IN THE 1930s, a group of well-to-doprofessionals was in search of a place toride in an English-style hunt. The Districtand near suburbs had become too builtup to allow that kind of activity anymore.
They wound up in Potomac, wherethey found beautiful streams, the PotomacRiver and cheap land. The Great Depres-sion hit local farmers hard, and many wereselling out for as little as $50 an acre.
Elie Cain’s father, Moran “Mike”McConihe, moved from Washington toPotomac in 1938. “Dad was in real estate,”recalls Cain, a longtime civic activistknown to many as the unofficial mayorof Potomac. “He just knew it would grow.
He started driving around and finallyfound a farm.” McConihe and his part-ners went on to start the Potomac ValleyBank and the Potomac Valley ShoppingCenter on River Road, forming the gen-esis of today’s wealthy Potomac.
Before the equestrians and wellbefore the shopping center and thebank, there was a long history of farm-ing in the Potomac area, preceded byan even longer period of Native Ameri-can residence. Potomac is home to thefirst Algonquin Indian site in Mary-land documented by state historians.
It is believed the village was occupied
between 1200 and 1500 A.D.
After pushing out the Algonqui-ans, English colonists moved west intoMontgomery County from the Chesa-peake Bay in the early 1700s and beganfarming. Potomac remained a modestagricultural community throughout the
19th century. Economic growth came
with the construction of the Chesapeake
& Ohio Canal, which reached the area
from Georgetown in 1831.
Slavery was widespread in MontgomeryCounty, even though there weren’t manylarge plantations. The Joseph Magruderfarm (the home still stands on KendaleRoad near Bradley Boulevard), where asmany as 13 slaves have been documented,was typical of the slaveholding culture.
The area avoided the destruction suf-fered in other parts of the region duringthe Civil War, and in the postwar periodsaw steady growth. By 1880, the name ofthe crossroads area became Potomac.
African-American communities, likeTobytown, which was established inabout 1875, sprang up, as emancipatedslaves either purchased land or receivedit for free from former owners. Residentsworked on nearby farms, raised live-stock and grew their own vegetables andfruits, but lived without indoor sanita-tion and running water until the 1960s.
The first appearance of the wealth forwhich Potomac would become knowncame during the Roaring ’20s, whenfinancier Lyman Kendall built his Kents-dale mansion in the Italian Renaissancestyle on a 1,000-acre estate just west ofCabin John Creek. Farther out, past thePotomac Village crossroads, the beauxarts-inspired Marwood was built in 1931
by the dissolute son of a Chicago tycoonwho died four years later at age 26. (It isnow the home of Ted Leonsis, majorityowner of the Washington Wizards andWashington Capitals.)
The hunt club crowd that moved to
Potomac in the 1930s and 1940s lived on
large expanses of land, but wasn’t known
for castle building. The surviving mem-
bers of that group will tell you that their
homes were spacious but tasteful. For a
while, the Potomac Almanac newspaper
featured on its masthead the motto, “Our
Policy: To Resist Progress in Potomac.”
But in the 1960s, county planners
stepped in with guidelines for growth.
While the county’s commercial expan-sion and infrastructure would be con-centrated along the I-270 corridor,Potomac would serve regional andcounty needs for open space and low-density development.
The county planners allowed a “resi-dential wedge” in Potomac, composedmostly of 2- and 5-acre lots, also knownas large-lot zoning. What they didn’t fore-see was how large-lot zoning would openthe way for the big houses that many res-idents now say have marred the rurallandscape. Builder Guy Semmes, whosefather, Harry Semmes, was an early devel-oper in Potomac, considers the planningvision a failure. “Generally, people moveout here not for community, but to getaway and have privacy,” he says.
Robert Hanson, whose family owns
the last large farm in Potomac, recalled
riding his horse 13 miles during the
1940s from his family’s home on Quince
Heavily traveled today, Falls Road was just a
Orchard Road to Landon School in
Bethesda every Monday morning, board-
ing there during the week, and returning
on Friday evenings. Back then, “if you
met a car on horseback, the car shared the
road with two wheels on, two wheels off,”
Hanson says. “They didn’t hog it.”
The remaining Potomac equestri-
ans don’t recommend that you ride a
horse on the roads today. Along wind-
ing Glen Road, cars honk at the slight-
est slowdown in traffic. The Potomac
Hunt club itself moved near the north-
ern village of Barnesville, near Freder-
ick County, in 1980. n
stretch of dirt in about 1910.
The old Potomac BY STEVE DRYDEN
our towns | POTOMAC