By Amanda Costikyan Jones
CLEAR SPRING – Along most of Route 40 west of Hagerstown, the 20th century has made its presence felt. A huge red-and-yellow Sheetz gas station looms on one corner. A newer, sturdier bridge carries traffic across Conococheague Creek, because the old stone Wilson Bridge is out of commission.
But just a few minutes past the screaming billboards of the Hagerstown Speedway Racetrack, the tiny town of Wilson has hardly changed at all — thanks to Frances Horst’s unusual hobby.
Since 1984, Horst and her husband, Lewis, have been buying and restoring Wilson piece by piece.
The old-fashioned country store they operate was built in 1850 by Rufus Wilson, who moved to Washington County from Calvert County in 1847. Adjacent to it is the Wilson family’s stately three-story home, also built in 1850. About 100 yards from the store sits the one-room Wilson School, and in between lies a smaller stone house where the Wilson family lived before the larger house was built.
The small house does not belong to the Horsts — yet.
“I would like to get the stone house down there and get the whole complex,” Horst said. “I just have to have it …. I just want Wilson to be as complete as possible.”
The Horsts’ restoration of a whole historic complex makes them “very, very unusual,” even in Washington County, where many people take on preservation projects, said John Frye, the curator of the Western Maryland Room at the Washington County Free Library.
“Any credit or praise you can give them is well deserved,” Frye said. “If it wouldn’t have been for their interest in historical preservation, (Wilson) could have been leveled, and there would have been townhouses there now.”
The restoration of the tiny town began in 1983. The Horsts, who live in Hagerstown and own a trucking company there, had long dreamed of having an old country store like the one they often passed in Delaplane, Va., but it long remained just a dream.
“It was like, ‘I’d like to have a house on the Riviera,'” Frances Horst said with a laugh.
Then Rufus Wilson’s granddaughter died at age 93, leaving no close relatives to inherit her family’s store and house. So the Horsts bought the property from her estate — and took on the massive project that still occupies them today.
Horst said the house and store were in relatively good condition and just “needed tender loving care.”
But both buildings were nearly empty. Even though she “never personally liked Victorian furniture very much,” Frances Horst set out on a treasure hunt, gradually accumulating period furnishings to restore the buildings to their 19th-century state.
The Horsts were guided by some of Rufus Wilson’s old ledgers, which helped them understand how he lived and did business at the settlement right on the old National Road. “He did a very good whiskey business,” Frances Horst said.
But the most fascinating ledger entries were those detailing the glass, nails and other materials Wilson used in the third major piece of his tiny settlement: the one-room school.
“(The school) was a labor of love,” said Elizabeth Graff of the Washington County Historical Society, reading from a news article.
Wilson’s wife and two of his three children died within the family’s first year in Washington county. “He was reluctant to let his only remaining child, John, travel far to attend school,” Graff read, so in 1857, he built a school of his own.
“After we got the store … we decided we needed the school,” Horst said. “I was afraid someone would buy it and turn it into an antique shop.”
The county ran it as a public school from the 1880s until the mid-1950s. It was later used for Ruritan Club meetings and bingo parties, but was empty by the time the Horsts arrived. The county commissioners agreed to sell the building, provided the Horsts used it as an historic school, and nothing else.
“The windows were knocked out; the doors were broken down” when they got the school, Frances Horst said. And it needed to be furnished, so her treasure hunt continued.
“The desks in the school came from an old school in Huntington, W.Va., and a friend of ours who deals in antiques found out about them,” she said of the unusual double-desks in the school.
“They’re just a thing of the past,” she said. “We (met) one woman who had gone to the (Wilson) school in 1904, and she talked about the double desks.”
Horst’s diligence has paid off. Today, the school is outfitted in remarkable detail. Child-sized straw hats and bonnets hang in the entryway, along with the assorted junk of long-ago childhood — a skate blade, a skein of yarn. Books from the 19th century line the shelves.
The main room boasts a potbelly stove, an old piano and those 14 two- student desks, each with an inkwell. There are half-finished lessons on the blackboard and desks, and a tall paper dunce cap stands on the stool in the corner.
The school is open to people who call ahead — too many things were stolen when it was left open to all visitors.
But while the school is for show, the store operates as a business. It is manned by the Horsts’ son-in-law, Mickey Stenger, who said he tries to stock “stuff that you just don’t walk into anyplace and see.”
He sells everything from seed potatoes to three brands of liniment salve, as well as a standard assortment of modern groceries. His wife, Amy, runs a women’s clothing boutique on the second floor. Set into the corner of the store is the old Wilson post office, home since February to the store cat and her kittens.
Like the store, Frances Horst used to operate the six-bedroom house as a bed and breakfast. But now she uses it only for family holiday dinners or lends it to friends who have company from out of town.
Horst said she prefers the flexibility of keeping the house empty most of the time but enjoys showing it to people whenever possible.
“I love for people to see it,” she said of the meticulously decorated house, which is crammed with period furniture. “I would love to just open the house and the school.”
The foyer and dining room of the house are decorated in cool shades of purple and blue. Horst said the dining room is 48 feet long and may have been used for dancing. There are little touches everywhere — sets of silver and china in the dining room and old-fashioned hats, coats and purses hanging in the foyer.
The living room, stuffed with Victorian chairs and sofas upholstered in red and green velvet, reveals the same attention to detail. It has a piano, which Horst said is as old as the house, several other instruments and a stereoscope and set of old picture cards on the coffee table.
Horst is far from finished with Wilson. Besides the smaller stone house that she has her eye on, she said she wants to add a blacksmith shop to the complex, to recall the one that was there long ago.
Traffic has slowed since Interstate 70 replaced Route 40 as the main thoroughfare. But Horst is hoping that state plans to have Route 40, the old National Road, designated as an All-American Road will bring more visitors to the little cluster of buildings on the hill that is Wilson.
“It is so much fun taking something that is just about gone and bringing it back to life again,” she said. “I love the place, and I like to share it.”