Here on the gentle western slope of the Seneca Valley in Maryland, there is equal joy in the prospect of three hours in the saddle, of early-season cubbing with young hounds, bouncy puppies and green horses, aching riders, and cub foxes that will soon acquire the evasive skills of their elders. - "The How Not to Book of Country Life," Austin H. Kiplinger, Montevideo, 1973
The Washington Historical Society sponsored a tour of Seneca and Montevideo yesterday. 14 of us hopped on the bus in front of Mount Vernon Square, holder of the historic Carnegie Library, the marbled Beaux-Arts landmark that once housed the City Library, now surrounded by gleaming new glass buildings such as DC’s Techworld, and the Society's treasured home.
The 22-mile-long trip took us alongside the scenic beauty of the George Washington Parkway with glimpses of Georgetown and the Potomac Palisades, and past the mansions and manicured lawns of Potomac, Maryland and the unspoiled tracts on both sides of River Road in Montgomery County.
Seneca is located a dozen miles northwest of Congressional Country Club, and is situated in the Montgomery County Agricultural Preserve. It’s worth mentioning the benefits of this area include serving as a "green lung" for the greater Washington, D.C. area. It protects and preserves 93,000 acres along the rolling Piedmont hills between the Potomac and Sugarloaf Mountain.
Below are the highlights of the all day tour, but first an intro.
The Colonial era produced some noteworthy marriages in northern Virginia. None were as significant as the union of George Washington and Martha Dandridge Custis. The future first president inherited a whole bunch of money and land, as well as the widow’s four children with Daniel Parke Custis (1711-1757).
As such, the four Parke Custis kids are remembered much more so than had Martha re-married someone else. These four siblings, however, also burned their way into the history books with the homes they built and lived in. Tudor Place (Martha), Woodlawn (Eleanor) and Arlington (John) are three of the most famous landmark historic homes in and around Washington. Although less impressive in size and stature, Elizabeth built a dwelling currently used by the Alexandria Episcopal School. Elizabeth and her husband, Thomas Law, lived in what became known as the "The Honeymoon House" in SW DC, now known as the "Thomas Law House."
The spotlight often fades below this branch of the Parke Custis family tree, but one of the children of these four also inherited wealth and built a substantial home in the Washington area.
Martha Parke Custis (1777-1854) was born at Mount Vernon. A year later, her father (John "Jacky" Parke Custis) and her mother (Eleanor Calvert Custis) took the child and her oldest sibling, (Elizabeth Parke Custis) and moved into a plantation home they renamed Abingdon. The riverside dwelling held views of the marshy land across the river which would soon become the nation’s capital city as well as a majestic hilltop spot that would soon hold Arlington, the Greek Revival mansion built by their brother George Washington Parke Custis in 1803.
Martha was the first of her siblings to marry, doing so with Thomas Peter at Hope Park in Fairfax County in 1795. The couple would announce a newborn eight times. John Parke Custis Peter was born in Georgetown in 1799. A half-dozen years later, the family moved into Tudor Place, their majestic new home overlooking Georgetown. A year later, Robert Peter, the father of Thomas Peter and Mayor of Georgetown, died and left his son a third of the land in Seneca, Maryland. John and his two brothers developed a red sandstone quarry on the banks of the Potomac.
Seneca, about eight miles west of Rockville, was first known as Newport, a town laid out by John Garrett. The community did not get going until 1830, when the C&O canal was completed from Georgetown. The canallers, the quarry-men, the mill workers and the farmers made up the core of the residents.
John Parke Custis Peter married Virginia-born Elizabeth Jane Henderson in 1830. The couple also had eight children. They lived at Tudor Place and then built a summer home on farm land less than a mile north of the quarries and within shouting distance of Seneca Creek. They called it Montevideo, which sits on a high point along Montivedio Drive. John had inherited the quarry and property in 1820.
When John passed away in 1848, his son Thomas Peter inherited the mill. He sold the quarry and mill in 1866 to the Seneca Sandstone Company.
In his authoritative book (“The Smithsonian Castle and The Seneca Quarry”), Garret Peck describes Seneca as once being “a port in miniature.” The small community depended on the C&O canal to transport local farm products to Washington.
A historical marker also tells us the town had a grist mill, several warehouses and shops, a stonecutting mill, and a hotel, the Riverside Inn and vacation homes.
The closure of the canal signaled the end of the town.
A couple of years ago, Roberta and I were coming back from visiting Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary, an animal farm west of Seneca. We spotted the school, stopped and read the two markers. But because the remnants of the town are dispersed above and below River Road, and I had no knowledge of Seneca other than the sandstone, well, we were oblivious to its stories.
The school was our first stop. Built in 1868, this one-room schoolhouse is made of red sandstone. It educated the children of those canal and quarry workers and farmers. The school is thought to be the oldest and best-preserved one-room schoolhouse in the county.
Our teacher schooled us in the disciplined ways in those earlier days. We re-enacted a spelling bee, with the winning honors going to a lady in our group (Insert the sound of men groaning...)
The MSA describes Montevideo as a two-story, three bay house in the Georgian/Federal style. The foundation is made of the Seneca sandstone but the build is random stone covered by cement stucco. The name comes from “I see the mountain” (Sugarloaf Mountain).
John Parke Custis Peter built Monteverde around 1830 and lived there until his death in 1848. He served in a handful of leadership roles, including serving as first President of the Montgomery County Argicultural Society.
The home is now owned by Knight Kiplinger, who, along with his wife, graciously allowed us inside their home. Kiplinger, born in Washington, is the editor-in-chief of the financial media empire’s publications. His causes include historic preservation.
Knight provided each of us with a copy of “The How Not to Book of Country Life,” a delightful romp written by his father Austin in 1973. Sprinkled with humor, the author tells us Montevideo was sold out of the Peters family in 1878. Joseph Dyson acquired the property but was an absentee resident. His heirs sold it in 1944 to former Representative James Barnes (D-Illinois). After he passed away, Austin and his wife. GoGo, bought the home and farm in 1958. They lovingly restored the aging structure, and added a modern wing. The Kiplinger’s placed the entire property under a farmland preservation easement, a charitable act that protects it in perpetuity.
Back on the bus, which took us down to the river and the aqueduct. Cyclists and locals know this spot well, but our guess is many Virginians have not made their way here. Looking across to the south side of the mighty Potomac made for pleasing and rewarding moment.
A short walk away lie the ruins of the stone-cutting mill, one of the most astonishing sites these eyes have ever seen.
The Peter family owned the red sandstone quarry and stone-cutting mill, whose work can be seen at the Smithsonian Institution's Castle Building, the Renwick Gallery and other churches and public buildings in Washington.
As magnificent as the ruins are, the sad fact is they have been neglected.
From what I understand, the state of Maryland owns the mill. People have asked about the situation but apparently, the pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
Rocklands Farm and Winery
Our last stop was Rocklands Farm, which spreads out across 34 green acres near Montevideo. Our trip primer points out this farm is one of the first farms within Montgomery County’s Agriculture Reserve.
The farm consists of 8 acres of vineyard, 3 acres of orchard and brambles, and 2 acres of an organic garden.
All in all, one of the best tours I’ve ever taken. With a history that takes you from the Custis family to the Kiplinger’s, and a sandstone rock quarry in between, Seneca is a special place. We bet George and Martha would be pleased...