The Historic Context Report researched by Robinson & Associates, Inc., in conjunction with their work in preparation of the Town’s National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, provides perspective on the significant regional and national events and trends that shaped the development, design, and character of Washington Grove. This month, we focus on Robinson’s research about Washington Grove at the turn of the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century.
Suburbanization in the Progressive Era
Historians continue to debate the nature of progressivism and the Progressive Era, which lasted roughly from 1890 to 1920, but those who identified as progressives in the early twentieth century were generally committed to enacting economic and social reforms at local, state, and federal levels on behalf of the public interest. The depression of the 1890s, increased urbanization, the closing of the American frontier, discoveries by investigative journalists of governments corrupted by the influence of business interests, and the transformation of American society through immigration led Americans to believe that existing institutions could not meet the needs of a rapidly changing country.
Progressives argued that the nineteenth-century faith in unrestrained individualism and an unregulated marketplace had created a nation controlled by greed and blind social forces that were destroying American society and ideals. Progressives broadly favored intervention into economic and social life to bring industrial change under control and alleviate its worst conditions. A powerful faith in environmental determinism convinced reformers that improving the physical environment would “elevate” rural social life. Society could be improved and government could be reformed to serve the public interest, progressives argued, by employing technocratic experts who could apply their knowledge to specific problems.
At the turn of the twentieth century, American families investing in the suburbs could expect to buy a detached home in a safe and sanitary environment that offered every modern convenience. Across the country and in the region, there was massive public investment in roads, sewers, playgrounds, and other services. As the new language of illness associated with great cities, industrialism, and technological advances entered the American consciousness, historian John Stilgoe notes that reformers advocated for “permanent residence among the trees.” Utilities and essential services became a prerequisite for creating the best environment for suburban living.
The Impact of Infrastructure Improvements at Washington Grove
At Washington Grove, one of the most aggressively pursued undertakings of the Progressive Era was the issue of sanitation. Widespread public belief that disease was caused by dirt, stagnant water, and “miasmas” in the air coupled with the threat of periodic summer outbreaks of cholera, diphtheria, and other diseases led the Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association to take active measures to maintain a clean well water supply and to drain or dry out low, swampy areas and locations prone to recurring puddling and flooding. Concurrently, the association encouraged growth in undeveloped areas of the grounds, as cramped conditions within the Tent Department were equated with urban overcrowding and raised concerns over the spread of disease and the increased risk of fire.
In 1886, Thomas P. Morgan, president of the association, warned stockholders, “Living as we do – many of us – in closely built avenues, one careless and uncleanly family might cause serious trouble for all.” As a result of increased attention to these issues, the residents of Washington Grove began to reframe their relationship with the built environment. The preference for the shelter, shade, and enclosure of the forest setting was cast aside in favor of open spaces characterized by circulating fresh air and penetrating sunshine.
By 1885, the association had created a Committee on Grounds and Safety, whose most pressing matter was perceived to be “the proper sanitation of the place.” Wells were frequently inspected and the water tested to ensure a clean supply. Work included digging ditches to channel surface water, filling sunken lots and poorly drained sections of the parks, and laying sewer pipes to facilitate drainage. Clearing the drains and culverts was the responsibility of the superintendent of the grounds, and residents were encouraged to properly dispose of their wastewater. The association hired a scavenger service to remove “night soil,” and camp privies were located in the East Woods where the waste was treated with lime. The hotel’s sewerage was deposited in a cesspool in the West Woods.
By 1880, the association had installed an 18-inch drainpipe within the Circle to eliminate standing water around the tabernacle. The pipe channeled water under Grove Road and into the East Woods. Early improvements such as these, however, were found insufficient. In 1905, a sewer was constructed by private means along the west side of Grove Avenue, but it only served a small number of residents. In 1912, the association installed a sewer under Grove Road with professional assistance from a sanitary engineer, and its success triggered more study of the issue.
The following year (June 8, 1913), The Washington Post reported, “At a recent meeting of the stockholders of Washington Grove, Md., new members were elected to the board of trustees on a progressive ticket, and last week the stockholders authorized…the installation of an electric street lighting system and an examination [by] a civil engineer of the present sewage system with a view to making a new system.” Washington Grove, however, would not have a modern water and sewer system until 1927. The design and construction of the sewer system, which would serve Gaithersburg as well as Washington Grove, was the responsibility of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC). Water and sewer lines were run under the avenues, the old sewers were disconnected, and a much-needed fire hydrant system was installed. It was the largest engineering project at the Grove to date. Despite the convenience of the modern system, some residents were slow to install indoor plumbing and connections. The Grove discontinued its scavenger service around 1930, and, by 1938, all the wells were filled and most of the pumps were pulled.
Today, there is still evidence of Washington Grove’s well water system, which supplied water to residents for over fifty years. Examples include the well pumps in the yard of 127 Maple Avenue and under the carport of the house at 201 Grove Avenue. Near the back of the house at 117 Grove Avenue stands a frame well house with a hipped roof, exposed rafters, and wood siding. There is also a well house located at 12 the Circle, at the eastern end of the lot, near the Circle.
As noted in the 1913 Washington Post article, another essential service introduced at Washington Grove during this period was electricity, which was supplied by the Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO) and powered an electric street lighting system. The Grove’s first streetlamps burned kerosene (coal oil) and were affixed to roughhewn wood posts. From around 1890 to 1895, gasoline lamps were used, but the cost became prohibitive. In 1896, to save money, the association reinstalled its kerosene lamps so that the oil could be used during the months of May, June, September, and October, when fewer people were living on the grounds. Eventually, all the gasoline lamps were sold at public auction. The Grove also had gas lamps starting in 1891. A newspaper report noted, “In one of the cottages, that of Mr. Cissel, natural gas is employed, and he has connected his machine with two jets in the tabernacle with such satisfactory result that it has been determined to employ the gas next year.” Gas lamps would remain the primary fuel for streetlights until 1914, when they were replaced by the electric streetlights. The new system used iron poles with elegant, curved tops. Power was turned on that July to fifty-one customers, including the association, which lit the assembly hall and the Chautauqua auditorium. The introduction of electric streetlights was seen as an important step toward a new era of development in Washington Grove.
Yet another major infrastructure project of this period involved Washington Grove’s roads. By the 1920s, the condition of the Grove’s streets and alleys had become a critical issue. Increased automobile ownership meant more traffic that required tougher road surfaces. During the nineteenth century, improvements to the roads and paths within Washington Grove occurred as funds became available. However, urban families wishing to relocate to the suburbs had many options, and Washington Grove needed to compete. Thus, by 1928, the Grove had all its roads paved with a thick base of cinders (donated by the B&O Railroad) that was then packed and oiled, which acted as a binder. This vastly improved access and movement through the grounds.