Late last year, stuck at home, my activities hampered by the pandemic, I found myself intrigued by a posting in a Facebook group. Someone asked if anyone knew the history behind a stone retaining wall he’d seen on the east side New Hampshire Avenue, while heading north toward Good Hope Road. I didn’t know, but having nothing better to do, I set about to find the answer. I knew I had the research skills; for the past few years, I have scoured photograph archives, land records, digital newspapers, and maps to write the history of the Aspin Hill Pet Cemetery. Even so, when it comes to historical research there are times when, no matter how hard one looks, there’s nothing to go on. But this time, I was in luck.
Thanks to the Silver Spring Historical Society, I was able to see what had been in that location in 1948. The Atlas of Montgomery County, Maryland showed a sketch of a few buildings, a U-shaped driveway, and the words: “Commonwealth Farm Inn.”1 Searching the catalog of the Jane C. Sween Library at Montgomery History, I found a book on the Woman’s Commonwealth, who owned the Commonwealth Farm Inn.2 This was enough to send me on the local history journey that I now share with you.
Commonwealth Farm was a 119-acre property in Colesville that was owned by a women’s commune formed in the 1870s in Belton, Texas. They were called the Sanctified Sisters or Sanctificationists at first, but eventually became known as the Woman’s Commonwealth. Their beliefs were based on divine revelations received by their leader which espoused sanctification, non-sectarianism, and celibacy. They were economically self-sustaining, pooling their financial resources and living communally. In 1898, the commune moved from Texas to Washington, D.C. In 1903, they purchased the Colesville farm, where they raised dairy cattle, chickens, and pigs, and grew vegetables, fruit trees, corn, and wheat. For over four decades, the commune ran the Commonwealth Farm Inn and restaurant on the property, which became a popular spot for members of high-society and influential Washingtonians.
In 1947, when the Woman’s Commonwealth of Washington was down to two members, the farm was sold. The following year, it became Mrs. Jolliffe’s Home for Elderly Persons (also known as Jolliffe Nursing Home). In 1951, a horrific fire displaced fifty patients, four of whom died as a result. The nursing home was renovated and continued in operation until 1953. Between 1953 and 2000, the property changed hands several times but was never developed. The property is now owned by Montgomery Parks and is part of the Upper Paint Branch Stream Valley Park. All that remains of the Commonwealth Farm Inn are foundations, traces of a paved driveway, and a stone retaining wall that is visible from the east side New Hampshire Avenue just south of Good Hope Road.
What follows is not only the history of Commonwealth Farm, but that of the women who created it. The Woman’s Commonwealth has a fascinating history, a small amount of which I will write about here. If you want to know more, you can follow the references at the end of the article.
Martha McWhirter, Founder of the Woman’s Commonwealth
Martha McWhirter (1827-1904) and George McWhirter (1816-1877) married in 1845 and settled in Belton, Texas in 1855. Both were members of the Methodist Church. Martha and George ran the Union Sunday School during a time when there were no dedicated church buildings in the town. Their Sunday school was non-sectarian, serving members of all the Protestant churches in town. In 1866, Martha had a spiritual revelation which she believed came from God. She declared herself to be sanctified.3 Martha taught her version of sanctification in the Sunday school and in weekly prayer meetings. Her teachings were at odds with the pastors of her church. When the Methodists erected a church in 1870, they opened their own Sunday school for their members. The McWhirters objected and began to part ways with the Methodist Church.4
By 1875, Martha’s prayer group was composed almost entirely of women who embraced her views on sanctification and non-sectarianism. The Sanctified Sisters relied on dreams and visions that they believed came from God, which often concerned the women’s dissatisfaction in their marriages. Based on one of Martha’s revelations, they believed that it was sinful for a wife to live with a husband who did not believe in sanctification. As a result, marriages and families (including Martha McWhirter’s) were broken up by separation or divorce.5 Martha’s followers became known as Sanctificationists or Sanctified Sisters.6
By 1879, the prayer group had developed a communal economy. They pooled money they earned by selling eggs and milk, hand-woven rugs, and working as domestics. They opened a laundry and a boarding house where members who had left their husbands and families could live. Eventually, the boarding house became the Central Hotel which was owned and run by the Sanctificationists.7
The Sanctificationists at first faced harsh criticism by local citizens, outraged because of the marriages that were broken up. One woman was sent to a local insane asylum8 and male supporters were violently attacked.9 But the group was undeterred. Over time, the businesses, directed by McWhirter, were so successful that in 1894, she was invited to join the town of Belton’s board of trade.10
Martha McWhirter and her followers were not proselytizers.11 They just wanted to live in their own fashion, without interference. Because they didn’t actively recruit new members, the Sanctificationists peaked at fifty followers in 1880.12
The Move to Washington, D.C.
In 1898, the women began to divest their Texas holdings to finance a move to Washington, D.C. The Sanctified Sisters were attracted to the city due to its cultural opportunities and its beauty.13 The group numbered twenty women still committed to the Commonwealth.
Once in Washington, they bought a large house at 1437 Kenesaw Avenue N.W., in Mount Pleasant.14 They turned it into a boarding house15 and a small farm.16 Members engaged in the cultural activities that Washington had to offer, attending concerts at the White House, observing sessions of Congress, and visiting the Library of Congress. They hosted lecturers at the Kenesaw house supporting political causes such as woman’s suffrage and socialism.17
On October 3,1903, the women formalized their community’s ideals into a Constitution with by-laws. They declared themselves “The Woman’s Commonwealth.” They had never liked the name “Sanctified Sisters,” which had been applied to them by outsiders. Among themselves, they had referred to their group as “the church,” and referred to each other as “sister.”
The Constitution established their religious values as being guided by the Bible, but non-sectarian, meaning they were free to follow their own interpretations. Property and other assets were held in common and labor performed equally. The members also agreed to be governed by a board of directors and a board of trustees. Of course, they also agreed to live a celibate life.18 In 1904, Martha McWhirter, founder of the Woman’s Commonwealth, died, leaving it in the hands of the trustees.
While still in Texas, the Commonwealth had been featured in national newspaper articles about their curious lifestyle.19 When they arrived in Washington, with its active press, they came under more scrutiny.20 Between 1900 and 1908, several of the younger members of the Commonwealth left, dissatisfied with the requirement of celibacy.21 The defection of young members who left to get married generated particularly juicy press.22 These young women had joined the Commonwealth as children whose mothers had brought them to the group when they left their husbands. There were also a few young women who joined on their own. As this generation matured, they found themselves attracted to the possibility of marriage and motherhood. In addition, the move to Washington had made them more aware of the possibilities of education and careers outside the home.23 By 1908, the Woman’s Commonwealth had only nine members.24
In 1903, the Woman’s Commonwealth purchased approximately 119 acres in Colesville, Montgomery County, Maryland25 near the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and Good Hope Road.26 Members of the Commonwealth who lived on the farm in Colesville raised cows, pigs, ducks, and chickens as well as a variety of vegetables. The farm supplied food that supported members and boarders who still lived in the house in D.C. Twice weekly, a horse and cart would make the two-hour trip from Colesville to Mount Pleasant and deliver produce. In July of 1904, the farm produced 150 bushels of wheat as well. The large house they built on the property became an inn and a restaurant, which opened in 1905. In 1918, the house on Kenesaw Avenue N.W. in Washington was sold.27
By the early 1920s, as more people owned cars, The Commonwealth Farm Inn became a popular spot for motorists touring the countryside. Its clientele included high society and influential Washingtonians. Glowing descriptions of the Commonwealth Farm Inn appeared in newspaper society columns. The report of a meeting of Congressional wives called it “…a delightful old-fashioned country place near Silver Spring, Md., with broad grassy slopes and beautiful large trees.”28 In another society item, it was declared that “The tables set under the trees and fairly groaning under the load of toothsome old Maryland dishes, such as fried chicken and cream gravy, corn bread, tall pitchers of creamy buttermilk, and such ice cream as one seldom tastes, was a picture long to be treasured.”29
The Inn was also a place where wealthy people might spend the summer away from the heat of the city. “Mrs. Harreld is spending the summer out at the farm, a lovely old place on the Silver Spring road, where lunches or ‘chicken dinners’ are served on order and which is becoming exceeding popular with motor parties.”30 Organizations holding luncheons at the restaurant included the Order of the Eastern Star, the Massachusetts Society of Washington, and the board of directors of the Central Savings Bank.31
The inn also functioned as a boarding house. In 1925, the Woman’s Commonwealth placed a classified advertisement for boarders. “Commonwealth Farm, Silver Spring Post Office, Md. — A room on the ground floor with board for two elderly people; toilet in room or near.”32 They also offered rental of a garage on the property.33
In 1927, a display advertisement appeared in the Evening Star which featured a detailed description of the farm, including a 20-room, 4-bath house; woodland; an orchard; and acres of wheat, corn, and grass.34
The advertisement also testified to the extent that the Woman’s Commonwealth of Washington had invested in the farm: “…hot and cold water, new heating plant just installed, large dining room fully equipped, two good wells, windmill, also gasoline pump, concrete cellar; built-in ice box holds 1 ton of ice, 2 good tenant houses, 1 large hay barrack, large barn, work shed, 2 garages, ice house, meat house, woodshed, — also Summer cottage containing 8 rooms, full Delco light plant and house, all necessary farm implements, 6 thoroughbred Jersey cows, one thoroughbred Jersey bull, 75 laying chickens and two horses.”
Photographs of the exterior of the inn and one of its dining rooms complete the description. For unknown reasons, the sale of the farm in 1927 never took place. Thankfully, the advertisement exists to provide a vivid picture of the farm.
The Commonwealth Farm Inn continued hosting guests and boarders and serving their famous country dinners through the 1930s and into the mid-1940s. By 1940, only two members of the Woman’s Commonwealth of Washington were still living.
On January 17, 1946, the farm was sold to Peter and Vivian Floros.35 Exceptions to the deed reduced the size of the property to 90 acres. One of these exceptions allowed the Commonwealth Farm Inn to continue to operate. A 1946 ad in Baltimore Sun talks about the Inn resuming service on May 30. In July, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn hosted a dinner in honor of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Fred Vinson.36
During this time, elderly residents continued to be boarded at the inn, as evidenced by a 1953 obituary indicating that the deceased had lived there since 1941.37 Advertisements for the Commonwealth Farm Inn restaurant appeared in local papers until at least July 1947. The Floros couple sold the property in September 1947 to Joseph K. and Agnes Copeland. The inn and restaurant then ceased operations.
Mrs. Jolliffe’s Home for Elderly Persons
On June 25, 1948, the farm was purchased by Jessie Marie Jolliffe.38 Mrs. Jolliffe was the proprietor of nursing homes in Takoma Park and Silver Spring. She put these nursing homes on the market and placed an advertisement in The Washington Post soliciting reservations for her new venture.
“Mrs. Jessie Proctor Jolliffe announces the opening of her new nursing home on Colesville Pike, U. S. Route 29, 8 miles from D.C. line. Formerly known as the Commonwealth Farm Inn. Beautiful location, country surroundings with city facilities and all modern conveniences. Services offered include room, board, laundry and 24-hour nursing care. Supervised by Mrs. Gladys Carter formerly with the Lutheran Home. Call now for reservations. SH. 6040 or SLigo 9503.”39
Mrs. Jolliffe then sought a permit from Montgomery County commissioners to open the nursing home. She ran into objections at a hearing held on August 11 at which two people charged that the care she gave at the Takoma Park home had been inadequate. Seven others, however, testified that the care was satisfactory. During the hearing, the commissioners announced that plans were underway to assign a full-time nurse to inspect and supervise all nursing homes in Montgomery County.40 Jolliffe’s application was deferred so that she could have fire escapes installed and approval granted from the fire and health departments. After it was approved, her license was renewed in 1949 and 1950. In June of 1951, her renewal was held up for undisclosed fire and health deficiencies. However, she was allowed to continue her operation until these matters were settled.
On September 18, 1951, a fire broke out in the one-story north wing of the Jolliffe Nursing Home. The wing was completely burned, and the fire then spread to the main wood-frame building. Six rooms there were destroyed as well. Firemen were not immediately able to fight the fire because they had to evacuate the elderly patients. Many of them were frail and confused by all the excitement, wandering back into the building when the firemen weren’t looking. One elderly woman went back to her room to retrieve her favorite chair. She was later found dead, sitting in her chair when the firemen made it to her room.41 In all, four people died and 47 were injured. The cause was suspected to be smoking materials discarded in a linen closet by a patient.42
A week after the fire, Mrs. Jolliffe obtained a temporary license to reopen the undamaged wing of the home.43 Nineteen patients returned. Jolliffe spent $30,000 on renovations to the fire-damaged wings. On December 22, 1951 – two months after the fire – the nursing home was fully reopened.44 The nursing home stayed open until at least 1953, judging by obituaries found in The Washington Post and Evening Star newspapers.45
From Nursing Home to County Park
In November 1955, Jessie M. Boswell, formerly Jessie M. Jolliffe sold her nursing home and the 76-acre tract on which it sat. Two deeds show that it was first sold to Glenbur Corporation, and then to Harry E. and Selma Gorin.46 At some point, the building which had been the Commonwealth Farm Inn and the Jolliffe Nursing Home was torn down. The Gorins held onto the property until 1971, selling it to the General Conference Corporation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.47 In 1988, the Adventists sold to a group of investors, Ki-Choon Kim et al. The property was split into two tracts which were sold to Montgomery County, Maryland in 2000 and 2001.
The property on which the Commonwealth Farm Inn once stood is now part of the Upper Paint Branch Stream Valley Park. Montgomery Parks established the park to preserve its unique natural resources. “A rich network of seeps and wetlands and an extensive series of coldwater headwater tributaries to Paint Branch underlain by schist bedrock host a diversity of aquatic life, including a naturally reproducing brown trout population.”48
A vestige of Commonwealth Farm Inn, a stone retaining wall, can be seen from New Hampshire Avenue. It extends into the property along the south edge of what was once a paved driveway. The inn was demolished many years ago, but stone, brick, and concrete foundations and walls are still in evidence. The site can be approached from the sidewalk on New Hampshire Avenue or through the woods from the parking pull-off on Good Hope Road. There are no established trails to the ruins and the area may be overgrown in the spring and summer.
Woman’s Commonwealth Memorial and Legacy
Members of the Woman’s Commonwealth who came to Washington are buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, in Section F Lot 13. Martha McWhirter was buried there in 1904. Also buried there are founding members and trustees of the Commonwealth, including Margaret Henry, Fannie and Lizzie Holtzclaw, Gertrude Scheble and her daughter, Martha, who was the last surviving member of the Woman’s Commonwealth. According to the Commonwealth’s constitution and by-laws, the Washington Orphan’s Asylum was to be the final beneficiary of its assets. The Commonwealth’s long-time friend and attorney, James E. West, had been raised there (he was also the Chief Scout Executive of the Boy Scouts from 1911-1943).49
The Commonwealth Farm was a refuge for a group of independent women at a time when society looked down upon their aspirations for self-determination and the right to vote. They were derided in the press as being a “man-hating club”50 and their interest in suffrage was called “a hobby.”51 Yet they persisted. While it’s sad that the commune eventually expired, the Woman’s Commonwealth of Washington should not be looked upon as a failure. They never aspired to greater membership, and given their celibacy, it is not surprising that they died out. But they managed to forge an extended family based on their common values at a time when traditional marriage and religion had let them down. Their success at taking control – and living life on their own terms – is to be admired.
- Frank H. M. Klinge, Atlas of Montgomery County, 1948, v. 1, p. 24.
- Sally L. Kitch, This Strange Society of Women: Reading the Letters and Lives of the Woman’s Commonwealth, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1993.
- George P. Garrison, “A Woman’s Community in Texas,” Charities Review, Volume 3, November 1893, p. 30.
- Jayme A. Sokolow and Mary Ann Lamanna, “Women and Utopia: The Woman’s Commonwealth of Belton, Texas,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, April 1984, vol. 87, no. 4, p. 376
- Garrison, p. 32.
- Sokolow, p. 378.
- Kitch, p. 42.
- Kitch, p. 214.
- “An Adamless Eden,” St. Paul Daily Globe, November 18, 1895, p. 8.
- Kitch, p. 47.
- Margarita Spalding Gerry, “The Woman’s Commonwealth of Washington,” Ainslee’s Magazine, September 1902, v. 10 (2), p. 139.
- Kitch, p. 37.
- Kitch, p. 70-71.
- Kenesaw Avenue is now known as Irving Street.
- Classified advertisement, Evening Star, September 3, 1903, p. 14.
- “Big Yield Of Vegetables: Productive Capacity of a Tiny Farm Almost in Heart of City,” The Washington Post, November 24, 1902, p. 10.
- Kitch, p. 108.
- Kitch, p. 127-129.
- “A Curious Religious Colony,” Waterbury Democrat (Waterbury, Conn.), January 23, 1896, p. 4.
- “A Sanctified Sisterhood,” The Washington Times, April 6, 1902, section three, p. 1, 4.
- Kitch, p. 101.
- “Cupid Steals Girl From Ranks Of The ‘Man-Hating Club’,” The Washington Times, September 18, 1901, section three, p. 1.; “Weds First Male; Girl Had Not Met A Man Until She Was Twenty-Nine,” The Washington Post, April 15, 1908, p. 1.
- Kitch, p. 11.
- Kitch, p. 110.
- Montgomery County Land Records, Liber TD 27 Folio 109 (October 5, 1903).
- In 1903, the property would have been on the northeast corner of the intersection. Today, due to the re-routing of Good Hope Road, it is on the southeast corner.
- “Real Estate Transfers,” Evening Star, December 29, 1918, p. 4.
- Evening Star, May 23, 1922, Page 8.
- Evening Star, August 13, 1922, p. 4.
- The Washington Times, August 6, 1922.
- Evening Star, August 28, 1921, p. 22; Evening Star, June 8, 1925, p. 8; and Evening Star, September 24, 1926, p. 30.
- Classified advertisement, Evening Star, September 11, 1925, p. 43.
- Classified advertisement, Evening Star, December 16, 1926, p. 52.
- Display advertisement, Evening Star, May 22, 1927, p. 24.
- Montgomery County Land Records, Liber 994 Folio 401, (January 17, 1946). Woman’s Commonwealth of Washington, D.C. to Peter J. and Vivian Floros.
- “Washington Items,” The Baltimore Sun, July 21, 1946, p. SN6.
- Obituary which states that the deceased had lived at the nursing home since 1941. “Byron A. Bargeron, Former RFC Employe,” The Washington Post, August 14, 1953, p. 26.
- Montgomery County Land Records, Liber 1189 Folio 514, (June 25, 1948).
- Classified advertisement, The Washington Post, July 4, 1948, p. C7.
- “Nursing Homes to Get Tighter Supervision,” The Washington Post, August 11, 1948, p. 7
- “3 Known Dead in Fire at Nursing Home,” Evening Star, September 18, 1951, p. A-1, A-3; Chalmers M. Roberts and Thomas Winthrop, “50 Patients are Rescued From Blaze At Colesville,” The Washington Post, September 19, 1951, p. 1, B-1.
- “County Officials Hope to Reopen Jolliffe Home,” Evening Star, September 26, 1951, p. B1.
- “County Will Permit Opening of Unburned Wing in Nursing Home,” Evening Star, September 27, 1951, p. B1; “Wing Being Reopened After Fire,” The Washington Post, September 27, 1951, p. 15.
- “Joliffe Nursing Home To Reopen Tomorrow,” Evening Star, December 21, 1951, p. A-21.
- Death notice, Hepner, James William. Evening Star, December 3, 1953, p. A-30.
- Montgomery County Land Records, Liber 2133 Folio 50 (November 2, 1955) and Montgomery County Land Records, Liber 2133 Folio 324, (November 29, 1955).
- Montgomery County Land Records, Liber 4166 Folio 389, (November 29, 1971).
- Upper Paint Branch Stream Valley Park. https://www.montgomeryparks.org/parks-and-trails/upper-paint-branch-stream-valley-park/. Accessed January 23, 2021.
- Kitch, p. 112.
- “Cupid Steals Girl From Ranks Of The ‘Man-Hating Club’,” The Washington Times, September 18, 1901, section three, p. 1.
- “Here’s a Queer Sect of Women,” New York World, Sunday, September 22