A few weeks after I moved to Potomac, one of my parishioners, Ellie Cain, presented me with a Potomac flag. There was no one more suited to make the presentation. Ellie has been here since before there really was a Potomac. She moved here as a girl in the late 1930s, when River Road was still a dirt road and the crossing of Falls and River was still Offutt’s Crossroads to most people. Her family played an important role in the development of the community. Over the years, Ellie has had a hand in most of our longstanding community institutions, including the designing of the town flag.
You could not be blamed for knowing about the existence of the town flag, for reasons I will get to in a few paragraphs. But Ellie and a group of friends designed it around 40 years ago, and she still flies it on occasion from the front porch of her farmhouse on Piney Meetinghouse Road. Perhaps a few other longtime residents do as well. The flag has a Kelly-green background and a diagonal gold cross (like the Saint Andrew’s Cross on the flag of Scotland). In the middle is a black rider on horseback, surrounded by a gold hunting horn. “Potomac, Maryland” is lettered in a red on a white scroll at the bottom.
It’s quite a handsome flag, really. The colors, Ellie explained are green, for the rolling hills around us, and the other colors are borrowed from Maryland’s state flag, where they figured originally in the family crests of the Calverts and the Crosslands (if I remember my fourth-grade history class correctly). There was easy consensus among the design committee about back in the late ‘70s (or was it the early ‘80s?) about the colors and the symbols. This, they felt, represented this community they had come to know and love, one found at a major crossroads, and bound together by a love of things equine.
We’re still at the crossroads, of course, as we are so often reminded while waiting for the traffic light to turn at rush hours. Tens of thousands of people pass through our community every day, bound for work and school, headed for the thrills of the city or seeking a rustic escape.
But it has been some decades since the hunting horn has sounded in this zip code, and when I saw some horseback riders about a mile out of town last Saturday, it struck me as more of an oddity than a symbol of our common way of life.
It was once otherwise, Ellie told me. Her father, Mike McConihe, moved out to this area with a group of his friends because the D.C. authorities had forbidden riding in Rock Creek Park, and they brought a way of life with them. They envisioned a community moving along at a slower pace, houses with enough acres for stables, bridle paths between the farms.
Ellie hasn’t had horses on her farm for some decades herself, but there were once quite a few of them. She’s very fond of a picture in the parlor painted by a local artist of her children, all three in their riding gear, mounted on ponies in the backyard. She and her daughter Sukie treated me to a good hour of horsey tales from the old days of Potomac, of kids standing along the road to watch the hunters pass on crisp fall afternoons, and lazy summer Sundays of pony club meetings in a field behind the elementary school. Horseback riding brought character lessons too, learning to face your fears and to control your emotions.
I was most struck by the way they described horseback riding as a force that brought the community together. People didn’t tend to sell ponies in those days, but would pass them on to other friends whose children were the right size for them, like hand-me-down coats. Fox hunting was much more about laughter and storytelling than the capture of an elusive beast. Bridle trails implied trust, people who didn’t worry about neighbors passing through the corners of their property and would work together to keep them clear and open.
Much of that is gone these days. Though my sons would love to have a pony, our lot isn’t large enough for pasture, and yours probably isn’t either. The bridle trails through the woods behind my house have grown up in brambles. The commute takes longer and we tend to different forms of entertainment that are rather less sociable.
One doesn’t see people flying the town flag anymore because it’s harder for us to identify with what the flag means to represent. The flag envisions a community where the crossroads symbol meant more than a traffic device, but suggest a gathering of people, open to each other, bound by common interests, mutual respect, even, dare we say, a kind of love.
I will fly Ellie’s flag from the rectory porch. And even though I don’t expect to hear the hunting horn anytime soon, I will do what I can to work and pray for a new way for people to come together in this community, so the flag’s old promise can be renewed. I hope you’ll join me.