Gaithersburg Then and Now

Granaries link city's past to present

By Sean Sedam
The Gazette
April 17, 2002


The oak beams and brick columns of Buffalo Billiards in Olde Towne Gaithersburg have lasted three generations.

They have survived two of the three fires that the building at 317 E. Diamond Ave. has withstood. They have held up through the three different lives that the building has led, beginning in 1945 as the rebuilt Bowman Mill.

The mill's four grain silos are gone now. They used to occupy what has become the parking lot of the building now known as Granary Row.

There used to be a huge tank that stored thousands of gallons of molasses near what is now the restaurant's entrance, which used to be underground.

The first floor where the grain chutes use to empty into copper-lined bins is now occupied nightly by patrons shooting pool and emptying pints of beer. Where the bartenders now mix drinks, millers used to mix grains.

The pool players and bar patrons that pack the place every night of the week could hardly know its history.

A building that helped shape Gaithersburg's identity during the last century, Granary Row is today a part of shaping a new identity for the city through the revitalization of historic Olde Towne.

As the city enters its 125th year of incorporation Granary Row is an example of how several of the city's former industrial buildings today give a nod to the past while taking a step toward the future.

Past meets present

Granary Row, in the heart of Olde Towne, provides perhaps the most visible link to the city's early days as an industrial, commercial and cultural center, as is recounted in the August 1993 edition of Communiqué, the city's newsletter.

Preserving such historic buildings as part of a vibrant commercial center is important for the city, said Judy Christensen, a preservation planner with the city of Rockville who also serves as secretary of the Gaithersburg Historical Association.

"You get people in from other parts of the country and they're really looking for those things," Christensen said.

Gaithersburg is one of the lucky few towns that still have architecture from its past that lends to its present character, she said.

"It makes [the city] more distinctive," she said. "New construction looks like new construction anywhere ... When you have something like the old mills or the cannery converted to another use it is a very distinctive building. It really stands out."

Today, a bag of flour from the Bowman Mill's early days hangs in a frame on the wall of the Asbury Villa home of Helen Bowman, widow of J. Sterling Bowman and owner of Bowman Mill until 1987.

"Excelsior Flour Mills," it says "12 1/4 lbs." Below, arranged around a drawing of a rose, the label reads: "Ladies Choice Flour/Bowman Bros./Gaithersburg Md."

Dried milk, bran and other products that went into the feed arrived by train. The mill had a side rail with a switch that it operated for unloading freight cars.

"It was nothing for us to have six cars of stuff come in a day," Helen Bowman said.

On Nov. 6, 1943, a fire started by sparks from a braking freight train destroyed much of the mill. About 20,000 bushels of wheat and 300 tons of feed burned, according to a newspaper account.

How much of the original building survived is unknown. But it is believed that the 13,000 bushels of wheat that were saved were stored in the four grain silos, which were believed to be unharmed.

After the fire J. Sterling Bowman took ownership and rebuilt the mill. In order to meet the changing needs of the surrounding farms he turned it from a flourmill into a feed mill, supplying surrounding farms with 40 tons of feed a day.

"Every head of cattle had to have a special feed formula and had to have it mixed accordingly," Helen Bowman said.

The mill's clients included all the neighboring farms, many of which were being bought up by members of Congress and other prominent Washingtonians.

The National Institutes of Health bought specialty feed for its research animals.

Helen Bowman took over the mill's operations after her husband died in 1956.

Bowman, who turned 87 Friday, grew up on a farm in Darnestown. She was teaching first grade at the since-closed Lone Oak Elementary School in Rockville at the time of her husband's death.

In 1965 an early morning fire destroyed the section of the mill that was used for specialty feed, as well as the mill's business office.

All of the Bowman brothers' original papers perished. Those papers included handwritten invoices showing how farmers would exchange a few dozen eggs for a bag of feed and gave a glimpse of how the mill conducted business in its earlier days. They were on Bowman's desk when the fire broke out. She intended to take them to the Montgomery County Historical Society later that same morning.

The fire took a large piece of the mill's history and perhaps Bowman's will to continue the business. She decided not to rebuild the burned-out portion and sold the business to Gaithersburg Granary in 1977.

The building housed a heating and air conditioning business and a glass business until a four-alarm fire in November 1987 destroyed the part of the building closest to the train tracks.

Bowman might have continued in the milling business, but knew the time was coming when the mill would have to expand to survive. The years as an independent businesswoman and widowed mother to her three sons might have had something to do with her decision to sell.

"The only thing I can figure out, I was so exhausted by then," she said.

She had considered turning the mill into commercial space and had even visited a shopping center in Ohio where a mill had turned its silos into retail space.

As for the mill's current use, as Granary Row, "I think it's great," Bowman said. "And I always intended to go there."


Today, after three fires and various contributions to the city's economy, the former Bowman Mill stands as an example of the city's commitment to revitalizing Olde Towne.

George Winkler, whose Winkler Automotive Service Center has been located on E. Diamond Avenue since 1982, purchased the old mill building in 1993.

He found himself with a major fixer-upper. The feed bins lining the railway side of the building were still intact, as was the grain distribution machine and the auger, which was used for grinding feed.

Renovating the building proved a great undertaking that took a year to complete. Crews dropped the entire bottom floor down two feet and reinforced the entire building's foundation.

Winkler took great care to preserve as much of the original structure as possible.

"All the original oak that did not burn [in the 1987 fire] is still here," he said as he gave Bowman a tour of the building last week.

That includes the restaurant and main bar area. The back area of Buffalo Billiards, where the pool tables are, was redone with steel beams. It suffered the worst damage in the 1987 fire and trees had begun to grow in the structure in the six years in sat empty.

The silos had chunks of concrete falling off them and the city and project engineer agreed that they had to come down for safety reasons.

Today Granary Row has 130 employees working in the building's various businesses. That includes an Armed Forces recruiting center, a hair salon and a currently vacant storefront on the center's first floor, along with Winkler's auto shop at the north end.

The second floor houses an advertising agency and a graphic design business. Their offices include exposed brick and oak columns.

"That's the beauty of the building," Winkler said.

The third floor could not be converted to office space because of the cost of providing safe exits. The third floor's white painted towers, which rise from the main roof over the "Granary Row" sign, still contain the mill's grain shoots.

The redesigned building won the 1997 Merit Award by the Maryland Society of American Institute of Architects. Buffalo Billiards spent $1 million on the design of its restaurant and pool hall, which opened in 1996 and was named one of the seven best new poolrooms in the country by Billiard's Digest magazine.

When Bowman and Winkler met for the first time last week it was something the former owner had wanted to do for a long time.

"It was something I couldn't do," Bowman told Winkler. "I don't know if you can understand."

"I can understand that," Winkler said. "But does what happened meet with your approval?

"Oh absolutely," she said. "Absolutely."

Agriculture and industry

Fire also led to the demise of the city's largest industry.

Thomas & Company Cannery was built in 1917 on a large parcel of land on Chestnut Street. It extended along the B&O tracks at Ward's Station allowing for rail shipping and receiving, and was the first, largest, and longest-operating food cannery in Montgomery County.

The cannery had a production line, kettles for preparing the vegetables, fillers, cappers, cookers and a cold water cooling canal from the factory to the finished goods warehouse.

The operation employed about 200 people during the canning seasons, in early summer and early fall, providing a local market for area farmers and jobs to the community.

In June 1962, a fire caused $10,000 in damage to the building. With local agricultural production waning in favor of suburban development, the cannery ceased operations instead of rebuilding.

Rockville Fuel and Feed bought the building after the cannery's closure and rebuilt the warehouse for use by Standard Supply. The smokestack and some portions of the cannery complex were taken down, but the buildings retain their World War I­era industrial architecture.

The city designated the cannery a historic site in 1987 and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

The main building remained vacant until last year when a $2.5 million renovation converted it to office and retail space.

The Gaithersburg Town Council looked to attract new mills to town by offering three-year tax reductions to new ventures.

The Bowman brothers, William Upton, Eldridge and Charles, who operated a mill near Water's Landing in Germantown, applied for and received the tax reduction in 1919. They sold their Germantown mill to Liberty Milling and purchased land near the former Gaithersburg mill from John H. Nicholls for $1,500.

Bowman Brothers' Mill, a concrete brick and block structure with a tin roof and steam engine house attached at the east end, opened Jan. 1, 1921.

It operated primarily as a flourmill through its first 25 years.

By 1935 the mill's assets totaled $62,100. That year William Upton Bowman became the first of the brothers to die. Eldridge and Charles died in 1936 and 1937, respectively and the mill was willed to their widows with J. Sterling Bowman, son of eldest brother and chief partner William Upton Bowman, taking over management of the mill.

The buildings that dot Olde Towne

The shells remain from the days when these structures served as a place where the farms of the upcounty met the commerce of the fledgling town. The town's growth was spurred on by the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, which came to town in 1873.

Much of what is known about the workings of the old industrial buildings comes from newspaper accounts, city, land and business records and oral histories from people who worked in or ran the buildings, and their descendants.

The city has compiled much of this history in "Gaithersburg: History of a City," which was originally published in 1978 and is being updated for publication later this year.

The history details the stories of several buildings, including the Bowman Mill and the Thomas Cannery, as well as smaller operations such as the Bryant Mill and the Fulks Store/Feed Mill.

The Bryant Mill, more commonly known as Williams Feed and Supply, was originally a wholesale provider of poultry and livestock feed, grain, and fertilizer. It also sold and repaired farm tools.

The large hand-hewn beams and sorting bins still serve as a testament to the original use of the building at 447 E. Diamond Ave., which is now leased to sales and service providers.

The Fulks Store/Feed Mill was constructed and later leased as a working feed mill. W. Lawson King bought and enlarged the building, operating it for many years as Gaithersburg Farmers' Supply. It presently houses a truck accessories business and a glass company at 451 and 453 E. Diamond Ave.



James Kenny Crown and his tractor