It was fur trader Henry Fleet who was the first European to venture into the area that would later become Bethesda. Scottish, English, and Welsh farmers were among the first Europeans to till the Maryland soil. Later, Germans, Swiss, and Dutch colonists from Pennsylvania moved south into the Montgomery County region.
Early tobacco farming
Tobacco was the key crop in Bethesda and Maryland throughout the 1700s. Its cultivation quickly exhausted lands and colonists moved northwest along the Potomac in search of fertile soil. By the nineteenth century, due to exhaustion of soil, Montgomery County became known as the “Sahara of Maryland.” A solution arrived through the ingenuity of William Stabler. Stabler discovered that nitrogen-rich droppings of Peruvian bird guano could revitalize fatigued lands. Stabler’s discovery saved Montgomery County lands. With soil renewed, Bethesda farmers moved away from tobacco production and planted other crops, such as corn and wheat.
Establishment of Bethesda
William Darcy managed one of the few commercial establishments in the area, known simply as Darcy’s Store. Darcy also served as postmaster. On January 23, 1871, Robert Franck took over postmaster responsibilities and relocated the post office. In the same year, Franck petitioned to name the village “Bethesda” after the Presbyterian Bethesda Meeting House, which had taken its name from the biblical Pool of Bethesda.
Alta Vista, the first true Bethesda neighborhood, appeared in the 1880s, but Bethesda was still primarily a collection of small farms with a couple of country stores, blacksmiths and other tradesmen, a tavern, and the trappings of an agricultural community—windmills, barns, and the like. In the early 1880s, Bethesda’s population numbered only 20. There was the lawyer, Joseph Bradley, and a doctor, James H. Davidson; two blacksmiths, William Kirby and William Lochte. Benedict Beckwith was the community’s carpenter, while James Austin was a carriage maker.
Transitioning Bethesda into the place it would become required not only rail and trolley lines, network of new highways and automobiles, but also vision—a desire to awaken Bethesda from its rural slumber. It was Walter Tuckerman who led the effort of suburban development. In 1913, he moved to Bethesda and developed Edgewood (renamed Edgemoor), one of the first upscale neighborhoods. In 1919, Tuckerman spearheaded establishment of the Bank of Bethesda and became the bank’s first president.
By the mid-1920s, Bethesda had become the center of suburban development in Montgomery County. In 1926, the count of buildings in Bethesda included only one bank, three garages, five coal yards, two feed stores, two barbers, three lunchrooms, a grocery, drugstore, hardware store, and fourteen-classroom schoolhouse.
The city saw the need for additional services, especially fire and police departments. Firehouse No. 6, the first in Bethesda, was established on December 16, 1926. In the same decade, a formal police force replaced rural constables. By 1929, Bethesda’s population tripled from 4,757 in 1920 to 12,018.
Expansion of the federal government under Franklin Delano Roosevelt secured and expanded public sector employees working in Washington, many of whom started living in Bethesda. In 1940 the federal government was the county’s largest employer, with some 7,700 county residents on its payroll.
The Wilsons and the NIH
Luke and Helen Wilson were wealthy and prominent Bethesda residents. In their later years, the Wilsons began considering their legacy and looked for ways to donate their 90-acre Bethesda estate. In 1934, they wrote to President Roosevelt to announce their intention to donate the land to the federal government. That letter, circulated throughout the administration, did find an interested suitor—the National Institute of Health (NIH). In August 1935, they donated 45 acres to the NIH project.
NIH construction began on January 11, 1938 and was completed in 1942. By 1940, the NIH employed 1,137 people, many of which could be filled only by exceptional, highly trained doctors and scientists.
Bethesda’s first newspaper, the Bethesda Chevy-Chase Tribune, was published in 1937. It was later supplemented by the weekly Bethesda Journal. A public library opened in 1940, reflecting the growth of intellectual culture as well as the rise in population. Between 1930 and 1940 alone, Bethesda’s population grew from 12,018 to 26,114.
Between 1940 and 1960, high-rise apartment construction increased from just 10 percent to 30 percent of all housing units. More homes also meant more schools: The county built 50 grade schools during 1955–65. Similarly, the population boom brought in major retailers, shopping centers, and one of nation’s largest malls.
A final transportation revolution, the Metro train system, spurred another round of growth. Starting from 1984, the Red Line began running in Bethesda.
Into the 2010s, Bethesda moved to the forefront of a nationwide trend: residents looking for a blend of suburban tranquility and walkable access to exceptional shopping and dining. This “new luxury” drew lifestyle comparisons to Aspen, Colorado, from the Washington Post, which positioned Bethesda as “one of the most upscale suburban downtowns in the United States.” Forbes named Bethesda America’s second “most livable” city in 2009 and the “most educated small town” in 2014. CNNMoney honored it as America’s top-earning town in 2012.
For its part, the NIH continued to attract highly educated individuals—and churn out world-changing research. The Wilsons achieved their legacy: There have been eighty Nobel prizes awarded for NIH-supported research.
*This material is a shortened version of The History of Bethesda, which can be accessed at http://foxhillresidences.com/our-community/history-of-bethesda-maryland/#bethesda-section9