BY MARK WALSTON
AROUND THE YEAR 1700, a stout
band of Dutch traders trekked south
from Pennsylvania and through the
ancient forests of still-wild central
Maryland, following Native American
trails barely wide enough for man and
horse to pass. Eventually the explorers
reached what would become Bethesda.
Here, they built a small stone dwelling
along what the old land records called
the “Indian path,” today’s River Road.
;ey established a trading post, bartering with the Native Americans who still
roamed the Potomac Valley.
;eir rough one-story granite build-
ing was dominated by a great stone
chimney rising up through the middle of
the roof, an early form of central heating.
;e Dutch built to last; their trading
post still stands, now in the midst of suburban Bethesda along Allandale Road.
Although larger stone sections were
added in the 19th century, the original
section survives. It is believed to be the
oldest standing structure in Montgomery County.
The Dutch came to Bethesda to
trade for pelts, which were insatiably in
demand by a;uent European fashionis-
tas. All kinds of fur were to be had in the
early 18th century—including the lus-
trous pelts of mink, ermine and fox—but
one was desired above all others: beaver.
Starting in about 1550, beaver was
popular in Europe, particularly for hats.
;ey may seem an accessory today, but
hats were a mandatory part of everyday
dress for both sexes, and beaver hats
were the most prized, from the broad-brimmed hats of 16th-century English
royalty, to the conically shaped hats of
17th-century Pilgrims, to the tricornered hats of American patriots in the
;e Bethesda traders became part
of a trans-Atlantic network. Beavers
were hunted by native tribes, skinned
and brought to the trading post to
be exchanged for goods, such as iron
knives and utensils, or hard currency.
From Bethesda, the pelts were transported by pack animals down another
old Native American trail—now Wisconsin Avenue—to ships waiting in the
Potomac River and eventually bound for
Once in Europe, the outer coating of
long, sti; hairs was removed to expose
the shorter, softer hair beneath—the
wool—which was sheared and then
compressed into a solid piece of material. Beaver felt was stronger than any
woven material and was water-repellent, holding its shape even when wet.
Caustic vapors were released in the
process, and the expression “mad as a
hatter” dates from the period, as the
vapors attacked the nervous systems of
By the end of the 18th century, Maryland’s beaver population had been
hunted to near extinction in pursuit of
fashion. Maryland’s beavers were spared
total annihilation only by the rise in popularity of the lacquered silk top hat in
the early 1800s. Today, beavers are again
common throughout the state.
As for the old Bethesda trading post,
it was no longer in business by the
middle of the 18th century, the Native
Americans having been pushed from
the land. ;e old house was greatly
expanded in 1847 by Nathan Loughborough, a former comptroller of the U.S.
Treasury and an early advocate for D.C.
residents; Loughborough revived the
Revolutionary phrase “taxation without
representation”—now on D.C. license
plates—to protest paying property taxes
in the District of Columbia with no vote
in Congress. Despite the additions, the
old stone trading post is still discernable. ;ough a fire destroyed the roof in
1930, the structure was repaired and the
current homeowners use the space for
How an old structure in
Bethesda got its start
as a spot for the beaver