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Don't take any wooden nickels

Editorial, The Emmitsburg Dispatch, May 4, 2006

Inaction doesn't make an issue go away. And inappropriate action, even with the passage of time, is still inappropriate.

During the recent town election, Emmitsburg voters did not have an opportunity to voice an opinion about the town's founding date. The commissioners did not revisit the issue at either their April 24 or May 1 meetings. But the reality is, Emmitsburg's town seal bears a 1757 founding date, and yet the commissioners have no plans for celebrating a 250th anniversary next year.

Former Commissioner Dianne Walbrecker even tried to get the board to make a determination about the founding date in the summer of 2005, prior to her resignation, but they refused to act.

Obviously there is some question about whether 1757 is the town's true founding date.

While many people want a party, and the town richly deserves to celebrate, there are people who are opposed to celebrating in 2007. Tempers also flare at the thought of changing the town's "founding" date from the one celebrated in 1957.

Continued inaction plagues this town. Commissioners have asked for founding date information, and then refused to act on what was presented. And some actions taken were clearly inappropriate, as town meeting minutes reveals.

In February 2003, 14 people spoke before the commissioners about the town's founding date. Representing the Emmitsburg Area Historical Society, Mike Hillman presented extensive documentation supporting 1785 as Emmitsburg's founding date. The commissioners tabled a decision, wanting more information. Some commented, that not being historians, they could not really decide the issue.

In March 2003, the issue was put back on the table in an effort to get a decision. Encouraged by then-President of the board Patrick Boyle, then-Commissioner Sweeney said he supported a 1757 founding date. Then-Commissioner Rosensteel didn't want to change the founding date, but supported adding the incorporation date of 1825.

A motion by then-Commissioner Ted Brennan to "change the Town flag and Town seal to reflect the incorporation date of 1825," was approved by Boyle, Brennan and Sweeney, with Rosensteel abstaining.

The following month Boyle asked to change the March minutes, saying he had meant to "add" the incorporation date to the flag and seal, not remove the existing "Founded in 1757." Although Boyle misunderstood Brennan's motion, he ought not to have changed what actually happened.

To this day, Brennan maintains that his motion was to remove the 1757 founding date and replace it with the town's 1825 incorporation date. Brennan's reasoning was that the seal is an official representation of town government, and the town government came into existence in 1825.

Determined, Boyle succeeded in amending the minutes, with Sweeney voting with him, and Brennan and Rosensteel abstaining.

In May 2003 Mayor Hoover questioned the validity of changing the minutes, of changing what actually occurred. Boyle said the change was legal. Brennan had lost a re-election bid; Sweeney and Rosensteel agreed with Boyle, and the altered minutes stood.

Even with the passage of time, this action was inappropriate. The town seal should appear only with the incorporation date, as the commissioners initially voted in their March 2003 meeting.

Since 1757 is still on the official seal as the founding date, then it is the commissioners' responsibility to organize a celebration for next year.

But is 1757 the town's true founding date?

History is not voted on. Events either happened, or they didn't.

Town residents celebrated a "bicentennial" in 1957, just as neighboring Taneytown had done three years earlier. Although 1757 is an important date because Samuel Emmit purchased a tract of land that year, the majority of historians who have reviewed maps, legal documents and personal accounts agree that 1785 is a more reasonable founding date for Emmitsburg.

It seems evident from the historical society's research that town residents celebrated a "bicentennial" in 1957 largely because of the efforts of the Rogers Co. in Cleveland, Ohio, a marketing and exhibits company, in business for more than 55 years.

In an 1823 hand-written account, Father, later Bishop Simon Brut, describes Emmitsburg as being a woods at that time.

An independent historical architect under contract with the Maryland Historical Trust wrote about the initial development of the town in 1785; and the historical trust has told Emmitsburg that no additional paperwork would be needed to recognize 1785 as the official founding date. The town had been added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.

Timothy Shannon, Associate Professor of History at Gettysburg College, wrote in 2003 that it appeared obvious to him that Emmitsburg's founding date should be considered 1785, when the first lots were laid out. He saw no evidence for claiming 1757 as a founding date based on original materials from the eighteenth century.

To our knowledge, no historian, in an official capacity, has recognized a 1757 founding date.

So if the commissioners want to leave the decision about a founding date to the historians, the historians have already spoken.

The Emmitsburg Area Historical Society seems to have sufficient evidence to prove that the "bicentennial" supplement published in 1957 contained some colorful, yet fictitious history, probably written by the promotions company to support the 1957 celebration.

1757 is an important date in the history of Emmitsburg - that year Samuel Emmit acquired the 2,250-acre Carrollsburg tract. However, until 1785, Emmitsburg was undeveloped land; and the community that existed in this area was known as the Toms Creek Hundred.

1785 is an important date in the history of the town - in an August deed for 35 acres to his son William, Samuel Emmit wrote, "wherein the lots of a new town called Emmitsburg are laid out." More importantly, within that deed, Samuel refers to an agreement on March 5, 1785, between him and subscribers for the lots, to form a town.

Celebrating is important, but understanding what we're celebrating is more important.