Cohill Orchards-  Compiled by George (Uncle) Roger Williamson Cohill                                                                                                                             

 My Grandfather, Edmund P. Cohill, as he related to a group of his grandchildren at one of his Christmas dinners, arrived in the village of Hancock, Maryland, while working as a cowboy steering a herd of cattle from Western New York to the market in Baltimore. This was about 1870, and it was not uncommon for cattle to be delivered on foot, since the rail transportation was still not servicing the north/south routes through the mountains and valleys of Central Pennsylvania, and no other transportation for livestock was available.

 

My grandfather told of sleeping in the ope≠n, and of seeing many Indians along the way. While stopping overnight in Hancock, which is located on the banks of the Potomac River, one mile south of the Mason-Dixon (Pennsylvania) line. He met, and later married, Mary Rinehart who was the daughter of a local merchant and miller. Samuel Rinehart passed away not long after their marriage, and E. P. Cohill (who was later known as E.P.) ended up with the Rinehart business activities. The main interest was a general store, where all types of merchandise was sold to, or bartered with, residents of the surrounding community.

 

Hancock was an isolated town. The next closest town was a tiny hamlet, Wafordsburg, PA, and 6 miles to the south, Berkeley Springs, WV, which was slowly developing into a spa resulting from it s reputation for several warm springs that were loaded with minerals. Going to Berkeley Springs meant taking a makeshift ferry and then travel another 6 miles over poor roads down the Shenandoah Valley. The county seat of Washington County was Hagerstown, MD, which was a long 27 miles, and over the mountain, east of Hancock. The county seat in the next county (Allegany) was Cumberland, MD, a railroad hub for trains going west on the new Western Maryland and B&O Railroads. To get to Cumberland meant crossing 5 mountain ranges for 40 treacherous miles of winding roads on horseback or by stagecoach over the first federal highway U.S. Route 40; originally the Braddock Trail used by George Washington and General Braddock during the French and Indian War. Alternately, the Western Maryland Railroad passed through Hancock and wound its way along the Potomac River to Cumberland.

 

The business thrived, and much of the farm production for several miles around were traded for staples such as salt, sugar, flour (which was ground in Cohill's grist mill), cloth and wool for homemade clothing, boots and shoes. Among the produce items the farmers brought in were apples which my Grandfather shipped a few bushels at a time by railroad to customers in D.C. and Ohio. One customer in Ohio was impressed with the quality and kept asking for more. The supply was very limited, since most farmers had only a few trees; and sold only the surplus beyond the needs of their own family. The pressure for more apples continued, and E.P. decided to start his own orchard. He surveyed the surrounding area and found a long valley with a ridge that sloped east to the valley. It seemed to be the type of land that farmers in the area found the most desirable for apple production. The long ridge above the valley was about 1/4 mile wide and about 3 miles long, and went roughly from the Pennsylvania line to the Potomac River. The main problem was that the ridge was covered with virgin forest that had to be cleared. Fortunately, the C&O canal was in the final stages of completion, and migrant labor from Italy, Ireland and Germany was abundant as the Canal neared completion. A lumber business was developed to cut the timber, mill it in Hancock, and ship it by rail and canal boat to markets in Washington and Baltimore.

 

As the land was cleared of trees, new growth suddenly flourished, as sunlight got to the seedlings in the fertile, virgin soil. Hundreds of workers could not keep up with the clearing of the sudden flourish of new growth. E.P. by this time had 4 sons; and they were put to work on the mammoth project of clearing the 1200-acre tract. The youngest son who was 15 at the time was very studious, and had read that goats were very effective in keeping new growth from taking over cleared land. At his young age, William was sent by train to Arizona where, he had learned, was a very hardy breed of Angora goats. He had instructions to buy as many goats as he could get in one freight car. William came back with a carload and they were put to work. They were very effective; and within a couple of years were getting the underbrush under control so the orchard planting could begin. By this time the goat herd had expanded to the point that the new Tonoloway Orchard Company was the largest Angora Goat Breeder in the World! The wool production, and the sale of breeding stock became another business in itself.

 

One major problem ensued. The goats also ate the newly planted apple trees. The Angora herd was sold, and the newly planted orchards began to thrive. The trees had to be further protected from weeds and scrub-oaks and this work was done by hand labor with a hoe. One anecdote related by E.P. was the problem of rattlesnakes, which were in abundance from the newly cut forest. The workers were told to be careful, as they were very poisonous; but would give a warning by shaking their rattlers and making a noise before striking a victim. Soon afterward, an Italian worker was bitten by another species that infested the area, the copperhead; which makes no sound before striking its victim. E.P. was called to the scene, and asked the worker why he didnít move away from the snake when he saw it. The worker replied, "No ringa da bell!"

 

The planting of the entire 1200 acres was completed by the early 1900 s, and the harvesting of bountiful crops began about 1910. A large packinghouse was constructed on the south end of the valley near the Western Maryland Railroad; complete with a sidetrack for storing empty and loaded boxcars and a train station appropriately named Cohill Station on maps of the area.  At peak periods when harvest was in full swing, 25 carloads (about 12,500 bushels) of apples were shipped daily from Cohill Station to markets throughout the East; and to European markets through the port of Baltimore. The apples were packed in both bushel baskets and wooden barrels. The barrels were made in a cooperage shop right near the packing operation; baskets were purchased from basket manufacturers in the Shenandoah Valley and came in by rail.

 

At the end of World War I, the orchard was flourishing, prices were very good, and E.P., at the age of 50, decided to cash in his chips! He sold the entire operation to a West Coast Company The American Fruit Growers Inc., who had gained a national reputation for their California oranges, grapes, and citrus fruits, and wanted to expand into apples. The four sons and one daughter who had completed various phases of advanced education were working in various positions in the orchard company, were each supported by financing arrangements to purchase their own operations.  My Dad, J. Andrew, Purchased a small 40-acre orchard that E. P. owned in another location near Hancock, and expanded the orchard on adjacent land to 400 acres; Uncle Rinehart bought the lumber mill and planted a new 30-acre orchard next door to J. Andrew; Leo bought a large farm near Clearspring, MD and planted a 25-acre orchard; William entered the Maryknoll (?) Seminary and ended up a Catholic Missionary in Hunan Province, china where he died of cholera; Uncle Leo bought a 300 acre farm near Clearspring, MD and planted a 40 acre orchard on the farm, and farmed the rest with grain and cattle.  Aunt Suella married uncle Jack Casper, a Cornell University college friend of J. Andrews, and her husband started a new 200-acre orchard next door to J. Andrew. Uncle Jack s father was a Vice President of Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, who also owned a sand mining operation between Hancock and Berkeley Springs, WV. The mine was located on the opposite side of the Potomac River from the Tonoway Orchard and Cohill Station, a Western Maryland Railroad stop that named after my Grandfather. A nearby Island in the Potomac River was named Cohill Island.

 

E.P. sold the general store to an employee at the store, George Anthony. He then retired in his early 50s and spent his time for the next 40 years as a Bank Director, Federal Land Bank Appraiser, and chairman of the Hancock Bridge Company. The Bridge Company was an interesting project. The only way to get across the Potomac River to West Virginia was by ferry, which was started by a man by the name of Hancock; thus the way the town got it s name. E.P. got together with some other local and regional businessmen and decided to build a toll bridge. They formed a Corporation and simply built the bridge. Such an undertaking would be unheard of in this day and age, considering the need for surveys, environmental impact studies, public funds, access roads and so on. The bridge didnít make much, if any, money; and the state of Maryland finally took it over sometime in the 1920s.

 

When I first remember E.P., he lived in a nice brick home right beside the general store; and a maiden Aunt (Louise) lived in an apartment over the store. Later, after E.P.'s first wife died, he remarried Emma Glover who was from Haverstraw, NY. He then built a nice brick bungalow just outside of the town limits, just above the property that was later to become the new Hancock High School. One of my many jobs as a teenager was to mow Grandpaís lawn, for which he paid me the large sum of $.50! (A lot of money in those days, the 1930s.)

 

I never knew Great Grandfather Samuel Rinehart or his wife Mary Bevan, but I think he lived in the house or apartment connected to the general store. That whole section of town was eventually owned by E.P., as the store was on the corner; beside it was the 2-story brick home with a large yard in the rear; behind the store and across the Western Maryland Railroad which ran right through the center of town was a large saw-mill and lumber yard, and across the street from the lumber yard was a large warehouse and offices that was used by the store and lumber business.  These were adjacent to the C&O Canal and could receive freight from either the Railroad or the canal. During the great flood of 1936 when the Potomac River and the Tonoloway Creek over-flowed their banks, this whole section of Hancock was under water, and the only access to the town from the west was over the Western Maryland Railroad tracks which I crossed several time to see what was going on in town. The Potomac River Bridge was swept away during this flood, and it was some sight to see houses, barns, and a variety of buildings, logs and lumber floating down the river! Daddy used the large warehouse to pack apples and provide office space while he built a new packinghouse following the fire that destroyed the old packinghouse on the orchard.

 

The new packing and cold storage were of masonry construction, and were considered state of the art when it was completed about 1934. The building was three-stories high. The first level contained the cold storage and offices; the second level contained the extensive grading equipment and docks for unloading the fruit from the orchard; and the third or top level was used for storage of baskets, lids, basket liners, caps, and shredded oilpaper to cushion the fruit. Barrels were stored in the separate barrel shed behind the packinghouse at a level with the top story so the barrels could be rolled on a track to the packing level. Chutes between each level provided elevators in one direction to transfer packing material to the grading level, and packaged fruit from the grading level to the cold storage. The entire operation was still in full operation until daddy died suddenly of a heart attack in 1947. Brothers Felippe and Bill took over the operation for Mother in 1947; but by 1951 the orchard had deteriorated to an unproductive level and they left for other employment. I operated the 75-acre peach with my Uncle Jackís help by traveling back and from Baltimore on week-ends for 3 years, and made some modest profits that enabled me to settle all of my Mother s debts that had accrued during the years following daddyís death.

 

Eventually, following Motherís death in 1964, the property passed to the 10 children and spouses. The orchard was basically gone, and we formed a family corporation to operate the real estate.