Germantown's History -- A Brief Overview

Description | Native Americans | First Settlers | The First Town | Schools | The Civil War | The Second Town (late 1800s) | Liberty Mill | A New Era (1960s) | Famous Germantowners


The city of Germantown, Maryland straddles Interstate 270 about 26 miles north of Washington, D.C. It is bounded on the south by Great Seneca Creek, on the north by Little Seneca Creek and Lake, on the west by Blackrock Road, and on the east Brink Road, creating an area of about 6 square miles. It is not incorporated and is governed by the County. Germantown is a planned city. It was laid out as a "Corridor City" by the Montgomery County Government as part of what is called the "Wedges and Corridors Plan" envisioned by the County when Interstate 270 was built in the 1960s. The idea was to preserve the outside edges of the county--the wedges-- as farmland and forests, and to restrict development--building of houses, businesses and industries--to the area where the highway runs--the corridors. In 1972 when development began, Germantown was a rural farming village of about 1,000 people. It has grown since that time by about 2,000 people a year. Germantown is supposed to have 95,000 people by the year 2010. 
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Native Americans

The first people in the area were native Americans. There is evidence that native people lived in the area around the black rock on Blackrock Road thousands of years ago--when herds of buffalo roamed the countryside. Most of these early roaming tribes had more stationary villages closer to the Potomac River. When Europeans first started to settle in this area, in the mid to late 1600s, there was a village of Piscataway Indians at the mouth of Rock Creek, where Georgetown is now. There was also a village at the mouth of the Monocacy River where many different tribes gathered for trading. Where Germantown is today was part of a good hunting ground for these Indians. Indians of the Seneca nation did not live in this area, but would occasionally come down to hunt. Three Indian trails led from the southern village to the northern village. These trails were later used by the European settlers and became River Road, Clopper Road, and Rt. 355 (Frederick Road).
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First Settlers

The first European settlers who came to this area would travel up Rt. 355 from the port of Georgetown. Two of the first towns on this road were Middlebrook Mills and Clarksburg. The general stores, mills and post offices in these two towns served the first settlers of Germantown. Between these two towns was a tavern owned by Joseph Neel which would later serve as the focal point for the town of Neelsville.

The first settlers in what is now known as Germantown were the three Waters brothers, Zachariah, William and Basil. They all inherited land in the 1790s from their father, William Waters, who had a large estate in Brookeville and owned lots of land all around Montgomery County. The three brothers had adjoining farms that covered all of the land north of Rt. 118 from Wisteria Drive to Rt. 355--the areas known as Churchill, Waters Landing, Beaumont Estates and Milestone today. Basil Waters' house is still here today near the intersection of Royal Crown Drive and Observation Drive in Milestone. 

Other families who settled in the area we know today as Germantown before 1800 were the Henry Dorsey family on the east side of town who built the first part of this house later owned by the Blunt family and called Woodbourne; the Thomas Dawson family on the west side of town, who later founded Dawsonville; and the Henry Waring family on the south side of town. The Warings owned a store in Georgetown.

Clopper MillThese first farmers grew tobacco, wheat, corn and flax. Mills were essential to these farmers who needed to grind their wheat and corn into flour and cornmeal for market. They had to be built next to streams because they used water for the power to turn the huge wooden wheels. In the 1790s there was the Waters mill on Little Seneca Creek, McCubbins Mill (later Clopper Mill) on Great Seneca Creek, and the Umstadt Mill on lower Little Seneca Creek. In 1815 Thomas Hilleary built a mill on Seneca Creek below where the Little Seneca and Great Seneca Creeks joined. This was both a grist mill and a saw mill and was called Blackrock Mill after the black rock that lay across the creek.
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The First Town

Presbyterian churchOver in the area around Rt. 355 a growing number of people of the Presbyterian faith were settling in the early 1800s, and a Presbyterian Church made of logs was built at the intersection of Rt. 355 and Neelsville Church Road in 1845. The present church was built in 1878 and the cemetery behind the church contains the graves of many of the early settlers of Germantown. The Neelsville Presbyterian Church and the Darnestown Presbyterian Church were served by the same minister. So a road was built by local farmers to connect the two churches. This road is Rt. 118 (Germantown Road) [the section of this road from the railroad to Clopper Road is now known as Liberty Mill Road]. 

Where this new road crossed Clopper Road several German immigrants set up stores and services. Jacob Snyder was an orchard man, Dominicus Stang had a blacksmith shop, Mr. Arnold had a general store, Mr. Grusendorf was a stonemason, and the Rhinehart, Metz, and Richter families had farms nearby. 

The crossroads became known as "German town" because of the heavy German accents of these people. The name has stuck even though a majority of the land-owners in the area were of English or Scottish descent. New families moving into the Germantown area in the middle of the 1800s had names like Leaman, Gloyd, Benson, Crawford, Riggs, Rabbitt, Thrift, Trail, Hall, Cromwell, Bennett, and Pumphrey. Mr. Appleby was the local carpenter and undertaker. Mr. Lowe owned a store at the crossroads in the 1840s, which was bought by Mr. Rosenmier and Charles Adler in 1854, Joshua Dorsey in 1865, and then run by Horace Waters into the 1920s.

Another church grew up at this crossroads which would be the heart of Germantown--The Methodist Episcopal Church. This church was built in 1865 on the north side of the intersection, but there is nothing there today except the old cemetery. The Methodist Church split after the Civil War and the northern and southern congregations built separate churches. The Northern Methodist Church burned down in 1992, but the southern church building, at Liberty Mill and Duchin Road, has been converted into a doctors' office. The Catholics of the area worshiped in the home of the Cloppers, called Woodlands on the present site of the visitor center of Seneca Creek State Park on Clopper Road. Although Francis Clopper was not catholic, his wife, Anne Byrne Clopper was, and he donated the land and brick for St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church which his wife raised the funds to build in 1836. The present church was built in 1883 after the first church burned down. Many members of the Clopper and Waring families are buried in the old churchyard

There is also a Baptist Church in Germantown, on Riffleford Road, which dates back to 1864, soon after the congregation had split off from the Darnestown Baptist Church. The original Church was a log structure, just like the Presbyterian and Methodist churches, but has since been torn down. It sat next to the old church cemetery near the road.
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There was no public school in Germantown until after the Civil War. Before that time school was held in people's homes. In 1868 there was a one-room school on built on Rt. 118 near Blackrock Road that served the children of both Germantown and Darnestown. In 1883 a larger one-room school was built closer to Clopper Road to teach the children of Germantown. Another new school was built in 1910 on the present site of Germantown Elementary school. This school had four rooms--two downstairs and two upstairs--each room housing two grades. After eighth grade the children rode the train to attend high-school in Rockville.
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The Civil War

The Civil War took a terrible toll on Germantown, not because there was any actual fighting here, but because of the animosities between neighbors that it created. Many of the families of German descent were against slavery and had sons fighting in the Union army. Many of the families of English descent owned slaves and even many who didn't had sons fighting in the Confederate army. Many people who had formerly been friendly went out of their way to not have to deal with each other, some changing churches, or going to a mill or store miles distant from the one they usually used.

Some people, such as the Gassaways and the Gotts, freed their slaves before the War. There was a free black community called Brownstown, after the original land owner, Mr. Brown, along Blackrock Road in Germantown; and another on the east side of Riffleford Road founded by the former slaves of the Gassaway family.

In the late summer and fall of 1861 there were more than 20,000 Union soldiers camped to the west of Germantown in the Darnestown and Poolesville areas. Sometimes these soldiers would come to the stores in Germantown. In September, 1862, and June, 1863, many regiments of Union soldiers marched north on Rt. 355 on their way to the Battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. In July, 1864, Gen. Jubal Early led his Confederate army down Rt. 355 to attack Washington, D.C. Confederate raiders also came through the area several times during the War. Local farmers lost horses and other livestock to the armies of both sides.
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The Second Town (late 1800s)

A revolution of sorts occurred in Germantown after the Civil War--the Metropolitan Branch of the B & O Railroad, connecting Washington with the B & O "main line" west at Point of Rocks--came through town. Historic ermantown train station (the current station is a replica of the historic one)After the railroad was opened on May 25, 1873 Germantown became a railroad town instead of a little farming crossroads. The commercial center of town moved one mile to the east of the crossroads to be next to the railroad.

The village that grew up around the station included Frank Hesson's Carriage shop, John Gassaway's seed and fertilizer store, William Appleby's Carpenter and undertaker business, Thomas Henderson's general store, John Nicholls' harness shop, and Richard Harris's store. There was also a post office in the train station.

A steam-powered mill was built next to the railroad station by the Bowman brothers in 1888, ushering in Germantown's industrial revolution. No longer would a farmer have to take his wheat to a water-powered mill, but could get his wheat made into a much finer flour and shipped to market right on the site by way of the train. With this new quick way to get produce to market, many farmers in the area began to raise dairy cows to produce milk for the city, and started apple and peach orchards. 

Germantown had four morning trains and three evening trains going to Washington, and about the same number coming the other way. In spite of the hustle and bustle around the railroad station, old Germantown at the crossroads of Rt. 118 and Clopper Road still existed, giving the town a kind of split personality. 

Old Germantown had a general store, blacksmith shop, wheelwright shop, and hardware store, as well as the schoolhouse. In the 1880s Germantown was a prosperous town of about 100 people--including the surrounding farmers. The railroad brought more people to Germantown and the little village began to grow. 

Cider Barrel (photo from 1925)Andrew Baker bought the old farm of Joseph Leaman, across the road from the railroad station, in 1883 and soon turned the place into a grand estate called Ballincara. He had six children: Daniel, Andrew H., Katherine, Anna, Sophia, and Louise. Andrew H. Baker owned an insurance company in Washington D.C. and became Germantown's entrepreneur, financing the local bank and opening the Cider Barrel on Rt. 355 to sell the cider from his apple orchards in 1926. 

Pumphrey-Mateny houseIn 1883 Robert Pumphrey built a house that doubled as a general store across the railroad tracks from the station. Mac Mateny, a local cattle dealer, married Mr. Pumphrey's daughter, Grace, and inherited the house, but you can still tell that it was once a store because the windows on one corner, which were the showcase windows of the store, are closer together than the other windows.


Finding it difficult to travel to the church on Rt. 355 in the winter the Presbyterians in Germantown built a chapel in town in 1896. Next to the Pumphrey/Mateny House is the 1896 Presbyterian Chapel. It is now a veterinary office, but the steep roof of the building stands as evidence that it was once a church. A tall steeple stood at the front corner, with a bell that would alert all of Germantown when there was a fire or a train accident.


Across from the train station Perrie Waters built another general store around the turn of the century. The second story of the store had a large hall for meetings, plays and Saturday night dances. It was owned by a succession of people ending with Herbert King when it burned in 1970.


Because of the many "tinkers" or traveling salesmen who came up on the train to sell their wares, there was a livery stable on the hill above the station. Many of the barns and outbuildings connected with the pre-automobile operation are now gone, but part of the carriage house is still intact. Many other houses in Germantown's Historic District still stand. These were the homes of railroad workers, mill workers, the postman, the livery stable keeper, the local blacksmith, carpenter, and others.
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Liberty Mill


Fire engulfed the old wooden structure of the Bowman Brothers Mill in 1914, but four years later they were in business again and sold the mill to a brand new corporation--the Liberty Milling Company. Augustus Selby was the first owner/manager of the new mill which opened in 1918.

Electricity was brought into the mill and also served the homes and businesses nearby, making this the first area in the northern part of the county to get electricity.


"Feed the Liberty Way" was the slogan for the mill which, with its 8 silos, became the second largest mill in Maryland and supplied flour for the army during World War II. Cornmeal and animal feed were also made at the mill, and a mill store sold specialty mixes like pancake and muffin mix. After the war the mill went into decline, and was burned by arson May 30, 1972.
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A New Era (1960s)


The area felt a new surge of energy with the building of interstate 270 in the 1960s. For a while the old and the new mixed as employees of the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy) came to the old Germantown store for lunch and Mr. Burdette's cows often had to be cleared from the road. When the sewer line was completed in 1974 building in Germantown began in earnest.


The explosion of home building was accompanied by shopping centers, office buildings, a hotel, schools, and a community college. The commercial center of Germantown which had moved a century earlier to be closer to the railroad, moved once again to be closer to the new vehicle of transportation--the highway.


The train that once carried flour and milk to market now carries commuters going to work. The modern development of Germantown has brought many amenities and conveniences, but at a great cost to what was here before. Between 1970 and 1980 half of Germantown's old structures--houses, barns and outbuildings--were lost to arson or neglect.
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Famous Germantowners


Francis Cassatt Clopper moved here from Pennsylvania in 1812. He owned most of the land now occupied by Seneca Creek State Park. He restored the old grist mill, Clopper's Mill, which served the farmers in the area for many years, and was one of the main forces behind the construction of the Metropolitan Branch of the B & O Railroad which came through Germantown in the 1870s.


One of Mr. and Mrs. Clopper's daughters married William Rich Hutton who was a famous architect in the late 1800s. He designed the Washington Aqueduct, the Hudson River Tunnel and Washington Bridge in New York, and was chief engineer of the C & O Canal. Hutton was also an amateur horticulturist and planted many exotic plants and trees on the property.


Alexander Gassaway was a large landowner on the west side of town who built the first part of his house here in 1815. His son, John Hanson Gassaway, would become the primary person responsible for the changes in agricultural practices in this area in the late 1800s. Overgrowing of tobacco and corn for many years had depleted the soil of nutrients. The farmers at the time knew nothing of fertilizers or soil conservation practices. John Gassaway was president of the Mont. County Agricultural Soc. and ran a seed and fertilizer store in Germantown.


George AtzerodtGeorge Adzerodt had come to the town with his family from Prussia when he was about nine years old. When he was about 16 his father moved the family to Virginia, but George still had many friends and relatives in Germantown. He was living in Port Tobacco during the Civil War, and supplementing his meager income as a carriage painter by smuggling people across the Potomac River in a row boat. This clandestine occupation brought him into contact with John Seuratt and John Wilkes Booth and he was drawn into a plot to kidnap President Lincoln.


On April 14, 1865 John Wilkes Booth gave George Adzerodt a gun and told him that he was to kill the vice president, Andrew Johnson. George panicked when he found out that Booth had shot President Lincoln and made his way to his cousin's, Hartman Richter's, house in Germantown to hide.


He was discovered there by soldiers three days after the assassination and, although he had never actually committed a crime, was hanged with other conspirators on July 7.


Charles Waters put Germantown on the map in 1889, when his trotting horse, Kinster, set a record of 2 minutes 14 3/4 seconds for the mile. People came from all over the east coast to Charles Waters' stud farm in Germantown to buy colts who had Kinster as a father. One of Kinster's children, a filly named Kinstress, beat her father's time and became the new "Queen of the East Coast."


Walter Perry Johnson was called "Big Train" because he pitched a fastball that came at you like a freight train--and as accurate as if it were on a track. One of the first five baseball players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he held the record for the most strike-outs for many yeaWalter Johnsonrs. He helped to lead the Washington Senators to victory in the World Series in 1924 after having pitched for them since 1909.


Johnson bought his dream farm in Germantown in 1935 and lived here with his five children and his mother, his wife having passed away, until his death in 1946. His dairy farm was located where Seneca Valley High School is today. He was elected by the local people to two terms as a County Commissioner.

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