On the occasion of the United States Bicentennial celebration in 1976, the late Donald D. Skarda, erstwhile resident of Berwyn Heights, published a very good little history of this Town entitled “Berwyn Heights. A History of a Small Maryland Town.”1 A few copies are still in circulation among long time residents, and a handful are on file in the Town office. If you have one, treasure it or share it with a neighbor.
On the eve of this year’s Town election, it may be appropriate to recall how Berwyn Heights began. Skarda summarized it thus: “The Town of Berwyn Heights officially came into being on April 2, 1896, by an act of the Maryland General Assembly passed on that date.2 The Charter specified the corporate limits of the Town to include all and the same land contained in Edward Graves’ subdivision of the tract of land heretofore known as Charlton Heights…
The Charter of 24 Sections called for the election of three commissioners to serve for one year without pay to administer the affairs of the Town. They were authorized to appoint a Town Clerk to keep appropriate records, and a Bailiff to preserve peace and order in the Town. The commissioners were authorized to levy taxes on all real and personal property, but not to exceed ten cents on each hundred dollars of assessed valuation… 3
Section 7 specified that an election of commissioners was to be held on the first Monday in May in the year 1896, and named Dr. Adelbert H. Lee, Archie Thompson and Elijah G. Gate [Cate] as judges of the election. Yet for reasons unknown, there is no record that an election was ever held or that any other provisions of the charter were ever carried out,” commented Skarda.
Forty years later, I have yet to lay eyes on a report of the 1896 election, but in all likelihood an election was held. Thanks to the Internet, we now have access to a multitude of historic sources that were not available to Skarda. One of the most rewarding is the Library of Congress’ digitized historic newspaper collection. Here one can find an April 28,1896 Evening Times article4 reporting the nomination of 3 candidates, John C. Bonnet, John T. Burch, and Hezekiah S. Waple, to run for commissioners in the May 4, 1896 election. Clearly, plans for an election were being made.
Another clue that an election in fact took place can be gleaned from the Journals of the Maryland Assembly, which was called upon to resolve a conflict related to the next Town election. That election was held on May 3, 1897. William DeMott, Edwin A. Alger and James C. Brelsford were elected commissioners and for a time managed the affairs of the Town. This can be ascertained from at least 2 reports in newspapers of the day.5
Sometime during their term of office, the election was challenged because the Town’s commissioners – presumably those who were elected in 1896 – had failed to appoint election judges in accordance with the Town Charter. Instead, the eligible voters of the Town by agreement selected John C. Bonnet, John Dove and Mahlen C. Stolzenberg to oversee that election.6
The Maryland Assembly addressed the controversy during its next legislative session. The matter was first taken up on on February 8, 1898, and referred to a Committee of Senators Clagett, Gray and Bouie. The Act to Declare Valid the Election went through 3 readings in the Senate and the House before being signed by Governor Lloyd Lowndes on March 22, 1898.7 Yet despite the upholding of the 1897 election results, there appear to have been no other elections held under the 1896 Charter. It was not until 1924, after a new charter had been adopted,.8 that a regular Town government began to operate.
2 “An act to incorporate the town of Berwyn Heights in Prince George’s County,” Session Laws of the Maryland Assembly, 1896 Session, Volume 475, Page 450.
3 Skarda, p. 21.
6 “An Act to declare valid the election of William DeMott, Edwin A. Alger and James C. Brelsford as Commissioners of the town of Berwyn Heights, in Prince George’s county, on the first Monday in May, 1897, and to ratify and confirm the acts done by said Commissioners,” Session Laws of the Maryland Assembly, 1898 Session, Volume 482. Page 147.
7 Journal of Proceedings of the Senate of Maryland, January Session, 1898, pp. 220, 258, 317, 548, 892.
8 “Be it Enacted by the General Assembly of Maryland, that Chapter 267 of the Acts of 1896, entitled “An Act to incorporate the town of Berwyn Heights in Prince George’s County, ” be and the same is hereby repealed and re-enacted with amendments so as to read as follows…” Session Laws of the Maryland Assembly, 1924 Session, Volume 568. Page 1262.
On April 28, 1896, the residents of Berwyn Heights assembled in the spacious home of John C. Bonnet to nominate 3 suitable candidates for commissioners in the recently incorporated Town. They nominated Hezekier S. Waple, a merchant and postmaster of Berwyn, John T. Burch, Justice of the Peace, and John Bonnet. Thus reported the Evening Times in its April 28, 1896 edition.1
It so happens, we have additional information to share about the civic-minded host of this assembly, thanks to Robert Gray, a Bonnet descendant, who attended our 2015 Berwyn Heights Association centennial celebration.2 (For those who follow this blog, Mr. Gray is also related to the Benson family, which played such a large role in our Town’s history. He is a cousin of Jim Benson on his father’s side.)
John Bonnet (1834-1904) was born Johann Conrad Bonnet near Kassel, Germany. He was a tailor by trade, and around 1855 went to England with his brother Carl Ludwig, where they started a tailoring business in the Woolwich district of London. Johann married Marie Dorothea Raabe (1836-1911), a native of Kiel, northern Germany in March 1857. They had 8 children and several grew up to work in their father’s tailor shop.3
Their eldest son, Peter Louis, left for America in 1881,4 and opened his own tailor shop on 923 E Street, NW in Washington, DC.5 His sister, Maria Augusta, followed her brother in 1885, and was soon joined by two other sisters Johanette and Katrinka. In 1888, Johann and Marie Bonnet gathered up their youngest children Gustav and Emily and also came to America.6 With assistance from Peter Louis and his wife Mary, they purchased a property in the newly platted suburb of Charlton Heights in March 1891, and had a house built on lots 8, 9 and 10 in block 7.7 This classic box-style foursquare, described as a conspicuous landmark in a Prince George’s County historic survey, still stands at 5617 Seminole Street.
Once settled, the Bonnets joined Charlton Heights social circles, hosted card games and musical evenings8 and attended Berwyn Presbyterian Church.9 Johann, now John Bonnet, began investing in real estate, and with his wife purchased a score of tax sale properties in the vicinity.10 Several were located in Lakeland, but most were near their home in block 7. In 1897, John and Marie transferred the house to their son Gustav. In 1903, they purchased a 1½ acre parcel across the tracks in Berwyn where they built a pretty Victorian house,11 today located at 4816 Berwyn Road. That house passed to their daughter Emily and her husband Arthur B. Gahan, a renowned professor of entomology at the University of Maryland.12 Their daughter Winifred Gahan next owned the house and lived there until she died in November 2002.
You might ask what happened in the election and whether John Bonnet and his fellow nominees were in fact elected commissioners of Berwyn Heights. The short answer is ‘maybe’. A longer explanation must wait for another post.
3 Gray Vignettes.
4 Caspian (British Steamer) Passenger List, 1881
5 1890 D.C. Directory.
6 Gray Vignettes
7 Deed February 3, 1891, Charlton Heights Improvement Co. to Mary Bonnet, PGC Land Records JWB 25-515.
10 Bonnet in PGC Land Records, Grantee Index, 1848-1922
11 Deed April 22, 1903, Edward Daniels to John C. Bonnet, 1½ acres of former Reyburn tract, Book 11 Page 408.