The remnants of the old central files of the Town of Berwyn Heights contain a document dated 1928 and entitled “Lots and Owners in the Town of Berwyn Heights, Prince George’s County, MD.” It is a list of property owners, arranged by block and lot, assembled for the purpose of assessment and taxation. Interesting in many respects, it is noteworthy for showing a very large number of lots belonging to the Berwyn Heights Company. How did this come about?
The Berwyn Heights Company was incorporated in November 1919 to buy, sell and improve real estate in Berwyn Heights. Fred Benson was President, Elwood Taylor, Vice President, William Willard, Secretary and John McNitt Treasurer. John Gardiner acted as General Counsel. Major Clarence Benson, son of Fred and Margeret Benson, also served on the board and would later become President.1 All these men were also key members of the Berwyn Heights (Citizens) Association, which they helped establish in 1915.
Most of the land the Berwyn Heights Company came to own previously belonged to the United Realty Company of Washington, D.C. and was purchased for $11,700 from John Seymore T. Waters, Trustee, at public auction in October 1919. (The land was placed in trust with Waters in 1913 by United Realty managers to secure a debt.) The transaction included 509 mostly unimproved lots comprising 125 acres, or nearly a third of the land making up the subdivision.2 At the same time, Berwyn Heights Company Treasurer John McNitt bought the Sportland subidivision with 135 lots and comprising some 15 acres from August J. Wiegman, who had subdivided it after purchasing it from Campbell Carrington in 1903.3
In the months following incorporation, the Company continued to acquire smaller sets of lots, some from its board members, and some from tax sales. Another substantial acquisition came by assignment from Clayton E. Emig for all or most lots in blocks 1, 2, 12 and 34. Emig had been granted an equal share in these properties by Berwyn Heights developer and former Congressman Samuel S. Yoder in 1907 to promote the establishment of a brick making factory.4
It was not an accident that the Berwyn Heights Company ended up with United Realty Company assets. Fred Benson, who presided over both the Berwyn Heights Association and the Berwyn Heights Company, had served on the board of directors of United Realty when Congressman Yoder and associates launched the Berwyn Heights venture in 1906.5 He was certainly familiar with the plans to make Berwyn Heights a suburban destination, as well as an early investor. He purchased the property (lots 22, 23, 26, 27, block 14) where he would move his family from William W. Poultney in July 1907.6
Poultny was a core member of the United Realty management team, and served variously as President, Vice President and Secretary. His name appears on many deeds of the properties United Realty purchased from the Tome Institute starting in 1906. Benson had worked with Poultney in the Office of the Secretary of the Treasury Department,7 and after earning his law degree from Columbian University (George Washington University) in 1905, became a partner in a D.C. law firm with Richard P. Evans and William W. Poultney.8 In October 1909, Benson and Poultney incorporated the Berwyn Heights Building & Improvement Company with Robert Armour, Charles Eldridge and William Smyser, who also served on the board of United Realty.9 In short, Fred Benson had a close and long-standing connection with the group of investors that sought to restart the development of Berwyn Heights. So, when a big chunk of United Realty properties were sold at auction, the Berwyn Heights Company was ready to buy them.
1 Minutes of the First Meeting of the Board of Directors, Berwyn Heights Company (BH Co.) Minute Book, 20 November 1919.
2 “Berwyn Heights Company Purchases 125 Acres,” Evening Star, 1 November 1919. and Deed dated 28 October 1919, J.S.T. Waters et.al. Trustee to BH Co, Prince George’s County Land Records, Book 168, p. 148.
3 Deed dated 28 October 1919, A.J. Wiegman to J. McNitt, PGC Land Records, Book 143, p. 166.
4 Assignment dated 17 February 1920, C.E. Emig to BH Co., PGC Land Records, Book 151, p. 43.
5 “Berwyn Heights, A Suburb of Washington, D.C., the Nation’s Capital,” United Realty Co. Pamphlet, ca. 1906, p. 12.
6 Deed 3 July 1907, W.W. Poultney to F.H. Benson, PGC Land Records, Book 40, p. 360.
7 U.S. Register of Civil, Military and Naval Service, 1901, p. 61.
8 Law Firm Advertisement, The Washington Herald, 3 January 1907, p. 3.
9 Incorporation Notice, The Washington Herald, 29 October 1909, p. 11.
“The Detroit No. 1 is a sensible and certainly very attractive story-and-a-half house. Its lines are well-proportioned, its interior rooms carefully placed, and it has never failed to give the best satisfaction to all owners.” (1923 Aladdin Co. Catalogue)
Town resident William H. Willard (1862-1963) built this home on lots 1-3 in block 20 and sold it to the Berwyn Heights Company in December 1919 as part of a larger package of properties that came to make up the Company’s startup inventory. Willard was a leading member of the Berwyn Heights Association before he, Fred Benson, Clarence Benson, Elwood Taylor, and John McNitt organized the Berwyn Heights Co. He continued to own and develop lots privately, as well, and was appointed one of three assessors serving the first Town government following the 1924 election.
From 1919 until 1922 the Berwyn Heights Company built and acquired several kit homes in Berwyn Heights, which it then leased or sold. Upon completion in 1921, the Detroit was put on the market for $6,500 and leased to a Mr. Nicholson. In May 1923, Anna M. Myers purchased the house for 5,750, but lost it in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash. The Prince George’s Bank foreclosed on her mortgage and auctioned off the property. Clarence Benson, President of the Berwyn Heights Company at the time, bought it back for $2,900 (the remainder of the mortgage) with private funds, until the Company had enough money take it off his hands.
The Detroit was then leased to Fred Frost, a former Town Commissioner, and sold to him and his wife for $5,000 in June 1938. Coming full circle, the Detroit was again sold in December 1944 to Charles H. Millard and wife. This ended the involvement of the Berwyn Heights Co. with this property. The house continued to change hands and was sold most recently this spring for $254,000.
Berwyn Heights Co. Minute Book
Maryland Land Records
With luck, the Historical Committee celebrated another successful Berwyn Heights Day. The tents of vendors and community groups were set up on Berwyn Road bridge because Sports Park field was too muddy after a week of steady rains. Fortunately, the rain had stopped and the sun was out between patches of clouds.
Last year the BHHC celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Berwyn Heights Association. This year we dedicated the street marker and published a brochure that highlights the important accomplishments of the Association between 1915 and 1924.
Descendants of Fred H. Benson, the first President of the Association, honored the dedication ceremony with their presence. Steven Ring, his daughter Nicole, and brother Patrick had made the trip from Fairfax, Gaithersburg, and Annapolis to be here. Steve and Patrick are the sons of Doris Benson Ring, daughter of Howard Benson, son of Fred and Margaret Benson.
In our tent, we showcased the pole climbers (see puzzle in the April Bulletin) the Association used to repair the street lights. This and other Association equipment was donated to the BHHC museum by the Lofgren family, who found them in their shed. The Lofgrens bought the property that previously belonged to Elwood Taylor. Taylor served first as treasurer and then as president of the Berwyn Heights Association, and was in charge of planning a carnival the Association held each summer to raise money for essential community projects. The street marker will be posted in front of this home.
“The Berwyn Heights subdivision consists of [approximately] 400 acres, divided into 1,600 lots, improved by 13 miles of 60 to 70 feet wide streets, graded, graveled and guttered sidewalks, with 80 residences on the Heights and nearby vicinity, occupied by a sprinkling of Congressmen and army officers, but principally by U.S. Government employees.”
This description comes from a letter written by Congressman Samuel S. Yoder to the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) in November 1920. It was one of a series of letters in a campaign organized by the Berwyn Heights Association (BHA) to stop the closing of the Washington Interurban Railroad (formerly Washington, Spa Spring & Gretta Railroad) between Riverdale and Berwyn Heights.
The Berwyn Heights Association will be the subject of the next BHHC street marker. This citizen association functioned as the quasi-government of Berwyn Heights between 1915 – 1924. Its core business was to maintain the walks and streets in the subdivision, but frequently the Association worked with County and State agencies to improve living conditions in the community.
One concern repeatedly addressed at Association meetings was the sub-par streetcar service of the Washington Interurban Railway. The streetcar was the reason many residents had bought property in Berwyn Heights, believing that it would spur renewed development. However, the streetcar had gone bankrupt in 1914 and was sold to a subsidiary of the Washington Railway & Electric Company (WRECO). There were problems with the line almost from the start, including unreliable service, under-powered and outdated cars and later neglected tracks. Not surprisingly, this resulted in low ridership and a truncated schedule.
In September 1920, the streetcar owners asked the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) for permission to close the segment between Riverdale and Berwyn Heights. The request was approved in March 1921, but not before the BHA had put up a valiant fight. It organized a letter-writing campaign, conducted a survey of riders, enlisted the good offices of its Congressman, Sidney Mudd, and demanded the PSC hold a public hearing on the closure. When the PSC nonetheless approved the closure, the Association appealed the decision and delayed the end for a couple more months.
The PSC case file on the streetcar closure contains a wealth of information on Berwyn Heights, including a number of images of the streetcar line and newly built homes, many of which were kit houses ordered by mail.
Minutes of the Berwyn Heights Association, 1915-24.
Public Service Commission Case File 1900, Maryland State Archives
The BHHC is very pleased to host John DeFerrari for a presentation and signing of his new book “Capital Streetcars: A Joyride through DC’s Transit History” at our fall event on November 8, at 2 pm. DeFerrari is a DC native and the author of several books on DC history. He also is author of the popular “Streets of Washington” blog. The book was recently reviewed on WAMU’s Metro Connection.
I meet many older students of history when doing research for the Berwyn Heights Historical Committee. But here I want to give a shoutout to a young man who is writing for WETA’s local history blog Boundary Stones.
Ben Shaw hails from College Park Estates (just south of our border) and grew up among us. He graduated from Eleanor Roosevelt High School and is about to finish his studies at the University of Maryland, College Park with a double major in English and History. His blog posts are about personalities, institutions and events that left an imprint on Washington and its outlying areas, with a focus on Prince George’s County. They range from the Wright brothers training of military pilots at College Park airport to the rise of UMD alumnus Jim Henson and his Muppets. Last year, Ben spent the summer as an intern at Archives II on Metzerott Road, which led to an article on how storage of government records evolved from “sticking them in a basement” to the high tech conservation of the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents at the National Archives today. He writes:
“…Initially, there was no real plan for preserving the Constitution. After its approval by the Continental Congress in 1787, it was kept for a few years by the secretary of the Constitutional Convention, Roger Alden. It passed briefly into the hands of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, after which it was shuttled from unremarkable storage building to unremarkable storage building for years. In 1814, when government officials and documents were being evacuated from Washington ahead of the advancing British army, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were unceremoniously stuffed in a sack along with assorted other documents and tossed on a cart. The Constitution spent the next century being shoved into storage space. It returned to the North Wing of the Treasury for forty years, and then spent an eleven-year stint at the Washington Orphan Asylum; from 1875 until 1921, the Constitution sat in the State Department’s basement, until it was finally moved to a place of honor in the Library of Congress…”
Ben’s articles are thoroughly researched and fun to read. You should check them out.
The Charlton Heights Improvement Company, the instrument for developing and marketing the subdivision of Charlton Heights between 1888 and 1892, had its main office at 933 F Street, near its intended clientele. At the time, F Street was a center of commerce in downtown Washington, not far from the Patent Office, the Census Office and the Pension Building, whose employees would have shopped and dined in the stores that lined the street. Also on this block was the old Masonic temple (still standing), a popular venue for meetings and celebrations of the numerous fraternal organizations then in existence. Several of the directors of the Charlton Heights Improvement Company, James Waugh, George Gibson, Chas Duncanson and John Miller, were prominent masons and likely frequented the temple to participate in masonic functions.
As it happens, native Washingtonian and local history enthusiast John De Ferrari features an F Street Stroll in his Streets of Washington blog It gives a detailed description of this section of the city at the turn of the 19th century and is well worth a look.
The day began with a glitch that had BHHC members scrounging for a canopy under which to set up the exhibits. A slightly damaged one was located in the Town office, which served just fine for the remainder of this bright, sunshiny day. Many visitors stopped by to chat, peruse the exhibits and pick up brochures.
This year the BHHC re-issued the Waugh Avenue (Berwyn Road) historic marker. The original one was dedicated in 2004 as the Committee’s first historic marker. Since then, we have learned much more about Waugh and the Charlton Heights venture, which makes up the first chapter in our Town’s history. The new marker corrects previous errors and puts Waugh’s role into context.
Waugh Avenue was named for James E. Waugh, one of seven Washington investors who in 1888 established the railroad suburb of Charlton Heights.¹ Waugh was the most committed to the project in the group. As the Secretary and General Manager of the Charlton Heights Improvement Company, he promoted the place tirelessly in the face of a deflating real estate market. He and a few associates pushed hard to sell properties to District residents, targeting particularly employees in the Treasury Department, where several of the Company’s directors had worked. Prospective buyers were shown around the development and promised a long list of planned improvements – from a first class opera house to a pleasure lake for boating and fishing – which never materialized. More troubling, buyers were asked to sign contracts binding them to monthly payments on lots purchased for which a deed of title was not always given. When the Charlton Heights Improvement Company went out of business in April 1892, law suits promptly piled into the D.C. Supreme Court, alleging fraud and demanding restitution.²
Waugh largely escaped the legal consequences through stalling maneuvers and withholding of documents. But he had gone deeply into debt to buy back a large number of lots from the Charlton Heights Improvement Company upon its dissolution.³ Many of these lots became the property of Jacob Tome, a wealthy Maryland Banker who had financed Waugh’s real estate dealings. Waugh died suddenly of a heart attack in May 1895. Much of his estate was distributed to creditors. In 1896, residents made a fresh start and had the subdivision incorporated as the Town of Berwyn Heights.
¹ “Charlton Heights Improvement Company Articles of Incorporation“, Library of Virginia.
² “Equity Case Files re: lawsuits against Charlton Heights Improvement Company, Charlton Heights Investment & Building Association,” Record Group 21, Entry 69, U.S. National Archives & Records Administration.
³ “Prince George’s County Land Records: JWB Book 22, Pages 44, 53,” Maryland State Archives.
On March 15, the BHHC had the pleasure of hosting Maya Davis for a rescheduled presentation on Slavery during the War of 1812.
Ms. Davis is a Research Archivist in the Legacy of Slavery at the Maryland State Archives. She also serves on an exhibition team for the soon to open Harriet Tubman State Park Visitor Center near Cambridge, MD. The visitor center will commemorate Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad helping fugitive slaves escape to freedom before emancipation.
Maya Davis said that her research into the War of 1812 yielded an unexpected wealth of information on the state of slavery in ante-bellum Maryland. A “Definitive List of Slaves and Property,” proved especially useful. It compiled claims of indemnity submitted by slave owners to the Department of State for the loss of slaves to the British. No less than 700 Maryland slaves, including women and children, escaped during the war, or were taken aboard British ships that had sailed into the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River for a blockade of Baltimore and the Capital City. Once freed, they became British soldiers, worked on the ships, or resettled in British colonies in Canada and the Caribbean.
Thanks to the work of Ms. Davis and her colleagues, the fate of many runaway slaves can now be traced in over 250 case studies posted at the Maryland State Archives website. The War of 1812 is but one aspect of a broader investigation into the history and legacy of slavery in Maryland. A group of scholars, archivists and volunteers has been engaged in an organized study of census and court records, laws, newspapers, and maps since 2001, and collected a body of information on slaves and the flight to freedom that can now be accessed at their website.
Despite freezing temperatures and icy roads, the BHHC’s annual Presidents’ Day reception was a round success. Guests came from California, Virginia, D.C. and Maryland to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Berwyn Heights Association. Many were descendants of the first President of the Association, Fred Hodges Benson, and enjoyed meeting up with distant relatives for the occasion and viewing the artifacts on display.
James Benson, who compiled a genealogy of his family, showed a video about his great grandparents Fred and Maude and their lives in Berwyn Heights. Another great-grandchild, Maureen Tobin, brought a most unexpected treasure: the minute book of the Berwyn Heights Company, passed down to her from her grandfather Clarence Benson. The Berwyn Heights Company was incorporated in November 1919 by Fred Benson, his son Clarence, and Association members Elwood Taylor, William Willard, and John McNitt, to buy, sell, lease and improve land in Berwyn Heights. It had purchased the remaining properties of the United Realty Company from a previous group of developers led by Congressman Samuel Yoder. Ms. Tobin graciously offered to loan the book to the BHHC to make a copy, which is sure to add valuable information to our historic record.
The event was capped by a presentation from former Councilman Darald Lofgren. Darald and his wife Sarah live in the house of Elwood J. Taylor, who was one of the most influential members of the Berwyn Heights Association. He variously served as its Treasurer and President and was in charge of the annual carnivals the Association held to raise funds for essential community projects. Darald and Sarah brought an old set of tools they found in their basement, and once were used by the Association to erect poles and string electric wires in Berwyn Heights. Darald summed it all up when he said it is amazing how one find – in this case the minute book of the Berwyn Heights Association – leads to another and helps piece together the past.