73 – The Miller House, circa 1825, Hagerstown, MD
The Miller House sits along Washington Street in downtown Hagerstown, one of a row of proper, early 19thcentury townhouses that line the sidewalk and emanate an air of staid, quiet gentility. A discreet sign announces it as the headquarters of the Washington County Historical Society. Washington Street was not always so prim.
Jonathan Hager laid out Elizabeth Town in 1762 with most lots roughly 80 feet by 240 feet, for they were expected to accommodate living facilities, a well, necessary house and kitchen garden, as well as some sort of commercial enterprise, and perhaps some chickens and livestock. Streets were unpaved, and there were no curbstones.
Old records are murky; but, in 1802, John Grumbaugh sold the western half of lot 91 (41 feet by 240 feet) together with houses and outbuildings to Peter Bell, Jr., for £300. In 1804, the following advertisement appeared in the local paper:
The subscriber begs leave to inform his friends and the public in general that he carries on the POTTING BUSINESS, in all its various branches, at the old and well known stand, formerly occupied by Conrad Crumbach, next door to John Miller’s and opposite to Henry Arnold, Coverlid weaver, on the street leading to Cumberland, in Hager’s-town, where he has constantly on hand a complete assortment of the best and handsomest Earthen Ware made in this town, consisting of Milk Crocks, Dishes, Pitchers, Jugs, Mugs, Bowls, Preserve Jars of every kind, all which he offers for sale on reasonable terms for Cash or Country Produce, wholesale or retail. Those who may please to favor him with their custom shall be punctually attended to.
Hager’s-town, June 12,1804
(Note:Grumbaugh and Crumbach were likely the same person.)
Peter Bell and his family lived and made pottery here for nineteen years. It was here that his son John, later to gain fame as a master potter in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, learned his craft. In 1818, Peter Bell, Jr., and his wife Mary Zeigler Bell built a new brick addition onto their home. Its western wall was erected on the lot line and had no windows. There was just half a gable with its roof sloping toward the garden. This style is called a flounder house after the bottom fish. Debts forced Peter Bell’s property to be sold at a sheriff’s sale in 1823, and the half-lot on Washington Street was purchased by William Price, a prominent local attorney. Two years later, Price built the brick front section of the present house which probably required the removal of the original house, likely a log structure. (William Price’s granddaughter Emily Price Post became famous as a writer on manners and etiquette.)
In 1844, another lawyer Alexander Neill II purchased the home for $4,250. Neill’s son Alexander Neill III was also an attorney and president of the Hagerstown Bank. His son Alexander Neill, Jr., was active in forming the Washington County Historical Society, which incorporated in 1911. After Neill’s death at only 36, the home was sold to Dr. Victor Davis Miller, Jr., in 1912. Dr. Miller’s grandmother was the sister of the William Price who built the front section of the house.
Although Dr. Miller had his medical office in the English basement of the house, he added the one-bay wing on the east in 1915, filling the alley beside the house. He rented this two-story addition as office space to various tenants. The Millers had three children, Helen, Victor and Henry; and, in 1966, the two sons generously deeded their portions of the family home to the Historical Society, which then purchased the remaining share. And so the house had evolved from a tradesman’s home and shop to the far more formal home of professionals. It is now a museum and is one of 67 sites in Washington County listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Even though it was constructed over almost a hundred years, the Miller House is a fine example of the early 19th century townhouse in western Maryland. Marble steps rise to the front door, and a pair of staircases descend from the street to the lower level and what was once Dr. Miller’s office. The double front doors open into a broad hall that is divided by a pilastered archway and dominated by a cantilevered staircase that winds to the attic. Steps in this stairway are hung on iron rods built into the brick walls. To the east are two parlors. The rear parlor looks through a triple window onto a porch over the garden. The central section of this window is a jib window, having panels beneath it that open, allowing it to be used as an entrance onto the porch when the sash is raised.
In the hall is a handsome desk built in 1796 for Martin Rohrer, whose family purchased Jonathan Hager’s house from him and owned it until 1944. This lovely desk has five secret hiding places for securing valuables. At the end of the hall, in the older portion of the house, is the dining room, elegantly furnished with formal antiques. Beyond is the kitchen, which has been equipped as it would have been in the 1820s. There is a pie safe, a sugar cone, kitchen utensils, a cooking fireplace and an iron stove that was used for heat as well as for baking. Up the hanging stairs, a small room has a charming display of early children’s toys; and the master bedroom has an 1810 bird’s-eye maple rope bed.
Outside, the garden has a formal section with boxwoods, followed by a brick-paved area with a large wood box and a wooden pump near the kitchen steps. Beyond is a garden area near the stable and the necessary.
In addition to the period rooms displayed, the Miller House has a magnificent clock collection, a fine doll collection, a collection of local Civil War artifacts, an ample collection of local pottery including pieces by three generations of the Bell family, an exhibit of C&O Canal articles and an extensive library on local history that includes maps, photographs and genealogical material. Recently, three fine portraits of William Price, his daughter Sophia and her husband William Beverley Clark have been acquired.
The Miller House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. It is a jewel of a museum, and we are fortunate that a dedicated group of volunteers and professionals continues to sustain the Historical Society and to steward its treasures.
Epilogue: Recent studies of the Miller House have revealed that the entire structure was built at the same time, 1823, by William Price.
This article appeared in the Herald Mail Sunday, October 1, 1995 as the 73rd in the series.