Cumberland Times-News

May 1, 2008

A recently-sold property recalls a family history

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

Oftentimes when properties in Frostburg change hands, the town is abuzz with speculation about the alterations the new owners might make, and memories of the people and events associated with the building. Some of what is said is history, much of it is mythology, but the stories are woven together in the fascinating tapestry of our town.

One house of particular interest, recently sold, is the frame building at 37 Frost Ave., where five generations of the Townsend-Smith family lived for almost 120 years.

The corner lot on which it was built was originally part of one of the 50-acre Military Lots which, unclaimed by any Revolutionary War soldier, was bought by Josiah Frost when he learned that the projected National Road would be built across it. Josiah's town was strung along our Main Street, while other acreage was timbered off or used as farmland until the B&O; Railroad made it practical to ship coal to eastern markets. Meshach Frost, the only one of Josiah's three sons who remained here, moved from his farm near Braddock Road to retire closer to town, in what we still call the Frost Mansion. He died in the 1850s, but his widow stayed on in the mansion until 1876, when none of her children was interested in living in the homestead, and the adjacent property was cut up into building lots.

Meshach Frost had named Daniel Bruce and Nelson Beall as trustees of his estate, and it is their names which appear on the deed to John Sheridan in January 1876. In that same year Sheridan sold what we know as 37 Frost Ave.. to M.E. Kern, widow, for $600.

Mrs. Kern, however, was not interested in living there. She bought the property for her daughters, Cousine and Anna, who had opened a small private school for girls on West Main Street. They saw the Frost Avenue address as a fine location for their classes, and planned a school building with classrooms on the first floor, living quarters for the staff ion the second, and "private apartments" to accommodate young ladies who enrolled as boarders. They proudly announced that Wheeler Hall, as they called it, would offer both Latin and Greek in the next semester.

But, as we know, the best laid plans ... Cousine went back to a reunion at her alma mater in Iowa to receive an honorary master's degree - and reunited with her college sweetheart, fresh out of divinity school. She became a minister's wife; sister Anna returned home; and Wheeler Hall was up for sale.

Apparently it went unsold for several years. Then another woman, Sarah Shearer, took title in 1887. Two years later she sold it for $1,500 to Dr. M.M. Townsend.

Morris Townsend had been born in Canada, but trained in medicine in New York. He had concocted some kind of cold-hay fever-asthma remedy which made history, not so much for its efficiency as for the fact that, before 1850, it was celebrity-endorsed: Henry Ward Beecher, famous even before sister Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, let his name be used on every bottle of the brew.

To supplement the rather uncertain income from his nostrum, Dr. Townsend took a job as doctor to the coal company at Eckhart, where his uncle, M.O. Davidson, was the company agent. He was guaranteed $500 a year, plus a dollar for each office visit by a miner or his family, and a two-dollar fee for non-employees.

According to the census of 1860, Dr. Townsend was firmly established here, with a wife, a son, and two Irish maids. He became better known during the Civil War, when he headed the military hospital at Clarysville. It was after that when he moved to Frostburg, buying the house on Frost Avenue in 1889. He concentrated on his elixir; we can still seethe backyard laboratory where he bottled and labeled and packaged his brew.

Dr. and Mrs. Townsend had only one son who lived to adulthood. He was a Princeton graduate, became an engineer and inventor, and a one-term mayor of Frostburg. He lived in the family home on Frost Avenue, as did his son Gale and his daughter Emily Smith.

The Townsend and Smith households divided the family home without ever building a partition. Each family had living room dining room and kitchen on the first floor, three bedrooms and a bath on the second. They shared the front door and the staircase - but the doors opening from the corridor were kept firmly closed; the ladies didn't like each other!

The next generation, great-grandchildren of Dr. Townsend and his wife, left the area, but one returned after his retirement in 1940. Gene Smith had been a dentist in the Army, but here in Frostburg he turned his attention to landscape gardening, raising homing pigeons and savoring the atmosphere of the town to which his family had made such a rich contribution. At intervals his son, another Gene Smith, joined him.

Now the house has been sold and the residence will again hold a growing family. The unique furniture, the pictures and memorabilia have been divided among interested heirs, or to the Frostburg Museum, where visitors will be able to appreciate the Townsend family's way of life and see how the hay-fever remedy was bottled and sold.

But anyone who is hoping to make a fortune by re-introducing the doctor's patent medicine with updated celebrity endorsements is out of luck; the attic trunks were filled with deeds and letters, documents of every sort except the formula for Townsend's tonic.

The sale of a house, like that at 37 Frost Ave., brings old memories into focus, reminding us that it is the people who live in such houses, rather than the fabric and architecture, who make it important.

Betty VanNewkirk is curator of the Frostburg Museum.