By Wendy E. Harris, Volunteer Associate Archivist
During the past two months there has been much discussion as to whether various non-architectural features such as our community’s woods and walkways are truly “historic.” Whether or not this is the case, the woods of Washington Grove, representing nearly one-half of the Town’s lands, certainly have a history all their own. Since woods will be the focus of the first two installments of this article (the second and third installments will be devoted to our walkways), we open with the following quote taken from the 1893 “Report of the President to The Stockholders of Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association.” On May 30 of that year, President George Woodward observed:
“The record of Washington Grove is the ever recurring history of the dealing of the Almighty with his people. These woods dedicated to the worship of God have
been witnesses time and again of converting power.”
This is a very telling statement as it so perfectly describes the spiritual meanings attached to our woods by early (and usually seasonal) residents of Washington Grove, then a Methodist camp meeting ground. As explained by Elizabeth Jo Lampl and Clare Lise Cavicchi in their 2004 “A Harvest for Saving Souls,” The Camp Meetings of Montgomery County, participants in Washington Grove’s revival meetings “ . . . were viewed as sinners who must publicly confess to be converted.” They note that during Washington Grove’s second summer as a camp meeting “. . . nearly 10,000 people came to pray, sing and commune.”
During the opening chapter of its history, Washington Grove, in common with other former camp meeting grounds, defined itself as “a place apart.” According to the National Historic Landmark Nomination for Massachusetts’s Wesleyan Grove Camp Meeting Ground, the spiritual effectiveness of the camp meeting experience was dependent not only upon the internal organization of space within the grounds but also upon the situation of the grounds relative to their external surroundings. Nineteenth-century camp meeting organizers selected sites that were physically removed from the pressures and distractions of everyday existence. Thus while Wesleyan Grove drew upon its isolation on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, reachable only by a prolonged sea voyage, participants in the early Washington Grove camp meetings traveled from Washington D.C. by train across miles of fields and forests to reach the meeting site, located near the train tracks on what Philip Edwards describes in the first volume of his history of Washington Grove as “a virgin forest . . . left undeveloped in a sea of cleared farmland around it.” The camp ground’s forests were further described in 1881 by The Washington Post as:
“ . . . filled with truly grand specimens of native oaks and graceful chestnut trees . . . the obvious objection is that the trees are entirely too thick. At least one half could be cut down without detriment to shade and with decided advantage to coolness.”
Beginning with the first few seasons, newspapers such as Washington D.C.’s Critic-Record were casting Washington Grove’s camp meetings, as “sojourn[s] in the woods.”
In Washington Grove, through time, there occurred a gradual shift away from the pure religiosity of the camp meetings to milder forms of spiritual uplift, educational programming, and cultural forms of entertainment typified by the Chautauqua Assemblies. The first Chautauqua season was in 1902. These programs ran for the entire summer and were so successful that in 1906, the Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association (WGCMA) dropped the words “camp meeting” officially and changed its title to Washington Grove Association (WGA).
This marked the trustees’ decision to relegate camp meetings to a secondary role and with this act the camp meetings were subsumed by Chautauqua. Nature study and nature appreciation were major features of the Chautauqua movement. As a result, the woods took on new and more secular meanings as evidenced in this excerpt from “The Grove Chautauqua,” the program guide for Washington Grove’s 1902 Chautauqua Assembly. In it the grounds are described as:
“Covering about two-hundred acres of land, well-timbered with magnificent old trees of oak, chestnut, hickory and other varieties, it affords a delightful place for those who desire to escape the oppressive heat of summer and get out into the woods and fields alongside the quieting and uplifting influences of nature. Here you may become acquainted with a large number of bird neighbors in their leafy homes and secret haunts. Some good bird book like “Birds Through an Opera Glass” will add interest and zest to the study. The uncommonly great variety of wild flowers found through this belt of the country will also afford an endless and most charming study for those who care for it.”
In the second (and upcoming) part of our article we will discuss how Washington Grove residents came to regard their woods during the Progressive Era (circa late 1880s to the early1920s). Suffice it to say that a radical shift in meaning occurred so that trees, once perceived as “holy,” came to be viewed as a harvestable crop. We will also examine subsequent reevaluations of the woods and their meaning that occurred during the second half of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first century.
Sources from WG Archives (including library books): Edwards, Philip K., Washington Grove, 1873-1937 (1988); Lampl, Elizabeth Jo and Clare Lise Cavicchi, “A Harvest in the Open for Saving Souls, The Camp Meetings of Montgomery County” (2004); “2009 Master Plan;” “President’s [George Woodward] Report to The Stockholders of Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association,” 5/30/1893; Special Forest Policy Committee Report to the Washington Grove Town Council, 5/15/1972 ; Washington Grove Association, Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes, 8/1/1913; Washington Grove Chautauqua Assembly Committee, “The Grove Chautauqua,” 1902.
Other Sources: Critic-Record “Washington Grove Camp-Meeting,” 8/12/1875, NewsBank; Kimmel, Ross and Offutt Johnson, “The History of Maryland State Parks”; Rutkow, Eric, American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation (2012); United States Dept. of Interior, National Park Service, Wesleyan Grove National Historic Landmark Nomination (2005); Washington Post, “Washington Grove Camp: Opening Day Among the Methodist Tenters in Maryland,” 8/12/1881. Wiebe, Robert H., The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (1967).