56 Bethesda Magazine | 2016-2017 WELCOME GUIDE
HOME | Potomac History
IN THE 1930s, a group of well-to-do
professionals was in search of a place to
ride in an English-style hunt. The District
and near suburbs had become too built
up to allow that kind of activity anymore.
They wound up in Potomac, where
they found beautiful streams, the Potomac
River and cheap land. The Great Depression hit local farmers hard, and many were
selling out for as little as $50 an acre.
Elie Cain’s father, Moran “Mike”
McConihe, moved from Washington to
Potomac in 1938. “Dad was in real estate,”
recalls Cain, a longtime civic activist
known to many as the unofficial mayor
of Potomac. “He just knew it would grow.
He started driving around and finally
found a farm.” McConihe and his partners went on to start the Potomac Valley
Bank and the Potomac Valley Shopping
Center on River Road, forming the genesis of today’s wealthy Potomac.
Before the equestrians and well
before the shopping center and the
bank, there was a long history of farming in the Potomac area, preceded by
an even longer period of Native American residence. Potomac is home to the
first Algonquin Indian site in Maryland documented by state historians.
It is believed the village was occupied
between 1200 and 1500 A.D.
After pushing out the Algonquians, English colonists moved west into
Montgomery County from the Chesapeake Bay in the early 1700s and began
farming. Potomac remained a modest
agricultural 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 Montgomery
County, even though there weren’t many
large plantations. The Joseph Magruder
farm (the home still stands on Kendale
Road near Bradley Boulevard), where as
many as 13 slaves have been documented,
was typical of the slaveholding culture.
The area avoided the destruction suffered in other parts of the region during
the Civil War, and in the postwar period
saw steady growth. By 1880, the name of
the crossroads area became Potomac.
African-American communities, like
Tobytown, which was established in
about 1875, sprang up, as emancipated
slaves either purchased land or received
it for free from former owners. Residents
worked on nearby farms, raised livestock and grew their own vegetables and
fruits, but lived without indoor sanitation and running water until the 1960s.
The first appearance of the wealth for
which Potomac would become known
came during the Roaring ’20s, when
financier Lyman Kendall built his Kentsdale mansion in the Italian Renaissance
style on a 1,000-acre estate just west of
Cabin John Creek. Farther out, past the
Potomac Village crossroads, the beaux
arts-inspired Marwood was built in 1931
by the dissolute son of a Chicago tycoon
who died four years later at age 26. (It is
now the home of Ted Leonsis, majority
owner of the Washington Wizards and
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 members 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 expansion and infrastructure would be concentrated along the I-270 corridor,
Potomac would serve regional and
county needs for open space and low-density development.
The county planners allowed a “
residential wedge” in Potomac, composed
mostly of 2- and 5-acre lots, also known
as large-lot zoning. What they didn’t foresee was how large-lot zoning would open
the way for the big houses that many residents now say have marred the rural
landscape. Builder Guy Semmes, whose
father, Harry Semmes, was an early developer in Potomac, considers the planning
vision a failure. “Generally, people move
out here not for community, but to get
away and have privacy,” he says.
Robert Hanson, who runs the last
large farm in Potomac, recalls riding his
horse 13 miles during the 1940s from his
family’s home on Quince Orchard Road
to Landon School in Bethesda every
Monday morning, boarding 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 equestrians don’t recommend that you ride a
horse on the roads today. Along winding Glen Road, cars honk at the slight-est slowdown in traffic. The Potomac
Hunt club itself moved near the northern village of Barnesville, near Frederick County, in 1980. n
Heavily traveled today, Falls
Road was just a stretch of
dirt in about 1910.
The old Potomac
BY STEVE DRYDEN