Currently viewing the tag: "The History and Mystery of McAfee Falls"

Deb Abraham Spalding

In the October issue of The Catoctin Banner, the cover article was called “The History and Mystery of McAfee Falls.” In it, we explored the McAfee family, who were the landowners of the falls, now called Cunningham Falls and part of Cunningham Falls State Park. We invited people to help solve the mystery about why the falls were named Cunningham Falls at some point in the early 1900s. Despite hundreds of hours of research, the reason Cunningham was selected as the name of the recreation area and falls remains a mystery. After printing the article, some tidbits came to light that may further help to eventually uncover the mystery about the naming of the falls to Cunningham Falls after being called McAfee Falls or Hunting Creek Falls in various news articles.

After our article published, one of the McAfee family’s patriarchs, Rob McAfee of Foxville, was told by a lady that she believes there was a family of Cunninghams that lived near the falls on the way to Foxville. Also, a family in Thurmont invited me to take a photo of an 1822 watercolor painting of the falls by Samuel Reinke (see photo). The artist painted himself and his wife, holding a parasol over him, in the lower center of the picture. From The History of Graceham, compiled by Rev. A.L. Oerter in 1913 from the Graceham Moravian Church diary, “Friday, October 25, 1822 Bros. and Sr. Samuel Reinke arrived from Lancaster to participate in the dedication of the new church on Sunday, October 27, 1822.” 1822 is the date of the painting.

The inscriptions or marks on the bottom of the painting say Herman’s Falls Near Graceham Maryland, signed lower right: S. Reinke pxt. 1822.

Note: This past July, the McAfees held a family reunion and staged some family photographs that were similar to those taken by their ancestors at the falls. In last month’s cover photo, Becky Hurley was misnamed as Pauline McAfee. Our apologies, Becky

by Deb Abraham Spalding

The McAfee family (pronounced Mack-a-Fee), originally from the Island of Bute, Scotland, planted roots in Frederick County, Maryland, around 1774 from Franklin County, Pennsylvania, staking a homestead on land that is now known as Cunningham Falls. Daniel McAfee was the original settler of this land, and transferred the ownership to his son, David McAfee, in 1799. According to Professor John Means in the 1995 printing of his book, Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Parks, “‘Cunningham Falls’ and 350 acres surrounding it were purchased on September 16, 1807, by Archibald McAfee, Sr. The McAfee family lived near the top of the falls, and the original foundation of the homestead still stands. The family owned the land until it was acquired by the Federal government in 1935.”

The purchase of the land by the Federal government was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” where workers with the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps transformed the area for recreational use. This area was, according to Thurmont’s late Official Historian, George W. Wireman III, “…one of 33 nation-wide federal demonstrations of submarginal land for public recreation.”

Wireman wrote in his book, Gateway to the Mountains, “On September 15, 1888, Archibald McAfee’s widow had sale and the property including the Falls was purchased by her grandson Reuben McAfee, who maintained ownership until the property was acquired by the Federal Government in 1935, as part of the Catoctin Recreation Demonstration Area. Later the State of Maryland acquired an additional 250 acres of land from the McAfees. This made a total of 750 acres which the McAfees surrendered for park use. At one time they owned over 1,000 acres of mountain land.”

On July 15, 2017, today’s McAfee descendants held a reunion that ended with a photo session on the Falls that loosely replicated photos of their ancestors circa 1890.

Some may wonder why McAfee Falls is now called Cunningham Falls. After extensive research by many historians and genealogists, including hundreds of hours of research by the late Dr. Bowman of Garfield, Maryland, the reason for the name Cunningham remains a mystery. If you have insight, please e-mail to share.

Robert McAfee of Foxville recently mentioned, “My grandmother, Rose Ann, always called the Falls Hunting Creek Falls.” In his book, Professor Means printed, “The Falls were never owned by anyone named Cunningham and were known as McAfee Falls until the 1940s or the early 1950s.”

In our research, the earliest reference to the Falls as “Cunningham Falls” appears in a May 20, 1920, Catoctin Clarion article, where there is a reference to a group having lunch at “Cunningham Falls, several miles west of town.” Just one year prior, on May 8, 1919, the Falls were referred to as “McAfee Falls” in the same publication. This is contradictory to Professor John Means’ research.

Of course, there is plenty of speculation about the justification in re-naming the Falls. The most sited is that “Cunningham” was a local photographer; though, this is not confirmed nor dated. Other theories include the possibility that Cunningham was a little-known politician at the time the government took ownership. If the Catoctin Clarion was correct in 1920, this theory is not plausible.

In his book Gateway to the Mountains, Thurmont’s official historian, the late George W. Wireman, wrote, “Many people have been under the impression that Cunningham Falls was named after an early owner, but this is not true. Dr. Harry D. Bowman, a friend of the author, has spent many hours of research on this subject, and it is now an established fact that at no time was the falls owned by Cunningham. Records to support this claim may be found in the land records of Frederick County. The first purchase of the land, which included the falls, consisted of 350 acres and was deeded to Archibald McAfee, Sr. on September 16, 1807. A map in the Frederick Library, dated 1858, clearly shows that the McAfees lived at the top of the falls and the property was owned by John McAfee at this time. The McAfees referred to the falls as Hunting Creek Falls but all others called it McAfee Falls, after the owners.”

Regardless of the name, the seventy-eight-foot waterfall, located four miles west of Thurmont on Route #77, is a destination for thousands of visitors that want to see the largest cascading waterfall in Maryland.

Reuben McAfee, grandson of Archibald McAfee, stands at the top of “McAfee Falls”. The original foundation of the McAfee homestead still stands, not far from this site.

Robert McAfee (front), grandson of Reuben McAfee, stands at the top of “McAfee Falls” on July 15, 2017. Pictured left to right are Jeff, Ashley, Justin, Bob and Robin Portner, Becky Hurley, and Barbara and Jerry Grove

McAfee family patriarchs James and Robert are shown as youngsters in this photo. Their Dad Robert Hunter McAfee is in the white hat.
Young Robert is sitting on his grandfather Reuben’s lap.
James is in the background in white.  Their Aunt Sadie Delauter is also shown.

James’ and Robert’s father, Robert Hunter McAfee (born 3-11-1911; died 3-10-1968), is pictured.

The McAfee families are still well known present day. You will notice many of them involved in agricultural pursuits while farming and showing farm animals.  The McAfee families were well known in American pioneer history.

The McAfee Reunion Photo from July 15, 2017

Picture from left:(back row) Bob Portner, Hailey Stinefelt (being held by Michael Stinefelt), Michael Hurley, Jeff McAfee, Justin McAfee, Elias Robert Grove (on Justin’s lap), Jeremy Grove, Matt Bowman, Elijah Bowman (in front of Matt), Joshua Grove, Jerry Grove; (third row) Robin Portner, Megan Stinefelt, Sadie Hurley, Karen McAfee, Trista Grove (holding Wyatt Grove), Tim Bowman, Heather Dula, Dan McAfee (holding Emilia McAfee); (second row) Aaron Shilling, Amy Shilling, Brenda Shilling, Grace McAfee, Ruby McAfee, Ashley McAfee, Barbara Grove, Robin McAfee, Tim McAfee, Paula Bowman, J.D. Bowman, Dana Bowman, Colleen McAfee, Becky Hurley (holding Zoe McAfee, pink dress); (seated) Dot McAfee (holding Evelyn Stinefelt and Hannah Hurley), Robert McAfee (holding Kayla Hurley), James McAfee, and Pauline McAfee (holding Elizabeth McAfee)