January-February 2019

Trading Place

How an old structure in Bethesda got its start as a spot for the beaver pelt business

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Photo illustration by Alice Kresse.


Around the year 1700, a stout band of Dutch traders trekked south from Pennsylvania and through the ancient forests of still-wild central Maryland, following Native American trails barely wide enough for man and horse to pass. Eventually the explorers reached what would become Bethesda. Here, they built a small stone dwelling along what the old land records called the “Indian path,” today’s River Road. They established a trading post, bartering with the Native Americans who still roamed the Potomac Valley.

Their rough one-story granite building was dominated by a great stone chimney rising up through the middle of the roof, an early form of central heating.

The Dutch built to last; their trading post still stands, now in the midst of suburban Bethesda along Allandale Road. Although larger stone sections were added in the 19th century, the original section survives. It is believed to be the oldest standing structure in Montgomery County.

The Dutch came to Bethesda to trade for pelts, which were insatiably in demand by affluent European fashionistas. All kinds of fur were to be had in the early 18th century—including the lustrous pelts of mink, ermine and fox—but one was desired above all others: beaver.

Starting in about 1550, beaver was popular in Europe, particularly for hats. They may seem an accessory today, but hats were a mandatory part of everyday dress for both sexes, and beaver hats were the most prized, from the broad-brimmed hats of 16th-century English royalty, to the conically shaped hats of 17th-century Pilgrims, to the tricornered hats of American patriots in the 18th century.

The Bethesda traders became part of a trans-Atlantic network. Beavers were hunted by native tribes, skinned and brought to the trading post to be exchanged for goods, such as iron knives and utensils, or hard currency. From Bethesda, the pelts were transported by pack animals down another old Native American trail—now Wisconsin Avenue—to ships waiting in the Potomac River and eventually bound for European markets.

Once in Europe, the outer coating of long, stiff hairs was removed to expose the shorter, softer hair beneath—the wool—which was sheared and then compressed into a solid piece of material. Beaver felt was stronger than any woven material and was water-repellent, holding its shape even when wet. Caustic vapors were released in the process, and the expression “mad as a hatter” dates from the period, as the vapors attacked the nervous systems of the workers.

By the end of the 18th century, Maryland’s beaver population had been hunted to near extinction in pursuit of fashion. Maryland’s beavers were spared total annihilation only by the rise in popularity of the lacquered silk top hat in the early 1800s. Today, beavers are again common throughout the state.

As for the old Bethesda trading post, it was no longer in business by the middle of the 18th century, the Native Americans having been pushed from the land. The old house was greatly expanded in 1847 by Nathan Loughborough, a former comptroller of the U.S. Treasury and an early advocate for D.C. residents; Loughborough revived the Revolutionary phrase “taxation without representation”—now on D.C. license plates—to protest paying property taxes in the District of Columbia with no vote in Congress. Despite the additions, the old stone trading post is still discernable. Though a fire destroyed the roof in 1930, the structure was repaired and the current homeowners use the space for bedrooms.