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
After the death of Fred Benson, who led the Berwyn Heights (Citizen) Association from 1915-21, the Benson family remained a significant presence in Berwyn Heights. As stockholders in the Berwyn Heights (Building & Improvement) Company, Margaret and her son Clarence continued to sell lots in Berwyn Heights. Margaret was active in the Berwyn Presbyterian Church and, in 1940, was the first woman to run for the Berwyn Heights Town Council (then functioning as a Board of Commissioners). She fell short by 2 votes.
The eldest son Howard Livingston Benson (1890-1938) worked as a manager for Chase Bank in several locations throughout Central America. In Panama he married Sarah Veysett and they had 5 children. Howard Benson was on the verge of opening his own bank, when his promising career was cut short by the banking crisis of 1933, during which President Franklin Roosevelt closed all banks to stop the run on banks. The children were sent to live with their grandmother in Berwyn Heights and graduated from Hyattsville High School. Howard followed them later. He was elected to the Berwyn Heights Board of Commissioners in May 1938, but died of a heart attack during a hunting and fishing trip in August 1938.
The second son Clarence C. Benson (1891-1951), a 1914 West Point Graduate, had an illustrious career as a U.S. Army cavalry officer and was a pioneer of tank warfare. During World War II, he served as a combat officer in North Africa and the China-India-Burma theatre and, in 1943, was awarded the Silver Star for distinguished service and the Oak Leaf Cluster for gallantry in action.
Author: Kerstin Harper
Sources: James Benson Ancestry.com family tree; Town of Berwyn Heights records