'House Committee' essential to Miller House

By Linda Irvin-Craig

Special to The Herald-Mail


In 1966, family membership dues for the Washington County Historical Society bumped up to $5. The increase, however, did nothing to deter 84 new members from joining the historical society. The wonder of having a place to share county heritage, display the already large collection of historic artifacts and to hold congenial gatherings seemed to spark the mission onward. 

The  additional funds helped to move the "House Committee" along with needed refurbishing of the Miller House, which was estimated at almost $3,000 for mechanical upgrades and basic interior decorating. The board also decided to hire a custodian on a trial basis.

Then there came a donation from a long-time, deeply involved member, of an assortment of handsome Empire furniture to help furnish the Miller House. There was to be no public acknowledgment or publicity about the gift. More furniture followed. The opening reception for the Miller House brought more than 500 people through the house and donations of food, drink and flowers defrayed the $100 estimated costs for the reception.

This momentum was additionally bolstered by another long-time member, who covered the moving costs for the Empire furniture and library materials to be brought to the new headquarters. However, the library and artifact moving required months to complete in order to adequately protect and place items in their new locations.

Two tenants who occupied some of the office spaces in the eastern addition to the building, and one parking space each, agreed to small rental increases. Then devising schedules for meetings and having the building open for visitors on a regular basis were assigned and resolved through committee work.

Sixteen volunteer hostesses signed up to have the house open one day a week on a rotating schedule, with at least two on the premises each for the morning and afternoon tours. A guide book was put together to provide them with accurate information about the house. Other practical concerns such as security, insurance and tax relief for the nonprofit status also went to committees. 

Custodian Lewis Bell and librarian Grace Kershner were hired. Duties assigned to the librarian, in addition to the obvious ones of registering and helping patrons, included keeping all records for membership, the collections and receiving donations and issuing receipts for all. Kershner was also asked to help with establishing more complete history, or provenance, of items donated to the collection. Pieces of the collection that remained at City Hall and all of the collection within the Hager House were to be inventoried again for the files.

On invitation, the Miller House was to be included as one of five houses in Washington County expected to participate in the Maryland House Pilgrimage during the spring of 1967. The work at the Hager House continued through all of this new activity with the Antietam Garden Club replanting the herb garden, Clyde Roberts painting a mural and Ethel Snyder refinishing the iron work.

Reports on all of these activities and proposals for new projects were gathered into a newsletter, called The Bulletin, with help from the Potomac Edison Advertising Department, to distribute to members.

Members also joined a community coalition to help remove debris from the Conococheague and Antietam creeks that was threatening the historic stone arch bridges throughout the county. Much of these efforts were led by the local Army Reserve Unit for the really heavy lifting that was necessary.

In the midst of all of this, the historical society chose to take on the challenge of saving the Valley Store Museum, a creditable collection of early general store stock and fixtures that had been assembled more than 30 years by two sisters, Mrs. Robert Snyder and Mrs. Willis Physioc. The collection was up for sale for $5,000 and was likely to be sold out of the community, according to newspaper reports. 

A project committee, headed by Myron Bloom, set out to solicit contributions with this mission statement, "Preservation of the vanishing memorabilia of our heritage is an example in the best sense of why our Society has reason to exist." The Mansion House was considered as a possible location for the artifacts and an option taken on the collection, giving the group only a little over a month to raise the funds.

Reflecting on the loss of the Rochester House, donors were rallied. Gifts from $1 to $500 showed up to help with the effort. A separate account was established to segregate the funds.

But most exciting during this period was the planning of special exhibits to be shown within the Miller House, with the potential of being open on a trial basis through part of the weekend. Dr. Prather, curator at the Hager House, offered to help at the Miller House when the Hager House was closed for the season. After finding a group of indirect lighting floor lamps at Goodwill Industries, the board was able to schedule is first official meeting within the walls of their new home, ending 55 years of nomadic meeting locations.

However, it was also the general membership who turned out strong, 75 in number, to hear Dr. Verne Chatelaine, former faculty member of the University of Maryland, offer his reflections on the "Early History of Washington County and Maryland," that September 1966 evening.

New acquisitions included the successful conclusion of the Valley Store Museum campaign, supported by a total of 240 individuals, for those artifacts; an antique sideboard from Mary Helen Crissinger; a large grouping of antique clocks and Currier & Ives prints from Wilmer and Mildred Pearl; and a collection of significant C&O Canal memorabilia from George Hooper Wolf. Donations were coming in so fast that keeping up with insurance certificates became challenging.

Society President Victor D. Miller III worked with The Herald-Mail photographer David Cottingham and County Clerk Dennis Thurston to create a lasting exhibit for the Washington County Courthouse Annex of Cottingham's photos of the stone arch bridges of Washington County. These photos were published in a book "Bridges: Our Legacy in Stone," a year earlier, reprints of which are still available in the historical society offices for sale.

A $5,000 bequest from the estate of the late Dr. Walter Shealy, immediate past president of the Washington County Historical Society, was accepted, with an immediate decision to apply it to reduce the balance of the mortgage on the Miller House. Support by the County Commissioners for enabling legislation from the Maryland Legislature for a real estate tax exemption for the Miller House was readied for the coming session in Annapolis.

Then to top off the marvelous year of 1966, the Society planned its first annual Christmas Tea for the first Sunday in December at the Miller House, with holiday decorations throughout, a tradition that continues today. That first holiday reception was highlighted with a display of antique Christmas  cards and trade cards on loan from the Maryland Historical Society and the Hallmark Card Co.

Then musing about the creation of an Elizabeth-Town village near the Hager House, first mentioned in 1962 during the bicentennial of Hagerstown, began. This would need tremendous support from the city. Fifty years later, it still seems like a good idea as an attraction, but no less financially challenging on all fronts.



Linda Irvin-Craig is executive director of the Washington County Historical Society. For more information, call 301-797-8782 or go to www.washcomdhistoricalsociety.org.


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