By Rande Davis
With our headline about the opening of Phase II of Brightwell Crossing, I got to thinking about what Poolesville was like when my family and I first came to town.
Our arrival was in 1976, and the community could have been described exactly as the new town slogan describes it today: Small town charm, down home character. Thirty-eight years later, much has changed, but Poolesville’s charm, if anything, has improved. When considering the acrimony in the town that popped up periodically over the years over one issue or another, I even think the town character, while good then, has also improved.
To understand why, first consider the town as it looked back then and the many things physically and culturally that have changed.
There was no Whalen Commons packed with special events. There was no science building at Poolesville High School, no Global Ecology or other magnet programs, no lights at the football field and not as much seating either, and the baseball field was just that, a field. Poolesville Elementary School had portables and no separate gymnasium. There was no John Poole Middle School. All the talk then was not about renovation of the high school but whether we would even get to keep it. Despite the public division over the decisions made by commissioners of the 1960s and ’70s, their decisions led to the town we have today. A town larger and changed, but one we still describe as small, charming, and of good character.
The town government was in the 1907 National Bank building in the center of town. That bank had closed its doors in 1966. The town hall was overcrowded with a sparse meeting room upstairs and no access for persons with disabilities. Town sidewalks were sporadic and often uneven, nearly unsafe.
While none of the strip malls where here, neither were the services they bring. One may not like the structures, but what would we do without a public library or Hope Garden Ballet. We know what it is like to lose a Selby’s. There were just two places to eat out: Larry’s Diner (previously known as Titus’s Tastee Diner with Betty Watkins’s wonderful fresh pies where Bassett’s stands now) and the Meadowlark Inn, a regionally-popular restaurant of excellent entrées and family-style sides (where Asian House of Poolesville is today). Our first pizza place hadn’t arrived. There was no pharmacy; we had to go to Rockville.
Westerly and Wesmond homes had just completed their build out. Before those subdivisions were built, the town population was around 350 which is about the same as it was during the Civil War. The townhouses on Kohlhoss and Meadow Valley Townhomes (then called Summer Hill) were just being constructed with a price range in the mid-30s.
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Memorial United Methodist, and Poolesville Baptist did not have the community halls which serve today not only their needs but those of the community. St. Mary’s was the only Catholic Church in the area. There was no McDonald’s, but nearby stood a carwash which soon became abandoned and ugly until Total Automotive and Diesel’s equestrian barn-like structure replaced it. Where Hearthside Gardens and Mixed Greens sit was Norris Oil Company. Where Discovery Day Care resides, we had a High’s Convenience store. The post office was squeezed between Larry’s Diner and a flower shop. Selby’s was located where Healthworks was before the club moved to the west side strip mall in a building that originally housed our second pizza shop. The nearest supermarket was in Darnestown, but Selby’s was a really nice grocery store that could easily meet everyday needs and whose quality meat department drew people from as far away as Potomac.
The town population grew from about 3,600 in 1976 to where it peaked in 2010 at 5200 before heading south to 4800 until Stoney Springs and Brightwell Crossing began to be built. The decline was due to lack of new home construction coupled with the children of residents graduating and moving away.
As the newcomers in town in 1976, we were very aware of those who were glad to see us and those not so pleased, with the latter fighting the growth and changes every step of the way. Back then, community discussions seemed to be more spirited and not necessarily in a positive way, since the dialogue often crossed over into vitriol. A planned community similar to Columbia sparked hot public discourse, but it was turned down by the voters. At least it left behind a country club, which eventually became a county-owned public golf course. It had a pool, which was ultimately filled in, but that was followed by a multi-use county pool in the west end of town. When Saudi Arabians thought building a school here was a good idea, the town arose in a very heated debate. The anger expressed was palpable and not at all charming. The Saudis decided Leesburg was a better place to be.
Today, while growth has been significant, the town’s character, has gotten better. Much of the dialogue about public concerns has improved in substance and tone. Expressions of anger have lessened. Dialogue on public issues, while at times painfully extended, has been a much more serious and complete discussion that most often results in consensus rather than a divisive sense of winners and losers. Over time, hotly-made charges of the town government being reckless and irresponsible and heading toward bankruptcy have proven to be reckless and irresponsible in and of themselves.
The community consensus is that the town needs to stay small, and the plan caps population at 6,500 without negating the small-town ambience. The new neighbors will bring more security for our school system and greatly enhance the stability of the businesses and churches.
As we look to the future, we can have a sense of positive hope for an even better Poolesville. Such hope springs from many different resources in the town. In the Monocle, we often cover the many nonprofit community service organizations that help define this area. The reason is that such organizations like the Lions Club, Odd Fellows, churches, and WUMCO, just to name a few, are the lifeblood of a community. One such organization is the Historic Medley District, Inc., the guardians of the 1793 John Poole House, the Old Town Hall Bank Museum and Exhibit Center, and the Seneca Schoolhouse. I am its executive director and ask the reader’s indulgence for a moment, as an editor of the Monocle, to think about the importance of securing our history and historical sites, and as the facilities are currently under the heavy burden of need for renovation, request you consider making a donation. You can send a check to P.O. Box 232, Poolesville, MD 20837 or visit historicmedley.org and use PayPal.
Editor’s note: The Monocacy Monocle is not affiliated with the Historic Medley District, Inc.