Frederick Magazine, March 2005

It is a foggy Monday morning in downtown Emmitsburg. Though it is almost 8:00 AM, it is still rather dark and the replica gaslight streetlamps lining either side of the street are glowing in the mist. I drive the length of Main Street looking for a place to eat breakfast, but by the time I reach the other end of town I don’t see any open eateries. I turn around and drive back in and make a right at Seton Avenue, which cuts Main street in half and is seemingly the only other road in town that has businesses, and drive until I reach the outskirts. I turn around and drive back across Main Street to the other end of Seton and still, nothing.

I am starting to get really hungry and my vision of sitting in some greasy spoon with the locals is fading in favor of a Sausage Egg McMuffin at the McDonald’s I passed earlier. Maybe that is where the locals eat. When I get there, however, I am the only customer.

After a sloppy transaction at the counter when the cashier has to ask me three times if I want to substitute the orange juice that comes with the Value Meal with the coffee I also ordered, I tell the girl that I want both and quickly abandon the idea of explaining that I am writing a story about Emmitsburg and asking her what I should do first during my visit.

* * *

The sign that greets motorists says “Welcome to Historic Emmitsburg,” but that history is somewhat cloudy. For one thing, generations of Emmitsburgians once believed that the town was founded by a man named Samuel Emmit in 1757, but the Emmitsburg Area Historical Society is attempting to set the record straight that the town was actually founded in 1785 by Samuel’s son, William. The town had apparently already been laid out by 1785, and local folklore tells a tale of a drunken gathering that took place at Hockensmith’s Farm where supporters of naming the town Emmitsburg won out over those who wanted to call it Carrolltown, after Charles Carroll, previous owner of the land that up until then was known as Carrollsburg.

During the Civil War, Emmitsburg served as a staging area for the Battle of Gettysburg ten miles up the road. After the war, the town started to grow and prosper, but in the 1880’s a decision was made by the Western Maryland Railroad to forgo building the line through Emmitsburg. With the promise of new jobs suddenly dashed, the younger folk fled town to look for work elsewhere.

Since then, life in Emmitsburg has been described as “quaint,” and Emmitsburg has been affectionately known as a “sleepy town,” so sleepy in fact that they slept right through their bicentennial anniversary in 1985 and didn’t realize it until years later. Today, however, with the current real estate boom in central Maryland, the town is starting to wake up. New houses are being built, old buildings are being restored, and more tourists than ever are passing through; but even though these things have been beneficial to the local economy, not everyone is pleased.

* * *

My first stop after breakfast is the Maryland Visitor Center on Route 15 just outside of town. I am greeted by a friendly woman to whom I explain that I am writing a story about Emmitsburg and ask for some suggestions about what to see and do. She eagerly starts pulling brochures off the rack, the first of which is one for the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who, in 1975, was canonized by Pope Paul VI to become the first ever saint born on American soil. She also hands me several maps, Destination Frederick County and Visit Frederick City & County guides, and points to a picture on the wall of the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial.

“Do you live in Emmitsburg?” I ask.

“I used to,” she says. “I was born and raised there.”

“What do you think of it?”

“It’s beautiful here, and it still has it’s quaintness and small time ambience.”

“Do you have any interesting stories to tell about Emmitsburg?”

She thinks for a minute.

“No, not really.”

* * *

The grounds of the Seton Shrine Center and St. Joseph’s Provincial House are quiet, and there is plenty of parking available. On the brochure it says that the museum is open from 10:00 AM to 4:30 PM, and since it is only 9:30, I walk around and take some pictures of the statues, most of which are located in the center of traffic circles all over the property. With the exception of the buzzing leafblowers of some nearby landscapers, the place is very tranquil and does wonders to calm the jitters I have from the McDonald’s coffee. What I failed to notice on the brochure, however, that I finally notice on the sign in front of the basilica, is that the shrine is open six days a week except Mondays.

* * *

Just down the road is the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Emergency Training Center, home of the National Fire Academy and the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial. It is a high security place with a tall, pointed iron bar fence surrounding the property, concrete barricades in the driveways, and security checkpoints at each entrance. I pull in and am greeted by two guards, one a friendly young woman who looks a little like the woman at the Visitor Center and the other a burly guy with cropped hair and the demeanor of a State Trooper who has just pulled you over. I ask the woman if this is the entrance to the Memorial and she says it is and that she will need to take my license and give me a temporary visitor badge. The guy instructs me to pull around the trailer, but I don’t realize that he means the trailer right there at the gate, and I proceed to park behind a Winnebago down in the permit-required main lot. (Later I would picture them in my rearview mirror with arms akimbo asking each other where the hell I think I’m going). I walk across the grass and back up the hill to the gate, where I find them waiting for me. The guy says that I’m not really supposed to park down there but supposes it is alright as long as they see me walking to and from the memorial. The woman gives me a plastic yellow badge with today’s date hand written on it and a chain so that I can wear it around my neck.

As I make my way up the walk towards the chapel that is in front of the memorial, I can’t help but feel that I am being watched, perhaps because I probably am. This is a sacred place, and here I am with a camera around my neck, a microcassette recorder in my coat pocket, several maps and notebooks left open on the passenger seat of my car, which in this day and age is enough to make anyone look suspicious. Nobody bothers me, however, and the only other person I encounter is a guy leaving the memorial. We give each other a somber nod as we pass by.

A series of new looking brick walks lead to the memorial, several sections of which have bricks that are inscribed with messages to fallen heroes from people who have made donations. The centerpiece of the memorial is a seven foot cairn constructed of white stone, on top of which is a bronze Maltese Cross (the symbol of those who help others in distress), and at the base there are three small eternal flames that embody the spirit of firefighters past, present, and future. The cairn is surrounded by plaques with the names of fallen firefighters from each year dating back to 1981 (when the memorial was built and dedicated by President Reagan), including a separate one for September 11, 2001 that has far more names on it than any of the individual years and an image of the Twin Towers emblazoned in the middle. It is humbling to see all these names knowing that every one of them was a braver soul than I can ever hope to be, and I am awed that anyone would give up their lives to save people they don’t even know. When I was at the gate earlier I thought this memorial should be more easily accessible to the general public, but now I have a better understanding as to why it is thus protected. This alone is worth the trip to Emmitsburg.

* * *

Afterwards I drive back into town and park at the end of Main Street. I want to get a sense of what Emmitsburg is really like by talking to the people who live and work here.

* * *

“It’s a town with a lot of potential,” says Pat Gjerde, age 60, who is originally from Minnesota and moved to Emmitsburg four years ago. He works in a store on Main Street called Granny’s Attic, which I thought was going to be an antique store, but all they seem to sell are shirts and jackets for the National Fire Academy. “It’s quiet, it has a large background, and now it’s building back again because of the National Fire Academy, Mount St. Mary’s University, and a number of developers are building around the area and people are moving up because it is quiet and inexpensive.”

“What do you like least about living in Emmitsburg?” I ask.

“There’s two things that enter my mind right away: the water problem—a person is almost afraid to drink the water here—and then the other thing is the resistance that people have to improvement here in Emmitsburg. I think Emmitsburg is a nice town and it’s definitely going to expand, but they’re having a rough time with it, and they’re not accepting the fact that, hey, if we’re going to expand, let’s use our time and money wisely and work with that rather than shove it away. It’s one of those things that’s hard to call because I’m new here and I haven’t been here for a long time, but I think that’s probably the only thing that I can see that bothers me is that people are cutting each other’s throats around here because they know what’s coming and they’re afraid, and the other ones know what’s coming and want to plan on getting it ready, and it’s kind of rough to listening to that every day. Otherwise, it’s a nice area.”

* * *

Others in town, however, are not as willing as Pat to talk. Some are shy, some say they only work here and don’t really know anything about Emmitsburg, while others don’t trust me, which at first I think is just because I am a stranger in a small town where people aren’t used to being asked to grant interviews until one person asks if I am with C.O.P.E. Later I find out that C.O.P.E. stands for Citizens Organized to Preserve Emmitsburg, a grassroots organization formed in October 2002 to oppose the annexation of 67 acres of Silver Fancy Farm to the town that would be used to build 130 new homes. Their main concerns were overpopulation, traffic congestion, water shortages, overcrowded schools, pollution, and irreparable damage to the small town atmosphere of Emmitsburg, among other things. Since then C.O.P.E. has evolved into a rather powerful local lobby that has divided this town in half like a fault line. On the surface everything is “quaint,” but I had touched a nerve with store owners by asking what I thought were rather innocent questions: What do you like most about Emmitsburg? What do you like least about Emmitsburg? What do you see as the future of Emmitsburg? Growth would obviously be good for business, but many business owners are wary of saying so out loud.

The last person I speak to, someone who has worked in Emmitsburg for four years and doesn’t live here yet would still rather speak to me under the condition of anonymity, tells me the following: “I believe that, for me, anytime I see farms and environments go and suburbs come in, I think it’s sad. Every day out here I sit here and there’s a huge traffic jam out there and I just think that all these suburbs are only going to make it even worse… I live right outside of Frederick and they just built these big McMansions near my house, and to me they’re just hideous. It was so much more beautiful before they were there—to see all that’s it’s displaced, all the wildlife—it’s sad.”

* * *

Today, at the moment anyway, Emmitsburg still has that “sleepy town” feel; but it is an uncomfortable sleep, twisting and turning and waking-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-with-a-cold-sweat kind of sleep. Perhaps Emmitsburg’s most distinct characteristic is division. In 1785 they were divided about what to name the town; during the Civil War, as a town that borders the Mason-Dixon line, they were divided to the point where brothers from the same family joined opposing armies; and today, with the identity of this town again at stake, sides are being taken once more. ▪

Author Notes

The year is 2004. I’d spent eight years writing a novel that, after querying over 100 literary agents, I knew would never be published. I was willing to chalk it up as part of my education as a writer. I should be happy that my first bad novel was out of the way, and that it would never see the light of day to embarrass me later.

What to do now, though… By this time I’d written a dozen or so short stories and amassed an impressive collection of rejection letters mailed to me in self-addressed-stamped-envelopes. I’d just finished reading David Foster Wallace’s essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, a first person account of the horrors he experienced aboard a cruise ship. This was the author of Infinite Jest going gonzo in a tuxedo t-shirt, which seemed like the sort of thing I would do if I ever wrote nonfiction. I had always liked traveling to places I’d never been and documenting the experiences in my journal. I badly needed a break from writing fiction. Perhaps doing something like this would free me from the eternal suffering of the failed novelist. It would be over a decade before I wrote fiction again.

“Impressionism”. That’s how the publisher of Frederick Magazine described my article. But I was faking it. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d never taken a journalism class in my life, never wrote for the school newspaper. My wife and I had just moved to Taneytown in rural Maryland, “the exurbs”, neither of us familiar with the area. Taneytown is in Carroll County, and their glossy county magazine was fledgling at the time (I would later write an article for them), but neighboring Frederick County had an established glossy, the kind featuring quaint things like Main Streets, antique shops, restaurants, local artists (one of whom would later cause me to doze off while interviewing him), and the beautiful City of Frederick, the county seat. Emmitsburg, the closest town in Frederick County to Taneytown, is an Appalachian town of 3,000 residents, of which I would later learn was home to some who think the Civil War was still being fought, and where the KKK supposedly had a chapter somewhere on the outskirts of town. Being an outsider who grew up in New York and had spent four years in Seattle, maybe they would appreciate an outsider’s perspective. I read a lot of Hunter S. Thompson in my youth, and there was definitely something gonzo about going into this town just below the Mason-Dixon line and writing about what I found there.

I rolled in at the crack of dawn and breakfasted at their McDonald’s. After spending the morning examining the town, I needed some local insight, a few quotes from residents. The morning had been fun driving around, stopping at monuments, snapping pictures, taking notes, but this is the part I was uncomfortable with. I went into a flower shop and explained to the owner I was writing an article about Emmitsburg, and, as a local business owner, would she like to be interviewed. She agreed, but I could tell she wasn’t entirely comfortable with it. I asked a few questions I thought were softballs: What’s it like living in Emmitsburg? What is your favorite thing about living in Emmitsburg? What is your least favorite thing about Emmitsburg? Do you think the mayor is doing a good job? Why or why not?

Unlike politicians, who will spend an hour answering a single question if you don’t stop them, everyday people aren’t accustomed to being interviewed. They’re nervous. Some will think too much about their answers and go blank, while others will blurt out the first thing that comes to mind without considering how many will read their words. The flower shop owner was of the latter ilk, and I thought she was giving me some good dirt about the town, until I noticed concern on the face of the store’s lone employee, an older woman leaning on a broom, whom I later suspected to be the owner’s mother. I figured I had a few good quotes and pressed the “STOP” button on my analog microcassette recorder, thanked her for her time, and told her I didn’t know when this would be published, but I would call and let her know, and we exchanged phone numbers. Yet, I hadn’t even contacted Frederick Magazine and had no idea if they would even want this article, and, at this point in the day, I wasn’t sure if what I had was any good. I wasn’t feeling great about any of it.

Behind the wheel of the Camry, halfway back to Taneytown, my Cingular cellular phone rang. It was the owner of the flower shop. She didn’t feel comfortable about the interview… Who are you again? What magazine do you write for? Can I see a copy of the article before it’s published?

“Sure, absolutely,” I said, but there was no way I was going to do that. There goes your fifteen minutes of Frederick County fame, lady. I hit the brakes and headed back towards Emmitsburg. I stopped at the library and a few other places, where I found a brave few who were willing to speak on the record. I sent the article to Frederick Magazine, which, at the time, had a young staff who was tired of the same old quaint articles, and they went wild over it. They couldn’t believe I went into Emmitsburg and just started interviewing people They asked if I could do a series with other towns in Frederick County.

“Finding Emmitsburg” would launch my journalism career. The “Finding Series” became three articles in Frederick—the second being my visit to Brunswick, where I was accused by an antique store owner of “sensationalism” for mentioning the “railroad town” reputation of yesteryear, and the third, where I visited Mount Airy and, using MapQuest coordinates, attempted to pinpoint the exact location where Frederick county met two other Maryland counties, which turned out to be in the middle of a pond in someone’s backyard—but these last two articles lacked the raw energy and enthusiasm of this first one.

After the article was published, an Emmitsburg resident wrote a response letter published by the editor in the following issue:

All thanks to Richard Daub for his unbiased assessment of Emmitsburg in the February issue. However, kindly permit me to point out that Emmitsburg was actually founded in 1757, not 1785. The Town Fathers voted unanimously in June 2003 to retain 1757 as the true founding year. Therefore, we certainly did not sleep through our 200th anniversary in 1985, as suggested by Mr. Daub. Instead, we proudly marked our beginning in 1957 with a wonderful, year-long celebration.

Patrick B. Boyle