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Coming in September! Smoldering Fire, a new historical fiction series from the author of Canawlers and October Mourning.

Is Matt Ansaro a spy, coal miner, or loyal family member? Sometimes even Matt isn’t sure.

SB Cover.jpgMatt Ansaro returns to his hometown of Eckhart Mines in the Western Maryland coal fields. It has been five years since Matt was here, and he swore when he left in 1917 that he would never return. Although Matt’s parents are dead, the rest of his family welcomes him home with open arms.

Joseph McCord, the superintendent of the Consolidation Coal Mines and a classmate of Matt’s, is not so happy to see Matt return. He has plans for Matt’s old girlfriend, Laura Spencer, and Joseph thinks he will need to compete with Matt for her attention.

Matt has his own plans. He is a Pinkerton detective, and he has been sent to spy on his former neighbors for the Consolidation Coal Company. The coal company owners want to know about union activity in the town and shut it down before it can gain a foothold.

Matt takes a job in the mines and works to re-establish his connections with his family and neighbors, including Laura. He also finds himself attracted to Samantha Havencroft, a suffragette and daughter of a college president.

Matt is walking a tightrope. If the miners find out he is a detective, he could be attacked and driven from town. However, if the coal company or Pinkerton Agency discovers Matt’s real reason for returning to Eckhart Mines, the result could be just as bad. He is a man alone, trying to do what he sees best, even as a national coal strike looms.

Smoldering Betrayal is the first book in the Black Fire series and full of action, intrigue, drama, and romance in the 1922 Western Maryland coal fields.

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davidmccullough-thewrightbrothersI’m a big fan of David McCullough. After all, he’s the one who showed me that a non-fiction history book could read like a novel (1776).

I can’t say The Wright Brothers was such a book, but I definitely enjoyed it and was looking forward to reading it. Like many people, I know the Wright Brothers were bicycle makers who made the first powered manned flight at Kitty Hawk that introduced the age of modern aviation.

I was very surprised that the narrative reached the historic 1903 flight so quickly. When that happened, I realized that there must be a lot more to their story. While the brothers certainly went through a lot of trials to take to the air in Kitty Hawk, I was very surprised at how much resistance they met with not only in Europe but also from the U.S. government. In fact, the Europeans embraced the brothers sooner than the U.S. government did.

Although Orville made the historic first flight, he wasn’t the brother who took the most risks. That was Wilbur. Poor Orville seems to have been the one who was injured the most. He was the pilot of the first fatal airplane accident that killed his passenger on that flight.

Also, I was surprised by how quickly aviation advanced once the Wrights broke that initial barrier.

McCullough does a great job of humanizing the brothers and their close relationship. He also throws in lots of interesting little factoids, such as the person who took the famous Kitty Hawk picture had never taken a picture before. The first photo he took became iconic.

I can’t say that this is my favorite McCullough book. That honor belongs to 1776 and The Johnstown Flood. I definitely enjoyed it, and it didn’t become overwhelming like some of McCullough’s longer books. As always, I learned a lot more about the subject of the book and enjoyed the process.

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Electric Company Generator BK 92

Thurmont’s original electric generators. Courtesy of Kinnairdimages.com.

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879 and soon thereafter, companies began forming to provide electricity and light to homes and communities. Larger cities were the first recipients, but eventually, it became a feasible project for smaller communities.

However, as community after community turned on their lights, Thurmont remained in the dark.

A small blurb in a 1907 Catoctin Clarion read, “Rumor has it that certain parties have been in town this week looking up the question of installing an electric lighting plant, who knows anything about the fact in this matter? Assuredly we will not get anything better until some strangers come to town and start the ball rolling, for it seems that we don’t have enough enterprising spirit in town to have anything other than what we have now, which is next to no light at all. Come on Mr. Man whoever you may be, the field is yours, with no competitor but the Moon.”

Although the town of Thurmont had no authority under its charter to build an electric lighting plant, some local citizens did decide to step up to the challenge. Peter Hammaker, Charles Mackley, Lester Birely, and Morris Birely created The Citizens’ Electric Light and Power Company of Thurmont. Working with the town government, the company made plans for bringing electricity to the town.

Electric Company Building

The original building where Thurmont’s electric generators were housed. Courtesy of Kinnairdimages.com.

However, as the company began purchasing rights of way that were needed to run the plant, it ran into some problems. A right of way was needed to bring the water from Hunting Creek to the turbine wheel to generate the power. Two landowners decided to try and gouge the company, asking three times as much as the right of way was worth.

Eventually, they were convinced to sell the rights of way, but a second problem wasn’t so easily addressed. As the project to use the water from Hunting Creek to power Thurmont started, the creek entered a drought period and the water flow began falling off. Questions were raised as to whether the plant would be able to deliver on its promises.

An article in the Catoctin Clarion noted, “I think all will agree that the present drought is unprecedented, except perhaps last year.” The article then went on to explain that it was estimated that 102 horsepower hours was needed each day to light the town. Even at the lower water flow, not only could the town’s lighting needs be met, but “We will still have 163 horsepower hours for commercial purposes or day load, event at the small flow of the stream,” the newspaper reported.

The project went forward and citizens of the town could purchase stock in the company in $100 shares (about $3,100 in 2015). Although expensive, the idea was to keep the money in town. Local stockholders would own the company and the company would in turn power the town where the stockholders lived. In addition, it was expected that the town would eventually take over the company and the stock would be exchanged for municipal bonds that paid five percent interest annually.

The Clarion, which had been an early supporter of the plant turned against it for this reason. The editors saw that even though the bonds were a good deal for the stockholders, it was believed that the cost of paying off those bonds would require an increase in town taxes. The newspaper reported, “the town is about to take a step that will mean a burden to its people for the next twenty years in attempting to get a lighting system that will prove a most costly experiment to the town.” The newspaper projected that taxes would jump from 30 cents per $100 to at least 80 cents.

This fear did not come to be and the plant was built. It began furnishing power to the town.

During the 1910 legislative session, Thurmont commissioners asked for and received the authority needed to allow the town to run and maintain an electric plant. It also received the authority to buy the existing plant and to pay the stockholders with municipal bonds.

The following year’s budget showed that the entire cost of the purchase of the plant (not including annual interest payments) amounted to $21,100.83 and the annual operating expense was $1,074.40. The town also maintained a separate light bulb account of $628.17 to sell light bulbs to residents who needed them once their homes and businesses were wired for power.

The plant served Thurmont for 15 years, but then because of town growth and intermittent dry periods for Hunting Creek, Thurmont had to start buying current from Potomac Edison until a new power system was constructed.

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masonicstructureA lot has changed over the past 200 years, but Freemasons of the Columbia Lodge of the Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons are still conducting their meetings as if it were 1815.

“The meetings are the same as they were 200, 300, 400 years ago,” Matthew Sanders, Worshipful Master of the Columbia Lodge, said. Worshipful Master is a position equivalent to an organization’s president.

Masons are the largest and oldest fraternal organization in the world. For many people, their only exposure to the Masons is through the National Treasure movies. However, while the Masons have rites they keep private, they are open to visitors for the most part.

“We don’t go out and see people to become members,” Sanders said. “People who want to become a member seek us out.”

The idea behind this is that being a Mason requires a certain degree of commitment and if someone is pushed to join, he might not be as committed as someone who wants to join.

The goal of masonry is to create a better person, and thereby, improve the world. According to the Masonic pamphlet, What’s A Mason?, “Masonry is deeply involved in helping people—it spends more than $2 million dollars every day in the United States, just to make life a little easier. And the great majority of that help goes to people who are not Masons.”

Much of it goes to charitable institutes and programs like Crippled Children’s Hospitals, Burns Institutes, and Childhood Language Disorder Clinics.

thColumbia Lodge No. 58

The Freemasons came to Maryland in 1750, not in Baltimore, which was the largest population center at the time, but in Leonardtown. They weren’t established in Frederick County until just before the Revolutionary War. Not much is known of the early lodges in the county. According to the Columbia Lodge’s history, the first Masonic Lodge in Frederick County met in the home of William Downey near New Market.

During the Revolutionary War, Frederick County had an Army Lodge that was comprised of Maryland troops and Frederick County Masons, even though it was chartered by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.

After the war, John Frederick Amelung and George Fearhake formed a lodge near Urbana.

Then in 1799, Hiram Lodge No. 28 of Fredericktown was chartered with 30 members.

All of these lodges are gone now. They either surrendered their charters or were folded into other lodges. Some of the smaller lodges combined to help form the Columbia Lodge No. 58, which was chartered on November 7, 1815.

“The Masons met in a home at the corner of Market and Second Street,” said Kenneth Wyvill, Grand Master of the Maryland Masons.

This combined lodge was large enough to meet the needs of Frederick County Masons for 66 years. However, in its first decade, the Columbia Lodge had no permanent home. It met in five different locations, usually a Mason’s home.

Gen. Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, who was the French hero of the American Revolution visited Frederick and attended a Masonic meeting on December 29, 1824, in the House of Henry Bantz on West Second Street. LaFayette presented his Masonic apron to Mason William Bear, who in turn donated it to the lodge.

The apron is still on display in the lodge museum.

The 1830s saw a period where Masons were persecuted in the country and the Columbia Lodge decided on June 7, 1830, ceased their meetings.

“There is no evidence of the existence of any Masonic Lodge during the years 1830 to 1842 in Frederick County,” according to the pamphlet, Ceremonies of Cornerstone Laying and Dedication, which was printed for the dedication of the new Masonic Lodge in 1999.

In 1842, a number of Masons in Frederick met in a schoolhouse on the north side of West Church Street where the Evangelical Reformed Church now stand to petition the Grand Lodge of Maryland to reinstate the Columbia Lodge’s charter.

The new charter was approved on November 6, 1842. Although a new charter was issued, the Columbia Lodge still retained its original lodge number (No. 58). This means that it was the 58th lodge ever chartered in Maryland and today it is the 10th oldest lodge in the state, according to Sanders.

Lynch Lodge

“As population centers grew and shifted, Masons would decide to form new lodges,” said Wyvill.

The first lodge to break away to form another lodge in a different area of Frederick County was the Acacia Lodge in 1871. It formed in Thurmont to serve northern Frederick County.

The Lynch Lodge chartered in 1873 was formed not because of a desire to have a lodge closer to home but because the Masons were in danger of violating one of the two taboo subjects that aren’t discussed in a lodge—politics and religion. These subjects tend to create hard feelings between people and the Masons are about brotherhood.

Although the Civil War had ended in 1865, hard feelings still existed between those who supported the Union and those who supported the Confederacy. The two lodges remained separate until 1994 when they merged back into the Columbia Lodge.

Currently, there are six Masonic Lodges in Frederick County. The others are in Brunswick, Thurmont, Emmitsburg, Point of Rocks and New Market.

Teachings

While there is much fellowshipping among the Masons, there is also instruction. Masons learn various speeches, passwords, and signs to move through different degrees.

Though generally believed to be a Christian group, Masons include many faiths. The one requirement is that Masons must believe in a higher being. Each lodge has a book of faith on its central altar. This can be a Bible, but it could also be the Torah, Quran, or more than one.

“The only person we won’t accept is an atheist,” Sanders said.

Masons are involved in many civic activities and participate in parades and building dedications. They can be identified in full regalia that includes tuxedos, top hats, and aprons.

The Columbia Lodge Today

The cornerstone for the current lodge hall on Blentlinger Road was laid in 1999. The three-floor brick building has a lodge room, social hall, museum, and other rooms. The walls are adorned with pictures and artifacts that tell the story of the Masons in Frederick County.

“Everything you see as you walk through here has meaning for us,” Sanders said.

The Masons of the Columbia Lodge will be celebrating their 200 years in Frederick with a party at Dutch’s Daughter.

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 Editor’s Note: This is the second of two posts about the murder of Jean Welch in 1965.

On May 17, 1965, Jean Welch, a young mother, was murdered while her children were in another room of her home in Cumberland, Md.

Though Cumberland was a city, it was not plagued by a high murder rate as seen in many cities. The number of murders each year could be counted on one hand, usually one finger.

The case fell under the jurisdiction of the Cumberland Police Department but because of the violent nature of the crime, a multi-agency investigation team was formed. It included Deputy Maryland States Attorney J. Frederick Sharer, Cumberland Detective Lieutenant Thomas See, Cumberland Detective Harry Iser, County Investigator William F. Baker and the deputy Allegany County Medical Examiner.

At least 10 police officers were assigned to the case full time. They began going door to door, questioning neighbors. They also visited with friends and relatives of the Welch’s. Within a week, more than 300 people had been interviewed and their statements recorded.

Cumberland Police Detective Capt. James Van and other officers stopped cars along Oldtown Road during the time period the murder might have occurred and questioned the drivers if they had seen anything on the day of the murder.

“The residents of Oldtown Road area have been cooperative and many have cut their lawns, trimmed their hedges seeking the murder weapon in an effort to assist police,” reported the Cumberland Evening Times.

Besides the murderer, the murder weapon continued to elude the invesigators. Police searched trash cans, a nearby lake and construction sites. The Cumberland Sewer Department personnel cleaned out catch basins and sewers around the Welch’s apartment hoping to find the weapon. City workers also cut grass on nearby open lots, hoping the weapon might simply have been tossed away.

It was never found or identified.

No clear motive was ever established, either, though sexual assault was alluded to in some reports.

Cumberland Police Chief B. Frank Gaffney told the newspaper, “As of now there has been no basic motive established and we are operating on all theories. The murderer could be a friend or stranger, local or transient.”

Jean was buried March 20, but the investigation and rumors were just beginning. The rumor mill was naming the killer even though the police had no evidence to support the accusations, though each one needed to be investigated. The rumors resulted “in some leads, on the other hand, they have necessitated many endless hours of checking for county, city and state officers,” reported the Cumberland Sunday Times.

They logged thousands of man-hours of leg work searching for the killer. The volume and nature of the rumors became so bad that State’s Attorney Donald Mason warned the public, “Persons who start or repeat these false rumors are subject to legal action for civil slander by persons whose names are mentioned. These false rumors also hinder the work of the investigating officers who are working tirelessly on this case.”

The target of many of those rumors was Dale Welch. This is not surprising since the spouse is usually the prime suspect in such a case, but Welch had an air-tight alibi. He had been playing golf miles away from the apartment with a number of other men who testified to that fact.

When the Cumberland Police brought in a lie detector with a trained Maryland State Police examiner to use with some key witnesses, Welch volunteered to be tested, hoping to clear his name. He passed two separate tests, showing he had no knowledge relating to the death of his wife. It was enough for the police, though rumors would always surround him about what he knew about his wife’s death.

Despite the diligence of the police during the investigation, they had mishandled the crime scene during the first day. Blood samples and fingerprints had been lost due to mishandling. Though a large number of investigators were needed to handle the searches and interviews, it may have led to a case of having too many fingers in the pie.

“It wasn’t that someone committed the perfect murder and got away with it. Things got messed up,” said Loy Capshaw, the adult Loy Lee Welch.

At the investigation’s peak, 10 officers were assigned full-time to the case with many other people from different agencies looking at it on a part-time basis. Sylvester J. Smith, president of the Air-Flow Roofing and Siding Company where Welch worked, offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the capture of Jean’s killer. This only added to the volume of tips and leads that police needed to investigate.

No one was ever arrested and the killer remained at large.

Capshaw noted the fact that the case was never closed haunted her father until his death. He had always hoped that the killer would be found so that he could have closure.

For a short time, it seemed like that might finally happen. Sources familiar with the case were saying that an under-the-radar investigation by the state’s attorney office in the early 2000’s had found forensic evidence that indicated a living family member might be the murder. If true, this would not have been Welch because he had already passed away. However, no one was ever indicted and the case was not reopened. It remains unsolved and part of the Maryland State Police’s cold case file.

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 Editor’s Note: This is the first of two posts about the murder of Jean Welch in 1965.

WELCH 1

The last photo of Jean Welch. She holds her daughters, Loy Lee and Dee Dee, on her lap.

Jean Welch carried her basket of wet laundry outside to hang it on the clothesline to dry behind her apartment. May 17, 1965, was a sunny, spring day in Cumberland, Maryland, and besides being warm enough to hang clothes on the line, Jean had traded her winter clothes for shorts and short-sleeved blouse.

Cumberland had once been the second-largest city in Maryland. Located in the Appalachian Mountains in Western Maryland, the city had boomed with the coal and railroad industries. However, as those industries struggled and declined, the city’s population had peaked in 1940 and had been falling since then to around 31,000 in 1965. Because it was such a small city, it contained neighborhoods that looked more as if they belonged in the suburbs rather than a city. Jean Welch and her family lived in one of these neighborhoods on Cumberland’s south side.

Jean was an attractive brunette and looking at her, one might find it hard to believe she was 33 years old, let alone the mother of three children. And someone was looking at her as she hung the clothes. A witness would later tell police she had seen Jean hanging the laundry around 1:30 p.m.

Someone else most likely saw her, too. This person wouldn’t give a statement to police. The police would never know his name. They would only know what he did.

Jean lived in her apartment on Oldtown Road with her husband, Dale, and their three daughters. Two families lived in apartments on the second floor of the building. No one was home that afternoon in one of the apartments, but in the other, a woman inside going about her day. She noticed nothing amiss.

“One woman from the other second-floor apartment was at home and investigation revealed she had heard a knock on the Welch’s sidedoor,” reported the Cumberland Evening Times. The side door was located on New Hampshire Avenue and it was used more often by family and friends than the front door on Oldtown Road.

Neighbors across the street were sitting on their front porch watching the people walk by and traffic zip up and down Oldtown Road. No one would later recall anyone approaching the front door to the Welch apartment. However, they did recall that the drapes in the large picture window of Welch’s apartment had been open when Jean was hanging clothes, but by 3 p.m. someone had closed them. Given that the day was so lovely, it was odd enough for the couple to recall them being closed, though they didn’t notice anyone pulling them shut.

Around 4 p.m., Judy Woodson, Jean’s 13-year-old daughter from a prior marriage, returned home from school and entered the apartment. She found it a mess, which was unusual. Her mother was a good housekeeper. Then Judy found her 1-year-old sister Dee Dee strapped to her training potty in the back bedroom. Judy’s other sister, 2-year-old Loy Lee was also in the apartment and crying.

Loy Lee explained what happened next decades later.

“Mom!” Judy called.

No answer.

She looked in her mother’s bedroom but it was empty. The door to the bathroom was closed. If her mother was in there, why hadn’t she answered Judy’s call. Judy knocked on the door.

“Mom?”

When there was no answer, Judy opened the door.

Her mother was inside. The sight would haunt Judy for many years to come. Jean was laying face down in a partially filled tub of water and not moving. Judy screamed.

Dale Welch had spent the afternoon playing golf. He had been at the Cumberland Country Club since noon. He finished his round of golf around 4:15 p.m. and got in his car to head back to Air-Flow Roofing and Siding Company where he was vice president.

“While en route from the golf course to the office, Mr. Welch was advised on his two-way car radio that there was ‘an emergency’ at his home,” the Cumberland Evening Times reported.

Welch rushed home and was met by police at the apartment who showed him his wife’s body. They then led him to where his daughters were and began questioning him.

The deputy county medical examiner determined that the killer had struck Jean several times with a blunt instrument. Unfortunately, no one could find the murder weapon. Besides striking her, the killer had strangled Jean with a drapery cord and pushed her face down into the tub to drown her. Her time of death was estimated to be around 2 p.m., shortly after she was last seen hanging laundry.

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Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series about UFOs in West Virginia.

new-blue-project-docsMore-official accounts of UFO sightings in West Virginia abound in the reports of the Air Force’s Project Blue Book. From 1947 until 1969, the Air Force collected and investigated reports of unidentified flying objects. Here are some of the many West Virginia reports:

  • November 1, 1957 – A woman in Huntington heard a crash, the sound of a jet engine and then beeping. When she went outside to see what caused the noise, she saw an “object like two (2) hemispheres joined off center.” She said the object was metallic and the size of a car. The bottom hemisphere appeared to provide the power as the object vibrated and rotated. She watched the object until it rose straight up and disappeared.
  • March 11, 1949 – A man wrote a letter to Air Force officials describing an object he had seen that looked like a flattened funnel as it flew. “I have not spoken to anyone about the incidents because you have to see them to believe they exist,” the man wrote in his letter.
  • March 25, 1949 – A witness in Morgantown saw a red-gold object as large as two city blocks hovering about five feet off the ground.
  • March 8, 1955 – Witnesses in Morgantown reported a round object “brighter than the sun on aluminum” that had no edges and made no sound.
  • June 1956 – A young boy reported seeing a silver-colored object the shape of a reverse teardrop flying at an altitude of around 8,000 feet.

The Air Force then commissioned a study to be done of the reports. The University of Colorado conducted the Condon Report. The Air Force had investigated 12,097 UFO sightings and the Condon report found that only 697 could not be identified. Common identifications included UFO’s were bright stars, planets, comets, meteors, satellites, aircraft and weather balloons. For instance, the March 8, 1955 incident above was classified as a weather balloon sighting. The report also found “no direct evidence whatever of a convincing nature for the claim that any UFOs represent spacecraft visiting Earth from another civilization.”

UFO supporters claim the investigations were poorly handled and researchers were too eager to list objects as identified when they really weren’t.

So the question remains…are we alone in the universe or have we been visited by ships and creatures from other worlds? And why do so many of them seem attracted to West Virginia?

What have you seen in the sky?

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