Nearly forty guests attended our 100th Anniversary of the founding of the Berwyn Heights Company. Lively discussion about the Company and Berwyn Heights history started even before the event with the hoisting of two large old maps and placing of exhibits during morning setup, and continued on a larger scale at the reception.
Once everyone had sampled our choice buffet and drinks, BHHC chair Richard Ahrens welcomed those present and unveiled the historic marker. Former chair Dave Williams made time to create the layout and fabricate the mockup. Thanks Dave.
For the presentation, we were happy to have Bruce Tobin with us, who supplied interesting details about the Company’s CEOs, his grandparents Clarence and Helen Benson, his uncle William Benson and his parents Mildred and Robert Tobin. Bruce also brought the original BH Company Minute Book, which got this whole celebration started.
The slideshow would not have happened if BHHC vice chair Sharmila Bhatia had not proposed it. Great idea, but a lot of work. The slideshow itself was based on many photos and documents collected by James Benson on his ancestry.com account, which he graciously opened to us. Unfortunately, Jim was not able to join us from his home on the west coast, but he may like to see the product. And others might, too. Please click image to view.
This 6-room,1-bath mail order house located at 8409 58th Avenue was built in 1920 – 1921 by the Berwyn Heights Company.1 It was purchased by Catherine A. Moulton (1874-1938) and her daughters Monemia and Parthia, joint tenants, in February 1922.2 Prior to purchasing the home, Catherine lived in Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She was married to Francis J. Moulton (1868-1909), who worked as an oysterman off Hooper’s Island in the Chesapeake Bay.3 They had 5 children: twin girls Monemia and Parthia born in 1901, then Howard (1903), Charles (1905) and Lilly (1909).4
Catherine, nee Fitzpatrick, was an immigrant. She came to America from Ireland with her family in April 1887 aboard the ocean liner City of Montreal.5 Francis, on the other hand, grew up in a prominent New England family. He was born in France to Charles Raymond and Lillie (Greenough) Moulton.6 His Moulton ancestors had first settled in Saalem, MA in the late 1600s, and their English forebears trace their lineage to Thomas Moulton who fought with William the Conqueror in the Battle of Hastings in 1066.7
Charles R. Moulton was a wealthy banker, and a son of Charles F. Moulton, a merchant from Troy, NY, who had accumulated a great fortune in the cotton trade. Charles Sr. was a personal friend of Louis Napoleon, and he and his family moved to Paris when Napoleon became Emperor of France in 1852.8 The Moultons owned several houses in and near Paris, including the Chateau de Petit Val, where Charles Jr. and his wife Lillie would reside after their marriage. Lillie was a famous soprano and an appreciated guest at the court of Louis Napoleon. She gave performances in Paris’ high society and counted among her friends such important composers as Liszt, Wager, Rossini, Gounod and Auber.9 After the fall of Napoleon III in 1870, the Moultons returned to the United States, where Charles died. In 1875, Lillie married the Danish diplomat, Johann de Hegermann-Lindencrone, whom she followed to Washington and a number of European capitals where he served. Her life in Paris and as a diplomats wife is chronicled in two books of letters she published in 1911 and 1913.10
Lillie’s children were raised with the help of nurses. After her return to America, they stayed with her family at Fay House in Cambridge, MA and went to school there.11 Considering the upbringing, it is a bit of a mystery how the Moulton scion Francis ended up working the oyster grounds of the Chesapeake Bay. But the leap is perhaps not as great as it might first appear.
In the late 1800s, the Chesapeake Bay was experiencing an oyster boom that drew men in search of profit from many places, in particular from New England. The once thriving New England oyster industry had gone into decline because its oyster beds had been depleted. But the Chesapeake seemed to have an inexhaustible supply. In the peak year of 1884, 15 million bushels of oysters were harvested in the Chesapeake, representing nearly half of the world’s supply.12 A reporter for Harper’s Magazine described the boom as “simply a mad scramble carried on in 700 boats manned by 5,600 daring and unscrupulous men.”13 The scramble pitted mostly local watermen, who “tonged” for oysters in the shallow waters of the river deltas, against outsiders, or “oyster pirates,” who “dredged” in deeper waters, but gradually encroached on the tongers’ territory. This resulted in numerous violent clashes and often death. The efforts of the Maryland Oyster Navy to restore order during the Chesapeake Oyster Wars were largely ineffective.14
All things considered, Francis’ illustrious ancestry did not have much practical significance in his adult life. He died in March 1909 at the age of 41 from inflammation of the kidneys and acute bronchitis,15 possibly the result of working in the icy waters of the Chesapeake during the winter oyster season. Catherine was left to raise their children. The year 1920 finds her living in Vienna, Dorchester County, where she was employed as a laborer, while her sons worked as farm hands.16 Her daughters Monemia and Parthia both attended Maryland State Normal School (Towson University).17 After graduating in 1920, the Misses Moulton first lived in Washington, D.C., where Monemia was a clerk in the Commerce Department,18 before moving to Berwyn Heights. The Berwyn Heights house was sold in August 1939, a year after Catherine died, to Arthur and Mabel Shank.19 Catherine and two of her children are buried at Fort Lincoln Cemetery.
1 Berwyn Heights Company Minute Book, Page 64
2 Deed, 4 February 1922, Berwyn Heights Company to Catherine A. Moulton, Monemia Moulton & Parthia Moulton, Prince George’s Land Records, Book 237, Page 357.
3 U.S. Census Record, 1900.
4 U.S. Census Record, 1910.
5 City of Montreal Passenger List, 19 April 1887.
7 Miller, Charles C., and Samuel A. Baxter, eds. “The History of Allen County, Ohio and Representative Citizens.,” Chicago: Richmond & Arnold, 1906. Page 805.
8 Miller and Baxter. Page 809.
11 U.S. Census record, 1880.
13 Wennersten, John R. “The Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay,” Tidewater Press, 1981. Page 55.
16 U.S. Census record, 1920.
17Maryland State Normal School. Book of the Senior Class, Vol. I. Towson MD, 1919. Page 60.
18 D.C. City Directory, 1922.
19 Deed, 10 August 1939, Prince George’s Land Records, Book 538, Page 67.
“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
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 163, 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
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.