November-December 2009

Gaithersburg

After a spirited attempt to replace Rockville as the county seat failed, Gaithersburg progressed along a different path than its next-door neighbor.

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In 1949, volunteers from area 4-H clubs built the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair complex on Gaithersburg’s Chestnut Street, near the handsome, Victorian-era railroad station. The choice of Gaithersburg for the complex was a symbolic one: It recalled the town’s longtime role as a market for county farmers.

About that time, signs that read “No Hog Raising in Corporate Limits” were erected in downtown Gaithersburg, as if to underline the steady urbanization of the area. But the city council’s agenda still reflected a small-town atmosphere. A report from the “committee for reducing the porch at Byrne Store” dominated one meeting in 1952. Gaithersburg’s population hadn’t reached 2,000 yet.

The town took its name from the Gaither family of Virginia, which traced its lineage back to the Jamestown Colony. The Gaithers married into Maryland families with money and land, and shortly after the Revolutionary War, one member, Benjamin Gaither, moved with his bride Margaret to her 200 acres of dowry land on what would become the Georgetown- Frederick turnpike (now Frederick Avenue, at the intersection with Diamond Avenue).

Montgomery’s first farmers had concentrated on tobacco, the cash crop of the mid-Atlantic colonies. The county’s poor soil, though, could only produce the less desirable burley tobacco. And within a few decades, even cheap tobacco couldn’t command prices worth cultivation. Gaither and others discovered that corn and wheat, along with clover and pasture grasses, was a more profitable form of agriculture, as improved roads to Washington and Baltimore stimulated sales.

In addition to farming on a plot of land he named “Self Preservation,” Benjamin Gaither built a blacksmith shop, tavern and store to serve travelers on the Georgetown-Frederick road. He owned 11 slaves in 1824, but within four years was declared insolvent, an apparent victim of the economic turbulence during the early decades of the 19th century.

Even so, farming flourished here, and soon a modest town emerged whose leaders aspired to replace Rockville as the county seat. Not surprisingly, it was James Gaither, Benjamin’s son, who initiated the campaign. Mostly a friendly competition, in the winter of 1881 it took the form of a parade of more than 100 sleighs. Organized to demonstrate the town’s resolve, the sleighs pulled a miniature model of the courthouse that Gaithersburg aspired to build.

The bid for the county seat was daring, considering the town had only incorporated three years earlier and boasted a mere 200 citizens. And ultimately, it failed. James Gaither was aging and distracted by family problems, including “several scandals and lawsuits involving… his sister Eveline, his first wife’s grandniece, and his spouses,” according to the city’s official history notes.

If the initiative was doomed, it did have a payoff for Gaithersburg residents, who in vying for the honor made sure they had one of everything that a self-respecting American town had in those days. These included a drama club, a literary society and a hotel whose dinner dances sometimes lasted until 5 a.m.

That last activity led to the formation of a branch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which attempted to halt clandestine trafficking in liquor, and to reform alcoholics.

Town residents also organized baseball teams, giving rise to what the city’s official history book refers to as “Gaithersburg’s one truly comic episode.” An ordinance passed in the early 1890s prohibiting various offenses placed the sport in the same category as using profanity, lighting firecrackers and discharging rifles in the streets. The town’s strict Methodists argued that baseball was the first step down a slippery slope that led to gambling and drinking.

Ironically, the only person who apparently went to jail for violating the baseball ordinance was a former Gaithersburg sheriff named Frank Ferrell, who did a few hours in the town’s lockup in 1894.

Lawsuits were threatened against the town over the dispute, but it was eventually resolved amicably and by 1900 the prohibition was dropped and Gaithersburg teams were playing visiting clubs.

Ferrell, meanwhile, found work as the one-man staff of the Gaithersburg phone company—the first in Montgomery County to provide such a service. Advances such as this, along with the availability of trains to Washington every morning at 6:30, were by now attracting Gaithersburg’s first commuters. Small industry grew. The Gaithersburg Milling and Manufacturing Company was started in 1891, followed by a second flour mill in 1917, which included a grain elevator, fertilizer mixing plant and canning factory. Water service and sewage facilities were running in the town by 1924.

Science gained a foothold in the town, as well. In 1899, a modest U.S. government observatory was built to study the Earth’s rotation. And in the 1950s, ground was broken on 555 acres of farmland at Clopper Road for a newly established federal facility known today as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST.

NIST eventually brought an estimated 4,000 jobs to the area. The town’s population jumped from 3,487 in 1960 to 26,420 in 1980, and by that time, Gaithersburg was calling itself a city, albeit one still perceived by some as just another faceless Washington suburb.

In fact, Gaithersburg gained distinction by becoming one of the first jurisdictions in the country to experiment with “new urbanist” design, an effort to recreate a Main Street atmosphere in the midst of suburban sprawl. The showpiece, Kentlands community, opened in 1991, features homesites snugly arranged around a walkable commercial sector, bounded by Darnestown and Quince Orchard roads.

Gaithersburg’s growth has made the agricultural fairgrounds on Chestnut Street one valuable piece of real estate. The Montgomery County Agricultural Center, the nonprofit group that runs the fair, is studying whether it’s appropriate to maintain the event in the middle of a city that, with almost 60,000 residents, is the fourth largest in Maryland.

Steve Dryden is a freelance writer who lives in Bethesda.