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Maryland Town Celebrates Its 15 Hours Of Fame

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After fleeing Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812, President James Madison spent the night in this Brookeville home, supposedly making Brookeville “U.S. Capital for a Day.”
The Washington Post
After fleeing Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812, President James Madison spent the night in this Brookeville home, supposedly making Brookeville “U.S. Capital for a Day.”

Andy Warhol once said: "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."

But in Brookeville, Md., you'll meet people who claim that in the past, they were famous for about 15 hours.

Outside a stately white house on Market Street, a plaque reads: "In this house, August 26 to 27, 1814, President James Madison and Richard Rush, Attorney General, were sheltered after the burning by the British of the public buildings of Washington."

And because the President took shelter in this house, in Brookeville, for one night during the War of 1812, local residents say the town was "U.S. Capital for a day."

Architectural historian Sandy Heiler owns the house with the plaque — now known as The Madison House — with her husband, Duane.

"I gave a little talk in Baltimore last year," Heiler recounts, "and the person who introduced me said: 'Since the founding of the United States, four places have served as its capital: New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Brookeville, Md.!'"

For those a bit rusty on the War of 1812, here's a little background:

The American Revolution against the British ended in 1781. But we didn't feel our mother country was sufficiently backing off. So it wasn't long before we got fed up, and in June 1812, Congress declared war on Great Britain.

We started off with our share of victories, but by 1814, the tide had turned. On Aug. 24, 1814, we lost the Battle of Bladensburg. And after that, the British marched into Washington and set fire to a bunch of public buildings, destroying the U.S. Capitol and the White House in the process.

"In the week leading up to that, everybody knew the enemy was coming," Heiler says. "And they had been really vicious. On the Eastern Shore and other parts east of Washington, they burnt towns. And so people in Washington thought, 'That's what's in store for us.'" Everyone who could flee, did, says Heiler.

The best locations included Frederick, Leesburg, Rockville, and Brookeville. But Brookeville was especially enticing. It was a Quaker village, populated by 150 generous, peaceful, law-abiding souls ready to feed, clothe and shelter even the strangest of strangers.

"These are pacifists but they took care of everyone," says Heiler. "Everybody is equal in the eyes of God."

Since the British soldiers were to the east of Washington, Heiler says, you weren't likely to find British soldiers anywhere near Brookeville. That's why it was seen as especially secure. So secure, in fact, that Secretary of State James Monroe warned the clerks at the Senate, the House of Representatives and the State Department to save all their valuable documents, and the Senate clerk eventually brought the Senate's copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to Brookeville.

On the evening of Aug. 26, 1814, he arrived, along with Gen. John Mason, some cabinet members, and 20 mounted troops, or dragoons.

"They started across the street," she says. "They went to the biggest house in town, which belonged to the founder of the town, Richard Thomas. And for security reasons, the dragoons were not mentioning that the President was with them. And Richard Thomas — I'm sure he regretted this later — said, 'I have absolutely no room. My house is completely filled with refugees from Georgetown and Washington!'"

So they crossed the street to this house, which was then owned by an engraver and acquaintance of the President, named Caleb Bentley. "And they agreed, yes, we can take the party," Heiler says.

The Madison House

President Madison's first order of business was not so much governmental... as gustatory.

"The President said he was really hungry," Heiler recounts. "It's nine o'clock at night and they hadn't eaten since very early in the morning when they were still in Virginia. So the ladies here cooked the fifth dinner of the day and served it in this dining room."

And speaking of "this dining room," we probably should talk now about the house itself. It's changed ownership a number of times since 1814, and Sandy Heiler says when she and Duane bought it, seven years ago, "it was not in terrific shape."

But they've been working hard to fix it up and restore it to its former glory. In fact, last year they won the Washington Post's contest for the best restoration of a historic home in Maryland, Virginia and D.C.

Their efforts are especially noticeable in the house's front parlor, where nearly everything is original, from the hard pine floors to the windows.

But the house's main attraction is up the creaky wooden stairs, on the second floor: the room where President Madison spent the night. It was Henrietta Bentley's bedroom — "the best bedroom" in the house, according to Heiler.

Commemorating Brookville 1814

After the President's sleepover, he and his retinue returned to Washington, where he and his wife, Dolly, eventually settled at the Octagon House, just blocks from the White House. That's where, in December 1814, Madison signed the ratification papers for the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812.

The President's Brookeville visit was a short one, to be sure. But it's one the town's residents will never forget; as they're quick to tell you, it did make them U.S. Capital for a day, after all! That's why they're planning a big 200th-anniversary commemoration of the event for next Labor Day weekend.

"Our objective is to come as close as we can to re-creating Brookeville in 1814," says Sandy Heiler. "We'll have all these people doing living history. And then we'll have reenactments of the Senate clerk bringing the papers, the soldiers coming through. And finally President Madison and General Mason, who will be played by Gov. O'Malley!"

Heiler says 2014 will bring commemorations all across Maryland, but the Brookeville event, she says, is truly one-of-a-kind.

"A lot of these commemorations will focus on the bravery of the military," she says. "Some of them will focus on events that were pretty tragic: the burning of Havre de Grace. Saint Michael's was attacked.

"The Brookeville commemorations are really a celebration of incredibly brave, decent people who, as Henrietta Bentley who lived here said: 'We welcome and give refuge to everyone.' That's our goal."

[Music: "'One Day" by Matisyahu from Light]

Photos: Brookeville, Md.

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