Cumberland Times-News

February 21, 2008

Families of Frost Mansion have left their mark

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

The big house on Frost Avenue is a familiar landmark in Frostburg, still called the Frost Mansion although it is more than a hundred years since the Frost family moved out of it.

When Meshach and Catherine Frost were first married, they lived in a frame house overlooking the National Road. When stagecoach travel began, the Frosts rented their house to the Stockton Stagecoach Company, which adapted it for a staging tavern and called it Highland Hall.

The Frosts moved to a farmhouse somewhere in the vicinity of the FSU lower campus where the Braddock Road still provided access for settlers and freight intended for the Ohio Valley. The Frost children grew up in that house, and Meshach was identified in the Census Rolls as a farmer.

By the time Meshach and Catherine took up residence in what we know as the mansion, they had been married for 35 years, the children were grown, and Mr. Frost had become a "gentleman,'' living comfortably on the income from sale of timber and coal and real estate. The new house, built of local brick, provided status, not additional room for a growing family.

After Meshach's death in 1863, Catherine continued to live in the mansion, but none of the children wanted to take over the house when she died in 1876.

Nathan, the son who served as Frostburg's first mayor, was executor of his father's estate, trying to find someone who would buy or rent the mansion. The Mining Journal reported families moving in and moving out after a few months. In the summer of 1879 a Mr. C. B. Wack announced that rooms would be available for summer visitors.

Apparently Mr. Wack's hotel was not successful, but it gave Nathan Frost the inspiration to do the job properly. In the summer of 1883 he had a mansard roof added to the house, providing space for six more bedrooms.

He installed basins with running water in each of the bedchambers, built a bathroom extending over a porch-area, and hired an experienced hotel-manager.

There were probably other changes - bigger kitchen? fancier chandeliers? enlarged verandah? - but those details were not reported in the Mining Journal.

We do know that big-wigs from Baltimore and D.C. praised the accommodations and enjoyed tennis and croquet, excursions to Dan's Rock and concerts by local bands. The chaplain to the Senate in Washington vacationed there for six years straight.

In 1889, the house was offered for sale again. Mr. W.A. Dufty bought it and seems to have lived there for a short time. A rumor circulated saying that an out-of-town buyer would add 20 rooms and cut most of the lawn area into building lots. The furniture and fixtures were auctioned off in 1891, and Mr. Dufty took up residence again.

Then, in the spring of 1903, the whole property - three acres, barn and stable, springhouse and smokehouse, and 17-room dwelling - was bought by the Hitchins brothers for $7,500.

Adam and Owen Hitchins came to Frostburg in 1855 from Wales and became associated with Mr. Hoblitzell, a local merchant. During the Civil War the brothers entered into a contact to supply meat and other foods to the hospital at Clarysville. Then they were able to buy out Hoblitzell, to invest in mining and timber and banking. By 1903 they dominated Frostburg as the Frost family had a generation or two earlier.

William A. Hitchins, Owen's son, took over the former Frost Mansion. He had no children, but he left a widow, Rosina, who begged to be excused from the family investments, but to be allowed to live in the big house. That proved to be a canny move: The Hitchins' bank got into trouble in 1933, and the family assets had to be surrendered to various creditors - except for Aunt Ina's big house!

When I came to Frostburg I used to play bridge in the mansion, where Ina and Alice, her niece, lived in genteel poverty. We usually played in a dim, cramped parlor, lined with cabinets inlaid with intricate patterns of fruits and flowers, and long bookshelves that I longed to examine, but couldn't in the dim light.

At other times we sat around a glass-topped table in the card room. The table legs and chair frames were elaborately carved and gilded, the splitting upholstery was gold taffeta, and a crystal chandelier shed light over the cards. Alice explained that this elegance had graced the French exhibit at a World's Fair and had been offered at auction when the fair closed.

What we call the Frost Mansion was home to the Frost family for only about 40 years: The Hitchins had it a little longer. And now, for about half a century, it has been home and headquarters to Hafers, father and son, who have represented Frostburg in the legislature. Each family has left its mark; each has contributed to Frostburg's growth. And it is that intertwining of families and events, acts and artifacts, which comprise history.

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.