IN 1949, VOLUNTEERS fromarea 4-H clubs built the MontgomeryCounty Agricultural Fair complex onGaithersburg’s Chestnut Street, nearthe Victorian-era railroad station. Thechoice of Gaithersburg for the com-plex was a symbolic one: It recalled thetown’s longtime role as a market forcounty farmers.
The town took its name from theGaither family of Virginia, which tracedits lineage back to the Jamestown col-ony. The Gaithers married into Mary-land families with money and land, andshortly after the Revolutionary War, onemember, Benjamin Gaither, moved withhis bride, Margaret, to her 200 acres ofdowry land on what would become theGeorgetown-Frederick turnpike (nowFrederick Avenue) at the intersectionwith Diamond Avenue.
Montgomery’s first farmers had con-centrated on tobacco, the cash crop ofthe mid-Atlantic colonies. The coun-ty’s poor soil, though, could only pro-duce the less desirable burley tobacco.
Within a few decades, Gaither and oth-ers turned to more profitable corn andwheat, along with clover and pasturegrasses. Improved roads to Washington,D.C., and Baltimore stimulated sales.
In addition to farming, BenjaminGaither built a blacksmith shop, tavernand store. He owned 11 slaves in 1824,but within four years was declared insol-vent, an apparent victim of the economicturbulence during the early decades ofthe 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 base-ball teams, giving rise to an ordinancethat passed in the early 1890s prohibit-ing the sport, placing it in the same cate-gory as using profanity, lighting firecrack-ers 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 wentto jail for violating the baseball ordinancewas a former Gaithersburg sheriff namedFrank Ferrell, who did a few hours in thetown’s lockup in 1894. The dispute wasresolved amicably, and by 1900 the pro-hibition was dropped and Gaithersburgteams were playing visiting clubs.
Ferrell, meanwhile, found work as theone-man staff of the Gaithersburg phonecompany. Advances such as the phonecompany, along with the availability oftrains to Washington every morningat 6: 30, were by now attracting Gaith-ersburg’s first commuters. Small indus-try grew. The Gaithersburg Milling andManufacturing 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. governmentobservatory was built to study the Earth’srotation. And in the 1950s, ground wasbroken on 555 acres of farmland at Clop-per Road for a newly established federalfacility known today as the National Insti-tute 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 ofthe first jurisdictions in the country toexperiment with “new urbanist” design,an effort to re-create a Main Street atmo-sphere 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 theagricultural fairgrounds on ChestnutStreet a valuable piece of real estate. TheMontgomery County Agricultural Center,the nonprofit group that runs the fair, con-tinues to maintain the event in the middleof a city that, with more than 65,000 resi-dents, is one of the 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