The History of Potomac
A search for riding country gives way to "genteel country living."
The settlers left Washington, D.C., on horseback, looking for land and opportunity in the rolling hills of Montgomery County. There, they would subsist without running water and telephone lines.
No, this wasn’t the 19th century. It was the 1930s when a group of well-to-do professionals moved onto Montgomery’s farmland in search of a place to ride in an English-style hunt. The District and near suburbs had become too built up to allow that kind of activity anymore.
The place these pioneers arrived at was Potomac. Historically, it hadn’t been marked by notable events in the Civil War or earlier conflicts. There were no birthplaces or homes of revered American statesmen, as was common in the Virginia Piedmont. The soil was mediocre, in some places so rocky that oak trees wouldn’t grow more than 30 feet tall.
What Potomac did have was beautiful countryside, streams, the Potomac River and cheap land. The Great Depression hit local farmers hard, as it did others elsewhere. And desperate farmers were selling out for as little as $50 an acre.
Elie Cain’s father, Moran “Mike” McConihe, moved from Washington to Potomac in 1938. “Dad was in real estate,” recalls Cain, a longtime civic activist known to many as the unofficial mayor of Potomac. “He just knew it would grow. He started driving around and finally found a farm. My mother said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ But within a year they were adding on to the house.”
McConihe and his partners went on to start the Potomac Valley Bank and the Potomac Valley Shopping Center on River Road. These formed the genesis of the wealthy Potomac of today.
Before the equestrians, though, and well before the shopping center and the bank, there was a long history of farming in the Potomac area, preceded by an even longer period of Native American residence. Potomac is home to the first Algonquin Indian site in Maryland documented by state historians. It is believed the village was occupied between 1200 and 1500 A.D.
After pushing out the Algonquians, English colonists moved west into Montgomery County from the Chesapeake Bay in the early 1700s and began farming. Potomac remained a modest agricultural community throughout the 19th century.
Economic growth came with the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which reached the area from Georgetown in 1831. The canal enabled Potomac farmers to readily acquire fertilizer from merchants in Washington while also transporting their wheat, flour and other products to markets in the capital.
Slavery was widespread in Montgomery County, even though there weren’t many large plantations. Typical of the slaveholding culture was the Joseph Magruder farm (the home still stands on Kendale Road near Bradley Boulevard), where as many as 13 slaves have been documented.
Potomac avoided the destruction suffered in other parts of the region during the Civil War. In the postwar period, steady growth in farming communities led to stores, churches and post offices at what was then known as Offutt’s Crossroads (today’s intersection of Falls and River roads), at Watts Branch stream and Glen Road, and at Travilah.
By 1880, the name of the crossroads area was changed to Potomac by John McDonald (the county’s first Republican member of Congress), who had bought the nearby Offutt farmhouse and estate on River Road.
African-American communities also could be found across the Potomac landscape in the years after the Civil War, as emancipated slaves either purchased land or, in some cases, received it for free from former owners. Tobytown, established in about 1875 near today’s River and Esworthy roads in North Potomac, was one such settlement. Residents worked on nearby farms, raised livestock and grew their own vegetables and fruits, but lived without indoor sanitation and running water until the 1960s.
Just before World War I, trolley service opened along what would become Bradley Boulevard, leading to scenic Great Falls. But efforts at building residential subdivisions near the falls failed in the 1890s and again in the 1920s. Both were considered too distant or prone to flooding.
The first appearance of the ostentatious wealth for which Potomac would become known came during the Roaring ’20s, when financier Lyman Kendall built his Kentsdale mansion in the Italian Renaissance style on a 1,000-acre estate just west of Cabin John Creek. Later, the home was purchased by the Sisters of Mercy of the Union, a Catholic order that built and ran orphanages, schools and hospitals. Today, Kentsdale is again privately owned.
Farther out, past the Potomac Village crossroads, the beaux arts-inspired Marwood was built in 1931 by the dissolute son of a Chicago tycoon who died four years later at age 26. It later was leased by Joseph P. Kennedy, then bought by Tennessee real estate investor Grady Gore (a cousin of Al Gore), and today is also privately owned.
The hunt club crowd that moved to Potomac in the 1930s and 1940s lived on large expanses of land, but wasn’t known for castle building. The surviving members of that group will tell you the farmhouses they bought and enlarged, and the new homes they constructed, were spacious but tasteful. One Potomac Chamber of Commerce brochure summed up that view: “three scenic miles” west of the Beltway, there was a special place known for its “picturesque colony of shops,” “genteel country living” and “hearthside hospitality.” For a while, the Potomac Almanac newspaper featured on its masthead the motto, “Our Policy: To Resist Progress in Potomac.”
But in the years after World War II, residential growth in Montgomery County continued to spread relentlessly outward from the close-in suburbs. The Potomac Hunt membership quarreled publicly when some of its members opted to finance more intense development rather than keep the place frozen in time.
In the 1960s, county planners stepped in with guidelines for growth. While the county’s commercial expansion and infrastructure would be concentrated along the I-270 corridor, Potomac would serve regional and county needs for open space and low-density development.
The guidelines failed to say how much open space would be preserved and what “low density” meant. The county planners allowed what they called a “residential wedge” in Potomac, composed mostly of 2- and 5-acre lots, also known as large-lot zoning. That, the planners believed, would prevent classic suburban sprawl, maintain a spacious atmosphere and protect the forests, meadows and creeks from development.
What the planners didn’t foresee was how large-lot zoning would open the way for the big houses that many residents now say have marred the rural landscape. Builder Guy Semmes, whose father, Harry Semmes, was an early developer in Potomac, considers the planning vision a failure. “Generally, people move out here not for community, but to get away and have privacy,” he says.
Robert Hanson, who runs the last large farm in Potomac, recalls riding his horse 13 miles during the 1940s from his family’s home on Quince Orchard Road to Landon School in Bethesda every Monday morning, boarding there during the week, and returning on Friday evenings. Back then, “if you met a car on horseback, the car shared the road with two wheels on, two wheels off,” Hanson says. “They didn’t hog it.”
The Potomac Hunt club itself moved near the northern village of Barnesville, close to the Frederick County border, in 1980.
Steve Dryden is a freelance writer who lives in Bethesda.