A vibrant haven graced by history Emmitsburg's changes have not diminished its endearing qualities


Emmitsburg is best known by its contributions to the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, but there is much more to this small city than Mount St. Mary's College, the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and the National Shrine Grotto of Lourdes.

Located along Frederick County's border with both Carroll County and Pennsylvania, Emmitsburg is also home to the National Fire Academy and the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Emergency Training Center.

The city is a hub for visitors to nearby resorts and state parks, including Ski Liberty in Carroll Valley, Pa., and the Catoctin Mountains in Thurmont. Emmitsburg's restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses draw regular customers from surrounding towns.

At its heart, Emmitsburg remains what it has been since it was founded in 1757: A small community rich in history and resident involvement.

Octogenarian Mary Higbee Hoke recalls the Emmitsburg of her youth as a self-sufficient place that boasted numerous attractions for children, including a bowling alley, various tea rooms and more than a few soda fountains and candy counters.

Mrs. Hoke and her three sisters -- daughters of a parson -- played hide and seek at the local foundry, skated on a nearby creek during the winter and earned money for candy by hunting for lost horseshoes and selling them back to the city blacksmith for a penny apiece.

Mrs. Hoke never moved from Emmitsburg, and her sister, Helen Higbee Wildegans, returned to the area a few years ago. They see little trace of their Emmitsburg in the city today, they lamented.

But by modern standards, Emmitsburg is a haven -- a city which so far is relatively unscathed by the congestion and crime that have found many suburban communities.

On a sunny spring afternoon, tourists, townsfolk and college students drift down Main Street and the road that intersects it, Seton Avenue -- named for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who lived much of her life in Emmitsburg in the 1800s. Adults crowd tables at local restaurants while children stop for candy and a coke float at Crouse's on the Square.

Edna Crouse has been behind the old-fashioned soda fountain since she and her late husband, Walter, opened the store 50 years ago this month.

Dr. William Carr, a retired veterinarian midway through his second term as mayor of the city, said Emmitsburg has seen an influx of newcomers from urban areas in recent years. But growth has crept in slowly. There were 1,400 residents when he began practicing large-animal medicine on area farms in 1955. Today there are just 2,000.

Development was slowed for many years by limited water and sewer capacity, he said. But even now, people moving to Emmitsburg aren't looking for the services and trappings of metropolitan life.

"They see cheap land, a little bit cheaper food and the chance to set a different speed to their lives," Dr. Carr says.

In Emmitsburg, the demand for homes exceeds the number of houses available, according to Crystal Gauss, owner of Crystal Valley Realty Co. on Main Street.

The city is on the National Register of Historic Places, and has a number of homes ranging between 100 and 200 years old. In many cases, those homes are passed down in families, Ms. Gauss said.

"A few of the older homes have recently come on the market, but there for a while it was very scarce," she said.

Prices on historic properties range from $75,000 for a handyman's special to $200,000 and up for a house that has been restored to its period, Ms. Gauss said.

Until this year, buyers in search of new housing in city limits had to settle for a townhouse. Prices range from the mid-80s to the mid-90s and there were few developments to choose from.

But single-family detached homes are now being built in the Silo Hill subdivision. That has helped push up the average price of new homes sold in the first quarter of this year. Last year, sales prices averaged $116,193. This year, the 20 homes sold averaged $131,900, according to the Frederick County Association of Realtors. Ms. Gauss said more development is expected if and when the new water plant is finished.

She said the community is attracting an increasing number of new residents who work from home -- especially those involved with computers. City zoning laws make it fairly easy to set up a home-based business, Ms. Gauss said.

"We have a lot of people coming out from Potomac [in Montgomery County] and Baltimore," Ms. Gauss said. "They're finding they don't have to drive to work everyday."

Robert and Holly Fritts moved to the area shortly after their marriage six years ago. The couple operate two restaurants, the Gourmet Grill and the Pasta Factory, along with a catering business on Main Street. They're raising their sons -- 4-year-old Bobby and 2-year-old Shaun -- just minutes away in Carroll Valley, Pa.

Emmitsburg has welcomed them. "The people are so friendly. You feel like you know all your customers, which is great -- though it can be bad because they'll tell you what they think," Mrs. Fritts laughed.

But for an empty jar of honey, however, the family's life could have turned out much differently.

The tale is one that Mrs. Fritts' father, Philip Postelle, relishes telling. When their three daughters were younger, Mr. Postelle and his wife, Linda, enjoyed taking them on weekend camping trips. While staying at a campground in nearby Gettysburg, Pa., the family visited a local apple festival where Mr. Postelle purchased a jar of honey from an area beekeeper. In his quest to obtain more of that honey, the Postelles stumbled upon the Carroll Valley resort.

"Creek House," the log cabin the family purchased there in 1987, was furnished with items the Postelles bought from area craftspeople and at nearby auctions and estate sales. Mr. Postelle admits that he came down with an incurable case of "auction fever." In 1989, he formed a partnership with a friend and purchased the Emmitsburg Antique Mall. The mall is one of the city's biggest draws, according to the mayor.

In 1990, the Postelles bought an old storefront in downtown Emmitsburg and offered the Frittses a chance to get in on the deal and operate the cold-service deli in the building. The couple jumped at the opportunity to quit their 90-minute commute each day to jobs in McLean, Va., and so an enterprise was born.

The family-owned building also houses Mrs. Postelle's studio, called "Her Studio Gallery." She is the artist-in-residence every weekend, painting watercolor and acrylic still lifes, along with furniture.

A founder of the Emmitsburg Art League, Mrs. Postelle turns her walls over to the league's 50 or so active members twice a year -- first for a show of works awarded ribbons by popular choice and then for an exhibition of works showcasing local homes and sites.

In the meantime, Mr. Postelle formed a third partnership and opened Mason Dixon Auction Service Inc. That business -- which hosts two weekly sales of household and other goods -- has grown enough to require help from his youngest daughter, 26-year-old Andrea.

In 1994, the Postelles finally broke down and bought a home in Emmitsburg -- a century-old rowhouse similar to the many others that stand as colorful sentries along Main Street.

Both have become very involved in local activities.

Mr. Postelle led the committee that saved the town's community center and worked closely with Dr. Carr to find funding to pay for much-needed medical and nutritional services provided to low-income mothers of toddlers.

"In Rockville, I never would've gotten involved in any of these things," Mr. Postelle said. "But in a small community like this, you feel like you can do something and contribute something meaningful."


Population: 2,000 (City records)

Commuting time to Frederick: 40 minutes

Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: One hour, 15 minutes

Public schools: Emmitsburg Elementary, Thurmont Middle, Catoctin High

Shopping: Downtown Emmitsburg, Gettysburg, Pa. (12 miles northeast)

Nearest malls: Cranberry mall in Westminster, Francis Scott Key Mall in Frederick

Points of interest: National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seaton, National Shrine Grotto of Lourdes, Mount Saint Mary's College, Fallen Firefighter Memorial, National Fire Academy, Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Emergency Training Center, Emmitsburg Antique Mall

ZIP code: 21727

Average price of single-family home: $116,193* (Frederick County Association of Realtors)

* Based on 111 sales in 1995 in the area including Emmitsburg, Thurmont, Sabillasville and Rocky Ridge

Pub Date: 4/21/96

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad