Virtual Social Distancing – Archival Style
During these past months of social distancing due to the 2020 pandemic, my companions in the Town Archives were men and women who lived here in the Grove over a hundred years ago. After hours – and days – of reading their letters, I began to feel as if I knew them and could empathize with their anxieties. For some, I started to recognize their handwriting, or for a very few, their actual style of composition became identifiable without any signature.
The letters I was reading are in a box of Correspondence, Box O4, preserved in the Town of Washington Grove Archives. They are from the Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association Trustees Records of 1885 to 1931. These documents are not official minutes, or the Association’s charter, or their approved bylaws. They are what most would simply consider business letters and are primarily directed to those who served on the Board of Trustees, in particular the individual serving as Secretary at the time.
The Secretary, who sometimes also served as Treasurer, often faced challenges. When Robert J. Hall was turning over his position as Secretary to Carl Loeffler on June 16, 1916, Hall wrote “I wish you every kind of success in your new position as Secretary. It is rather a thankless task. There is quite a bit of work connected with the position, but a man would gladly do the work if the stockholders would only support the trustees by paying their assessments promptly.”
Why Read Their Mail?
I have a dual purpose is writing this article. One is to share with you my personal experience while reading all this mail which has been preserved in the Town’s Archives since 1885. The other is to encourage you to use the resulting research now on the Town’s website via the WG Virtual Museum links in this document.
My initial reading of this mail, which included scanning of each document and entering details into the Town’s digital database, was being done to prepare these documents for transfer to the Maryland State Archives Special Collections. Since there were so many files, this created a sense of expectation and, unexpectedly, even fun. Sometimes I would laugh out loud at a comment. Other insights were more subtle, such as appreciating the polite and often poetic style of writing used by residents who were berating the Trustees for inefficiency or even threatening lawsuits.
The results from this archival recording work are now available. The goal of this database is to provide interactive access to the original records of the Town when it was a Camp Meeting Association (1873-1936). Some needed information in a few of the summaries below has been omitted to stimulate you to look up that item to find what finally happened.
The Paper and Penmanship
Many of the earlier letters are handwritten on what appears to be blank paper. At first, I marveled how straight the people could write! Looking more closely, I discovered very light blue preprinted lines under the cursive! These lines also appeared on legal documents, such as insurance policies, where individualized information needed to be added by hand. You probably have heard that people had better penmanship back then. The handwriting in this batch of correspondence was as varied as the number of people. Most is readable, and several samples are quite artistic – especially in the initial letter of the name; sadly, however, some of the letters may never be figured out!
The type and size of paper was as varied as the writing. Much paper in this correspondence file was not the standard 8 ½ x 11 we have today until the early 1930s. Some of it was 8 x 10-½, or 8-¼ x 10-¾, or 7-½ x 9-¼, or 8-3/8 x 11, or even 9 x 12. There were small note-sized papers folded in half; some paper was tissue thin, some quite strong; some were carbon copies and others signed originals. Handwriting on these letters, whether done in ink or pencil, has survived remarkably well.
There seemed to be a deliberately frugal use of available writing paper, especially in the earlier years. Occasionally, the follow up to a letter was written sideways in the margin or handwritten at the bottom of the original which had been sent (and somehow obtained back) which briefly described the action taken, e.g., ‘check sent.’ Occasionally, the follow-up letter was typed neatly on the reverse side of the original! This certainly did save paper! And then, again, there were those who wrote their personal notes on borrowed company paper. Another practice was to glue two pages of a letter together just at the top avoiding the use of paper clips.
Stationery and Style
The use of formally printed stationery with an identifying letterhead was quite in vogue. An early example in this box of correspondence was that of Trustee Warren Choate who, in 1890 on behalf of the Association’s Board of Trustees, wrote a letter of appreciation on his own letterhead to L. W. Worthington for his time of service as a Trustee. The letterhead portion covers about a fourth of the page and utilizes five different fonts and letter styles. It provides business purpose, address, and phone number.
Stationery with letterheads often saves the day for researchers, especially when the letters are handwritten with unrecognizable signatures, or in the case of “file copies” with no signature at all, thus leaving the author of the letter unknown. Some letterheads included a list of names of the members of the company or group thus providing clear spelling of signatures and of names and enabling one to figure out the author. The letterhead designs ranged from short and simple to visually complex with fancy letters, detailed information, and a simultaneous use of a variety of fonts and print size. Displaying these letterheads will make an intriguing exhibit.
Being of a business nature, most of the correspondence is formal. In the earlier years, the use of “Dear Brother” or even “Dear Bro” was common. In later years, even in some legal matters, writers would occasionally slip into informal greetings. Trustee Henry G. Milans, while serving as Secretary of the Association, was occasionally addressed as “Dear Harry.”
The format of the letters was similar to modern practice: return address, inside address, greeting and closing with signature, plus identifying initials of the typist in later years. The return addresses of some of the Trustees were not Washington Grove, even though they were representing the Board’s Association at the Grove and owned property in the Grove. Robert Hall lived at 23 Michigan Avenue NE; Francis Hiller had a return address of 457 Park Road, Washington, D. C., and Henry G. Milans received his mail at 707 8th Street, N. W., Washington, D.C. These men knew what it was like to “work remotely from home.”
In addition to recording the payments of taxes and assessments, the Trustees had to track ownership and transfer of stock certificates in the Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association. Due to the requirement of the Association, stocks could not be sold or 3 transferred unless the original certificate was produced by the owner. As a result, numerous requests from stockholders came to the Trustees to get replacement stock certificates and contained either sincere apologies on the part of the writer or a strong statement that they had “never received a certificate!”
There were often letters to the Board to purchase land. These were for October of 1920:
- W. Rodney White requested to buy north half of Lot 8-12 for $100 @ 7500 sq. ft.
- Martin Harper wanted to purchase lot on west side of Grove, willing to pay $100
- Elizabeth Reiss negotiated for partial transfer of stock plus cash for different lots.
While reading through these letters, it became clear that record keeping did not always go well, as noted in this quote from September 26, 1893: “Bro. Woodward. I have made necessary corrections on books and bills. My only guide is the former book, and it is full of errors. Yours truly, Carlton Hughes.” And in this letter of apology dated September 22, 1931, to Reverend Albert Osborn from then Secretary Francis Hiller:
My dear Dr. Osborn: I am in receipt of your letter of yesterday and hasten to send an amended bill on the three shares of church stock located on Lot 1 Block 15. A comparison of the bills will show that I simply added the $3 twice. I am sorry it occurred and am glad you caught the error. I never was cut out to be a bookkeeper. Figures and accounts always were a bore to me, and in that respect, I am not and never will be a good secretary.
Occasionally stockholders were late with their payments, and as this short handwritten note of February 5, 1916 (note the year), to Carl Loeffler, then Secretary, demonstrates there was sometimes a good reason:
Dear Sir: Owing to my very severe illness, and also death in my family, I have not been able to send you the amount of my Assessment Bill – (Viz $10.65) Ten dollars and Sixty-five cents due you, as yet, but as this is the first and only time in years, that I have not paid promptly I truly hope it will not inconvenience you a great deal in my delay of payment – until the first week in “May” – next 1917. As I will at that time, surely send you the full amount. You can count on it absolutely. Very truly, Mrs. Nettie B. Logan.
The underlined emphasis is Mrs. Logan’s. One can almost hear her stressing these words. We don’t know Mr. Loeffler’s response, but it appears he would be waiting for the money for a full year! To learn how this turned out, look at this link.
G.D. Hendricks sent frequent letters about the delay in payment of his taxes to Carl Loeffler (January through March of 1917) explaining that he was short of cash because he had “almost every cent tied up in watches, jewelry a couple of Diamonds and accounts.” Mr. Hendricks’ final payment of $2.57 in March cleared his debt.
Not too many earth-shaking events were discovered in this collection of Correspondence, but here are two that do arouse one’s curiosity: G. T. Woodward, President of the Association, wrote to Trustee Warren Choate Esq. on August 2, 1890 (in a most lovely script) the following:
Dear Bro: . . . I am in accord with your captiousness (dear reader, look up that word!) as you term it, but which I think was in this case a very reasonable and proper caution of an officer of the Washington Grove C. M. Association, who finds for the first time in the eighteen years existence of the Corporation a transfer is to be made, in which dishonest dealing, perjury and fraud are alleged; but has been directed at a meeting of the Board of Trustees by an affirmative vote of 4 of the 7 present. Sign the lease Dear Bro. – send the papers to Peck and so far as in our power let us bury in oblivion this unpleasant dispute between two Brethren of the same household of faith whose allusions each of the other has not been entirely kind or complimentary and has caused others to indulge in denunciations not sparing in superlatives.
A meeting between Mrs. Hardy and the Trustees on August 5, 1925, resulted in a six-page document that became the official minutes of that Board meeting. The writer was quite skillful in capturing the discussion and reactions of those involved and did not hesitate to “write it as it was.” This style of minute writing most likely would not be acceptable today. Mrs. Hardy had requested this meeting “for the purpose of straightening out the matters of difference between her father (Major S. H. Walker) and the Association.” When she arrived at the meeting with her sister and brother-in-law, she explained that “she brought these two with her because she said she did not feel like attending a ‘stag party’ alone.” This may have set the tone of the meeting, for later President Swingle refused to answer Mrs. Hardy’s questions as to why the Board had refused to transfer her brother’s stock to her mother. Swingle’s response, as was his response when Mrs. Hardy asked him “to forget for the time being that he was a lawyer. . .” reflect the ongoing implementation of the Loeffler Resolution of 1918. (See also Philip K. Edwards’ book Washington Grove 1873-1937, pp. 326-327).
Claims of Discrimination and of Illegality
The Board was often the recipient of complaints and court threats. It was the Secretary who bore the brunt of these letters and the responsibility of responding to them.
In 1909, Mrs. Josephine A. Reiss accused the Board of discrimination when they refused to allow her to receive a transfer of property because it was thought her daughter had tuberculosis and would be moving into the Grove. Mrs. Reiss wrote:
Being advised of the illegality of the action of the Board which makes such action a discrimination and also of the sophistory (sic) on the part of the Board in basing their refusal of the transfer of a piece of property upon the following statute: namely the resolution that the Trustees issue a notice to owners of cottages notifying them that no tubercular invalid be allowed to reside within the confines of the Assoc. property.
Secretary Cook, on behalf of the Board, asked L. Cabell Williamson for advice on this delicate matter. Williamson’s response was quite clear:
Dear Sir: . . . As you recall our ByLaws give the Board absolute authority in respect to whom they will receive as Transferee of stock. In other words, our stockholders have no right to transfer their stock to any person without the consent of the Board of Directors.
In 1905, Virginia Hurdle filed a formal protest: “. . . my rights and privileges have been encroached upon beyond endurance and I therefore demand immediate action on your part in having this obstruction removed . . .” The obstruction was a fence depriving her of her ‘right-away.’
In 1901, Court F. Wood made this claim: “. . . It is not right to assess property on South Ave. for as much as property on Grove Ave., for the reason that it is not worth as much, and the assessments should be levied according to the valuation. I am satisfied that if this matter was ever brought into court the association would be defeated, for the reason that it is not equitable.”
Petitions and Proposals
One dealt with the gentlemen’s toilet. A formal petition sent to the Board of Trustees on July 12, 1910, was a request to move the gentlemen’s toilet to a more remote place due to health concerns. “You (the Board) have been acquainted . . . with the conditions that have arisen outside of this building, namely, the emptying of buckets in the underbrush surrounding . . .” The petition was signed by six people.
A second separate letter on this same subject was sent by M. A. English who also had signed the petition. His comments might raise some eyebrows of contemporary residents: “The present one (toilet) is too large and consequently harder to keep clean. A toilet with a seating capacity of six is quite large enough. A building 6 x 6 will give you this seating capacity.
Another petition, signed by eight people and dated August 8, 1910, has an equally interesting proposed solution. Some residents living on Chestnut Avenue felt a need for a “direct way through to Grove Avenue . . . so they can reach the Auditorium, Tennis Courts, Baseball and Athletic Fields.” Their suggestion: “If you can by purchase obtain the Hurdle property which is on a line with the narrow way between the Davis and Hitt lots, remove the house and grade same to continue the way from Grove Avenue to Chestnut Avenue, we feel you will help our section greatly and cause us to be very thankful for the consideration.”
Conclusion: Honor to the Founders
These Trustees were all volunteers assisting with the governing of the Grove from 1873 through1936. Along the way, they closely interacted with the stockholders whose input they gathered to address needs and to strive for betterment. In 1937, when the format of government changed from the Association to that of a Town, those elected as Town officials became the new set of trustees who continue the tradition of volunteerism and ongoing mutual interaction with the residents.
My visit with the people in Box O4 – whether they were the Trustees, stockholders, attorneys, or government figures – and holding and reading their letters, now many years old, was an emotional and strangely comforting one. My own words are inadequate to conclude this writing, so I end with those of Francis L. L. Hiller, when he spoke at the last meeting of the Board of Trustees on May 26, 1937. In closing, Trustee Hiller asked those present to stand for a toast:
To the founders and pioneers of Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association: We honor you because we of today are better men and women as the result of your lives. Honor to your purpose—Blessing to your memory—Peace to your ashes.