Special to The Herald-Mail
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For the first 55 years of the existence of the Washington County Historical Society, the group had no home and functioned under nomadic conditions. Early meetings were held in the Washington County Free Library, in churches and in members' homes and offices.
As time went on, the group continued at parish halls, local hotels, restaurants, the health department, City Hall, the Rose Room of the YMCA, the Women's Club, and boardrooms of local businesses and banks. Donated archives and artifacts were stored at the library, City Hall, the Mansion House in City Park and sometimes in members' homes.
Locations for exhibits included City Hall, the Mansion House, churches and hotels and wherever the group could inventively set up. The use of the Mansion House and City Hall was critical to the success of the organization for many years.
Rolling through the 1950s with Dr. W.H. Shealy as president, the Washington County Historical Society maintained standing committees, in addition to the usual membership, finance, programs and general history, to cover continued work on the Hager House, Harpers Ferry, Fort Frederick and the growing library of archival materials and exhibit quality artifacts. Members were also collecting data on old houses, old mills and churches.
By 1956, the historical library had accumulated about 330 books, 1,900 photographic negatives and other materials. The bicentennial celebration of Fort Frederick was imminent and having three different locations in which items were catalogued, exhibited and stored began to raise the issue of security.
The group explored the idea of again heading up the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, looked at what involvement they should have with the preservation efforts for the C&O Canal and responded to a request to participate in erecting a memorial for Father Abram J. Ryan, who was born in Hagerstown and known as the poet laureate of the Confederacy.
Nellie Lemen of Williamsport presented a volume of poems by Ryan to the society and the group decided that it would support preservation efforts for the canal. At the historical society's annual meeting in January 1959, the program, "Father Ryan and Maryland," was presented by Edward A. Egan of Chicago.
The issues having to do with the 100th anniversary of Antietam depended much on actions of a committee of the U.S. Congress and a state commission, still in formation. Later, decisions of the commission suggested that the historical society work on window displays. Meanwhile, in this same time frame, improvements to and relocations of parts of U.S. 40 would likely disturb many of the original milestones over a considerable distance and that became a concern.
By 1960, committee work on the Harpers Ferry project and the work of park historian Alfred Mongin had evaluated about 800 acres of Maryland Heights. As a result, the annual meeting in June was to recognize that progress and Mongin was selected as guest speaker for the event.
In May of 1961, the historical society was invited to host the groundbreaking for the restoration of the Dunker Church. Old bridges were added to the list of historic structures for recording and preservation. Then "Maryland in the Civil War" was the presentation topic of Harold Manakee of Baltimore for the 1962 annual meeting.
A large donation of furniture that had to be stored at the Mansion House made it impossible to present the usual summer exhibits. A space crunch was becoming evident, even at the Hager House, where donations and archaeological finds competed for care and display. The additional museum and caretakers cottage planned there was likely to cost more than expected. Fortunately, the Board of Education did step in with the trades classes to assist with this problem.
At the annual meeting in 1963, the board announced that the first-ever Maryland Heritage Award from the Maryland Historical Society had been presented to Mary Mish for her work on the special project of the Hager House. But all was not well. Her response was couched in concern for keeping the house accessible to visitors and secure.
A city councilmember had demanded that the historical society borrow money to fund the needs of the house and there appeared to be an on-going issue between the Parks Board and some of the council about this and, possibly, other unrelated concerns. The fate of the Hager House seemed enmeshed in a potential political quagmire.
Resolution was found in the creation of a Board of Managers created from the Parks Board, the City Council and the Historical Society through the intervention of Mayor Winslow Burhans and his wife, Jane, during the summer of that year. Going forward, all three bodies would have input to the progress and care of the house.
Then in September of 1963, the City of Hagerstown notified the historical society that by Oct. 1, 1963, the society had to give up its space at City Hall, because the city needed the room. This new space crisis came in the midst of the historical society trying to retrieve local historical documents that had been sent to the state Hall of Records in Annapolis because the county needed space in the courthouse.
However, storage space at City Hall continued for some time after this issue arose. Apparently, other space was found and the artifacts moved within the building.