He died from cancer on May 9, 1921 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Plot: Section 3, Lot 4093.
¹ “A Yoder in Congress,” Yoder Newsletter No. 8, pp. 1,4.
² “Peace and Patriotism in the Mid-West,” Mennonites, Amish and the American Civil War, James O. Lehman and Stephen M. Nolt, pp. 120-122.
³ Noah Webster Yoder, Descendants of Jacob Hochstetler, the immigrant of 1736, Harvey Hostetler, Brethren Publishing House, IL, 1912, p. 699.
4 “Copley is visited by one of Lima’s Prominent People,” The Times Democrat. Lima, OH, November 23, 1900 (Shea Collection)
5 “Golden Rule Jones of Ohio,” American Oil & Gas Historical Society.
6 “Samuel S. Yoder, War Veteran, Dies,” Evening Star, May 11, 1921. (Shea Collection)
Favored with beautiful weather after days of pouring down rain, our Town celebrated another wonderful Berwyn Heights Day. The Historical Committee had prepared two dedications. In the morning, the Town Council dedicated a newly-renovated conference room, named for the late Geraldine “Jerry” Love, who used to run a small Town library in that location. Two of her sons, former Mayor Tom Love and his brother William were in attendance. They were happy that Mrs. Love’s many years of volunteer work in the library were thus honored.
After the parade, the Historical Committee unveiled this year’s historic marker, which commemorates the story of the Washington, Spa Spring & Gretta Railroad, or WSSGRR for short. This streetcar company, which ran between 15th and H Street, NE in the District of Columbia and Berwyn Heights, by way of Bladensburg and Riverdale, operated between 1910 and 1923. Despite it’s less than stellar service record, WSSGRR helped spur development in these communities. Berwyn Heights saw a steady influx of well-to-do D.C. residents during this period. In 1915, they organized the Berwyn Heights (Citizen) Association and, in 1924, they had the Town rechartered to form a fully functioning government.
The Historical Committee was very pleased that Robert Shea made the trip from Connecticut to participate in the ceremony. Mr. Shea is the great grandson of former Congressman Samuel S. Yoder, who invested his personal fortune to build WSSGRR, and put Berwyn Heights real estate back on the market.