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Starting down a rabbit hole

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Posted on: February 12, 2020

By Stuart Eisenberg

Learning about an 1898 election scandal linked with my home and an incoming Hyattsville commissioner started me on a series of inquiries. My own home, a 129-year-old Victorian once known as 39 Columbia Avenue, has been residence to three elected town officials. Charles A. Acker, a brick mason, and his wife, Sardie, lived in this house; Acker was a city commissioner (1898-1899) and Ward 2 councilman (1900-1901). William A. Brooks, a local furniture store owner, and his wife, Mary, also lived in my home; he was Ward 2 councilman (1907-1909, 1915-1917) and mayor (1917-1919). And then there’s me, a retired cabinet maker and carpenter, who runs the Hyattsville CDC and was Ward 2 councilman (2001-2005). My wife, Kathy, and I have lived here for 28 years.

Acker came into office under a cloud of controversy. The 1898 Hyattsville election held a critical ballot measure for the community to fund and build water and sewer works. By 1895, Dr. Charles Wells, a town commissioner who went on to become mayor seven years later, was speaking out publicly about the local linkage between cases of typhus and the absence of sanitary sewers, which led to contamination of the springs and private wells that provided water throughout the town. Acker was one of the two anti-waterworks candidates winning the election. “The contest over the water question caused the manifestation of much feeling at the polls,” stated a Prince George’s Enquirer article, glibly reporting on the voting. 

The election imbroglio resulted from objections to Acker’s eligibility to hold office. Chapter 102 Section 4 of the Hyattsville Charter enumerated qualifications, such as being “a freeholder over 25 years of age.” Turns out, Acker was not a freeholder. His home was built in 1891 by Acker’s  older brother Walter who, in his role as executor of their mother’s estate, bought the land. He did so acting as a trustee for Charles and his family and to fulfill the terms of their mother’s will. So, Charles did not own his home; the trust set up by Walter did. Walter, a real estate professional, never bothered to dissolve the trust and transfer the title to Charles. He also neglected to execute other requirements that would enable a clean title for when it was time to sell the property. Was Walter being spiteful? Charles and other siblings were left $3,000 in cash or towards the purchase of a house “for life,” while Walter was left only $1,000 for the benefit of his children, along with the burden of executing his mother’s will. 

The stakes were high. Pro-waterworks forces were ready to press suit to invalidate the election and seek a new result after Charles was sworn in. Four candidates had run for the two open seats, and the spread was tight. The winners’ tallies were Acker, 97 votes; Howard Marwand, 94; and defeated pro-waterworks incumbent M.V. Tierney, 92. (Tierney’s running buddy, A.R. Holden, netted 85.) 

Using an abundance of caution as a body politic, the commission maneuvered around the factional dispute. Fearing a challenge to the next tax assessment — and that a challenge to the election results themselves would retrigger the waterworks ballot measure  — Acker temporarily resigned his seat on the town commission, correctly anticipating appointment to the vacant seat, under Ch. 102 Sect. 4 of the town charter. At a meeting five weeks after Acker’s swearing in, the four intact commissioners met in closed session, then announced that Acker’s status now magically met the qualification of freeholder, and that he could stand for appointment by the commission on June 8, 1898.

Absent open meeting laws, the commission’s closed session appointment was a fait accompli, and the matter was settled. It would be two more years before a waterworks measure would pass local referendum, and five more before the waterworks were built in Hyattsville.

One common strand ironically binds each of the 39 Columbia Avenue electeds. Acker first opposed and prevented a water and sewage system in Hyattsville, then in 1900 served on the council which presided over the initial implementation of them. In 1919, then-Mayor W.A. Brooks negotiated the sale of the Hyattsville waterworks to the newly formed Hyattsville-based, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC). And in 2004, the council I served on as president dealt with the departure of the WSSC from Hyattsville and the sale of its former headquarters. I campaigned during a contest over the WSSC headquarters question, which caused the manifestation of much feeling at the polls, as well.

As I trace those who preceded my family’s tenure at our home, I descend deeper into a world of coincidence and connection.  

Preservation concerns itself with more than just decor and architectural style. Discovery of Hyattsville’s historic characters has been the hallmark of my service with the Hyattsville Preservation Association (HPA). I hope to bring readers of this column along with me as I delve deeper into these tales.

The HPA seeks to engage residents in the preservation and promotion of the many historic homes and buildings in our city.



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