THE BERWYN HEIGHTS COMPANY, ORIGINS
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.
BERWYN HEIGHTS DAY 2016
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.
AMAZING PRESIDENTS’ DAY
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.
A CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION
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.