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
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.