On April 28, 1896, the residents of Berwyn Heights assembled in the spacious home of John C. Bonnet to nominate 3 suitable candidates for commissioners in the recently incorporated Town. They nominated Hezekier S. Waple, a merchant and postmaster of Berwyn, John T. Burch, Justice of the Peace, and John Bonnet. Thus reported the Evening Times in its April 28, 1896 edition.1
It so happens, we have additional information to share about the civic-minded host of this assembly, thanks to Robert Gray, a Bonnet descendant, who attended our 2015 Berwyn Heights Association centennial celebration.2 (For those who follow this blog, Mr. Gray is also related to the Benson family, which played such a large role in our Town’s history. He is a cousin of Jim Benson on his father’s side.)
John Bonnet (1834-1904) was born Johann Conrad Bonnet near Kassel, Germany. He was a tailor by trade, and around 1855 went to England with his brother Carl Ludwig, where they started a tailoring business in the Woolwich district of London. Johann married Marie Dorothea Raabe (1836-1911), a native of Kiel, northern Germany in March 1857. They had 8 children and several grew up to work in their father’s tailor shop.3
Their eldest son, Peter Louis, left for America in 1881,4 and opened his own tailor shop on 923 E Street, NW in Washington, DC.5 His sister, Maria Augusta, followed her brother in 1885, and was soon joined by two other sisters Johanette and Katrinka. In 1888, Johann and Marie Bonnet gathered up their youngest children Gustav and Emily and also came to America.6 With assistance from Peter Louis and his wife Mary, they purchased a property in the newly platted suburb of Charlton Heights in March 1891, and had a house built on lots 8, 9 and 10 in block 7.7 This classic box-style foursquare, described as a conspicuous landmark in a Prince George’s County historic survey, still stands at 5617 Seminole Street.
Once settled, the Bonnets joined Charlton Heights social circles, hosted card games and musical evenings8 and attended Berwyn Presbyterian Church.9 Johann, now John Bonnet, began investing in real estate, and with his wife purchased a score of tax sale properties in the vicinity.10 Several were located in Lakeland, but most were near their home in block 7. In 1897, John and Marie transferred the house to their son Gustav. In 1903, they purchased a 1½ acre parcel across the tracks in Berwyn where they built a pretty Victorian house,11 today located at 4816 Berwyn Road. That house passed to their daughter Emily and her husband Arthur B. Gahan, a renowned professor of entomology at the University of Maryland.12 Their daughter Winifred Gahan next owned the house and lived there until she died in November 2002.
You might ask what happened in the election and whether John Bonnet and his fellow nominees were in fact elected commissioners of Berwyn Heights. The short answer is ‘maybe’. A longer explanation must wait for another post.
3 Gray Vignettes.
4 Caspian (British Steamer) Passenger List, 1881
5 1890 D.C. Directory.
6 Gray Vignettes
7 Deed February 3, 1891, Charlton Heights Improvement Co. to Mary Bonnet, PGC Land Records JWB 25-515.
10 Bonnet in PGC Land Records, Grantee Index, 1848-1922
11 Deed April 22, 1903, Edward Daniels to John C. Bonnet, 1½ acres of former Reyburn tract, Book 11 Page 408.
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.