Living At My House In Frederick

597 Hillcrest Drive, Frederick, MD  

I lived in Frederick, Maryland, from May 1980 until December 1998. Previously, I had lived and worked in Falls Church, Virginia, but in early 1980, I changed jobs and started working in Gaithersburg, MD. This was a bit of a commute from Virginia, so I started thinking about moving. At the time, I was a few years into what would be a very promising career as a computer programmer. I expected to earn pretty good money, so I seriously considered buying a house. I looked at several houses in Montgomery County and Frederick County, and eventually bought the house at 597 Hillcrest Drive, in the city of Frederick. For a map of the area, click here.

I was in the upper part of the Hillcrest Orchards development, near Butterfly Lane. My house was actually at the very edge of the city (my neighbor across the back was outside the city limits). This seemed to be a good area with a convenient location. The upper part of the development was a very quiet neighborhood, and we never had any trouble (except occasional mischief on Halloween). The location was very convenient to shopping on the Golden Mile (US 40, at the western end of Frederick). It was also very convenient to local highways (US 40, US 340, US 15, I-270, I-70, etc.).

The house was built by Washington Homes, which had been planning an ambitious development. For whatever reason, they stopped building after only a few houses, and I bought one of those houses. It was actually used as a model home for prospective home buyers to visit, but it wasn't any fancier or built any better than the other homes. The house was what was known euphemistically as a "starter home"; another less gracious term would be "cheap". The design was very simple, and the construction used inexpensive materials that just met, but didn't exceed, the local code requirements. It was the type of house that was prefabricated as a bunch of flat panels that were transported to the site on a flatbed truck. The panels were then rapidly erected on the foundation by a relatively unskilled crew. At the time, it was what I wanted and could afford, but in retrospect, it was a rather bland and cheesy house.

One of the main reasons that I bought the house was that I really liked Frederick. Of all the cities and towns that I looked at, I thought Frederick had the most to offer. It was an interesting and historic city, with a charming old downtown. And it had an actual history, going back hundreds of years, unlike many other suburban towns in the region.

The deck on the back of my house.   After a big snow.

A Short History Of Frederick, Maryland

The earliest settlements in the area occurred in the early 1730's, populated by existing residents of Maryland and by Scots/Irish and especially German immigrants. Frederick Town, as it was originally called, was settled starting in 1745. The surrounding area was mainly agricultural, although there was an important iron furnace north of the city near Thurmont. During the Revolutionary War, the area saw no action, but provided supplies including cannonballs from the iron furnace. In the early 1800's, commerce increased as the National Road was completed, the first major east-west highway. The city of Frederick was incorporated in 1817, and became more active as the C & O Canal was completed south of the city, followed in 1831 by the arrival of the B & O Railroad.

Frederick, and the area around it, was quite active in the Civil War. In the early days of the war, the Maryland legislature met in Frederick and voted to remain in the Union, even though many residents of Maryland sympathized with the South. In July 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early's forces passed through Frederick while heading towards Washington D.C. to capture the nation's capital. General Early threatened to burn Frederick and demanded, and got, a $200,000 ransom instead. Just south of Frederick, the Confederate forces were delayed for a day by a much smaller force commanded by Union General Lew Wallace (who later wrote the book "Ben Hur"). This delay gave time for Union reinforcements to arrive at Washington, which saved the Union's capital and forced the Confederates back to Virginia.

The surrounding area remained agricultural for a long time, with Frederick as its commercial hub. In World War II, the government opened a biological warfare laboratory in Frederick at Fort Detrick. The biggest change to Frederick occurred relatively recently, with the construction of the interstate highway system and the growth of the Washington and Baltimore suburbs. This caused, and continues to cause, a housing development boom in and around Frederick.

Things I Liked About Frederick

Frederick has an old, established downtown with real "character". There are many small shops, but the area remains mostly residential, like cities used to be. There are many interesting buildings with various architectural styles, including many buildings from the 1800's and quite a few from the 1700's. It was nice to ride my bicycle around the downtown area and enjoy the small-town scenery. My favorite downtown area is Record Square, located just west of Market Street and just north of Patrick Street. Record Square contains Frederick's attractive Italianate-style City Hall (which used to be the county courthouse). The square is surrounded by attractive old homes, all meticulously maintained. It's a completely charming and authentic section of old-time America.

Frederick has a real gem of a park just west of downtown: Baker Park. The park is quite large for a city the size of Frederick, and it contains many well-maintained areas for public use. Carroll Creek runs through the park, and feeds a big pond with a fountain that is the centerpiece of the park. There are two unique bridges that cross Carroll Creek. One bridge is an old iron suspension bridge that carries a footpath across the creek, and the other is a small covered bridge. Throughout the park, there are many trees and park benches, and paved paths wind through the park and encircle it. The park was a really nice place to take a Sunday stroll. In one corner of the park, there's a large bandshell where they hold free summer concerts. Nearby, there's a tall carillon that rings out the hours, and where they occasionally give bell-ringing concerts. The park has a public swimming pool, two ballfields, several lighted tennis courts, two playgrounds, numerous picnic shelters, and a good field for kite-flying. At the far western end of the park, there's a field that is flooded in winter for ice skating. Baker Park is also where the city stages the 4th of July fireworks, although I have to say, the fireworks were kind of cheesy. The local sponsors were too frugal to splurge on a more extravagant display.

There are many high-tech jobs available along I-270 between Frederick and Rockville, and Frederick makes for a convenient "home base" due to the easy access to major highways. I spent most of my computer career working in the I-270 corridor, mostly in Germantown and Gaithersburg. Frederick is also reasonably convenient to Washington and Baltimore, including their airports. There is less traffic congestion in Frederick, and housing used to be much less expensive than Montgomery County. Unfortunately, both of these advantages became less and less true as time went by.

The area around Frederick is very scenic and has lots of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Although Frederick is convenient to jobs and major cities, it is outside of any major metropolitan area. The city is located in the Monocacy River valley, which is primarily farmland and has lots of nice scenery and interesting small towns. Just west of town (and visible from my house), the Catoctin Mountains form a ridge running north and south that extends from West Virginia up to Pennsylvania. The mountains are very sparsely developed, so they stand out as a visible reminder that Frederick County still contains a lot of open space and rustic scenery. In the Catoctin Mountains near Thurmont (just north of Frederick), there is a state park and a national park that have lots of woodsy scenery. I visited both parks numerous times to go hiking and rock scrambling. It's also an easy drive down to Front Royal, Virginia, to camp at Shenandoah National Park, which I did on several occasions. There's more nice scenery around the Potomac River, and at nearby Harper's Ferry, West Virginia.

Things I Didn't Like About Frederick

The biggest problem was the tremendous amount of growth, which occurred faster than the region could adapt. Farmland just outside of the city was relatively inexpensive, and developers bought up acres and acres of farms and converted them to crowded housing developments. The city then annexed the new developments so the residents could receive (and pay for) city services. Then the next set of farms would be developed and annexed, causing the city to grow even more. The problem was, the developers, and even the new residents, didn't pay for the full cost of the infrastructure improvements needed for the new developments. This resulted in higher taxes for the existing residents to pay for the new infrastructure. The cycle of loss of farmland, construction and annexation, overcrowded schools, traffic congestion, tax hikes, occurred over and over. Developers ruled the day, and the city and county politicians were too weak or too meek to rein in the vicious cycle. The result was that the quality of life was degraded, in a way that will be hard to correct.

Another problem, from my point of view, was the way the local politicians treated downtown vs. the suburbs. Their basic philosophy seemed to be "nothing is too good for downtown", and meanwhile they seemed to ignore the outlying areas of the city. Although it's important to keep downtown Frederick "alive and kicking", I think the politicians need to remember that the rest of Frederick pays a lot more taxes than downtown does.

A good example of this problem was the flood control project along Carroll Creek in downtown Frederick. Initially, it was to be a relatively simple and cost-effective way to lessen the effects of occasional floods in downtown. But thanks to the excessively grandiose visions of the mayor, the project grew into a huge and fabulously expensive white elephant that will cost the taxpayers plenty, for decades. The basic idea was sound: to encourage downtown development by lessening the effects of floods. But the resulting monstrosity was like a Corps of Engineers project run amok—huge bare concrete culverts cutting a swath right through town, completely ruining the character of the area. In theory, after this vast amount of publicly-funded work, private investors were supposed to start spending their money to develop the surrounding area. By the time I moved out of Frederick, though, the only "development" was a set of cheap wooden decorative structures intended to lessen the visual blight, paid-for by the taxpayers. Unfortunately, these only added to the blight and were derisively referred to as "tinkertoys".

Frederick also had a reputation as a "redneck" area—in fact, one of the insulting nicknames for a local resident was "Fred-neck". The situation wasn't helped any by the regional media (like the Washington Post) which always seemed to report negative things about the Frederick area. For example, when a few rednecks in nearby Braddock Heights held a K.K.K. meeting, the event drew the attention of all the Washington media, including TV stations. But they never reported any good news about Frederick, so the overall impression outsiders got was decidedly negative. This had more to do with the warped view the media had about what is newsworthy, and less to do with the true character and reputation of the Frederick area.

Some Things I Remember About Living In Frederick

Looking out my back window at the Catoctin Mountains in the distance. This is before the large field in the middle of the picture was bulldozed and built-over with houses.  

Downtown Frederick had lots of good bars and restaurants—one for every taste and budget. Whenever friends visited from out-of-town, I'd always take them downtown for lunch or dinner. Even if they stayed for several days, we could go someplace different every day. I remember one little greasy-spoon hamburger joint that was open all night, in case you got the munchies at 3 AM in the morning.

In the fall, downtown Frederick would have a big celebration called "In The Street". They closed most of Market Street and portions of many side streets, and allowed pedestrians to roam freely. Vendors set up food stalls and other booths, and at a few places along the street, there would be platforms for bands to perform. It was a very popular event, and thousands of people attended, including many from outside Frederick. The event was designed to draw people into downtown Frederick, so they could see what it had to offer and boost the downtown economy. I remember one year they had a band that impersonated the Beatles. The band members had mop-top hairstyles and wore outfits like the band suits on the cover of the Sgt. Pepper album. They played fairly decent imitation-Beatles music, too.

I lived at the west side of Frederick, and had a good view of the Catoctin Mountains. I enjoyed how the seasons affected the mountains. Winter showed a coarse brown stubble of bare trees on the rocky soil. Any amount of snow would change the view dramatically, with white taking over from brown as the dominant color. Spring brought longer sunlight, which would warm the earth and air. The trees would break out with blossoms (and pollen!), then with tiny pale green leaves. The faint line of springtime green would climb the mountain as the season progressed, until the entire Catoctin ridge would be full of vibrant, shiny, new green. In fall, reds, oranges, and browns would descend the mountain, until the ridge was ablaze with color. Little by little, the mountain would revert to bare stubble, to start the cycle anew.

I will always remember the time I spent in Frederick as my "homeowner phase". I spent lots of time and money on home-improvement projects both large and small, since I very much enjoy being a "do-it-yourself'er". Unfortunately, I never did develop a "green thumb", so my lawn and garden were always suffering.

I remember when the farm behind me was bulldozed and became a big housing development. Up to that time, it had been a cornfield, and the farmer would drive his tractor on a lane right behind my house to get to and from his field. But the developers came in and built a typical development of cheesy houses. The house that was built closest to me was a good example of the typical cheap construction. It was all prefab panels, knocked together in a hurry, hopefully with some concerns about quality. The first big wind after it was built, the big framed-out chimney section broke off from the house and fell over. I guess they saved about 25 cents worth of nails when they built the chimney, but they had to come back and rebuild the whole thing, including replacing all the damaged siding on the end of the house. I also remember fighting a losing battle (along with other neighbors) against a big housing development off Butterfly Lane that would include a convenience store and gas station. The site used to be a scrubby old farm field with lots of trees and bushes. I remember driving past the field one morning on the way to work and seeing a pheasant fly up and out of the brush and fly across the road. Developers have so much clout, they basically run the show. They come in, pave over the farms, plunk down a bunch of cheap houses, then ride out of town with their bundles of swag. Meanwhile, the residents have to foot the bill for all the major infrastructure improvements. It seems to me that fighting development in the area is a lost cause, and by the time I left, the whole area had changed so much that I was glad to leave. Of course, there was farmland where my cheap house had been built, so it would be fair to say that I was part of the problem, too.

I like to "hang out" at little airports, and Frederick had a good airport for that. For a time, I was taking flying lessons at the airport, but I never got my license. I flew a Piper Tomahawk and went on a number of trips around the area. I did "touch-an-goes" at Dulles Airport, flew to Easton and Salisbury on the Eastern Shore, Cumberland in western Maryland, Lancaster in Pennsylvania, Byrd International in Richmond, and a few other places I don't remember. I enjoyed flying but I was always very busy at work. My student pilot license expired before I finished all the necessary coursework, and I didn't bother renewing the license. I considered flying to be a very expensive and somewhat dangerous hobby, so I didn't keep it up.

There were some good airshows in the area, in Frederick, Hagerstown, and Westminster. Several times, Frederick hosted the big "Wings of Freedom" airshow put on by the Confederate Air Force (now known as the Commemorative Air Force). This show had numerous WWII warbirds, and they put on some exciting and amazing demonstrations. One was a simulation of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, including real Japanese fighters. Another simulation was the bombing of an oil refinery, where the bomber swooped in low over the airport and pretended to drop a series of bombs. On the ground, they set off a sequence of dynamite charges that blew up containers of gasoline, which looked like the bombs exploding. There was an airshow in Hagerstown that had a flyby of a genuine B-29 bomber—not too many of those around anymore. One time in Frederick, the Goodyear Blimp paid a visit, not part of any airshow. I saw the blimp flying around town so drove to the airport to take a look. It's such a curious contraption.

I remember when Fairchild was still in business, and manufactured A-10 Warthogs in Hagerstown. They had an R&D campus in Germantown, right next to I-270. The Fairchild executives would sometimes fly between their Hagerstown and Germantown facilities using a small STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) airplane. The airplane would land on very short paved runway next to I-270, near the parking lot for their R&D campus. Several times when I was driving to work, I saw the plane fly over, and I saw it land a few times.

I remember the day the Roy Rogers Restaurant opened on Route 40, on the Golden Mile. It was a big day, because Roy Rogers himself showed up in a custom touring bus. I stood in line and got to shake his hand, plus I got an autographed picture of Roy and Trigger. The restaurant used to have a big autographed poster of Roy on display, but the autograph faded after years of sunlight. Originally, the restaurant served burgers that were hand-made from real ground beef. After a while, they changed to the typical machine-made patties of ground gristle and grease, plus a little beef.

There used to be a Hechinger's in Frederick—I helped support it by shopping there zillions of times. It was quite a shock when it closed, since Hechinger's was such an old-time fixture of the region. It was a store with an actual founder, John Hechinger, and they had his picture in every store and his name on every building. But Hechinger's didn't keep up with the "big box" home-improvement warehouses, and they eventually had to close. Have you ever been in a Home Depot and seen the picture of their founder? There isn't any—it's probably a bunch of nameless "suits" out to make big bucks any way they can.

I have hiked many times at Catoctin Mountain National Park, near Thurmont, north of Frederick. As a "regular", one thing you learn is not to go down any roads marked "Keep Out", because Camp David is located in the park. This is the presidential retreat, and security is Very Important. I often saw the helicopter caravan flying to or from Camp David—two big Sea Stallion helicopters, which basically flew over I-270 and US 15. If the weather on the mountain was bad, the helicopters would land in Thurmont and a limo would drive the people up the mountain. One time, the local paper broke a big story when they discovered that a White House staffer had used the helicopters to fly to Camp David to play golf. Unfortunately, he wasn't authorized to do this, and he got into a lot of hot water.

The whole time I lived in Frederick (almost 19 years), I went to the same barbershop—Gentleman's Choice, in the mall on Route 40. There were a few barbers that worked there when I arrived, and were still working there when I left. They must have cut enough hair to be knee-deep in hair (ugh!).

The view from my deck, after the field became a housing development.  

Why I Moved Out Of Frederick

I was living in Frederick when I turned 40 years old, and I guess you could say I had a bit of a mid-life crisis. I seemed to be putting down roots in Frederick (or maybe I was growing moss and lichens?), and my life was too easy and no longer challenging. I felt that it would be too easy to just stay there forever until one day I would look up and say, gee, how did I get so old and not have any great adventures? I decided to go cruising on a sailboat, so I quit my job, bought a boat, sold my house, and took off cruising. To read about my cruising adventures, see my Sailboat Cruising page.

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