historic events

Our Library collection includes photographs of the various efforts of the Montgomery County Community Chest and Council.  “Community Chest” was a name adopted by civic-minded charitable organizations around the country in the early-mid 20th century (many of which were eventually combined under the United Way umbrella); our county’s group was founded in 1943.  Agencies such as local Scout and youth groups, the Public Health Lay Council, and the county Social Service League (founded in 1908, later renamed Family Services Agency) joined the Community Chest and helped organize, fund and run programs like the Christmas Bureau, which provided food, clothing and gifts for families in need.  Here’s a photo of a Toys for Tots delivery to the Volunteer Christmas Bureau Store, circa 1950:


Toys for Tots was started in 1947, and adopted as an official program of the US Marine Corps Reserve in 1948. This photo from our collections is accompanied by an undated press release, identifying Technical Sergeant Robert E. McPhee “shoulder[ing] one of the cartons of 300 toys delivered this week” to the county Christmas Bureau, along with volunteer clerks Mrs. Sol Goldman, Mrs. Charles Gordon, and Mrs. Seymour Leopold.

In the late 1950s, the Community Chest and Council joined the newly formed Montgomery Health and Welfare Council, “a regional unit of the Health and Welfare Council of the National Capital Area” (according to their 1959 annual report).  The Christmas Bureau was still an important part of the organization’s work, with 391 county families receiving gifts from the Bureau in 1959.  I’ve not figured out where the storefront in the photo above was located, but by the late 1950s the Christmas Bureau store was held at the Montgomery County fairgrounds in Gaithersburg.  Here’s a photo of two Silver Spring Rotarians preparing a delivery of what looks like ham (?) to the Christmas Bureau store, as helpfully noted by the sign propped next to the loaded station wagon: “We are on our way with Christmas Gifts to the Christmas Store located at Gaithersburg Fair Grounds, Sponsored by the Montgomery County Christmas Bureau.”


Our collection also includes a few photos of “Santa’s Hideaway,” a temporary mini-store set up in Silver Spring, probably to let children choose their gifts from amongst donated toys and games.  Though the Hideaway has so far proven rather elusive, research-wise, the photos themselves tell us that it was funded in part by Red Feather campaign donations (the Red Feather was a symbol used by the United Givers Fund, later part of the United Way), and supported over several years by local radio station WGAY.  The two images below, from different years, show first a ceremonial ribbon-cutting, attended by various officials (including Howard Bain, president of the county United Givers Fund in 1955); and second a group of children, each holding a different toy – though it’s not clear whether they’ve just received them as presents, or they’re preparing to donate them – being interviewed by a very serious-looking WGAY reporter.

051060L(Howard Bain, president of the county United Givers Fund in 1955, is second from right; an Ellsworth Drive (Silver Spring) street sign is on the telephone pole.  In addition to the large “WGAY – dial 1050 – The Suburban Maryland Station” banner, a smaller sign advertises radio broadcasts held from the Hideaway: “North Pole Calling” by Chuck Dulane, and “Melody Circus” by Val Thomas.  If you’d care to while away some time with memories and photos of WGAY, here’s a fun website for you.)

051060J(Notice the Red Feather / Community Chest sign, as well as another WGAY sign, and what might be an ad for the Maryland News paper.)

Do you recognize any of the people or locations in the photos posted here?  Do you remember the Montgomery County Christmas Bureau or Santa’s Hideaway campaigns? Let us know!  A little extra knowledge would be a great holiday-of-your-choice gift to myself and our Librarians.  And here’s a gift for those of you who live (or have lived) in the county, and who enjoy surveys: A survey!  We’re planning an exhibit on Montgomery County’s long tradition of civic activism, including but not limited to activities like the ones featured in today’s post.  This survey, put together for us by a graduate student at the University of Maryland History and Library Science program, will help us gather stories and artifacts for the exhibit.

Photos donated to the MCHS Library by the Health and Welfare Council.




At about 9 p.m. on Thursday, May 2, 1929, northeastern Montgomery County was struck by a tornado, part of a large storm system that caused devastation from Florida to Ohio.  The weekly Montgomery County Sentinel reported on May 10th that the “wind storm of cyclonic power . . . was of limited width and serpentine on its course.  Everything in its path met with destruction.”

The damage in the county was limited to the rural Unity area, north of Brookeville. The Sentinel article detailed each affected farm in turn, noting that “thousands of persons from far and near visited the scene for several days to look upon the indescribable wreckage.”  One of those visitors was Gladys Benson (1905-2000); her father’s farm was the first one hit.  Miss Benson donated several photos taken “after the tornado of May 2, 1929,” providing us with visual evidence to accompany the newspaper’s written descriptions.

Many spectators view the wreckage at the Benson farm, May 1929

Many spectators view the wreckage at the Benson farm, May 1929

From the Sentinel: “The storm showed its first violence upon the farm of Mr. J. William Benson.  There it destroyed every building – the dwelling house, large barn, 117 feet long, including an attached shed, and all other outbuildings.”  The farm was unoccupied, but furniture belonging to “a prospective tenant” was destroyed.  Mr. Benson’s apple orchard was also significantly damaged, and the article claimed that “many [trees] were lifted into the air, carried over woods and landed several miles away.”

The next farm belonged to the Childs family; here “every building was blown down, except the barn,” and three members of the family were killed.  The fire departments of Rockville, Gaithersburg and Sandy Spring responded to the call made by farm worker James Leizear, who “extricated himself from the wreckage” and ran half a mile to a neighbor’s house to summon help. Miss Benson did not include any photos of the Childs home in her donation.

The Haight home, May 1929

The Haight home, May 1929

The tornado next struck the 200 year old Haight house.  “The force of the wind broke windows, blew down doors . . . . A large hole was made in the side of the building as if by a dynamite blast.”  Mr. and Mrs. Charles Haight were “on the first floor reading, when the storm struck,” but Mrs. Haight’s mother, Amelia Knapp, was elsewhere in the house.  Mr. Haight “rode a mile and a half through the storm” to find neighbors who could help him extricate his mother-in-law, who did not survive.

Two unidentified children pose in front of the Burroughs home, May 1929

Two unidentified children pose in front of the Burroughs home, May 1929

The “still furious” storm “swept the roof off the dwelling of Mr. George Burroughs.”  The family escaped uninjured, but “the furniture inside the house was broken into small pieces by the force of the wind, which beat it about like paddles of a churn keep in motion the cream.”

An intrepid child on top of the remains of William Royer's barn, May 1929

An intrepid person on top of the remains of William Royer’s barn, May 1929

“The last in the county to be assailed by the violence of the storm was the property of Mr. William Royer, whose barn and other outbuildings were destroyed.”  No mention of casualties at the Royer farm are found in the Sentinel or the Washington Post.

The Post reported on May 4th that 28 people in Maryland and Virginia had been killed by tornadoes during the storm; most of the casualties were in Virginia, where an elementary school was struck full-force and at least 18 children died. In Montgomery County, the local Red Cross Chapter formed a citizen committee to raise funds “for relief of the sufferers.”

And now for the Public Service Announcement portion of today’s post.  I’ve been working on updating and improving the Historical Society’s emergency response plan, but as often happens, everyday concerns can take precedence and “what if” plans get pushed a little ways down the to-do list.  It sometimes takes an example of real-life disaster to remind us that preparation should stay high on that priority list.  I chose today’s historical-storm post not to compare it to the devastation from the gigantic tornado that hit Moore, OK earlier this week, but to remind readers – and myself – that “what if” can quickly become “here and now.”  People, get ready!

There are lots of places to look for advice on creating family emergency plans – and remember, I can tell if anyone’s clicked on these links, so click away! The Red Cross, FEMA, and the CDC have advice for you, as do many state and local agencies (including the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and the Montgomery County government).  Don’t forget your pets!  The Red Cross and FEMA links above include advice on pet disaster planning, as do the HSUS and the ASPCA.  And, though the living should take precedence, this curator asks you to spare a thought for important/irreplaceable documents and belongings, whether it’s a passport, baby album, great-grandmother’s wedding dress, or files of genealogical research/your novel/what have you.  The Library of Congress and the National Archives, among others, have advice on both pre-disaster planning and post-disaster recovery of papers and things.

It’s October 31st, and A Fine Collection is spoiled for choice, topic-wise.  Halloween! Elections! Superstorm!  As you’ve guessed from today’s title, I decided to go with the weather theme.  But first: here’s a photo of election day in Barnesville, 1944, to remind you to vote on or before November 6.

On to hurricanes.  This photo in our collections was donated by Albert Bouic, and is thought to show damage to the Bouic house in downtown Rockville after “the 1896 storm.”  Thanks to weather fans, who have detailed the 1896 hurricane season on sites like Weather Underground and Wikipedia, we can guess that this refers to Hurricane Number 4 (the National Hurricane Center didn’t start assigning official names until 1953), which hit the DC area at the end of September.












It’s kind of a cute picture, with the boys perched in the toppled tree and probably enjoying the excitement.  The hurricane was no joke, however.  The Montgomery County Sentinel reported on the storm on October 2nd, under the headline “A Tremendous Hurricane Does Great Damage in the County”:

“The great storm, which visited this locality on Tuesday night last, was the most destructive in the memory of the oldest inhabitant, and did damage that will take thousands of dollars to repair.” 

Several people around the county were killed by falling trees; one gentleman suffered heart failure “brought on by the excitement of the storm;” and others suffered near misses, like the young son of Mary Cook of Lincoln Park who, after the family’s house was crushed by a tree, was “found in the woods in a state of hysterical fright.”

Property damage was considerable, and communications were cut thanks to fallen telephone and telegraph wires and streets “blockaded” with “debris of trees, tin roofs, telephone poles and wires.”  Roofs were blown off, barns and windmills were blown down, harvested crops were scattered and lost, and trees fell on houses and businesses.  “The waiting shed at the Baltimore & Ohio [Railroad] depot was lifted up bodily and deposited upside down in the adjoining field.”  The Sentinel offices themselves were “unroofed,” and I was somewhat startled to learn that “the residence of Miss Margaret Beall [i.e., our museum] was much damaged, leaving the brick walls in a rather unsafe condition.”  (So much for my belief that the House has weathered nearly 200 years without major damage.)

Several churches in the county were severely damaged, including two in Rockville: the “African M.E. Church [which] was fully wrecked” (probably refering to Jerusalem-Mt. Pleasant UMC, which lost its steeple in 1896), and Christ Episcopal Church, shown below shortly after the storm, in a photo from Charles Brewer.

Again from the Sentinel: “The spire of Christ Episcopal Church, which was subjected to the full force of the gale, was blown down, and the heavy brick base broke through the roof of the edifice.  The stained glass window in front was shattered.  It will require about $2,000 to repair the damage.  The interior was uninjured.”  The building was repaired and today looks much the same as it did before the storm.

A survey of the Washington Post headlines from late September-early October 1896 shows that the entire DC area was affected by the storm.  In some ways the newspaper coverage is reminiscent of this past week’s during Hurricane Sandy: details of damage, fatalities, injuries, lost communication, and anticipated costs.  On the other hand, the 1896 storm hit on September 29th, but the Sentinel was a weekly paper; residents had to wait until Friday for their local news.

The Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County held its second annual “Magical Montgomery” festival in Silver Spring, on September 29, 2001 – only a few weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11th of that year.  In response to those events, the AHC asked artist Rosana Azar to organize a Healing Mural, to which visitors could contribute their own images and words.  Last year the AHC donated the mural to the Historical Society.

Physically, this is a canvas banner around 6 feet tall and over 50 feet long.  Emotionally, it is a reminder of those days and weeks after the events of 9-11, when Americans and others were still processing – or trying to process – what had happened, and how it would affect us.  Visitors wrote messages of love and support in English, Spanish and other languages; personalized it with hand- and footprints in paint; and drew and painted images of flags, doves, peace symbols, flowers, trees, hearts, and many others.  Today, ten years later, the memories brought back by the words and images on the mural are (to me, anyway) both immediate and far away.  I remember thinking that nothing would be the same… and yet now, reading some of the thoughts expressed here, I have trouble putting myself back in that place where the whole world had changed.  And that, my friends, is why museums collect artifacts.  Time passes, and memories fade and change despite our best intentions; sometimes we need the physical artifacts to anchor those memories and bring them back to the surface.

Well, that’s a little more philosophical than I meant to get today, before I pulled the banner out to take photos.  See?  Even us seasoned curators – professional rememberers – need the artifacts to bring those memories back.  Feel free to comment, share your own memories, argue with me about forgetting things, whatever you like.  In the meantime, here are some more images from the banner.

“The shock of an earthquake was felt here [in Rockville] on Sunday last at 2:15 p.m. It was perceptible in all parts of town and at adjacent points in the county. This unusual phenomena of nature in this latitude caused some excitement and fear among timid persons. The shock was much more severe in the Northern States.”

So reported the weekly Montgomery County Sentinel on August 15, 1884, the first issue to appear after the earthquake of August 10. The ways in which the DC area reacted to yesterday’s seismic event – up to and including the posting of Facebook status updates about the quake during the quake – made me wonder how the county reacted to earlier earthquakes, in those far-away days before news websites, social media, text messages, and even telephones. In some ways the reactions are pretty similar, albeit without the benefit of instant communication.

Readers who relied on the local Sentinel had to wait five days (and it didn’t make the front page; the snippet quoted above was the 13th news item under “Local and Personal” on page 3). The daily Washington Post reported the quake on the next day, the 11th, in dispatches from various states and in a longer article with one of those comprehensive subheadlines: “AN EARTHQUAKE SHOCK. MANY TOWNS AND CITIES STARTLED FROM THEIR SUNDAY SLUMBERS. Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut Severely Shaken Up – An Extraordinary Phenomenon for the East Atlantic Coast – Its Extent, Duration and Other Phenomena – Street Cars Lifted from Their Tracks – Chimneys Overturned – The Brooklyn Bridge Towers Rocked Like Reeds in a Wind – Tidal Disturbances in Philadelphia – Strange Incidents – No Loss of Life.” This piece was mostly about New York; I was interested to note that after the quake subsided, New York City’s “women and children . . . returned to their houses, while the men assembled in groups in the streets, discussing the occurrence which had so startled them.” (Yesterday’s evacuated office workers can probably relate to this.) Without the internet to give them instant information and/or speculation, the city’s residents had to rely upon each other.

The Post’s earthquake report for Maryland (printed on the 11th) included this update from Rockville: “Rockville, Md., Aug. 10. – An earthquake shock of considerable severity, accompanied by a distinctly audible reverberation, was felt here this afternoon at 2:15 o’clock. The shock was sufficiently powerful to arouse persons who were asleep by the rocking motion which it produced, and in a number of cases doors that had been left open were closed with a slam. At the residence of Hon. George Peters the dishes upon the table were set shaking and the windows rattling, and similar disturbances were noted elsewhere. A bevy of ladies who were enjoying themselves in hammocks were so alarmed that they ran screaming in all directions.” I didn’t run screaming, but I did leap up from my desk chair, panicked and swearing.

The Annals of Sandy Spring (Volume II), a collection of the history of the community each year, described the quake in this way: “Eighth month [1884], 10th. An earthquake, which extended from Maine to Virginia, was severely felt in many houses at the time it occurred, and more persons felt it perceptibly the next day, after reading of it in the papers.” (Ha!) Thus our generation is not the first to have their experiences amplified, and made more ‘real’, through description and retelling; we just have more immediate and graphic ways of doing the retelling.

The Bennett family of Rockville enjoying their hammock, circa 1895. No, these aren't necessarily the ladies who fled their hammocks in terror, but I couldn't resist using the photo. Donated by Laurence Halstead, MCHS Collections.