Then & Now: First three mayors brought running water, sewers: The fourth wielded a hose
By Stuart Eisenberg
Over 29 years I’ve witnessed six Hyattsville mayors in action. I’ve worked up close with four of them. The office of mayor was character defining for some, while for others, it was part of a continuum of public service.
By comparison, from 1900 and 1930, when mayoral terms were just one, then two years, a total of 16 men served in the role.
In examining the past, I’m struck that the town was no less stable for having so many more shoulders bear the leadership burden. Nor did these mayors accomplish less with shorter times in office. In fact, a certain decisiveness is reflected in the magnitude and number of their deeds.
Early mayors were also drivers or shapers of the real estate scrum and boom as Hyattsville emerged as a sought-after streetcar suburban residential destination. They acted as realtors, investors, lenders, speculators, builders, subdivision developers, regional planners and consensus-makers — in addition to their main profession.
What follows are brief biographical sketches of the first four Hyattsville’s mayors, prepared in the course of research into Hyattsville’s early development. Notably, the first three were instrumental in building the city’s sanitary sewer and water supply, which required establishing legal and financial mechanisms we take for granted. It also required navigating regional authorities to ensure the community benefited from the growth and development around it.
Major Michael Vincent Tierney
Mayor M.V. Tierney (1900-’02) was a career patent attorney and prominent Republican who got Hyattsville off to a running start by making a new water system a priority. And with independent flair, his wife, Ellen, established “Mrs. M.V. E.E. Tierney’s Subdivision of Block F of Johnson & Wine’s Second Addition,” a 31-house lot subdivision around their home, Ravenswood Mansion, in 1907 — the year after the mayor’s death. Thus far, though, my favorite mayoral headline comes from a 1901 Washington Evening Star piece that reads, “Thoroughly Thrashed: Mayor Tierney of Hyattsville Gives His Wife’s Insulter a Lesson.” Thus it went, for a rude Washingtonian who gave unwanted attention to Mrs. Tierney while she was aboard a streetcar.
Dr. Charles Wells
Dr. Charles Wells (1902-‘06) was one of the original town commissioners and a councilmember. A physician and strong public health proponent, he advocated, in the face of opposition, for the creation of the town’s water and sewer systems, and worked to obtain funding and implement their construction. He was also a home mortgage lender, a house builder, developer and real estate investor. His 1903 plat of the Wells & Wells Subdivision of the Palestine Farm comprised 67 lots spanning the northern end of East Hyattsville and the area that would later become Edmonston. He went on to serve as our state senator. There are more than 170 real estate sales recorded by the doctor and his wife, Mary Wells, between 1884 and 1922. These sales included parcels from Bladensburg and across East Hyattsville to Berwyn Park, a number of which Wells sold to Hyattsville during his tenure in office.
Dr. Joseph R. Owens
Dr. Joseph R. Owens (1906-’08) was a doctor who ministered to Baltimore’s poor and indigent at the start of his medical career. He was an early Hyattsville commissioner, and a councilmember as well. He served as treasurer of the Maryland Agricultural College, and was the third mayor to staunchly advocate for establishing the town’s sewer systems. Owens, like Wells, also served as a director of the First National Bank and of the Hyattsville Building Association.
John J. Fainter
John J. Fainter, (1908-’09), like our current acting mayor, Kevin Ward, became so because of his position as council president. He acted as mayor during a long illness of Mayor Owens. Fainter continued upon Owens’ death at the end of his difficult battle with “an affliction of the spine.” Fainter, a plate printer for the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, served as councilmember nearly continuously for 14 years, starting in 1902.
He was also contemporaneously appointed as Hyattsville’s fire chief in 1904, served until 1916, and then again in 1921. He later formed and led the Prince George’s County’s Fireman’s Association.
But Fainter lost his bid to become mayor to William P. Magruder, in 1909, in what was deemed a most bitter division between the camps of the candidates’ supporters. Fainter had no ties to early Hyattsville real estate development, but certainly had a most interesting career when, after his councilmanic service, he was hired as town inspector in 1916. In addition, he was a census taker in 1920 and was appointed the town’s chief bailiff that same year. The governor appointed him justice of the peace in 1921, and he was re-appointed annually thereafter for 26 years, also regularly serving as a coroner.
The work of these early mayors and their council colleagues left Hyattsville with a good reputation in the region and a growing claim to fame, as they built their hometown into an influential commercial hub within Prince George’s County. New controversies awaited the next wave of leadership, but Hyattsville was by then well positioned to take them on.