History of Westminster

Westminster was founded in 1764 by William Winchester of England. William Winchester was born in Westminster, England on December 22, 1711 and arrived at Annapolis, Maryland in 1731 as an indentured servant. He passed away on September 2, 1790.

He established himself as a farmer in "Dug Hill," now known as Manchester, which was at the time, still part of Baltimore County. He had moved there several years after he had successfully fulfilled his obligations as an indentured servant to Dr. George Buchanan.

On July 22, 1747, Winchester married Lydia Richards, the daughter of a Quaker by the name of Edward Richards. Subsequently, the Richards family also married into one of the founding families of Hampstead located along the Patapsco - Conewago Road in what is currently Carroll County. This resulted in the founders of the three fledgling communities, Westminster, Manchester, and Hampstead, being intermarried.

While still living in "Dug Hill," Winchester purchased a little more than 167 acres located at Patapsco Falls and Little Pipe Creek on July 19, 1754 for 150 Pounds. This parcel was first granted to John White in 1733 and was called "White’s Level."

For some additional background, let's go to Nancy Warner's "Carroll County Maryland – A History 1837-1976." Several of the original land grants which would be later included in the city of Westminster were: "'White's Level,' 169 ½ acres, to John White in 1733, 'Fanny's Meadow,' to James Wells in 1741; 'Bond’s Meadow,' 1,915 acres, to John Ridgely, and 'Brown's Delight,' 350 acres to George Brown, both in 1753."

It was in this time period, 1731, that Dr. Charles Carroll, (1737-1832), a signer of the American Declaration of Independence and Carroll County's namesake, lobbied Maryland Governor Samuel Ogle that tax relief, road-building, and agricultural business stimulation would encourage the settling of the area now know as Carroll and Frederick Counties.

It may be of interest for many to know that until 1748, this part of Maryland that included White's Level was in Prince George’s County. Frederick County was not formed from Prince George's County until 1748 and Carroll County was subdivided from Baltimore and Frederick Counties in 1837.

Winchester served in the French and Indian war in 1757 and was active in the support of the American Revolution. In 1764 Winchester originally named his planned community "Winchester's Town."

The community changed its name to Westminster in 1768 because the mail was too often mistakenly delivered in nearby Winchester, in Frederick County, Virginia.

In 1764, Winchester located Westminster on one of the three main western-bound routes in what we now know as Carroll County. Today these routes are known as Route 30, Route 140, and Route 26. These roadways were critical for the economic expansion of the fledgling colony of Maryland.

Winchester formed Westminster at a point one day's travel - 10 miles - between Reisterstown and Taneytown. This led to Westminster quickly establishing hotels, eating establishments, and provisioning stores.

Winchester built a home in 1760 on what is now Stoner Avenue. He also helped build the town's first log church, which stood near the old cemetery at the end of Church Street, which is now known as the Union Meeting House of Westminster.

Until a formal organized municipal government was adopted in 1818, the Union Meeting House, and its board of trustees, was utilized as a "governing body" for the early settlers.

Some historians think the log structure was constructed around 1790, but there are numerous references to a structure as early as 1760, 4 years before the town's founder, William Winchester drew a plat plan for what was then known as "Winchester's Town," now known as Westminster.

It is currently well accepted that the Westminster community started the Westminster Cemetery by utilizing the 1/2 acre grounds surrounding the Union Meeting House as a burial ground in 1790.

The first burial in what we now know as the Westminster Cemetery is believed to be that of Christian Yingling who died on January 24, 1790. Although one well respected history research institution says: "The ground around it had been used as a cemetery as early as 1707."

This is supported, in part, by a reference in "Carroll County Cemeteries, Vol. Five; Part Three Westminster Cemetery" published in 2004 by the Carroll County Genealogical Society. Noted genealogical historians Ann P. Horvath, Harold Robertson, and Mary Ann Ashcroft call to our attention to "Scharf’s History of Western Maryland, Volume II," which states "the original town cemetery was located nearby but was abandoned when this one began."

"The Westminster General Meeting House," was referred to in an act to incorporate a board of trustees by the Maryland General Assembly on May 24, 1813. It was originally built as place for community meetings and served as a house of worship by various "Protestant denominations needing a place of worship during Westminster's early years," according to "Carroll County Cemeteries."

Folklore tells of the story of the well in Westminster that never ran dry – the "Legend of God's Well," during a terrible drought in Westminster in the late 1700s, shortly after William Winchester founded our community in 1764.

A 1939 pageant, "The House That Jacob Built" tells the story. The pageant starts, "One summer in the late eighteenth century when Westminster was afflicted by a terrible drought, all but two wells in the village of around 100 souls ran dry. The 2 were that of the Winchester family and that of the Inn Keeper Shilling. Squire Winchester, founder of the village, finally called an emergency meeting at the Union Meeting house."

From an excellent comprehensive history of the Sherman-Fisher-Shellman property on the Historical Society of Carroll County's Web site, it is deducted that the pageant title, the "House that Jacob built" refers to the fact that 206 East Main Street was built around 1807 by Jacob Sherman who lived from 1756 to July 7, 1822. It is said that he spoke German but conjectured that he "almost certainly learned English."

However, what makes the legend credible is that when Jacob Sherman retired from inn keeping he purchased the property from William Winchester, Jr. (1750-1812), a son of the founder of Westminster, and built the house we now see….

The legend recites that at the emergency town meeting, Inn Keeper Shilling "arose with the following suggestion: Neighbors, this is a serious crisis. That we have a water famine no one will deny. Immigrant (sic) wagons pass by with crowds every day and every night. If we share with those who have no claim upon us, God knows when we will be left to die miserably from thirst ourselves. I shall lock up my well and share only with our villagers."

With that, Inn Keeper Shilling erected a sign at his well, which read, "Only villagers allowed water from this well, 6 pence a bucket."

The pageant story reflects, "Immediately Elizabeth Winchester arose to speak for herself and her sister Lydia. Neighbors, have you lost your trust in the Almighty that you dare deny His creatures the water which He has provided for them. Water belongs to God. He alone can supply or withhold and He who notes the sparrow’s fall will not deny it to those who love and trust Him."

She then posted a sign "in the Winchester garden (that) read: Water belongs to God. Free for all." According to the legend, shortly after, the well of Inn Keeper Shilling "ran dry and he, too, had to join the long line of thirsty souls who came to the Winchester" well.

Westminster's first settlers were predominately Germans and Scotch-Irish who moved to the Westminster area from southern Pennsylvania. In this period, the issue of immigrants coming from these two bordering colonies – Germans from the north; Scotch from the west and the Irish from the south - was of grave concern.

Indeed, the German language was to remain a prominent language for a large majority of northern Carroll Countians well into the mid-1800s; while English was the language of southern Carroll Countians. Westminster remained at the confluence of these 3 main cultural influences.

Much of the early industry was agriculture, tanning, banking, and a wide variety of merchants and craftsmen. Hotels and restaurants were also an important part of local commerce which catered to westward bound travelers well into the late 1800s..

According to "What Ever Happened to our Hotels," written by former Historical Society curator Lillian Shipley in September 1971, as late as "around the turn of the (20th) century Westminster had 7 churches, 7 hotels, and 18 saloons."

"The hotels (were the) Eastern or East End, the Main Court, the Central, the Westminster (Charles Carroll Hotel,) the Albion, the Montour House, and the Anchor."

Originally, Westminster sat on the boundary line between Frederick and Baltimore Counties. In 1837, Carroll County was created from portions of Frederick and Baltimore Counties.

Westminster was originally incorporated in 1818 which provided for the community to be governed by a burgess and 6 commissioners elected annually:

    "the burgess and six commissioners for the said town, who shall be inhabitants thereof, above twenty-five years of age, and holding real property in the said town; the election to be held at the most central part of said town, and the polls to be kept open from nine o'clock in the morning until two in the afternoon..."

    The charter stipulated that "the said commissioners shall meet upon the business of the town at least three times in every year... (S)aid commissioners shall lay off the back alleys of the said town..."

    It further declared that "said commissioners shall have full power and authority to enact and pass all laws and ordinances to preserve the health of the town, prevent and remove nuisances; to impose and appropriate fines, penalties and forfeitures, for the breach of their by-laws or ordinances; to lay and collect taxes for opening and extending the back and necessary cross alleys of the said town, provided that the said taxes shall not exceed twenty cents on every hundred dollars worth of taxable property in any one year, which they may collect as county taxes are collected, by such persons as the burgess may see fit to appoint; all ordinances and by-laws to be signed by the burgess...

    (S)aid commissioners, or a majority of them, shall have power to appoint their own clerk, and assign to him his duties, and also to allow him a salary in their discretion, not exceeding the sum of twenty dollars per annum…

    "That all ordinances passed by the said commissioners by their clerk be entered in a book to be kept by him for that purpose, and shall be open at all times for the inspection of any person, and copies of said ordinances shall be put up in the most public places of said town that the same may be generally made known…

    "That no ordinance of the said corporation shall impose a fine of more than ten dollars for any offence..." 

The 1818 incorporation also consolidated three adjoining towns into one town called Westminster: Westminster, New London, and Winter's Addition to Westminster.

From the initial incorporation passed by the Maryland General Assembly in Chapter 128, Acts of 1818, through a subsequent incorporation in 1830, until 1856, Westminster had a Burgess and Commissioner form of government. The first "Mayor" of the City of Westminster was Francis Shriver, who served from 1856 to 1858.

Of note is that Westminster was not recognized a "city" until the 1838 charter - incorporation was amended by Chapter 335 of the Acts of the Maryland General Assembly of 1856, which re-characterized the municipality as a "city" and changed the titles of the elected officials to Mayor and Common Council of Westminster.

A mayor and common council form of government is different from a burgess and commissioner government. A mayor is recognized as the chief executive officer of the community government whereas the office of burgess was originally the title of the municipality’s representative to the state legislature.

The town was governed by commissioners who divided the various functions and responsibilities of the community among themselves, whereas a council is the legislative branch that oversees persons appointed to take care of the tasks originally performed by commissioners.

A portion of Green Street, between Center and Washington Road was the city’s first annexation in 1788. It is considered to be one of five key "boroughs" – or towns - that were eventually consolidated to form Westminster.

An October 15, 1964 newspaper history of Westminster called them "hamlets:"

    "Five hamlets made up the present Westminster. The Westminster of 1764 ran along King's Street (now Main Street) from Manchester Road to Court Street.

    "In 1775, New London was added to the original Westminster. This hamlet included that area along King's Street from Court Street to Longwell Avenue.

    "Another addition to the town was made in 1788 along Green Street from Washington Road to Church Street.

    "Bedford, along Main Street from Longwell Avenue to near John Street, was added in 1812.

    "In 1825, Logsdon's Tavern land was included along Main Street from Carroll Street to the junction of the Taneytown, New Windsor, and Uniontown Roads and along Pennsylvania Avenue to Union Street." 

It took many years for the various individual hamlets to gel together as a community. On August 8, 1924 the editor of the long defunct Westminster newspaper, the "American Sentinel" wrote an article about the renaissance of the area on the west end of Westminster known as "The Forks" – where West Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue divide.

The article also provides us with the additional insight that "For quite a number of years before the Civil War, Westminster was divided into three distinct settlements known as 'Dead End,' (the original 1764 Westminster,) 'The Forks,' and 'Irishtown'."

The area we now know as the intersection of Union Street and Pennsylvania Avenue "received the name of 'Irishtown'," the 1924 newspaper article elaborated:

"(B)ecause prior to the Civil War three brothers, Dennis, James, and Terence Boylan, who came here from Ireland and helped build the Western Maryland Railroad from near Glyndon to Westminster, built themselves modest homes on the then sparsely settled part of what is now Pennsylvania avenue."

According to the Historical Society of Carroll County a copy of The Westminster Chronicle and Weekly Advertiser, vol. I No. 17; provides us with information about the first election in Westminster under the 1818 charter.

"The paper bears date "Westminster, Frederick County, (MD.) Friday, March 26, 1819. The paper is about quarter the size of (today's version of a newspaper, and was published by William B. Burke at $2 per annum…

"A communication, signed many voters, gave notice that on the 1st Monday of April the following gentlemen would be voted for:-For Burgess, John Fisher; for Commissioners, Ludwig Wampler, Jacob Sherman, Jacob Frenger, Isaac Shriver, John C. Cockey and Jacob Yingling… Isaac Shriver gave notice that the annual election of Trustees for the Westminster general meeting house would be held on Easter Monday."

The year after Carroll County was formed in 1837; Westminster was re-incorporated and made the county seat because of the aggressive advocacy of its citizens and because of Westminster's central location.

Westminster also saw Confederate cavalry pass through three times during the American Civil War and Union Troops twice. On June 29, 1863, Captain Charles Corbit led Companies C and D, First Delaware Cavalry, against General J.E.B. Stuart's Cavalry Division.

Though repelled by overwhelming force, the attack, now known in history as "Corbit's Charge", delayed General Stuart's troops and was a factor in his failure to reach Gettysburg Battlefield before July 2. Some historians note that this delay turned the tide of the Battle of Gettysburg against the Confederates and led to their ultimate defeat in the American Civil War.

Carroll County is the birthplace of Methodism in American and is near the home of Francis Scott Key, the author of our national anthem. The first countywide rural free delivery of mail started in Westminster in the late 1890s.

Today, Westminster is an exciting community of approximately 18,429 citizens.

It has grown from its humble beginnings of .745 square miles to its current size of 6.3829 square miles

It is located strategically in the rolling countryside foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, 30 miles northwest of Baltimore, Maryland and 60 miles north of Washington, D.C.

Westminster is the county seat of Carroll County and is located in the middle of the county.

Carroll County is a thriving county of approximately 174,868 citizens. Approximately one-third of Carroll County's population is located within the city limits of the eight municipalities scattered throughout the county. As with the State of Maryland, Carroll County has a strong tradition of municipal government.

Westminster is governed by a Mayor and a Common Council - consisting of five citizen city council members. The Mayor and City Council Members serve staggered elected terms of 4 years each.

Today, the day-to-day operations of the municipality are administered by a "city administrator" form of government. The city administrator is assisted by key department heads: a Police Chief, a Finance - Personnel Director, a Planning and Public Works Director and a City Clerk.

The day-to-day functions of the city are performed by a full time staff of 150 employees, including 43 police officers.

Westminster and Carroll County have a high quality of life with ample access to recreation, places of religious worship, meaningful employment, high quality schools, low crime and a hard working, family oriented population. Many European visitors have compared Westminster to Vienna, Austria because of its close proximity to nearby farms and forests.

Westminster has a strong tradition and emphasis on education. At one end of Westminster is located McDaniel College, formally known as Western Maryland College until it changed it's name under the leadership of President Joan Devlin Coley in May of 2002. McDaniel College is a nationally ranked liberal arts college which was chartered in 1868. McDaniel College presently has 1,500 undergraduate students and 3,000 graduate students.

At the other end of town is Carroll Community College which began in 1974 and presently serves over 10,000 students in credit and noncredit, continuing education courses each year.

Until recently, agriculture was one of Carroll County's economic mainstays. Today, farming and agriculture continues to be the number one industry in Carroll County and remains a very important and vital part of the economy, but increasingly service industry and retail activity have gained economic importance.

Carroll County's 3,750 businesses employ approximately 38,000 workers. There are approximately 60 businesses that have 100 or more workers. Major employers in the County include government, English American Tailoring, Ingersoll-Dresser, Knorr Brake, Lehigh Portland Cement, Marada Industries, Northrop Grumman, Random House, Carroll Lutheran Village, and Sweetheart Cup Company, Inc.

It is truly an exciting time to be a part of the cultural, economic, and political structure of the growing and exciting community of Westminster.

By Kevin Dayhoff, former mayor of Westminster 2001 - 2005