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The Rise of Lexington Park

St. Mary’s County Historical Society has published Chronicles of St. Mary’s since 1953, an unrivaled trove of diligent local historians’ work, eclectic in subject and style. The Historical Society presents excerpts from a few as an invitation to explore more of our history, the shared and the unknown. A digitized record of the Chronicles is available through the member’s portal on the website and on-site research is available to all.

By Keith Buzby of the St. Mary’s County Historical Society; excerpt from Chronicles of St. Mary’s, Summer 2009

(These excerpts have been edited by the publisher.)

… Many residents in the north of St. Mary’s County assumed that [Patuxent River Naval Air Station] was a temporary arrangement, …. however, the navy base was a permanent and momentous change to the landscape, economy, and culture of St. Mary’s County.

The base brought hundreds and then thousands of military and civilian personnel to the south of the county. Such an influx was nothing short of an inundation when compared to the population of the county at the time. The 1940 US Census put the total county population at 14,626, and the citizens of Leonardtown only  numbered 668. To put this data in perspective, the population of the county in 1790, according to the first US census, was 15,544.

One of the newcomers was Jack Daugherty, a Marine pilot stationed at the Pax at the end of the war. … [He] left the service in 1946, but made an important decision that many other ex-Navy personnel repeated in the post-war  years: he decided to stay in St. Mary’s County. Many other Pax veterans made the same decision.

One of Lexington Park’s greatest challenges in its early years was securing financial support. … The north county bankers explained that since the war was over, the base would soon be leaving, and any loans they gave to the naval airmen would be too risky. …. [T]he entrepreneurs of the young town happened upon another  source of funding: gambling. In an effort to prop up what was viewed as an ailing post-war Southern Maryland economy, the Maryland General Assembly in 1947 approved a bill that legalized slot machines. ….

While gambling may have been fun and games for many county residents and visitors, it was the lifeblood of Lexington Park. While the bankers of Leonardtown were unwilling to offer capital to the county’s newcomers, the gamblers were perfectly willing to loan money to anyone. The cash-strapped entrepreneurs who wanted to develop the south of the county found willing financiers in the gambling operators. So important were the slot machine men that Jack Daugherty described them as “the key … to the building of Lexington Park.” …

In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s slot machines seemed to offer the  financial  deliverance that created Lexington Park. The machines offered the necessary cash to get business moving. …. Though Lexington Park was growing quickly, the town’s leadership was well aware that still more improvements were needed. Infrastructure, in particular, was still an issue. The only sewage system in the county was that of the base. Although the days of gravel roads were gone, all roads led to Leonardtown. All the road signs pointed to Leonardtown or St. Mary’s City, and Lexington Park was completely left out. ….

Old County vs New County Politics

The people of Lexington Park were frustrated with their lack of a voice in local government. They began to call Leonardtown “Wall City,” because of the town’s closed-off nature. The people of the new county decided that the only way to address the problems they saw in the community was to put a ticket together to run for office in 1954.

The 1954 election was the first to have a new county candidate, Jack Daugherty, running against an old county candidate. This would become the template for St. Mary’s County politics for the next several elections. Daugherty lost his race for state senator in 1954. … [He] ran for the office again in 1958, but was beaten out by Walter Dorsey. Dorsey had emerged from a three-way race in the Democratic  primary with Jack Daugherty and Joe Mattingly and overcame minimal Republican opposition.

… the Dorsey faction held about 40% of  the county vote. The remaining 60% was split among several other factions within the county … This splitting of the vote was a major reason why the Dorsey group stayed in power.

By 1962 Lexington Park ‘s leadership was ready for another attempt at politics. A group of businessmen, primarily from Lexington Park, courted former Delegate J. Frank Raley for the State Senate position. … Under the banner of “progressive leadership” the Raley faction provided a unified front to the Dorsey organization. … [and] swept nearly every office available.

… Though Raley claimed restraint on the slot machine issue, in reality … [he] saw slot machines as an abomination that stifled the county’s growth. To J. Frank Raley, St. Mary’s County was not a place of merrymaking and fun, but a ” honky -tonk county” with Las Vegas style brashness and copious bars, whores, and drunkenness. Pervasive throughout the county, illegal gambling encouraged such behavior, and slot machines were the linchpin at  the center  of it all.

The New County Faction in Power

In January of 1963, the Progressive Leadership team went off to Annapolis to begin their work. Before any major pieces of legislation could be prepared, however, Annapolis was rocked by a major political bombshell. On January 12, Governor Tawes’s study group [recommended] the abolition of slot machines. … [which] would cause the four southern counties to lose $1,600,000 in tax revenues. The  Sun reported that Southern Maryland business would lose some $21,000,000 in profits, half of this sum being lost by “restaurants, stores, taverns, and other business establishments.” …

The Governor’s slots bill … failed by twenty votes after a lengthy and prolonged debate, 70 to 50. … The issue seemed dead  until the House entertained a motion to reconsider. … A  young legislator from Baltimore City ‘s Fourth District … Twenty-three year old Del. Clarence M. Mitchell III declared  in open session “that he had been offered $300 to vote against the bill or “take a walk.” Delegate Mitchell, an African­ American, also said that individuals had attempted to intimidate him with racial slurs. The House assembly was insulted, and upon second consideration passed the bill 93 to 42.

Slots weren’t the only action happening in Annapolis. From 1963-1966 a slew of development programs and huge sums of cash were earmarked for projects around the state, especially in Southern Maryland. …. The governor focused on the expansion of roads and education. St. Mary’s County was the beneficiary in both areas, and earned 34.94 miles of new or improved roads in the county. The roads project saw the dualization of Route 5 into Leonardtown as well much of Route 235. …

The Metropolitan Commission was created to relieve the  pressure Lexington Park placed on the base’s sewer system. … St. Mary’s County was authorized to borrow money for the purchase of land for an airport as well as a nursing home. The county was also cleared to borrow money for the restoration of old libraries and the construction of new ones.

Perhaps the biggest issue of 1966, as far as Southern Marylanders were concerned, was the passage of the Patuxent River Bridge bill. … Local newspapers hailed the bridge as a major success.

The Election of 1966

The legislative delegation returned home from Annapolis with an extensive record of improvements and development to the county. Not all residents were happy, though. Former senator Walter Dorsey raised the question, “what’s it going to cost?”

Slot machines were an issue in the 1966 election. By this point Raley had moved publicly to a definite anti-slots position. …

Beyond just slot machines and sewers, however, Dorsey’s campaign came to represent the Old County, who had been pushed out of power by Raley’s Progressive Leadership ticket in 1962. While the issues of the election may not have made this point clearly, the election results did.

… Wallter Dorsey prevailed. He claimed a total of 3,104 votes, compared to J. Frank Raley’s 3,031.

… Raley’s 1966 loss is most likely explained by the old county/new county divide. Raley dominated in  the area around Lexington Park, outpolling Dorsey 825 to 406 in the 8th District. Raley also racked up votes in  his home 1st District in the south of the county, beating Dorsey 497 to 195. Dorsey, unsurprisingly, was most popular in Leonardtown. He defeated Raley decisively in Leonardtown’s 3rd District 742 to 446. Dorsey also cleaned house in the 7th District in  the Northwest  of the county, claiming 503 votes to Raley’s 206. Dorsey managed to pick up enough votes in the north county’s 4th and 5th Districts to overcome the relative dead heat the two candidates held in the other districts. The senatorial race proved definitively that there was indeed a divide between Old and New County, and, for the time being, Old had won out.

The whole story is available in The Chronicles available through St. Mary’s County Historical Society, which curates a repository of a unique collection of Maryland memorabilia and museum pieces displayed on the first floor of Tudor Hall and in the Old Jail Museum at 41625 Courthouse Drive in historic Leonardtown. The 18th-century Tudor Hall also serves as headquarters of the society and houses the Historical Society’s Research Center.

While much of the property and programming remains shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the materials available through the Historic Society are digitized and accessible. To learn more visit their website linked above.

To find more posts by the St. Mary’s Historical Society, visit this Leader member page.

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