NEW MARKET – Every man has his own idea of what makes history.
For some, it means being able to boast, “George Washington slept here,” or, “Civil War soldiers bled on this soil.”
For retired teacher Jim Higgs, it means sitting on the front porch of his chestnut-log tavern and picturing droves of pigs trotting through town.
“I tell the tourists, ‘See my porch? All the horses, cattle, pigs and people that went West, went West in front of my porch,'” Higgs said.
That’s because Higgs’ historic tavern-turned-jewelry-shop has been perched just a few feet back from the old National Road since 1793, when New Market was founded as a “drover’s town,” one of many that sprang up every seven miles along the nation’s first east-west throughway. Seven miles was considered a day’s ride back then for travelers or drovers moving herds of animals along the road.
And while drovers no longer down shots of whiskey and get in street brawls here, New Market General Store owner Karen Carrier said current residents of the town — now known as the antiques capital of Maryland — have kept alive the distinguished tradition of “separating travelers from their money.”
“The new part of New Market is the antiques. The old part is the commercialism,” said Carrier, who has run the general store with her husband, John, for the past two years.
“The whole function of this town, the reason it was built, was to separate the traveler from his money, whether it was providing goods or services,” she said. “It’s basically doing the same thing today.”
Many of the town’s other merchants disagree with so crass a characterization.
They say they are providing a service for tourists by maintaining the homes and shops of a quaint historic town just a few feet from Interstate 70, and throwing it open to anyone who wants to stroll by.
“There are no parking meters, no entry fees. It’s free,” said Higgs, who also serves on the New Market Antique Dealers Association.
“Not everyone will allow people to come into their homes, their property, and let kids run in their lawns,” he said of the other merchants, many of whom operate businesses out of their historic homes. “That’s above and beyond the loosening of the money from travelers’ pockets.”
In its heyday, New Market was very much about the traveler and his money.
Some say early townsfolk quickly turned their choice location along the National Road into profit, by offering pens to keep animals overnight as well as a host of taverns and “gentlemen’s houses of entertainment” for the drovers.
Many of the colorful colonial and federal-style houses in town were built overly large to take in travelers, said Nick Wood, whose ancestors settled New Market.
But when the railroad came through, New Market went from a marketplace teeming with traveling herdsmen and cattle to a “sleepy agricultural town” for much of the late 1800s and early 1900s, said Clayton Magee, chairman of the New Market Historic District Commission.
Magee said the fact that New Market was off the beaten path for so long may have been “the saving grace” for the town, which is now listed as an historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. The houses in town were well-preserved because they escaped almost a century of modernization and wear and tear.
Today, those houses still stand huddled together in picture-perfect condition. About a dozen of the alleys that once held pens of livestock still dot Main Street, untouched since the railroad brought more than a century-long lull to town.
Other remnants of the drover’s-town days remain: A law still stands on the books that no one may herd more than 500 turkeys at a time down the mile-long stretch of road that winds through New Market on its way from Baltimore to what was at one time the western frontier of Ohio and Illinois.
Today, the road west is nearby I-70, which hums with traffic that can be heard constantly on New Market’s mile-long main street. The only visible modern touches are the cars that crowd into parking spaces on the weekends and the flags that flap in front of the rowhouses, announcing that the antique store inside is open for business.
It was the coming of antiques to New Market that helped the town of 500 people reclaim its role as a market. Stoll Kemp opened the first antiques store in town in 1939.
In its latest commercial incarnation, Higgs said, New Market is no longer focused on providing vital goods and services to travelers but has become a center of antiques trade.
Yet for the most part, he said, that business is not the main part of residents’ livelihoods. Most of the residents running New Market shops are either retirees who run their stores full-time or professionals who run their shops as a weekend hobby, commuting to jobs in Frederick, Baltimore or Washington, D.C., during the week.
“The antiques business is not lucrative. It’s just an adventure” for the shop-owners, Higgs said.
That sentiment is echoed by Rick Buckell, who has run an antique and sporting-art shop with his wife, Susan, for 12 years in New Market.
Buckell, whose shop carries everything from prints to antique equestrian equipment, ranging in price from $50 to $30,000, said many merchants are reluctant to stock expensive pieces because “they would sit in these shops for years.” He said today’s buyers tend to buy smaller, less expensive pieces because they catch their eye or hold emotional appeal.
Toward that end, “There’s a little bit of everything here, (it) should please just about everybody,” Buckell said.
The droves of shoppers strolling on New Market’s Main Street on a recent overcast Sunday afternoon seemed to support Buckell’s assertion. Many carried bags with small trinkets they had purchased — old books, jewelry boxes and black collectibles, among other prized finds.
Stacy Berman, of Chevy Chase, said she has been to New Market four or five times since her first excursion with a girlfriend last August. She eagerly ticked off some of her prized purchases — from an 1850s Victorian table with seven leaves to an 1860s gas lamp and a working 1930s telephone.
Berman said that her “buying decisions are based on emotion” and that the charm of the historic town “adds to the emotion.”
Maura McGilvray and Greg Hampton, from Fairfax, Va., were also captivated by the historic town’s charm.
“It’s just quaint, charming,” said McGilvray. The two knew little about New Market’s history before their afternoon outing, but said they liked learning about it from shop owners.
“There is not enough here to make it a tourist trap and I like that about it, I’m getting away from all that,” Hampton said. “I’m tired of hearing about the cherry blossoms.”
There are dangers to the tourist-friendly feel in the town. Magee said it is not unusual for tourists to mistakenly let themselves into private homes to use the bathroom.
Magee recalled one Saturday afternoon when two women walked into the town hall and interrupted a business meeting. When he asked if he could help them, they nonchalantly told him that they were “just looking around,” he said.
He said that New Market residents who do not run antique shops tend to flee on weekends and give tourists the run of the town.
To Carrier, that historic appeal is as much a part of the new trade of New Market as the antiques and other goods sold in town.
She recalled with a smile the time that one woman had stepped into the general store — with its hardwood floors, old-style ceiling fans and glass display cabinets — and said, “This looks just like a general store.”
“The tourists are all just waiting for something, waiting to be charmed,” she said. “The bottom line is what we sell here is antiques, nostalgia.”