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September 5, 2007

Mount Airy: The Little Town That Could

Kevin E. Dayhoff

In the early morning hours of last Sunday, the town of Mount Airy was rudely awakened just past 4 A.M. to a three-alarm fire. Hardly anything strikes fear in the heart of a community as does a major fire.

Our collective thoughts and prayers go out to the citizens and community leaders as they come together to face the challenges left behind in the ashes of the several buildings: six businesses, and five apartments destroyed in the historic main downtown business district of Mount Airy.

The damage is estimated to be around $4 million in monetary terms, but the harm to the psyche of a community that has struggled for the last decade to re-establish its identity, is immeasurable.

Although I have lived in Westminster all of my life, Mount Airy is still considered to be the "hometown" of much of my family, which hails from southern Carroll County and eastern Frederick County.

My childhood included almost weekly trips to family farms in southern Carroll County - and to Mount Airy. Major shopping or medical needs were taken care of by frequent trips to Frederick.

My ancestors, which include members of the Wright, Warfield, and Condon families, to name a few, were merchants, farmers and bankers in the Mount Airy area since history first began mentioning the community when the railroad went through town in 1831.

Folklore has it that the town was named by a railroad locomotive engineer who noted the fresh air in conjunction with the fact that the elevation of the town is the highest between Baltimore and Frederick.

Growing up, the stories of previous fires in Mount Airy were repeated as part of a family oral history tradition. Although folklore mentions fires in 1898 and 1913, research only validates fires which occurred on February 24, 1903, March 25, 1914, June 4, 1925, and May 9, 1969. A consistent theme has always been how the town has come together in the face of adversity.

The impact of these fires on the community was exacerbated by the fact that historically Mount Airy was, until only "recently," a community with a very small population to absorb the impact. This, of course, impacted the ability to pool the resources necessary to recover. For example, the population of Mount Airy in 1910 was a little over 400.

However, Mount Airy was, in the day, always a town that accomplished far more than what its size might dictate by way of the cohesion and the passionate common sense of endeavor shared by the community.

Drawing parallels from the story of the "little engine that could," in relationship to the matter of the railroad having to overcome the topographical elevation of the town, people would frequently say that Mount Airy was the "little town that could" overcome challenges and triumph in a manner far beyond its size.

One of the historic fires in Mount Airy destroyed the old Mount Airy High School on February 10, 1935. The school, which was originally built in 1915 for about $15,000, on North Main Street, was the pride and joy of the community, which helped raise the bulk of the money for the purchase of the property and the construction of the school.

The property was purchased from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which had owned the hilltop property and constructed a water tower there. The old water tower was of enormous sentimental value to many of the town's older citizens and when it was dismantled and removed several years ago, many were quite sad. But not nearly as sad as when Mount Airy lost its high school in 1967 to a regional southern Carroll County facility.

The '60s and '70s were difficult transition decades for Mount Airy. A fact reflected in reading the Mount Airy "Community Reporter" newspaper in those years. The loss of the community high school and the Mount Airy bypass, which opened in 1971, were the opening salvos as Interstate 70 made it easier for people from Baltimore and Washington to discover Mount Airy as a wonderful small town.

By 2005 the population had mushroomed to 8,200. The town, whose corporate limits lie in both Frederick and Carroll County, was the fastest growing municipality in Frederick in those years.

Along the way, the bucolic small town saw its reputation change from that of the "town that could" and the standard-bearer for everything that was great about a small town into the "town that fights."

Unfortunately, in the last decade the community has deteriorated into bitter divisiveness over just about everything that affects quality of life, from elections, to matters of adequate water, growth and development, and community infrastructure - just to begin the list.

Many of the people who have participated in these bitter squabbles will argue that they are fighting for the health and future of their small community; all the while, paradoxically, destroying the very spirit of the community with their scorched earth tactics in achieving their goals.

Other citizens, from all sides of the various arguments, who deeply care about their community, have long since been discouraged from getting involved for fear of personal attacks and a further erosion of their quality of life.

Ask folks about the causes and you'll get many answers. Many have suggested that people who do not know the history and tradition of the community have aspired to community leadership positions more for their own personal agenda or political advancement than the betterment of the community.

The fire last Sunday has made many of us, who hold Mount Airy near and dear to our hearts, profoundly sad.

However, those of us who know the history and tradition of "the little town that could," believe that Mount Airy can and will overcome this challenge and once again regain its rightful place as a community with great pride and influence over the four-county area.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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