Cumberland Times-News

August 7, 2008

Quality, attitude of people make 'Burg special

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

A note in the newspaper a week or so ago mentioned that Oprah Winfrey was looking for "the best small towns in America.'' Frostburg is the best one I know of - but unfortunately Oprah asked for photos or videos supporting the nomination.

It is not our town's architecture, or its unique entertainment offerings that make it special; it is the quality and attitude of its citizens that makes it stand out.

I don't know of any other town that has a swimming pool dug by hand by volunteers. Ours dates from 1921, when an item in the newspaper urged citizens to bring their own picks and shovels to the site; it has been enlarged and improved, but our children are still swimming where their ancestors turned a watering hole for horses into a community pool.

Frostburg is also unique in having a university that is a monument to coal miners. The state legislature had reluctantly appropriated $20,000 for a teacher-training school in Allegany County, but not one cent for ground on which to build it.

It was the coal miners who came to the rescue, contributing to the Normal School Fund that reached its goal in three weeks. The names of the miners, and the amounts they contributed in 1898 are a matter of record. Almost half a century later their descendants again intervened, and prevented the school closing that was recommended by the state board.

Frostburg began not as a mining town, but as a staging stop on the National Road. When the railroads were built in mid-19th century, highway travel decreased, and the town became the coal capital of Maryland.

For about 75 years it flourished as the home of mine superintendents, lawyers, bankers and land speculators. Miners, who lived in the satellite villages, close to where they worked, flocked into town on Saturdays to take advantage of the stores that lined Main Street.

Following World War I, the bottom fell out of the local mining economy, as the area's chief customers, the U.S. Navy and the Cunard Steamship Line, shifted from coal to oil.

Frostburg became a bedroom town for people employed in Cumberland industries. Now those factories have closed, and Frostburg's economy is focused on what has become Frostburg State University.

In spite of the changes, the core of the community has remained the same. From the beginning, families have put down roots in the George's Creek area, and the names of the list of contributors to the Normal School Fund in 1898 are still current here. The cooperative community spirit has continued.

Our public library was started by AAUW members, who collected books that were left at curbside and drafted their husbands to build shelves in a vacant storefront.

Our several children's playgrounds were built by parent-volunteers.The Palace Theatre became a town-owned auditorium when Frostburg residents pledged $10 a year to buy and renovate it.

The Frostburg Museum started from scratch and is still maintained by volunteers. And our Main Street is beautified year-round by the Garden Club members who plant and water and weed the baskets attached to lamp-posts.

About 10 years ago a tornado raked its way across one section of Frostburg. Surveying the damage afterward, experts who were experienced with that kind of disaster estimated that it would take four weeks to clear away the debris. But Frostburg volunteers appeared from all directions, bringing their own trucks and tools, and in 8 hours the job had been done. - Frostburg's do-it-ourselves attitude persists.

Frostburg has no slum section, and no posh neighborhood where families are unwelcome if they don't have money, or family connections, or certain ethnic or religious credentials.

We are egalitarian. We can - and are expected to! - make eye-contact with people we pass on Main Street. I call the mayor and the president of the university by their first names, and the crews on the city trucks wave and call me by mine.

We have problems here, of course. It would help to have a drug store on Main Street and a variety store, successor to yesterday's five-and-ten, where we could walk to get shoe laces and Scotch tape, instead of getting the car out of the garage.

We need to do a better job of integrating city-bred university students with the descendants of the miners who made their education possible. And we need to make our citizenry proud of their heritage, not apologetic for the size of the town.

I don't know what Oprah's criteria are for naming America's best small cities. As far as I am concerned, Frostburg has been a place of happiness and opportunity for me. I think it is the best of small towns.

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.