The Man Who Discovered Silver Spring's 'silver Spring' (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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The Man Who Discovered Silver Spring's 'Silver Spring'

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. You may remember back in October we did an entire show about just one neighborhood in the national capital region, Shaw, in Northwest, D.C. We spent the whole hour looking at its past, its future, and, of course, its ever-changing present. Well, we've decided to make this neighborhood spotlight, if you will, a bit of a tradition here at the show.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:33
So from time to time, we'll be choosing a community and spending an hour bringing it to life on the radio. And this time around our chosen neighborhood is -- well, how about if I just give you a few hints? Okay? It's an unincorporated area that hugs Washington to the northeast. Its residents have told us their especially proud of their ethnic diversity, their relative affordability of homes, and their location, just a stone's throw from the district. All right. Can you guess? Anyone? It's Silver Spring.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:01:16
Over the course of today's show we'll look at how Silver Spring has grown and changed and where it might be heading next. We'll talk with insiders in the massive redevelopment downtown.

MR. EVAN GLASS

00:01:25
It was pretty much parking lots and auto shops that were around here. And every day I'd walk to the Metro and you'd pass nothing.

SHEIR

00:01:35
And we'll ask whether some of Silver Spring's lower-income residents are being priced out.

MR. RONNIE GALVIN

00:01:39
The rapid escalation of folks who are struggling I think has got everybody's attention.

SHEIR

00:01:45
Plus, we'll visit the home of one of the area's best-known residents, a celebrated biologist and conservationist who died 50 years ago this month.

MS. DIANA POST

00:01:54
She wrote a book called, "Silent Spring," published in '62. And it was the genesis of the modern environmental movement.

SHEIR

00:02:12
But first, we're going to go back in time and visit a Silver Spring that was little more than -- well…

SHEIR

00:02:16
Hello.

SHEIR

00:02:18
…than a silver spring.

MR. JERRY MCCOY

00:02:18
Welcome to the birthplace of Silver Spring.

SHEIR

00:02:20
Well, thank you.

SHEIR

00:02:22
Jerry McCoy is a historian, author, librarian and tour guide, as well as the founder and president of the Silver Spring Historical Society. And today he's asked that we meet in a rather distinctive spot.

SHEIR

00:02:33
You weren't joking when you said the world's largest acorn.

MCCOY

00:02:36
Yes. Absolutely, the world's largest acorn. I am hereby proclaiming that, henceforth.

SHEIR

00:02:41
Oh, so it's not verified?

MCCOY

00:02:42
Not verified, but I welcome anyone to prove to me that there's an acorn larger than the one we have in downtown Silver Spring.

SHEIR

00:02:49
Okay. So let me explain. At the intersection of East-West Highway, Newell Street and Blair Mill Road -- and remember that last one because that name is very important in the story we're about to tell. Right at that intersection is a tiny triangle of land known as Acorn Park. It's marked by a little stone grotto and a gazebo shaped like a massive, upside-down acorn. And that's where Jerry McCoy and I are standing, as he takes me back to the start of Silver Spring, Md.

MCCOY

00:03:14
Well, the beginning of Silver Spring, Md., starts in 1830 with the arrival of Francis Preston Blair Sr. in Washington at the bequest of President Andrew Jackson, who had won the White House the year before. Mr. Blair came from Frankfort, Ky. He was a newspaper editor.

MCCOY

00:03:32
And his good friend, Andrew Jackson, asked him to serve as the editor of the Washington Globe, which was a Democratic newspaper that represented the policies in the administration of Andrew Jackson. So Blair came up. He eventually purchased, in 1836, a house diagonally across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, which today is known as Blair House, the official guest house of the president of the United States.

MCCOY

00:03:58
But befitting a man of his social stature, he needed to also have his country estate. So friends told him that if he took the 7th Street Pike -- which is today's Georgia Avenue -- and take it north, about the second rise in elevation he would be at a high enough elevation to escape the heat of Washington in the summer time.

MCCOY

00:04:22
And according to the story, he was riding his horse, Selim. And the story goes that something frightened Selim, Selim rears up, Blair goes flying off the back of the horse and by the time he catches up with Selim, the horse's reins had gotten stuck in some underbrush. And there was a spring site there, with water bubbling up and the horse was lapping the water.

MCCOY

00:04:46
And Blair said that there was sand in this water that had mica flakes, which are metallic. And that when the sun struck the water, it sparkled like silver. A silver spring.

SHEIR

00:04:56
Ah.

MCCOY

00:04:58
So he looked around and thought, "This would be a very nice place to build my country estate because it has a ready supply of fresh water." So two years later construction was started on his country estate, which was pretty nice. It had 20 rooms, nine fireplaces, two kitchens, and a wine cellar.

SHEIR

00:05:17
Did he have an enormous family or just lots of guests?

MCCOY

00:05:19
Well, he had four children and most of them were pretty much grown by the time he moved here, but he did have a lot of guests. Mr. Blair served as the unofficial advisor to 12 U.S. presidents, from Andrew Jackson to Ulysses S. Grant. And many heads of state came here to visit Blair. The house itself, which he named Silver Spring after the silver spring, was just half a block up from where we're standing.

SHEIR

00:05:47
What stands now where the house was?

MCCOY

00:05:49
What stands now is a condominium, just like there are condominiums everywhere in downtown Silver Spring.

SHEIR

00:05:55
What do you think Blair would think of how Silver Spring has developed since his day?

MCCOY

00:06:00
I have thought that. I mean, when he sat here under this gazebo, it was nothing but forest around him. And even when I started giving tours in 1995, none of these condominiums were around us, that are here today. And I kept telling people on the tours, you know, "Silver Spring is going to be revitalized, it's going to start growing.

MCCOY

00:06:25
"And one of these days we're going to be completely closed in by apartment buildings." And I remember people just laughing. It's like nobody's going to want to live in downtown Silver Spring. And sure enough, this has come to fruition. I mean I think he would be absolutely astounded.

SHEIR

00:06:40
But there are a lot of nods to Blair. Blair Mill Road, some apartments are named after Blair.

MCCOY

00:06:45
Absolutely. Starting with Montgomery Blair High School. That was named after one of Blair's sons, Montgomery Blair, who was postmaster general during the Lincoln administration.

SHEIR

00:06:57
So what became of the actual mica-flecked spring?

MCCOY

00:07:00
Well, in the late 1920s, about 1928, '29, when a descendant of Blair, Colonel E. Brook Lee, he started constructing today's East-West Highway to connect downtown Bethesda to downtown Silver Spring. And it was during that time when they were using dynamite that it collapsed the underground strata of stone, and it cut off the supply of spring water.

MCCOY

00:07:25
And we're actually standing under this incredible structure here, which I refer to as the world's largest acorn, which it is indeed, probably. But this was built circa 1851, '52 by a man from North Takoma, D.C., named Benjamin King. And he was a carpenter. And Blair had commissioned him to design this gazebo that overlooked his spring, and it was his spring -- no doubt about it.

MCCOY

00:07:52
And he had it designed in the shape of a giant, upturned acorn, because according to the Blair family history, he had proposed marriage to Eliza Gist under an oak tree. Abraham Lincoln sat under this gazebo. There was even a scene depicted in Stephen Spielberg's 2012 movie, "Lincoln," in which Mary and Abe went out to visit Preston, which he was referred to and was referred to in real life, Francis Preston Blair.

MCCOY

00:08:22
And producers for the movie had contacted me about a couple of years before the movie came out. They were searching for artwork for the Blair family crest, which actually exists. And of course they weren't going to tell me anything about what was going to be in the movie, but I just knew, it's like, "Oh, they're going to have a scene with Francis Preston Blair."

MCCOY

00:08:43
Sure enough, they did. Hal Holbrook played Blair, although he looked nothing like the real Francis Preston Blair. The Blair family crest appeared nowhere in the scene and the house they had him living in was completely wrong from the original house that Blair had built, which you can actually see right over there in the mural up on the wall here.

SHEIR

00:09:03
Oh, yeah.

MCCOY

00:09:04
We have a beautiful mural here that was done during the renovation of the park by Mame Cohalon, who was a local D.C. artist. And there are five large murals depicting different aspects of Silver Spring's history. So it's a really nice, little, wonderful park here. And I invite everybody to come visit it and commune with Silver Spring's history, sitting here under the gazebo.

SHEIR

00:09:25
Well, Jerry McCoy, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

MCCOY

00:09:28
You're welcome. Thank you for coming out.

SHEIR

00:09:34
Jerry McCoy is president of the Silver Spring Historical Society and author of the books, "Historic Silver Spring," and "Downtown Silver Spring." If you'd like a sneak peek at the world's largest acorn -- at least until proven otherwise -- you can find photos on our website, metroconnection.org.
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