Somerset has a long and rich history. Some of that history is on display here beginning with a brief history of Somerset followed by a list of our past mayors, a list of our town honorees, and documents for further reading produced by Somerset residents past and present, the History & Archives Committee, and the Montgomery County Historical Society.
A Brief History of Somerset from 1906-2020: Our Beginnings and Milestones
1890: Five Department of Agriculture scientists worked in the red brick mansion still standing in what used to be farmland in Norwood Park. They bought 50 acres of exhausted tobacco fields for $19,000 ($535,000 today). They were distinguished in their fields: Harvey Wiley, founder of the Food & Drug Administration, was one; another, David Salmon, is remembered in the name of Salmonella bacteria. The five founded the Somerset Heights Colony Company. They laid out a street grid - Dorset Avenue, Cumberland Avenue, Warwick Place, Surrey Street, and Essex Avenue - and proposed "a suburb after the very pleasant ones of Boston..."
1891: Dr. Wiley built the first house, 4722 Dorset Avenue, near the corner at Surrey Street. His companions followed. Two of their five houses survive, both extremely renovated: 4722 and 4728 Dorset Avenue.
1900: The census recorded 170 residents, among them eight Black and two White live-in servants.
1905: When Somerset had grown to 35 homes, its residents applied to Montgomery County for municipal status.
1906: A charter was granted. The Town of Somerset was born. Its new Council approved a first budget: $511 ($17,000 today), mostly for maintenance and lighting of the dirt streets. The 54 houses built on the initial street grid are now recognized as a Historic District, with the surviving 31 built before 1913 given special status.
Somerset today is a multinational and multiracial community. Its earliest families, though, were not exempt from the prejudices of their day. Residents joined Friendship Heights in angry protests against a plan advertised by four Black investors to develop a suburb comparable to Somerset for "colored people," stretching up the east side of Wisconsin Avenue as far as Grafton Street. The suburb was to carry the name of that tract of land, Belmont. Elbert Richmond, Somerset's very new Town Marshal, twice arrested the principal investor; each time, a local justice of the peace released him. The Belmont project collapsed in 1909; Belmont's name was subsequently expunged from Montgomery County property records.
1913: The Town approved a sum "not to exceed $10" ($300 today) to build a bridge over Little Falls Branch. Children had to ford the stream on their way to school in rented rooms in Mr. Shoemaker's house in Friendship Heights. Later, they went to Mrs. Givens' school near Chevy Chase Circle. Parents took turns shepherding them.
The Town's first speed limit was established: 12 mph.
1917: The Department of Agriculture established a Bee Culture Station at 4823 Dorset Avenue. A surviving photograph shows at least three dozen sizable hives in the garden. Pioneering apiary research was done there, while Dorset Avenue residents endured occasional stings. The work moved to Beltsville in 1937.
1921: Women attained the right to vote in Town elections.
1924: The Town issued $40,000 ($593,000 today) in bonds to begin paving the streets. Somerset Women's Club organized a Town Carnival to celebrate. When paving was completed the next year, the speed limit rose to 15 mph.
1926: The U.S. Postal Service agreed to deliver mail to individual addresses in Somerset.
1928: Edna Miller Gish became the first woman elected to the Council.
Somerset's first school opened on the old site of Joshua Callahan's farm. The school had eight rooms and separate entrances for boys and girls. There were 138 pupils (mostly from outside Somerset), six teachers, and a 25-year-old principal, Kathryne M. Bricker, who stayed for 37 years. When she retired, the Town gave her a trip around the world.
1940: The Town's population had doubled to 399. After much debate, keeping cattle, horses, and pigs within the town was banned. Free roaming chickens were banned two years later.
1943: The Philadelphia family, Bergdoll, which owned most of the land to the south of Somerset's initial street grid, applied to erect apartment blocks. So began a more than 40-year struggle to save Somerset from high-rises and from commercial development along our side of Wisconsin Avenue.
1946: Rebuffed, the Bergdoll family sold 115 acres south of Essex Avenue in four auctions. Successful bidders had to sign pledges to sell houses only to "those of the Caucasian race" (although "partial occupancy... by domestic servants" was to be allowed). What Somerset children called "the great woods" were slowly felled, and the street plan of Lower Somerset took shape: Falstone Avenue, Grantham Avenue, Trent Street, Uppingham Street, and Greystone Street.
1950: The U.S. Census (whose details were released in 2022) recorded 429 residents in 129 houses. Only 15 residents were born in Maryland; others came from elsewhere in the U.S. and from 21 foreign countries (four diplomatic families among them). Several Somerset wives were pursuing their own careers: among them were two physicians, an economist, a journalist, and a celebrated sculptor. Only three people of color were recorded: one cook and three maids, all Black.
1954: Philip Elman, of Cumberland Avenue, wrote the government's brief in the historic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, when the Supreme Court ordered school desegregation "with all deliberate speed" (Elman's phrase). Elman was an attorney in the Department of Justice's Office of the Solicitor General, which takes the lead in government litigation before the Supreme Court. He had been an editor of the Harvard Law Review and had clerked for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
1955: In the name of desegregation, Montgomery County shut River Road School. Since 1912, this had been the sole source of education (elementary only) for local Black children, many of whose families had their homes in what is now Kenwood. The two-room schoolhouse, built in 1926 to replace a 1912 wood hut, was where the tall radio mast rises now behind McDonalds. Displaced, several of the children came to Somerset Elementary, its first Black students.
1957: The first edition of the Town Journal was published. Its editor was Washington Post columnist Hobart Rowen.
1960: The Town's population, propelled by the development of Lower Somerset, had grown to 1,444.
Somerset fought to defeat plans to develop commercial properties along its Wisconsin Avenue border. Both the Hecht Company department store and the Yater Medical Clinic tried to build on the southern corner of Dorset and Wisconsin.
1961: Somerset School's first Black teacher, Shirley Gordon, arrived. She taught 2nd and then 1st grades. Ms. Gordon moved on in 1966.
1963: Recognizing that development of the final 30-acre expanse bordering Lower Somerset could not be staved off forever, Somerset's then-Mayor Warren Vinton reached a compromise with developers. In exchange for ending costly legal battles, Somerset gained 12 acres of the land, primarily woodland along Little Falls Branch. It was named Vinton Park in his honor.
1965: The Town purchased the "Little Red House" at 4510 Cumberland Avenue to serve as the Town Hall. Built in 1902, the house aptly fits our historic town.
1966: Friendship Heights' first high-rise block was erected, the 17-story Irene on Willard Avenue, looming over Warwick Place and Uppingham Street.
1971: Somerset Pool opened - built on an additional five acres of land extracted from the developers by then-Mayor Jerald Goldberg.
1977: Somerset worked to shore up its Wisconsin Avenue boundary, buying the rectangle between Dorset and Cumberland Avenues. Its name, Capello Park, honors James Capello, the Town's Clerk-Treasurer from 1940-1976.
1981: Somerset acquired the last crucial tract. With much help from the State Board of Public Works, the Town bought the 1.79-acre plot on the southern corner of Dorset and Wisconsin Avenues, the site that the Hecht Company and the Yater Medical Clinic had tried to develop.
1988: The first speed bumps were laid on Dorset and Cumberland Avenues.
As the first of three Somerset House high-rise apartment blocks was going up, Town residents feared their occupants would, by sheer numbers, come to control our Town Council. In a referendum, they voted four-to-one to de-annex those acres, redrawing Somerset's new southern boundary to straddle Little Falls Branch.
1989: A major windstorm toppled many trees, downed overhead power lines, damaged dozens of houses, blocked the Dorset Avenue and Cumberland Avenue entrances to the Town, and caused a six-day power outage.
1997: A survey by parents found that of the school's 391 students, 121 came from 45 foreign countries.
2003: After multiple additions and renovations - 1949, 1951, 1958, 1971 - the old Somerset Elementary School building was finally demolished, to be replaced by the present structure.
2006: Somerset celebrated its centennial with trolley-bus tours of the historic district, tours of historic houses, and banners on our streetlights.
2012: The pool got a new pool house. Its open and airy design won the architects numerous awards.
2019: The Town began a multi-year structural renovation of our beautiful but aging Town Hall. Ties were installed to bind its bulging exterior walls. First-floor offices were updated, and the big meeting room was illuminated by tall windows. In what had been an attic, a new second floor now housed an office for the Mayor, plus a room for the Town's archives.
2020: Somerset rallied its community spirit to cope with coronavirus. There were community mask-making efforts, drive-by celebrations of graduations and birthdays, virtual Town Council and committee meetings, Zoom candidate forums, mail-in ballots, and a virtual Fourth of July celebration.
The U.S. Census gave a snapshot of who we have become:
Multinational: One in six of our residents is foreign born, of whom just under half have chosen to become U.S. citizens. One in six residents speaks a language other than English in their homes.
Multiracial/Multiethnic: While predominantly White, our residents include 102 who describe themselves as of "mixed race," 43 select Asian, 19 select Black, and two are from Pacific Islands; 94 select Hispanic or Latino as their ethnicity.
Well Educated: More than nine in ten adults have a bachelor's degree or higher; two-thirds have gone on to earn a graduate or professional degree.
At Work: One in five adults work in Federal, state, or local government; the same proportion works in the non-profit sector; one in five runs their own business. Close to a third work from home.
Embark on a Historic Journey of Somerset
The Town of Somerset is fortunate that through the ages residents have understood the importance of uncovering and preserving Somerset's heritage. They have volunteered their time to preserve memories, research archives and collect and save the dust-laden artifacts and ephemera that have become our primary sources. The efforts of these residents have helped us better understand the human experience that has led to our current life in Somerset. The information on this website is from primary source material in the town's archives, material from Montgomery County Historical Society's Somerset Archives and three different histories written about the town.
The first history was written by Dorothy O'Brien who prepared a booklet in 1956 for the 50th anniversary of the town being chartered; the second history, building on the first, was written, assembled by and published into a pamphlet by Helen Jaszi, Joan Weiss (the editor) and Donna Williamson in celebration of Somerset's 75th anniversary, the Diamond Jubilee 1906-1981. Other resident historians contributing to the document were Robert Balcom, Dorothy O'Brien and Hobart Rowen with many others offering support; and finally, the third history, building on the first and second, was written by Lesley Anne Simmons with Donna Kathleen Harman in celebration of the town's centennial, Somerset, One Hundred Years a Town. Please click on the files below to take a fantastic journey into the past.
1910-1912 - Jesse E. Swigart
1912-1916 - Warren W. Biggs
1916-1919 - Charles S. Moore
1919-1938 - J. William Stohlman
1938-1940 - W. B. Horne
1940-1954 - Irvin M. Day
1954-1956 - William F. Betts
1956-1958 - Frederick W. Turnbull
1958-1969 - Warren Jay Vinton
1969-1975 - Jerald F. Goldberg
1975-1982 - Walter J. Behr
1982-1986 - A. Eugene Miller
1986-2008 - Walter J. Behr
2008-Present - Jeffrey Z. Slavin
Town Honorees Somerset has thrived thanks to the efforts of so many of its residents. The community has a tradition of recognizing those who have made special contributions by naming features of the Town in their honor.
Mayor Warren Vinton and Clerk-Treasurer James Capello were the first to be noted, with Vinton Park and Capello Park.
A plaque at the pool commemorates Mayor Jerald Goldberg, who oversaw construction of the pool on land he helped to acquire.
Walter Behr, Somerset's longest-serving Mayor, marshalled the effort to exclude Somerset House high-rises from the Town's boundaries. Walter Behr Path runs, fittingly, alongside the Town Hall, and commemorates his three decades as Mayor. In addition, remembering Mayor Behr's passion for tennis, our courts also bear his name.
A plaque on the bench by the pool commemorates Alan Proctor, who as a Council member energetically oversaw, among other advances, the design and building of our new pool house.
Judy Frankel's long service on the Council is remembered in the Town Hall's archive room.
Barbra Zeughauser's and Franny Peale's work on restoring our Town Hall is commemorated in its main meeting room.
Marnie Shaul's years as a Council Member and Council President are honored by Marnie Shaul Path. Winding up from the pool to Friendship Heights, the path symbolizes Marnie's tireless work connecting Somerset to our neighboring communities.
Two benches have been donated in memory of Somerset residents. First, on the corner of Wisconsin and Dorset Avenues, is a bench dedicated to Hobart & Alice Rowen. Second, on Dorset Avenue near the Founder's Exhibit, is a bench dedicated to Tarunica V. Dehejia.
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