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July 9, 2008

The Path of History

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Hidden away in plain sight, in a storybook setting in northern Frederick County’s Catoctin Mountains, sits Eyler’s Valley Chapel, like a silent stone tribute to a Ralph Waldo Emerson essay.


I had an opportunity to briefly visit the chapel on the 4th of July. In the pouring rain, I stood silently in the parking area across the road and studied the structure as if I were a time traveler revisiting a portion of Frederick County leftover from a place time forgot.


As I stood there and pondered the juxtaposition of the mid-1800s reminder of Frederick’s past before me and the state of our nation today; I had a moment of great conflict.


From the experience I could not decide whether I should re-read Mr. Emerson’s 1841 essay, “Self-Reliance,” or Franz Kafka’s 1916 classic about existential alienation, “Metamorphosis.”


I had many more questions than answers that day. What was life like in 1776? How did the decision of the colonial leaders to declare our independence from England affect the day-to-day lives of the people who went before us in central Maryland?


Our family celebrated the 4th this year, far away from the hustle and bustle, at a family hideaway in northern Frederick County.


It is the thought of Mr. Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” that have pestered my memories of the day. Especially the line: “The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun...”


Our cabin in northern Frederick County harkens back to a day when self-reliance was a virtue.


Whenever I travel there I always wonder what it was like for my ancestors, Quakers who lived in what we now know as the border area between Frederick and Carroll County, to have lived and prospered in an era without all the ‘progress’ of the world as we know it today.


By attempting to understand the experience of my ancestors, I always hope to arrive at a better understanding of today’s existence.


It never works. It is simply untranslatable.


In those days, from the early 1700 and 1800s, people actually made a good life for themselves without the help of government. Gasp – oh, shudder the thought.


We live in an era of a frenzied competition to conjure up more explanations as to why nothing is ever “our fault,” and the concept of personal responsibility is as foreign and archaic as the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.


Wanting to know more information about the chapel, a member of the family dug out an old magazine article, which piqued my interest to the point that on our way home, we plotted a route that took us past Eyler’s Valley Chapel.


It was built in 1857 and to this day has no electricity. It does, as I have since discovered, have – of all things – a website, which notes: “… 72 candles provide light and make for an atmosphere almost as warm as the folks who worship here each week. The church bell placed in December of 1904 rings out the start of each service and other than replacing the old coal stove with two gas heaters, things remain pretty much as they were a hundred plus years ago.”


Recently The Frederick News-Post ran a story about the “7 Wonders of Frederick.” Of course, one could argue over coffee for hours as to what belongs on the list and what does not; however, Eyler’s Valley Chapel did not make the list, or even an honorable mention.


And yet a thorough exploration of the history of the chapel provides clues about the foundation of the Frederick County as we know it today.


According to the website: “In the late 1700’s Frederick Eyler, a Swiss immigrant along with his brother purchased a large tract of farm and timberland in northern Frederick County, Maryland. They named the settlement Eyler’s Valley. Frederick and his descendants were very prosperous farmers and respected citizens. One of Frederick’s sons, Charles, became a County Commissioner during the middle 1800’s…”


The rest of the story of Eyler’s Valley Chapel reinforces that much of the right stuff that made our country great was the rugged individualism, hard work, sense of personal responsibility and self-reliance, of our forbearers.


Concepts which are repeated in Mr. Emerson’s essay on self-reliance in which he emphasizes, according to some old file notes: “the need for each individual to avoid conformity and false consistency, and follow his or her own instincts and ideas.”


In “Metamorphosis,” the main character, Gregor Samsa, awakens one morning to find that he is a bug. He finds himself in a world best described by Steven Kreis, who wrote: “Man was isolated and constantly subjected to unknown and terrifying forces – forces without direction, forces without control.”


Of course, any similarity to our world in 2008 is coincidental – or rather – coincidentally true…


Think about our roots and what has made us successful when we ponder the upcoming local, state, and national elections. Too many of the candidates are quick to adopt a false consistency and conform to a competition as to who can pontificate best upon this or that proposed government program to solve all our problems.


I call this election an exercise in existentialism, as I am overwhelmed with a feeling of alienation from most of the current candidates and understand that I have choices; but the current crop of candidates are giving me no criteria in which to make a choice.


Too few candidates for office seem to understand what President Ronald Reagan best explained when he stated that government is the problem – not the solution.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:


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