When tiny towns have big birthdays


The Garrett County municipality of Friendsville turned 100 years old last year, but the Town Council is only now getting around to debating the merits of throwing a party.

On the Eastern Shore, Denton might have forgotten its bicentennial last year had a tree merchant not offered to sell the town elms to commemorate the occasion. And Oxford let the sesquicentennial of its incorporation come and go without celebration last year, content to have celebrated nearly a decade ago the 300th anniversary of its founding.

But in Sykesville, they're not about to let a momentous birthday slip into their history books without a grand gala. The Carroll County town doesn't turn 100 until May next year, but officials there are already making big plans.

"This is our history, how the town started and what it has evolved to," said Margaret A. "Peggy" Soper, the town's tourism director. "As towns like Sykesville get harder and harder to find, it is important to remember the roots."

Sykesville's Town Council is considering a budget of about $20,000 for the festivities and will issue formal invitations to county and state dignitaries, former Sykesville mayors and other officials.

For party ideas, Sykesville might want to check with New Windsor. That town celebrated twice in the past decade: the 100th anniversary of its incorporation in 1993 and the bicentennial of its founding in 1997.

Not every small town finds that kind of time or energy, said James P. Peck, director of research for the Maryland Municipal League. Such events often fall victim to more pressing town business. Grand-scale celebrations take time, planning, money and much effort, usually from volunteers, he said.

"We are talking about small towns U.S.A., most of them with no full-time employees," Peck said.

Take Friendsville, where the Town Council has put the possibility of a belated centennial celebration on its meeting agenda for tomorrow.

"I reminded the council last year, but they have had so many things going on, especially with the new park, that they have not had time to plan anything," said Sara Sines, clerk-treasurer in the town of 539. "We are all part-timers here and mostly retirees."

Party planning has to take a back seat to running town government, said Terry Fearins, Denton town manager.

"Our most important focus is maintaining the day-to-day work," Fearins said.

Denton might just buy those seedling elms to plant around town and will probably catch up on its bicentennial during Municipal Government Week in April. But the belated observance will be low-key so as not to detract from efforts that go into the annual fall festival, Fearins said.

"We certainly want to recognize our community's 200 years," said Fearins. "We are mentioning it in our newsletter already."

Oxford, a town of 771 that was founded in 1694, did nothing last year to mark the 150th anniversary of its incorporation.

"Oh, dear. We missed that one then," said Lisa Willoughby, assistant town administrator.

Not to worry - incorporation is only a minor event, said her boss, Lillian Lord, who recalled a fabulous party nine years ago celebrating the tercentenary of Oxford's founding.

Maryland's more than 150 municipalities do not always make a distinction between their founding and when they incorporated with a charter and bylaws.

But incorporation is really when a town becomes a town, Peck said.

"It is certainly something to celebrate, and there are volumes published with pictures of how towns have celebrated these dates," Peck said.

Hancock, in Washington County, has 11 months to mark its 150th year. Virginia Stanley, a town clerk, distinctly remembers a 125th birthday, but "we didn't realize this year's was our 150th, until the press called," she said.

Stanley alerted Don Corbett, director of Hancock's Historical Society. The town will probably fit the 150th observance into its celebration of a local Civil War hero and the dedication of its toll house, set for a weekend in June, Corbett said.

"The 150th did slip by us, but we can work it in," said Corbett, adding that he will verify a few facts before including the sesquicentennial in the festivities.

"We started to celebrate our founding once and found we had the wrong date," he said. "I would hate to celebrate anything without factual backup."

Hancock has not established the date of its founding, nor does it have the exact date of its incorporation.

Sykesville, the youngest of Carroll's eight municipalities, knows to the exact day: May 4, 1904.

A committee of eight is making plans for a parade with vintage autos and three high school marching bands, a community picnic, historic exhibits, a concert and a few bed races down Main Street.

More than 4,000 people live in Sykesville today. Judging from attendance at previous festivals, the centennial could draw a crowd of more than 3,000, Soper said.

The committee has chosen May 1, the Saturday closest to the official date.

"How could we forget?" said Mary Martin, a town business owner. "The date is right on the logo above the Town Council table."

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