IN 1949, VOLUNTEERS from
area 4-H clubs built the Montgomery
County Agricultural Fair complex on
Gaithersburg’s Chestnut Street, near
the Victorian-era railroad station. The
choice of Gaithersburg for the complex was a symbolic one: It recalled the
town’s longtime role as a market for
The town took its name from the
Gaither family of Virginia, which traced
its lineage back to the Jamestown colony. The Gaithers married into Maryland families with money and land, and
shortly after the Revolutionary War, one
member, Benjamin Gaither, moved with
his bride, Margaret, to her 200 acres of
dowry land on what would become the
Georgetown-Frederick turnpike (now
Frederick Avenue) at the intersection
with Diamond Avenue.
Montgomery’s first farmers had concentrated on tobacco, the cash crop of
the mid-Atlantic colonies. The county’s poor soil, though, could only produce the less desirable burley tobacco.
Within a few decades, Gaither and others turned to more profitable corn and
wheat, along with clover and pasture
grasses. Improved roads to Washington,
D.C., and Baltimore stimulated sales.
In addition to farming, Benjamin
Gaither built a blacksmith shop, tavern
and store. He owned 11 slaves in 1824,
but within four years was declared insolvent, an apparent victim of the economic
turbulence during the early decades of
the 19th century.
Even so, farming flourished here, and
soon a modest, incorporated town of
200 citizens emerged, with one of every-
thing a self-respecting American com-
munity had in those days, including a
drama club, a literary society and a hotel
whose dinner dances sometimes lasted
until 5 a.m. That last activity led to the
formation of a branch of the Woman’s
Christian Temperance Union, which
attempted to halt clandestine trafficking
in liquor, and to reform alcoholics.
Town residents also organized baseball teams, giving rise to an ordinance
that passed in the early 1890s prohibiting the sport, placing it in the same category as using profanity, lighting firecrackers and discharging rifles in the streets.
The town’s strict Methodists argued that
baseball was the first step down a slippery
slope that led to gambling and drinking.
Ironically, the only person who went
to jail for violating the baseball ordinance
was a former Gaithersburg sheriff named
Frank Ferrell, who did a few hours in the
town’s lockup in 1894. The dispute was
resolved amicably, and by 1900 the prohibition was dropped and Gaithersburg
teams were playing visiting clubs.
Ferrell, meanwhile, found work as the
one-man staff of the Gaithersburg phone
company. Advances such as the phone
company, along with the availability of
trains to Washington every morning
at 6: 30, were by now attracting Gaithersburg’s first commuters. Small industry grew. The Gaithersburg Milling and
Manufacturing Co. was started in 1891,
followed by a second flour mill in 1917.
Water service and sewage facilities were
running in the town by 1924.
In 1899, a modest U.S. government
observatory was built to study the Earth’s
rotation. And in the 1950s, ground was
broken on 555 acres of farmland at Clop-per Road for a newly established federal
facility known today as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST.
NIST eventually brought an esti-
mated 4,000 jobs to the area. The town’s
population jumped from 3,487 in 1960
to 26,420 in 1980, and by that time,
Gaithersburg was calling itself a city,
albeit one still perceived by some as just
another faceless Washington suburb.
In fact, Gaithersburg became one of
the first jurisdictions in the country to
experiment with “new urbanist” design,
an effort to re-create a Main Street atmosphere in the midst of suburban sprawl.
The showpiece, Kentlands, opened in
1991, features homes arranged around a
walkable commercial sector.
Gaithersburg’s growth has made the
agricultural fairgrounds on Chestnut
Street a valuable piece of real estate. The
Montgomery County Agricultural Center,
the nonprofit group that runs the fair, continues to maintain the event in the middle
of a city that, with more than 65,000 residents, is the fourth largest in Maryland. n
The Gaithersburg Train
Station in 1900, the same
year the town’s prohibition
against baseball was lifted
The place to farm BY STEVE DRYDEN
our towns | GAITHERSBURG/NORTH POTOMAC