We acknowledge with appreciation Robinson & Associates’ research in preparation of the Updated and Expanded Washington Grove Historic District Nomination; it forms the basis of this month’s look back at the early days of our Commercial Corner.
As Washington Grove and the neighboring subdivision of Oakmont developed in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the surrounding area mainly supported family operated farms. Wheat and dairy farms located along the railroad benefitted from the cheap and efficient means of transportation it offered. Laytonsville Pike (now Washington Grove Lane) was also an important part of the local transportation network, connecting Gaithersburg with Laytonsville and points north. One local farm, which bordered Washington Grove to the west, was owned by Thomas I. Fulks, a prominent Gaithersburg farmer and businessman. South of Ridge Road was a 48-acre farm that was purchased by Washington Grove as part of the original land acquisition for the camp meeting but sold in 1890. These agricultural properties and others formed the setting of Washington Grove well into the twentieth century and contributed to its appeal to visitors and homeowners as “a place apart.” Although platted for residential development in the 1897 Maddox plan, the lots facing the corner of Washington Grove Road and Railroad Street (Lots 1 and 2 of Block 1) have been used for nonresidential purposes since the camp meeting era.
Thomas I. Fulks owned shares of the Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association and located them on the corner lots. In 1897, he was granted permission by the association to operate a general store on Lot 2. Given the Methodists’ condemnation of “worldly habits,” Fulks was prohibited from selling alcohol from his establishment, which he called the Washington Grove Store. Five years later, in 1902, Fulks, then president of Gaithersburg Milling and Manufacturing, purchased a 238-acre farm west of Washington Grove and across Washington Grove Lane from his store. The purchase of the farm was subject to a lease of part of the property that bordered on the railroad tracks to Henry C. Miller for the period 1900 to 1906. It is not known what type of business Miller conducted on the property, but when his lease expired, Fulks did not renew it.
Around 1910, Fulks rented the general store to Marshall Walker and opened a feed supply business on the property adjacent to the railroad tracks that had formerly been leased to Miller. The operation included a feed mill (built circa 1910 from an old hay barn that stood on his farm), a feed store, and an office. In addition, the property featured a rail siding and a scale, which was embedded into the ground next to the store. In 1919, the local Odd Fellows lodge purchased Lot 1 from Fulks, and the following year the organization built a large hall on the property for their meetings. The Odd Fellows Hall was a two-story building designed by architect W. S. Ploger of Washington D.C. It was built of concrete block molded to resemble rusticated ashlar stone and dressed quoins and featured a stepped front-gable roof.
In 1896, after the railroad freight siding was moved from the east side of the Humpback Bridge to the west side, the Association sold the small triangle of land it owned between it and Railroad Avenue to John B. Diamond. Later, likely in the first decade of the twentieth century, it was acquired by the Washington Grove Manufacturing Company. Standard Oil purchased the property in 1914, and by 1933 it had been improved with a one-story brick building, adding another commercial presence to the corner of Washington Grove Lane and Railroad Street.
The general store and Odd Fellows Hall that stood on the lots facing the corner of Washington Grove Road and Railroad Street were the last victims of the Depression, when, in 1940, they were seized by the First National Bank of Gaithersburg. The bank tried to market the properties as residential, but several factors made this difficult – the buildings across the street were commercial/industrial and included a large feed mill complex, the lots faced a busy intersection, and there was little buffer between the lots and the noise and dirt of the nearby railroad tracks. The bank soon appealed to the Town for rezoning, and a measure was passed in 1941 approving the change and officially declaring Lots 1 and 2 in Block 1 a commercial zone, with restrictions against alcohol and gaming. The old Fulks/Walker store was acquired by Kay and Ed Bowling, who moved into the attached residence, got permission from the Town, and opened it as a store in summer 1941. In 1956, they bought from the Town the land between their lots 1 and 2 and the road frontages on Railroad Street and Laytonsville Road. With the purchase in 1963 of the Oddfellows Hall/apartment house, the widowed Kay Bowling consolidated her holdings at what had become known as the Commercial Corner.
Thomas I. Fulks died in 1935, and the next year his farm and feed supply business were purchased by W. Lawson King. King sold the farm property in 1940, but retained the feed supply business, which he improved and incrementally expanded. King razed the feed store and built a new feed mill at the eastern end of the property in 1942. Then, in 1945, he added a farmer’s supply store at the western end of the site. King’s new four-story feed mill was built of cinderblock and corrugated metal. Four silos, constructed of concrete reinforced with steel straps, stood east of the mill. The supply store was a cinderblock building with an L-shaped plan. In 1952, he built an addition to the supply store, extending the complex to the west. King eventually leased the feed supply operation to Sunshine Feeds, which was succeeded by Wayne Feeds and finally Gaithersburg Farmers’ Supply, which closed in 1989. While many of the feed stores that served Montgomery County communities have vanished, Gaithersburg Farmers’ Supply still stands as an important physical remnant of the regional agricultural economy that persisted into the mid-twentieth century.
In December 1944, the Standard Oil property across Railroad Street from the Odd Fellows Hall was sold to Oscar L. Evans, who established an ice cream factory in the brick building on the lot. By 1948, Evans sold the property, along with his machines and equipment, to Burtis Slaybaugh and Kenneth Reck. Their company, Rex, Inc., soon had a small retail operation that was popular with Washington Grove residents. Building on their success, the partners built an annex and opened a restaurant. (More about the recent history of the Commercial Corner in a future issue of the bulletin…)