The Comus Inn Historyfarmhouse

The Johnson-Wolfe Farm, commonly known as the Comus Inn, encompasses a four-building complex that occupies a 5.26-acre site located at the northwest corner of the intersection of Comus Road and Old Hundred Road (MD Rte 109), in Montgomery County, Maryland. The vernacular dwelling and assemblage of three agricultural outbuildings visually defines the crossroads community of Comus, historically known as Johnsonville. The rural crossroads village of Comus is characterized by low scale, low-density development dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Comus Inn and associated outbuildings embody a pattern of design and modification common in rural domestic complexes in northwestern Montgomery County during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Inn is the result of four periods of major construction, which are clearly read in the existing exterior design, structure, interior plan, and ornamentation. These additions survive intact and are characterized by differences in design, materials, and workmanship. Three periods of construction, ca. 1862, ca. 1885, and ca. 1900, are historic and exhibit a pattern common to rural Montgomery County dwellings of the period. This pattern includes the initial construction of a modest two-bay log dwelling, expansion of the initial dwelling to a five bay house, and extension of the principal block to a double pile form though a rear addition.

frontpictureConstruction Sequence of Main House

The main house of the Johnson-Wolfe Farm comprises a two-story, five-bay, double pile principal block and rear addition. Examination of the building reveals a complex construction sequence incorporating four periods of major addition and expansion. The original log house constructed ca. 1862 by Robert Johnson was a two-story, two-bay, single pile building. This log dwelling occupies the north end of the principal block. The log core currently is exposed on the interior of the building. The log construction employs squared, hand-hewn Chestnut logs keyed with steeple corner notches.

The second major period of construction was undertaken ca.1885 by Joel Hamilton Wolfe and the prominent local builder William T. Hilton. The addition resulted in the current configuration of the main elevation of the principal block. The two-story core was expanded three bays to the south at that time. The interior plan of the principal block was modified to include a central hall with straight stair flanked by north and south chambers.

William T. Hilton (b. 1829-d. 1909), a noted local carpenter and casket maker located in Barnesville, also built Sugarloaf Mountain Chapel (1861), Mt. Ephraim (1868), Christ Episcopal Church (1878), Leonard Hays House (ca. 1890), St. Mary’s Catholic Church (1900), Thomas O. White House (1903), and additions to Mary Morningstar House and the Barnesville Post Office (Getty and Gutheim 1990).

The Village of Comusbackpicture

The village of Johnsonville evolved as a crossroads community during the last half of the nineteenth century. The village was located at the intersection of two roads: Old Hundred Road (currently MD Route 109) and the Old Mt. Ephraim Road (currently Comus Road). The 1865 Martenet and Bond map of the area depicted two buildings at this crossroads. A schoolhouse originally constructed in 1848 occupied the southeast corner of the intersection (Cuttler 1999; Martenet and Bond 1865). Robert Johnson’s farm, the Comus Inn property, occupied the northwest corner of the intersection. Farmsteads were dispersed in the area surrounding the crossroads.

The crossroads of Comus was the site of a rearguard action during the Antietam Campaign of Civil War on the 9th and 10th of September 1862. Confederate forces had crossed the Potomac River into Maryland on 5 September 1862. The Johnson-Wolfe Farm was a venue of troop activity when, on the road to Antietam, Union forces attempted to capture the Confederate position, a former Union signal station, atop Sugarloaf Mountain. According to Susan Soderberg (personal communication, 9/17/02), the Montgomery County historian who researched actions in the area for the Civil War Trail Commission, Union artillery was set up on the property, which comprised the only ridge south of the mountain with a clear field of fire to Sugarloaf. Virginia cavalry units, including the 9th VA, “Rooney” Lee’s unit, and the 7th VA Cavalry, later complemented by the 12th and 2nd VA Sharpshooters, held the mountain. The 8th Illinois and 3rd Indiana Cavalry, reinforced by the 6th US Cavalry and other units under the command of General Hancock, proceeding from the Darnestown area, deployed in the area, fighting a running skirmish along Old Hundred Road, from Barnesville to Hyattstown. The Confederate forces pulled out from Sugarloaf on September 11th, 1862, after inflicting casualties on Union attackers (Priest 1992). The Comus Inn property at the old crossroads was the site of Union artillery batteries, as well as a gathering point for Federal forces seeking to capture the Confederate signal station. A sign has been placed on the property as part of Maryland’s first Civil War Trail, the Antietam Trail (Maryland Civil War Trails 2002).

By 1879, the crossroads community that became known as Comus expanded. The former Johnson house and schoolhouse remained in the same locations. Benjamin Johnson owned the adjacent farms. L. R. Nicholson constructed a house and store on the southwest corner of the intersection. A few other houses were erected along Old Hundred Road. The area remained agricultural; Scharf identified the area as a rich tobacco-growing region (Scharf 1882, reprint, vol 1:728).

viewofbarnThe 1879 Hopkins Atlas of Montgomery County identified the community as Johnsonville. The town also was known as Nicholsonville (MCLR Deed EBP 18/54). The name Comus was in use as early as 1883, when the first post office in the village was established (MCLR Deed EBP 30:470 quoted in Crawford 1986; Cuttler 1999). The origin of the name has not been documented. One tradition is that the name was derived from Lewis McComas, who represented the Sixth Congressional District at the time the post office first was established (Crawford 1986, quoting MCHS files-Comus). The post office was established in 1883 and continued in operation until 1958 (Cuttler 1999).

The Johnson-Wolfe Farm (Comus Inn) reflects a locally significant pattern of history in that it illustrates the process of the evolution of rural crossroads communities in rural western Montgomery County. The intersection of old east-west and north-south roads encouraged settlement by farmers seeking ready transportation of their crops to market. The progression of generations of the farming Johnson family resulted in subdivisions of the family’s large farm holdings into smaller farming units, in order to accommodate their progeny. The Johnson-Wolfe Farm began its existence as the domestic component of a modest, small-scale family farm. The area began to be called Johnsonville for its cluster of log dwellings constructed by the Johnson family. Under the Wolfe ownership, the house lot evolved into a domestic rural complex since the owner drew his livelihood from blacksmithing to support the regional economy. The Johnson-Wolfe Farm formed the nucleus for the development of a rural community of Comus during the last decades of the nineteenth century. The community came to include a school and town hall, blacksmith shop, a small general store, and residences. A communal spring just north of the crossroads provided water to the community; title to that spring still is shared between neighboring properties at the crossroads, including the Johnson – Wolfe Farm (Comus Inn).

Although the character of many of the old crossroads communities in Montgomery County has been lost to suburbanization and development, agricultural zoning in this part of the county, coupled with an active agricultural preservation program that has encompassed surrounding farms, has heretofore precluded significant suburban encroachment on Comus. In addition, the legacy of Gordon Strong at Stronghold, or Sugarloaf Mountain, has served to fortify the rural character of the area. The Johnson-Wolfe Farm is unusual in its intact physical context from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that contributes to the identify of the complex and its ability to embody the characteristics of a local rural domestic building type that evolved over time.

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