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Mary Mish - The Woman to Thank for Early Historic Preservation Efforts in Washington County

March 25, 2020

Mary Mish - The Woman to Thank for Early Historic Preservation Efforts in Washington County

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Mary Vernon Mish was a pioneer for historic preservation in Washington County. Born in New York in 1905, Mish was the daughter of a distinguished journalist who would head the Chicago Daily News’ Washington bureau for 33 years. Mish married resident Frank W. Mish, Sr. in 1927 and moved to Hagerstown, where they had two sons. They later moved to and restored Maidstone-on-the-Potomac, just opposite of Williamsport.          

Mish was active in the Hagerstown Garden Club, Arts and Letters Club, and the Washington County and Berkeley County Historical Societies. She became the first female president of the Washington County Historical Society, serving for seven years from 1942 to 1949. It was during that time that she became a driving force for land acquisition in Maryland for Harpers Ferry National Monument.

Mish first met Dr. Henry McDonald, former mayor of Harpers Ferry, president of Storer College and president of the Harpers Ferry National Monument Association, in 1946 at the rededication of Washington Monument, near Boonsboro. As the head of the Washington County Historical Society, she had invited him to speak, but they had never met. After hearing him address the crowd about the community’s role in preserving the past, she discovered a kindred spirit. Following the ceremony they spoke and McDonald explained that Harpers Ferry National Monument had been authorized in 1944, but there had been no movement toward land acquisition for the site. He enlisted the historical society’s help with land acquisition on the Maryland side, while he worked toward the same goal in West Virginia. Mish did not disappoint.

Throughout her childhood, Mish’s family had made annual three-week pilgrimages from Washington, D.C. to Harpers Ferry. In fact, she said her father had even envisioned it as a national monument. Perhaps that can be attributed to her drive and determination when it came to land acquisition on the Maryland side. Mish began lobbying Maryland’s governor and didn’t give up, despite political shifts and the Korean War. Mish used personal connections and marketing efforts to push forward. At the time, there was some concern that the site would focus only on glorifying John Brown. Mish saw an opportunity and launched a media campaign, determined to broaden the park’s focus in the eyes of the public.

Dr. McDonald died in 1951, but Mary continued to push forward for land acquisition for Harpers Ferry National Monument. Despite frustrating roadblocks like legal technicalities clearing deeds to “unimproved acreage,” on Maryland Heights, Mish persisted and never lost sight of the end goal. The first $40,000 in Maryland funds came in 1952 from the Department of Forests and Parks budget. An additional $25,000 was appropriated in 1956. Title issues, as well as identifying and obtaining consent of as many as 35 heirs per property, delayed adding Maryland land to the national monument. The first Maryland purchase was finally made in July 1954. At the end of the long and arduous process, Mish took great pride in the fact that in contrast to West Virginia, Maryland was able to acquire all its property for the site without resorting to condemnation proceedings.

Mish didn’t just leave her mark on the future of Harpers Ferry, now a National Historical Park, but also at other sites in and around Washington County. She supervised the restoration of the Jonathan Hager House and led the archaeology efforts that unearthed some of the finest 18th century archaeological finds in the state of Maryland. Mish played a key role in the restoration of the General Adam Stephen house in Martinsburg. Stephen served under George Washington during the French and Indian War and again during the Revolutionary War, then went on to become the founder of Martinsburg. Mish also helped save Fort Frederick from deterioration and was helping to plan for the fort’s bicentennial.

In 1961, Mish received a governor’s appointment to statewide service as a founding trustee of the Maryland Historical Trust. The following year, her historic preservation efforts in the region earned her the first Maryland Heritage Award from the Maryland Historical Society. Mish died just six years later at the age of 63. The Hon. Charles McC Mathias, Jr. of Maryland, spoke of Mish, following her death, in the House of Representatives, saying, “Mrs. Mish was a woman of lively intelligence, tremendous energy, and deep commitment to the future of the Potomac Valley. As a historian, she was fascinated by the rich past of the valley, and believed that this heritage should be made visible and tangible for present and future generations.”

An editorial about Mish from the Hagerstown Morning Herald on June 4, 1968, was titled, “She Will Be Missed,” and went on to say, “She was a woman of unflagging zeal and dedication to the cause of honoring this area’s heritage . . . She was a woman who didn’t just talk about ‘how nice it would be’ if such and such a thing were done. She went out and worked and saw that the things were done.” The outcome of Mish’s hard work and dedication to historic preservation in Washington County continue to be enjoyed by both residents and visitors today.

Photo Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society