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.
1 Donald D. Skarda, Berwyn Heights: History of a Small Maryland Town, 1976
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.
4 “Berwin Heights Items,” Evening Times, 28 April, 1896, p. 4.
5 “Town Commissioners Elected,” Evening Times, 4 May, 1897, p.2; and “Prince George’s County Items,” Evening Star, 3 July, 1897, p.20
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.