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Gateway to the Mountains

George Wireman

Chapter 8: The Matchmaker of Mechanictown

In 1825, about seven years before the town was incorporated, Mechanicstown scored a "first" not only for the Colony of Mary-land, but for the whole New World. The very first lucifer matches ever manufactured in America were made in Mechanicstown.

At this time the community was one of the State's most flourishing industrial communities. During the latter years of the Eighteenth Century a remarkable company of artisans and craftsmen had drifted into the isolated section and, despite its inaccessibility, set them-selves up in manufacturing.

Everywhere in the colonies at this time, fire was produced solely by striking steel against flint, igniting a piece of punk or other in-flammable material and blowing the spark into a flame. "Ignition matches" had only recently been introduced in the Old World and a rare few had found their way to this continent.

The most prominent folk were the Wellers, who had a finger and a dollar in nearly everything that went on in Mechanicstown.

Lusty men were the Wellers, shrewd, capable, farsighted and quick to make use of the riches nature had lavished on their lands.

It was on a visit to Frederick in the early 1820's that Jacob Weller found something to challenge his sharp curiosity. He purchased some matches which had been imported from France. Upon his return home he showed them to his brother Joseph and he too became intrigued. America never had thought of anything as unnatural as striking fire from a bit of wood daubed with a queer looking mess of chemicals. The flint was giving a good and trusty spark and this new-fangled notion from the Old World evoked little enthusiasm on the west side of the Atlantic. But to Jacob Weller it was a mystery, modern advancement, and utter fascination. His dabbling in science and his remarkable scientific library was a fortunate prelude to further adventures in manufacturing.

Equipped with enough scientific lore to analyze the lucifers and determine what made them flame from friction, Jacob examined them very closely, determined to discover the closely guarded secret of their manufacture. He had no trouble in learning the secret, and finally analyzed the chemical components of the match heads. As a result of his discovery he was ready to launch another business the manufacture of matches. And so Mechanicstown got America's first match factory in the little gray stone house that had been for many years his blacksmith shop.

Having found how to make the ignition mixture, Jacob and his brother Joseph began experimenting to find a practical form in which to manufacture them.

Finally Weller hit upon the scheme of using a solid cube of soft wood which he cut almost through into two series of parallel cuts, perpendicular to each other. This made a solid block from which a nest of sticks projected.

The matches were first subdivided by hand and later by machinery, and then dipped into the brimestone mixture, etc., and then set aside to dry. The result was a marketable block of matches from which individual matches could be broken off as they were needed. The matches were then placed in boxes and were peddled throughout Frederick County at twenty-five cents a box. With each box went a piece of sand paper upon which to ignite the matches.

Weller's new business got under way in 1825 and historians of the day had little to say of the Match House and what went on there. Several writers list match-making as one of the community's claims to fame. But one fact remains undisputed. The little gray stone house still stands today on West Main Street, though some-what changed from its original form. Fifty years ago every stranger to the community wanted to see the little match house, but time has clouded the fame of the building and now even natives are apt to forget that it was here that the first friction matches in America were made.

Peddlers whom Jacob Weller sent out to market his flame-producing bits of wood, often encountered vigorous sales resistance, often expressed by the sharp teen of the householder's dogs. Many wild tales swept through the countryside. The frontier folk warned each other that these new fire sticks would explode and blow a man, his family and his earthly possessions high into the peaceful Mary-land sky.

Did these wild stories make the business too poor to warrant its continuance? Did the itinerant merchants grow tired of having mongrels nip at their heels and decline to stock Weller's distrusted lucifers? Or was Jacob Weller, perhaps, singed physically as well as financially, when, on two occasions, the enterprise was destroyed by fire, resulting from spontaneous combustion. What brought an end to Mechanicstown's match production remains to this day, one of Frederick County's most fascinating and unsolved mysteries.

Match House in 1910

Through many ownerships the Match House stood almost unchanged for decades (perhaps for a century, because its construction date is uncertain) until it was purchased by a Thurmont resident, Rudolph O. Eyler. The same substantial, sturdy single storied, peak-roofed little house of Jacob Weller's time, it rested solidly on the ground, having no cellar beneath it. The thick stone walls were as sound as the day they were mortared, so Mr. Eyler ran them up to a full two stories a move he somewhat regretted later. What a pity the building was not kept in its original size and shape to preserve more fully its authenticity and remind generations to come of the colorful past of the house and of its erstwhile owner, Jacob Weller.

The Match House as it looks today

In the course of modernization, Mr. Eyler ripped up the old single flooring so a cellar could be dug, and for a day workmen delightedly sifted the earth and came up with handfuls of old pennies and other coins that must have slipped from the fingers of Weller's customers and rolled through chinks in the floor.

Mr. Eyler also installed a central heating plant in the new basement, as well as modern plumbing and lighting and made the old Match House into a comfortable eight-room dwelling. There is nothing to distinguish it from neighboring old-fashioned homes, nothing to remind the passing tourist of those friction matches which caused Jacob Weller to become known as the "Matchmaker of Mechanicstown."

In 1938 the Match House was used as a cachet for the celebration of "National Air Mail Week." Mr. Earl T. Kelbaugh, then Post-master of Thurmont, was the sponsor. As a result of this action. many travelers were attracted to the community, seeking a glimpse of the very first match factory in America. Many even took pictures, but there were others who were heard to remark "What a pity it wasn't kept in its original form."

Today, the Match House serves as the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Baltzell who take pride in telling strangers of its historic past.

Chapter Index | Chapter 9: Harriet Chapel

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