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Some Interesting Opinions of Emmitsburg's Social Past From Those Who Lived it

John A. Miller
Emmitsburg Historical Society

How I See It Today as a Historian

Researching many different aspects of Emmitsburg's history has taught me several lessons. For example, during the Revolutionary War, the town itself did not exist. However, there was a settlement a couple of miles to the southeast called Tom's Creek Hundred. During the Civil War, we knew of a skirmish in town at the Farmers Inn where more that seventy men were captured and we now have at least a dozen names of those who were captured that morning on July 5, 1863. We also know of those men from Emmitsburg who fought during the Civil War and some of their war stories of courage and how they survived. Nevertheless, these are only a few of the events that helped shape our town, as we know it today.

History is like a puzzle and, when all the pieces fit, it can bring the satisfaction of knowing that one has contribute to it. But researching history can be a frustration unlike any other. This is especially so when people have been led to believe things that have been handed down to them, for example, the founding date of 1757. And, yes, I was for the 1785 date. Simply, one must be ready to accept failures as well as accomplishments when writing about history of any kind, especially when the real facts are presented in a neat package and people still blindly believe in folklore. History and society are only part of that puzzle. Emmitsburg's social atmosphere surely has played a major role in making our town the way it is today. The opinions, attitudes, and politics shown today can be traced back into Emmitsburg's social history or to what I call Emmitsburg's darker side.

Before anyone gets offended by that remark, I'll justify what I mean. The opinions shown about the topics of outsiders, new laws, and other social events can be traced back to the earliest publication of the Emmitsburg Chronicle. Reading through the first publication of the Emmitsburg Chronicle, has taught me a lot about Emmitsburg's social life, society, and history. What better way to get information for research about our town's history than by getting it from those who lived during that time? The first publications of Emmitsburg are surely an enjoyment to read. The first page of the newspaper usually covered items of interest from our nation to international news. The second page for the most part was new ideals ranging from remedies, to stories, to even some of George Washington's letters. The third page was generally more local news of our area with advertisements and editorials. Since television was not invented yet and the computer age was far away, Emmitsburg's citizens would post all kinds of information about their views, new laws, meetings that were to be held, and etc. Looking at Emmitsburg today, I can understand where these points of view came from. Most of them were handed down from generation to generation. Looking at it from this perspective… Well, I'll leave the rest up to the reader. Here are a few examples of some interesting opinions of Emmitsburg's social past from those who lived it.

Ball Playing

The earliest leagues of baseball in Emmitsburg can be traced back to 1879 when the town used to have tournaments. The Chronicle recorded these as East End and West End matches. These matches usually were held during the week. The winners would go on to play against the surrounding communities. On June 14, 1879, the Emmitsburg Chronicle published an editorial about ball playing. Here the person asserts his opinion (a classic case of religion vs. the new age) by opening his editorial stating:

Some of our youngsters either have not time or they have so much of it that they cannot stop from sheer habit, and thus now and then indulge in the sport on Sunday. There have been frequent complaints about the matter, it has been an annoyance in different respects.

Whilst we yield to no one in our estimates of the sanctity of the lords day, our convictions or not Puritanic there may or may not be hard and this amusement thus practiced, that will depend upon the time, the manner in the surroundings. Whatever may be one's sense of duty on any such questions, there is yet something due to what may be the honest opinions of others, we can conceive of the case, where a man of manly character, may be justified in showing disrespect to the moral and religious opinions of others, or to manifest a sense of the ridiculous in reference to what others hold sacred. In the cases before us, there were boisterous conduct, intrusions upon private property, and grievous annoyance to the neighborhood. It were far better to forgo the pleasure and give occasion for offence to neighbors and possibly of the stirring up the strife, we earnestly believe that legal action might arise in the case, upon the charge of creating, aiding and abetting a nuisance. Better find some other reaction which is not so striking, and its character, forgo the inducement to the present fun, in favor of the spirit of kindliness, and good neighbors, that run into trouble without compensating considerations therefore."

A similar pattern was in evidence in 1955, for I came across an article published in the Emmitsburg Chronicle dating April 25, 1958. It appears that the lack of interest and short funding are blamed on everyone in Emmitsburg. The article states, "Adult interest in the little league has dropped since the establishment's creation in 1955." Although the article doesn't state why there was a sudden lack of interest, one can assume from another editorial written in March 1972 by the Little League president, Thomas Harbaugh. He states in his letter to the editor of the Emmitsburg Chronicle that, due to personal reasons, he had to resign all his activities with the Little League. He writes, "It hurts me very much to do this, but there is nothing I can do about it. I hope in the future you, the citizens of Emmitsburg, will give your full support to league. The parks and recreation committee of Emmitsburg has drawn up a plan for a new ball field and other recreation for this town. In their plans, I have read nothing about helping the Little League and I think they are making a grave mistake by not including the Little League in the plans. Thank you very much, Yours truly, Thomas Harbaugh."

You can also see a similar pattern today that is in the midst of being corrected, as Emmitsburg Little League is the one of a few organizations that allows children to be involved with the community. This is one example of the difference in Emmitsburg's younger generation vs. the older generation. Nevertheless, not all of editorials from the Emmitsburg Chronicle are so negative.


When it comes to education, Emmitsburg, in years passed, has always been on top of things. Even when the town was behind the times, people always jumped at the opportunity to correct a problem very quickly. On July 26, 1879, it was announced that a new school was to be built in Emmitsburg and the people wasted no time in getting together a meeting to get the plans under way. The new school was to be completed by December of 1879. In the August 2 edition of the Emmitsburg Chronicle, the first paragraph clearly indicates that the people had really come together to see the project through. The article states that the location that was picked for the school was was part of the estate that had once belonged to Jacob Motter before he passed away. This paragraph in the Chronicle sums it up best:

"For the present location seems somewhat distant, but considering the healthfulness of the situation, and it's good drainage, together with the probabilities that the village must grow in that direction, we think they have done the best that they could be done under the circumstances, and trust that the new house, which is to beat two stories high will prove a valuable and ornamental accession to Emmitsburg."

By August 23, 1879, Mr. J. W. Troxell who was a school commissioner stated: "We are confident that nowhere in Frederick County is such a building more needed than here, the condition of the old schoolhouse, for many years has been an eye sore to the town, and a disgrace to the County."

Fight Fire with Fire

However, when one deed is rewarded another deed is shot down in flames. The great fire of June 16, 1863, consumed three quarters of Emmitsburg, destroying several buildings. In the Emmitsburg Chronicle of August 5, 1879, a frustrated citizen states that a need for a fire company should be of utmost importance. He relates that the town has previously had talks of creating a fire company , in fact, before the Emmitsburg Chronicle began publication. With lessons of the great fire of 1863, the horrors must still burn a painful image in those who survived.

This author wrote to the Chronicle, distressing his anger towards the town authorities and advising them of the situation. He wrote:

"Once in a while the enterprising element of the town is aroused by some public spirited native whose genius rises to the importance of the occasion, and at once proceeds to fire the enthusiasm of kindred spirits. The result therefore is a call by order of many for those interested in organizing a fire Company, to meet at the engine house. They meet, talk, as resolutions, appoint officers, committees, and the Emmitsburg far Company is an established fact, but unfortunately for lack of proper nourishment it grows feeble, totters, and on some Saturday afternoon gives out a few enfeeble squirts then dies and is buried until after some shed or stable burns down, which the engine is brought out of course most execrably refuses to work. The fire that breaks out again and upon the excited young citizens with renewed force, of results are other meetings, more talk, and resolutions, the 'machine' is burnished copper, hose oiled, ladders painted and on a favorable afternoon a squirting party, makes the atmosphere he met in the village is humorous. Thus the author is cooled down, interests in the matter seems to die, and the great fire company is extinguished, and mist of its own creation."

Another citizen wrote to the Chronicle on November 1, 1879, supporting another issue about how the fire of 1863 was never resolved as far as protecting the town from another threat was concerned. This person wrote:

"Situated as we are, at the very base of the mountain, the expense of obtaining and conveying into town an abundant supply of pure spring water, would be comparatively small. What a horrible experience was ours, in June 1863, when so large a portion of the 'Old Burg' was laid waste by the devouring element! Does not recall the horror that night of the fire? How differently and painfully the whole sad and fearful scene presents itself to the mind, citizens of all ages and conditions fleeing from their burning dwellings, they hardly knew were carrying with them whatever of their household goods they were able to secure, whilst a sense of insecurity was felt by all, as we at one time to spare of saving any portion of the town, on account of the scarcity of water. It is matter of surprise that an effort was not immediately made to secure a better supply, if for no other reason than the security and better protection of property. All citizens were fully impressed, with the other helplessness and inability to a rest or extinguish the rushing hissing flames, as they swept along with irresistible and appalling destruction. Now with our experience of ruin and suffering in the past, one would suppose there would be perfect unanimity, of desire, for some means of protection in the future, and I believe that all our people are not only favorable to, but decided advocates of an arrangement to supply the town with water."

New Laws and Ordinances

This is always a subject that is talked about in today's society as it was then. From 1879 through 1886, Emmitsburg adopted and passed several laws that met opposition. The Canine Law, the Fence Ordinance, and an ordinance prohibiting coasting and marble playing on the sidewalks all have been met with criticism. Many of these people the law or ordinances didn't really concern. The Canine Law was one that a non-dog owner wrote telling the town that it was not right for everyone to be taxed nor was it right to muzzle the dogs they had. The writer even said that the Canine Law failed considerably in other towns. You begin to see a little more of the animal rights movement growing in these latter days of Emmitsburg.

However, the ordinance prohibiting coasting and marble playing on the sidewalks was considered a safety aspect rather than anything else because of the injuries caused by children leaving their toys on the sidewalks. It was also at this same time that the snow removal ordinance was passed. The basic nature of these laws was to keep the side walks clear and safe for people to walk on year round. They are the same laws that people are fined for today.

A notice to all landholders was introduced in 1879. The basic law was known as the Fencing Law and it stated:

"All Landholders and their tenets are required to make and keep in good repair, a good and substantial fence at least four half feet high around their outside premises, any person failing to keep such fence shall not recover any damage done for trespass, by neat cattle, or horses, swine or sheep, except when such fence is destroyed by freshet, in such case, the owner is allowed 60 days to repair the same."

The basics here are not new in today's society; safety is always an utmost concern for many town authorities. Most of the laws that Emmitsburg passed were commonsense laws as I call them and are still followed today.

The Economy

In 1910, the Emmitsburg Chronicle reported in the words of those merchants about Emmitsburg's economy. They all stated, for the most part, that the crops were great and that money was apparently easy. Good investments were eagerly sought and more buildings were erected in the neighborhood than in previous years. During the late 1800's, the Emmitsburg Chronicle published a market value that summed up what the goods were worth. Items ranged from hides and meats, to grain, not to mention that a half of page was full of advertisements for Emmitsburg's businesses.

One of the most interesting facts in Emmitsburg's history is that the business section was so much bigger then than what is today. Throughout the 19th and the early part of the 20th centuries, Emmitsburg was very dependant on itself. Businesses ranged from manufacturing and markets to ice and farming needs. During Emmitsburg's early years, people were able to make it in life by supporting local businesses. Simply put, the town was self-sufficient. The town's people generated all the money raised by the businesses. That money went right back into the town. Thus, making Emmitsburg very prosperous.

It must have been an impressive sight. Knowing you could walk into a general store and the clerk knew who you were and had your order ready without you even asking for it. The service one received must have been awesome. The days of the friendly sales clerk that everybody knew has seen it's time and has about passed because of the introduction of major department store chains. More people are willing to travel to Wal-mart to pay less for something that might be in a general store in town. When this happens it puts the smaller businesses out of business.

Recently, someone asked, "What kind of growth does Emmitsburg need, if any, as far as jobs are concerned?" My answer was, "None, because there are no major jobs in Emmitsburg and most of the people I talk to work down the road in Thurmont, Frederick, or D.C. because they can't survive on minimum wage locally. The reason this is so is because of today's world where traveling to work has become a breeze. This is also so mainly because the American corporations have grown considerably. If a job down the road in a major city pays $16.00 an hour vs. a job in Emmitsburg that pays only $10.00 an hour, people are most likely to take the higher paying job. Unfortunately, this has had a big impact on Emmitsburg's economy.

With store fronts filled with senior citizens swapping stories of days gone by, these stores must have been a social gathering of their own. Stories were told and folklore was passed down to the kids from the old-timers who were sitting on the storefront chairs, while smoking their pipes. Gossip and rumors were told by the ladies of the town about their neighbors. These places were a magnet for hours out of the day.

Emmitsburg's Appearance

Communicated on July 5, 1879, a writer complains about the sanitary conditions of Emmitsburg. The town authorities answered the author with criticism. The writer seems to have enough information to back up his claim; however, the town authorities do not feel he is right. You see, these sorts of complaints today are lodged with those who are in an office of the town. The use of the Emmitsburg Chronicle to address problems and complaints is nothing new with the town, even in today's standards. Public interest has always been a top priority and, when satisfaction is not met, then Emmitsburg citizens have a way of expressing their disappointments. In many aspects, as petty as these claims and the response received may be, Emmitsburg citizens have always wanted their town to be kept in a good manner.

The writer states:

"Mr. Editor, allow me through your columns to call attention to the sanitary condition of our village. The time has arrived when the utmost purity and cleanliness, to prevent the rise in spread of malaria to diseases. The town authorities would do well either in person or by means of properly appointed agents to make a thorough inspection of every place where the seeds of disease may be in danger for though carelessness, neglect, or ignorance.

Our bank alleys in places are in such a condition as to invite the approach of fever, whilst the odor arising from many of the cellars is enough to warn the passerby that death and disease are lurking there. At the corner of the public square and a very midst of the town, the stench arising from the rear of buildings is such a disgust and sickened all who come near the premises. There must be something altogether wrong about localities that emit such odors.

If a load of wood is left on the street after certain time, a little harmless coal ashes is thrown out, the offender is speedily fined to teach him that duty he owes to the community, whilst nuisances that endanger of health and outrage, destine, or suffered to exist unnoticed by the authorities. No wonder our town is becoming less and less a place of resort for strangers, and that those who are obligated to come among us leave as soon as they can get away. Timely Warning"

The town's reply was published by the Emmitsburg Chronicle on July 26, 1879, stating in return:

"Official! At a meeting of the town council held at Messars. Isaac Hyder and Son's, on Monday, July 21, 1879, it was resolved to reply to a communication and the Emmitsburg Chronicle of July 5 but over the signature of 'Timely Warning', which article rather reflected on this body has being derelict in their duty. We would respectfully request 'Timely Warning' hereafter or any other person or persons to be more careful in making charges of negligence, as regards the sanitary condition of our neat and much improved village. As upon thorough investigation by our worthy Burgess and town council, the corner of the public square being in such deleterious condition, it has not yet been found. Not a single party has left the town for the reason assigned by 'Timely Warning.' By order of the town council John T. Gelwick's secretary."

To fix the problem and to keep Emmitsburg clean, during the 1880's the town had a general cleanup day. Citizens were asked to clean out their cellars, remove obstructions from the yards, clean their attics as precaution to help fight against the spread of fire and to keep the sanitary problems as best at a low risk. The town meeting minutes from May of 1886 states:

"The energy and activity displayed in our village of late in a general clean up, repairs, white washing, &c., are highly commendable, and the Summer will reach us in full preparation to maintain the good name of the place for its healthful surroundings. Prevention is not only better, but much easier than cure, against the inroads of disease, let no one be remiss. Every offence against good order should be promptly reported as the duty of a good Citizen."

It seems that Timely Warning was right after all. Even though the town authorities did not admit to such problems with the health of Emmitsburg.

A Problem

In 2004, the Emmitsburg Dispatch wrote about the floods that were caused by Hurricane Ivan. Many people who lived near Flat Run were insulated for several hours, as they could not get into the only entrance to the housing development. If the town knew about the problems in that area from before, the problem could have been fixed a long time ago. On August 8, 1885, the Emmitsburg Chronicle published an article about the floods during that week in 1885. The flood water caused a great loss to Emmitsburg, by washing out the roads, destroying bridges, and a course property damage. The Bridge over Flat Run on the Gettysburg road was completely insulated by the high water that surrounded, and the abutments were washed out. The losses being distributed over considerable territory, have not been so great in Emmitsburg's history.

This is the first recording of the same situation that we read about today when a major storm system passes through our area. I thought it was very interesting that if one remembered to read the accounts, the situation could have been played out differently and the entrance never placed so close to a small creek.

Fun Time?

As people complained about the noise generated by the exhaust systems of motor vehicles in today's society, and how teenagers race through town in their cars, what would you say if I told you they used to do it at night time during the 1800's with horses. Some would probably think I was crazy. On July 12, 1879, the peaceful town of Emmitsburg was disturbed by a horse race through town. It was understood at the time as a grand spectacle. The contestants were a horse from livery-stable of Messers. Guthrie and Beam, and Mr. J. A. S. Tawney's horse. Fifty dollars was given to the winner.

Nevertheless, not all things were as fun, especially when the Emmitsburg town elections were due. Apparently, elections were somewhat interesting when the voters mixed a little liquor with their voting. In 1879, the town elections went quite smoothly as voters came to vote and left as soon as they were done. It was quite grand as peace was had because of a law requiring the liquor saloons to be closed on Election Day, and it again proved its efficiency.

Outside Influences

Outsiders are what Emmitsburg calls them. That is the definition of someone who is from another area and who has located his or her family in Emmitsburg. This also defines someone who tries to do something he or she thinks is great for the town, but the real Emmitsburg citizens show their ideas in the belief that these people do not have a say in matters because their families were not living here before. The prejudice of some has always condemned the many because of their ideas of improving the town. Many Emmitsburgians are skeptical of change. You see it today as well as back then. This ideology can be traced back to 1886 when someone wrote to the Dispatch giving a newly elected body of the town council the idea of confinement from the outside world by building a huge wall engulfing Emmitsburg.

The writer wrote on May 8, 1886:

"In the first place, being responsible for the safety of our venerable town the best and surest way to protect it from outside influences, and shut out any possible innovation on it's time honored usages, would be to build a high strong wall around it as soon as possible, after which they will be able to proceed at their leisure to remove or destroy."

It seems that this Emmitsburg citizen had forgotten that a hundred years before, Emmitsburg was founded by immigrants from Germany and Ireland who we know as Dutch and Scot-Irish. But why? Maybe its because Emmitsburg's interest has been a private issue that is only to be shared with it's hardcore citizens. One could imagine all the great ideals people over the years have brought forth to better Emmitsburg, but because of their social status among it's hardcore citizens, because they are considered outsiders, their ideas would never be given consideration.

Some Final Thoughts

The Emmitsburg Chronicle served the public well and even, in such cases, the Chronicle itself was attacked by Emmitsburg Citizens because the violence, sandals, and rude editorials being published were considered offensive to children reading the news. The Chronicle released a statement in 1879 stating that it's sole purpose was intended to get the news to the people and that maybe younger eyes may not want to be subjected to the ways of a modern world by reading about murder and horse accidents, etc. It seems that not many of the town's residents realized or cared that so much has happened here in Emmitsburg. However, these individuals make up a small portion of the towns official population.

Nevertheless, on a more personal note, Emmitsburg.net and the Emmitsburg Historical Society has made it possible for people to read about Emmitsburg's outstanding and rich history. A history that continues to grow and blossom with every page that is being uncovered. There's no telling where new topics and research may take us and what we will uncover. New puzzles will present itself, filled with riddles and controversy. It will be up to us to learn more about these topics as they present themselves to us. These little facts and opinions I have listed and discussed are only a few of the many examples that are there for our discovery.

Many aspects contribute to a small community such as Emmitsburg. Like all communities, you have to take what I call "The good, the bad, and the ugly." It adds curiosity and charm that arouses people, such as myself, to dig deeper into Emmitsburg's lifestyle. What may be good for one, will be rejected by others. It's how opinions are formed and how they generate "the best of times and the worst of times."

Read other article by John Miller