By Wendy E. Harris, Volunteer Associate Archivist
Recently 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. In our first installment, we explored meanings attached to the woods during two consecutive periods of Washington Grove’s history: its camp meeting era, and the years when the community hosted a series of Chautauqua Assemblies.
In this, the second part of our article, we discuss how Washington Grove residents came to regard their woods during the Progressive Era (circa late 1880s to the early1920s). 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.
Documents found in our archives indicate that during the Progressive Era, Grove residents came to view their woods in more managerial, economic and quantitative terms. This period of American history is probably best understood as an attempt by the nation’s citizens to reform nearly every aspect of their society. Specifically relevant to the history of Washington Grove’s forests is the rise of the conservation movement with its emphasis upon improving the nation’s management and exploitation of natural resources.
The leading reformer to emerge in this field was Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), generally credited with introducing sustainable-yield forestry to America. Pinchot’s imprint upon the forests of Washington Grove can be traced through the work of one of his protégés, Fred W. Besley (1872-1960), Maryland’s first State Forester, who visited the Grove in 1913, at the invitation of the Washington Grove Association’s Board of Trustees.
Besley toured the Grove’s woodlands on July 29, 1913. His recommendations divided the Grove into sections and provided specific instructions as to areas within each best suited for cutting, cultivation with seedlings, or which would be better left undisturbed. According to the Forestry Committee’s report to the Washington Grove Association Board of Trustees (Meeting Minutes, August 1, 1913), Besley found the present-day West Woods to be the most likely source of firewood. The committee paraphrased Besley’s description of the West Woods forest as consisting “ . . . largely of pine, maple, chestnut, and some oak, of larger growth, with a second growth of poplars of different varieties, pines and oak, and some other kinds of trees of lesser importance as to value and numbers.”
Guided by Besley’s report, “helpers” trained in scientific forestry would select and mark trees for cutting based upon such criteria as species, maturity and marketability. Besley told the committee that these trees should “ . . . yield on an average of about 20 cords per acre.” In a letter dated September 22, 1913, the Board of Trustees thanked Besley for his assistance and informed him that his recommendations had been adopted.
For the next half-century forestry management practices in Washington Grove followed an approach similar to the one first introduced in 1913. In 1972, however, when a proposal for harvesting 400 of the largest trees in the West Woods was presented to the Town Council, a group of town residents protested. The result was a report issued by “A Special Forest Policy Committee” in May of that year. Among their recommendations was a temporary ban on timber cutting and also that “ . . . the town protect and maintain the integrity of its forest reserve, undiminished in acreage, as an indispensable element in preserving the idyllic character of the community.”
By the time the Town’s 2009 Master Plan was drafted, the East and West Woods had become valued for their “ . . . significant environmental and aesthetic benefits to the Town,” rather than for any value that could be realized from the sale of timber. What had once been a “reserve” was now regarded as a “preserve.” Although the woods of Washington Grove had undergone yet another shift in meanings, they remained an integral component of the Town’s historic landscape.
In our third and upcoming article, we will explore the history of Washington Grove’s streetscape, focusing upon the Town’s two most unique elements?its radial concentric street plan and pedestrian walkways.
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).