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Why are documents relating to the Prisoners’ Relief Society in Washington Grove’s WWII archives?

At first, one might think that this Society relates to the foreign prisoners of war held here in the Gaithersburg area during WWII.  However, the prisoners being referred to are released convicts, or in modern parlance “ex-cons.”  The goal of the Society was to establish a National Rehabilitation Bureau for men returning to the outside world after their prison terms were up.  To more fully appreciate the Society’s brief connection to the Grove in WWII, a mini-history of the organization follows.

The Prisoners’ Relief Society was founded by Earl Eliott Dudding after his own release from prison in 1914.  Dudding had been a respected and successful small-town shopkeeper whose life changed drastically after he was sentenced in 1909 to five years in prison for manslaughter of his uncle.  Due to extenuating circumstances, Dudding was not given the death penalty or life imprisonment.  In writing about those five years, Dudding referred to them as “the trail of the dead years.”  (This became the title of his book which was published in 1932 and is still available.)

For years, Dudding resided in Washington D.C., and there any prisoner could come for aid.  Around 1936, he worked on establishing a string of farms over the country whereby the ex-prisoners could come to live and work after their release.  They would be given a small salary, free lodging, and clothing, and in addition to farming, there would be the manufacturing of the home handicraft type, lumbering, sawmills and brick making where suitable.  There would be blacksmith shops, machine shops, tailor shops, and basket and furniture making shops.  Since many of the men would be older, a variety of work was planned.  The plan was approved at both federal and state levels.  The theory is “to give the ex-convict a haven to which he can go upon emergence and accustom himself to freedom before facing the world.”  (Summarized from the article “After Prison–What?” by Thomas J. Haskin, Fraternal Order of Police Journal, June 1936, Washington Grove town archives)

Then came World War II, with United States involvement 1941-1945.  While Dudding did make an amazing contribution to the war effort on a national level, he also got involved with Washington Grove on a more personal level.  That is why these documents relating to the Prisoners’ Relief Society are in the Grove’s WWII archives.

Here begins the connection.  On September 5, 1942, Earl E. Dudding, president of the Society wrote to the Washington Grove Town Council explaining that the “Society would like to buy Lot 1-2 and 3 in block 16… and we have this matter up with the State Auditor and the County Commissioners… We would expect to build in time a modest cottage facing on 6th avenue and a frame building on the rear facing the Road suitable for a garage and storage room…This writer and his family would live in the cottage…  This would be attached with our Washington Office as a part of its housing program… we would like to have a writing of an official nature from your body, before, in agreement with the above program.”

The Town’s response on September 8, 1942 was a concise and prompt rejection, based on the Town’s charter not permitting any commercial business or “society or organization of this character.” The Town minutes of September 14, 1942 include a bit of information not gleaned from either of the two letters; these lots were then owned by the Town by reason of purchase at tax sales.

Dudding’s reply of two days later acknowledges that he will abide by the Town’s decision and “that the [Society] has no information of any kind regarding your rules and regulations.” But then he adds (with a bit of irony??): “We own the controlling interest in a large farm near Washington Grove where we intend to establish a project to advance our work of rehabilitation of men.” Dudding concludes in a gentlemanly fashion and in a good spirit. He writes: “The matter is ended and we have no axes to grind or grudges to carry out.” Dudding was quite accustomed to rejection and criticism.

There is one more known event between Dudding and the Town. Despite the Town’s rejection of Dudding’s request to build a cottage and outbuildings within the Town on Lots 1, 2, and 3 of Block 16, Dudding liked the Grove so much that in early 1943 he managed to rent Lot One of Block 16 for a Victory garden and “set about to make it ready for planting to do [his] bit toward the War Effort.” In the process of preparing the garden, he cut down a pear tree and was informed he had violated a Town ordinance.

Dudding’s letter of March 22, 1943 to the Town Council is full of apologies and detailed explanations of why he cut down a “seedling pear tree” on Lot 2, which was casting shade upon a portion of his Victory garden. He explains that he had checked with neighbors who thought it was alright to cut the tree. He saw others all around cutting trees for firewood and believed the pear fruit was of no value and rotted on the tree.

In his letter, Dudding seemed almost desperate to prove to the Town Council that he is an honorable man and would never have willingly violated any ordinance. To prove his point, he enclosed six sheets of carbon copies, each having two recommendations as to Dudding’s excellent character. These references were written by prominent personages in Washington D.C.

Dudding offers to pay any damages but continues to write that he is very poor and has no savings or property because he devoted 28 years to charitable work without a salary. He sums up his case to the Town Council: “I came to Washington Grove because of the illness of my invalid wife, and I want to go back to Washington without any blot on my stay here. Now I shall leave the subject with you.”

Even though Dudding signed the letter at this point, he still had one more point to make in his favor. The postscript reads: “I shall be 82 years old Oct. 16th coming.”

If you have any more information about Dudding and the Grove, please send it to us.

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