Cumberland Times-News

February 28, 2008

Frostburg lives with its history

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

When the Frostburg Historic District was established more than 30 years ago, we were told that owners of properties within the district would have the advantage of receiving tax credits and being eligible for grant money, provided that they met the criteria for historic structures.

Some sites, like Stonehenge, are considered historic because of their age. But the oldest structure we have in Frostburg is a section of hand-hewn logs, once the front of a cabin on Josiah Frost's New Hope farm.

Was he living there in 1783, when he paid taxes for horses and cows? Was Meshach Frost born there in 1788? We only know that the wall must have been built before Josiah Frost acquired the sawmill he mentioned in his will of 1811: No one with access to a water-power saw would shape timbers with a hand-axe.

The house behind that log wall does not qualify for any kind of grant. Over two centuries, a series of tenants have added rooms on both ends, a staircase to replace the ladder that once led to the loft, running water and electric light, and a basement lined with cinder block. But the hand-hewn log wall deserves a place in our museum, an irreplaceable piece of our town's history.

Buildings do not have to be old to be considered historic. Any structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance, would be eligible for preservation funding. But, with few exceptions, buildings in Frostburg were built without the help of an architect.

The owner and his contractor drew up a sketch of their project, and left details, like the shape of the veranda pillars, to be settled by what Mr. Willison had available in his lumber yard.

Home are considered historic if someone famous was born, or lived, or died on the premises. ("George Washington slept here.'') Actually, George did sleep here - but he was camping somewhere along Georges Creek and he left no marker to identify the spot.

We can call attention to the house where Meshach Frost died, or the British ambassador lived in the summer of 1857, or where Adam Hitchins took up residence after the Civil War, but those gentlemen were only locally famous, and all of the houses have been drastically remodeled.

Another claim to historic importance might be an event that took place at a certain site. The farmhouse where Lee surrendered to General Grant, for instance, is considered historic. Here in Frostburg we might claim that Old Main, the college building that was built only because coal miners provided funds for the land on which it was erected, has a unique place in local history. The plaque on the front of the building, put on in conjunction with the bicentennial in 1976, ignores that connection.

Few, if any, of the buildings in Frostburg's Historic District meet the standards for tax or grant benefits, but the town itself has historic importance.

Frostburg developed as a staging stop on the National Road, which became Main Street, still maintaining the 66-foot right-of-way that was surveyed in 1806.

In spite of the development of shopping malls, our Main Street is still the center of town activity - Farmers' Market, parades and meeting place. A series of church buildings remind us that Frostburg had a reputation for more churches (and more saloons) than any other town of its size.

Our Main Street is lined with houses built by families who prospered in coal and timber, real estate and merchandising, and three big buildings dominate the south side of the street - the Nickel building, where fine furniture was made; Paul's Hall, where John Ford brought the best of theatrical entertainment; and the Gunter Hotel, reflecting hospitality at its best. They symbolize the quality of life and the diversity to be found in Frostburg.

The tax benefits and grant money that seemed to be promised when the Historic District was established in Frostburg in 1975 have not materialized. The oldest buildings here do not have the age or associations that would qualify them as historic landmarks.

But Frostburg continues to live with its history, to be a place where families put down roots, where education is of prime importance, and people are more important than structures of brick and wood.

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.