Category Archives: Stores

Kroop’s Boots Needs Your Help

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Not every business from Laurel’s past has disappeared. In fact, there are a precious few that still maintain their original charm and qualities—none more so than A.M. Kroop and Sons, whose business on C Street is like a veritable time machine.

The legendary shoemakers specialize in custom boots, made with the same meticulous 125-step process the family has used for over a century. They’ve long been a favorite among jockeys and horse trainers around the world. In fact, famed jockey George Woolf was wearing Kroop’s boots when he rode Seabiscuit to victory at Pimlico in 1938. And when Universal Pictures’ Seabiscuit was made in 2003, the filmmakers hired them for authenticity. The shop also appears in several of author Dick Francis‘ mystery novels.

It’s also the only place where you can see just how tiny Willie Shoemaker‘s (the aptly named jockey for this particular story) feet were. This was the actual mold Kroop’s used in creating his footwear.

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I bought my first pair of Kroop’s boots this weekend, and to say that they’re amazing is an understatement. (As would saying that they’re bigger than Willie Shoemaker’s).

If, like me, you’ve never had shoes custom made to fit your feet, you’re in for a wonderful surprise. But it’s not just the best pair of shoes you’ll ever own—it’s the experience of having them made by a genuine master craftswoman. That’s Randy Kroop.

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It takes several weeks for Randy to create your shoes from scratch, old-world style. That’s something that many people may not have the patience for, unless they’ve seen first-hand just how these unique shoes are made. If you haven’t watched the video above, now is the perfect time to check it out. It’s a fantastic documentary of the business by Kyle Anderson, Adam DeLuca, and Caz Rubacky, and really captures the essence of the shop in less than 10 minutes.

You already know that Randy and her very small, specialized staff make each shoe by hand. But what you probably didn’t know is that they still utilize original equipment from the 1930s. The shop is practically an industrial museum in terms of the machines. And that has raised a potentially critical challenge—finding someone capable of repairing and maintaining these antique machines is almost becoming an impossibility.

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Making shoes the old fashioned way is literally a dying art form, as the people who built these wonderful machines have long since passed on. Occasionally, Randy can find someone who’s able to “make adjustments” to keep the proverbial wheels turning, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult. And replacing them with more modern equipment would be too expensive; not to mention, contrary to everything Kroop’s stands for.

There was some concern that Kroop’s might close when the new C Street Flats development began construction just behind them. But the bigger threat actually seems to be the keeping the machinery itself running smoothly.

Perhaps you or someone you know has experience repairing vintage machines. Not necessarily these specific  appliances, but maybe you’re just one of those people who can fix anything—the kind who hasn’t had to replace their vacuum cleaner since 1955, and who keeps historic cars looking showroom sweet. Maybe you’d be able to take a look at the machines and let Randy know if there’s something you can do or someone you can recommend. To date, the closest contact she’s found is located in Pittsburgh—surely we can find someone closer.

If so, please get in touch with Randy Kroop and see if you might be able to help. Anything we can do to preserve this Laurel institution will be worthwhile.

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For more information:

A.M. Kroop and Sons, Inc.
26 C Street
Laurel, MD 20707

(301) 725-1535

kroopboots.com

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Driving Through Laurel, 1973

Finding photos of vintage Laurel is tough enough, so you can imagine how special it is to find actual film footage. This wonderful clip was shared by Gary M. Smith, and it provides us with an all-too-brief glimpse of a decent portion of Laurel—captured on 8mm film from the passenger seat of a car driven by Milton J. Smith, Sr. in 1973.

It’s a classic 3-minute reel with some interruptions and jumpiness, but there are plenty of unmistakable landmarks throughout the drive. Now that I have the privilege of being your tour guide, here are a few sites to watch for:

  • We start out in North Laurel at the Beech Crest Estates Mobile Home park—the sign for which can be seen at 0:07. Several of the trailers and residents can be seen over the next 30 seconds.
  • At the 0:35 mark, we’re driving driving southbound on Washington Boulevard (Rt. 1), and we pass the California Inn, just north of Whiskey Bottom Rd.
  • Continuing southbound on Rt. 1, we see Sam & Elsie’s Bar at the 0:46 mark.
  • A billboard advertising the nearby Valencia Apartments appears at 0:53.
  • At 0:57, we cross the oft-flooded bridge over the Patuxent and see the Homoco gas station—the remnants of which were only recently torn down on the Fred Frederick automotive property.
  • At 1:02 (just after a bus—probably a Trailways—unfortunately blocks our view of Main Street) we pass White’s Texaco Station, and get just the faintest glimpse of the Little Tavern beside it.
  • The film skips forward a bit at 1:08, where we find ourselves at the intersection of Rt. 1 and Montgomery Street, and Floyd Lilly’s Laurel Amoco Super Service Station, which won a Chamber of Commerce award “for excellence in design, planning, and beautification”. (Imagine a gas station doing that…)
  • I’m not entirely sure, but at 1:16, we seem to be heading west on Talbott Avenue/Rt. 198 beside Donaldson Funeral Home.

  • At 1:47, we’re now on Main Street—heading west beside the infamous Laurel Hotel, with its distinctive stone facade and wooden porch.
  • Bob’s Cab appears just before we see the wooden front of Gayer’s Saddlery at 1:55.
  • The drive continues up to the end of Main Street, where we turn left onto 7th Street at (fittingly) the 2:16 mark. Here we pass St. Mary of the Mills church and cemetery.
  • At 2:37, there’s a brief glimpse of what is likely Laurel Municipal Swimming Pool, before the geography skips over to northbound Rt. 1 at the 2:38 mark—where we can clearly see the old 7-Eleven and Village Inn Pizza Parlor along Bowie Road.
  • Continuing northbound along Rt. 1, we pass the Exxon and Plain ‘n Fancy Donuts before getting a nice view of Safeway and Dart Drug, which sat just beside the railroad tracks and my old neighborhood of Steward Manor.

And that’s about where our drive through 1973 comes to an end, sadly. But any chance to step back in time—especially in a moving vehicle like this—is pretty amazing. I’ve found myself comparing the footage with Google Street Views of the same stretches of road today, just to see how much has changed… and how much has surprisingly stayed the same.

Many thanks again to Gary for sharing this footage! It’s also a reminder to everyone to check their own old home movies and family photo albums, as you never know what might turn up.

 

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Laurel’s Link to Sports (Collectors) History

When I was about 11 years old, I started collecting baseball and football cards. As a sports fan, the early 1980s was an exciting time to be living in Laurel, Maryland—literally midway between the 1982 Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins and the 1983 World Series Champion Baltimore Orioles.

It was around that time that Mike McNeal, one of my best friends in the neighborhood, gave me something that upped the ante: a handful of plastic protector sheets for my collection. He’d found them at a place called “Den’s Collectors Den”, which was tucked away in the Laureldale Business Center off Rt. 198 in Maryland City, just behind what was then the Toyota dealership on Laureldale Drive. How he ever found it, I still don’t know; but one day, his mom drove us both there to stock up.

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These plastic sheets are common today, and come in more shapes and sizes than ever—in fact, I use Ultra Pro Platinum sheets for the bulk of my Lost Laurel stuff: 8″ x 10″ photos, matchbook covers, 4″ x 6″ postcards… and, of course, Bob Windsor football cards.

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But those early sheets from Den’s Collectors Den are even more special today—the name and Laurel address were embossed right into the plastic!

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Admittedly, I was never what you’d call a serious collector. I liked finding cards of my favorite players, and trading with friends; and to some degree, the design of those old cards might have even played a small part with me eventually becoming a graphic designer. But at the time, the concept of “value” never really entered my mind. I knew that older cards were certainly worth more, but that was about the extent of it. Of course, now I cringe at the memory of the countless rookie cards I let slip through my fingers… Cal Ripken and Rickey Henderson… Joe Montana and John Elway… *sigh* But I digress.

No, back then it was all for fun—as it should be. And part of the fun was discovering the tools of the collecting trade itself, and there was no better guide to such things than a catalog from Den’s Collectors Den.

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Absolutely stuffed with products and information, the catalogs themselves were something to behold. More than anything, Den’s promoted an array of baseball card pricing guides—which were updated every year to give collectors (even amateurs like me) a guideline for card values. It was an added thrill to look up a particular card in your collection, and find that it was more valuable than others. In my case, this usually meant a difference of about 40¢. But again, I digress.

1984 Street and Smith Dens Ad

These price guides also included a “condition guide”, which showed you the basics for grading cards—everything from “mint condition” to “poor”.

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What I didn’t realize at the time (and, in fact, only recently learned) was that the whole concept of sports card pricing guides essentially began with Den’s Collectors Den—specifically, the owner, Dennis “Denny” Eckes.

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Dennis W. Eckes, 1983 (Photo: The Sport Americana Baseball Card Price Guide Number 5)

Denny had produced a rudimentary handbook between 1975 and 1978, called “The Sport Americana Checklist”—a nearly 100-page, saddle-stitched black and white booklet that was a mishmash of typeset lists, thumbnail images to represent each card type, and numerous late additions clearly made with a common typewriter. It was exactly what the title claimed—a basic checklist of every baseball card issued since 1948, and some generalized pricing information added to the backmatter. But in this completely uncredited book was the basic formula for what would become the modern sports card price guide.

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The 1975 checklist booklet.

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Detail from the 1975 booklet. Hmm… I should check into whether or not I’m related to #392 Bob Friend.

 

Scan 218 Den's ad, 1978 checklist back

Everything changed the very next year, when Denny teamed up with a statistician and fellow collector named Dr. James Beckett. Yes, that Dr. James Beckett—the one who would eventually launch Beckett Media, the world’s preeminent authority on collecting. In 1979, they produced what is today universally acknowledged as the first price guide of its kind. And as you can see on the title page, it was published and distributed by Den’s Collectors Den of Laurel, Maryland.

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Due to demand, there were actually two versions of the first Sport Americana Baseball Card Price Guide in 1979. And when I say “in demand”, I mean it—kids and adults alike clamored for the book, and most weren’t exactly gentle with it in their haste to discover the value of the hidden gems in their collection:

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Someone was determined to hold this copy together by any means necessary. (Photo: eBay)

The edition with the white cover was the original, and is the Holy Grail of price guides if there ever was one. But shortly thereafter, an alternate cover was designed that included the “Baseball Card” logo in a custom typeface—this would appear on all subsequent issues under the Sport Americana banner. And on the back cover of both was a full-page, full-color ad for Den’s Collectors Den.

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Inside cover & title page of the updated version, which included author bios.

Eckes and Beckett didn’t stop there. Throughout the early 1980s, they expanded the Sport Americana brand with additional books, including the Alphabetical Baseball Card Checklist (1979) and the Baseball Memorabilia and Autograph Price Guide (1982).

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All the while, Den’s Collectors Den—the physical store in Laurel—continued its success. The price guides, plastic protector sheets, and other goodies were hot sellers.

Always the collector, Denny traveled the country, participating in the fledgling sports card trading show circuit—which itself is a massive industry today. In his dealings, he’d frequently unearth rare items which he’d typically manage to share with the collecting community in some shape or form. A perfect example was his discovery of previously unpublished artwork that matched the 1934-36 series of the National Chicle Company’s popular Diamond Stars set. A blank-backed proof sheet of 12 additional cards was determined to be the series’ 1937 extension that never was; and Denny ultimately had the proof reproduced and the cards brought to life in 1981. He even reinterpreted the classic wrapper itself, which bears his company’s name and Laurel address.

DIAMOND STARS WITH WRAPPER 1981

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For $3, you could buy a professionally-printed set of 12 cards that completed a legendary collection that had been cut short some 45 years earlier.

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This type of “reprint” was extremely rare at the time, and it inspired Denny to create yet another niche in the market. Den’s Collectors Den also carried similar extension sets and reprints produced by other manufacturers, such as the 1952 Bowman set by TCMA.

Den's 1952 Bowman Extension ad

I’ve heard from a number of collectors and hobbyists who knew Denny Eckes personally, and I’ve never heard a negative thing about the man. Naturally, I was curious as to what became of him, as there seemed to be very little information beyond the final books he produced in 1990—expanding into football and basketball price guides, as well as a book of baseball players’ agents’ mailing addresses for autograph hunters.

Unfortunately, I found the answer in the June 1991 issue of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, one of the many expanded publishing efforts that James Beckett had taken on after his early success with Denny and Sport Americana. Filling the first page of that issue is a moving tribute—a eulogy to Dennis W. Eckes, who’d passed away unexpectedly in his sleep on April 15, 1991. He was only 48. The eulogy was written by Dr. Beckett himself, and paints a glowing portrait of a true visionary whose influence is still being felt in what has become a bigger business than ever before.

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Denny Eckes, who ran the inconspicuous little sports memorabilia shop in a Laurel industrial park, made quite a splash in his short lifetime. My only personal experience with him was some 30 years ago—as a kid at his glass display counter, eager to plop down my meager allowance at 25¢ per plastic sheet for my football cards. But the products he sold and the pastime he promoted have certainly stuck with me all these years, and I’m grateful to finally know and share a bit more about his legacy. Hopefully, someone who knows his story better than I do will be able to help shed even more light on this remarkable man.

 

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Meeting Bob Windsor… Again!

A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune of learning something new on my own Lost Laurel Facebook page. Reader John Mewshaw posted a link to a sports memorabilia event being held at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Listed there, at the very bottom of the page (by Cincinnati Bengals running back Ickey Woods—he of the famous “Ickey Shuffle”) was none other than Bob Windsor—the former NFL tight end who owned the wonderful Bob Windsor’s All-Pro Sports at Laurel Plaza Shopping Center throughout the 1970s and 80s. Bob was going to be there signing autographs the very next morning!

CSA Chantilly Show, Bob Windsor

It just so happens that today, I live only a few miles from the Dulles Expo Center; and I hadn’t seen Bob Windsor since I was a kid in his store nearly 30 years ago—when I would look forward to getting an autographed 8″ x 10″ with every purchase.

Bob Windsor 1980s autographed photo

A well-worn memento from the past, circa 1983

I made the short drive to Chantilly on Saturday morning, April 5th, and found the place packed just as it opened. Even though I knew where Bob’s table would be located, he was easy to spot, chatting with an old-timer from the area. I waited patiently behind the older gentleman, and when it was my turn, I said, (with a straight face) “Hi Bob. I’ve had this coupon for like 30 years, and there doesn’t seem to be an expiration date on it…”

I watched the confusion on his face turn to laughter when I revealed the “coupon” to be an enlarged print of one of his 1980s sneaker trade-in ads. “HOLY COW,” he exclaimed. “I haven’t seen one of those since… I don’t know when!”

Bob Windsor & Richard Friend, 4/5/14

I then revealed what I’d really come to do. I introduced myself, explaining that I’d grown up at Steward Manor Apartments just across the street from his store, and that my friends and I used to practically live there. Now a graphic designer, I’d actually created a book about Laurel’s past businesses—Lost Laurel. I leafed through the book to the 1980s section, and watched Bob’s face light up even more when he spotted pages 158–159:

Lost Laurel book: Bob Windsor

I told him that I wanted to give him the book (and some extra copies for his family) and finally say thank you for the countless good memories he and his store provided, and for all he’s done for Laurel, Maryland through the years. I had the chance to chat with him for a few moments, and he explained the history behind that memorable photo of him:

“We were playing the Giants—that was actually in Yankee Stadium. I had just caught that pass, (from quarterback Jim Plunkett) and was only on my feet for about a second and a half… and then got hit and flipped upside down by a linebacker and a defensive back!”

When I asked if he could remember who the linebacker and defensive back were, Bob laughed and said, “Oh, I don’t want to remember!”

We shook hands again, and Bob asked if I was a Redskins fan. Without getting into my long-winded NFL fan history, (which included a brutal 27 years, rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles throughout some of their lowliest seasons) I simply said yes—I’m finally trying to cheer for my own home team these days. With that, Bob reached into a folder and handed me a signed Sonny Jurgensen photo. (!!!) He then pointed to the sneaker trade-in ad I’d brought, and in a moment that transported me straight back to 1983, he asked, “Want me to sign that for you?”

Yes, indeed I did. 🙂

Bob Windsor's ad, 1986

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SUNDAY! SUNDAY!! SUNDAAAYYY!!!

If you were around during the era of small racetracks that regularly hosted local races, demolition derbies, and monster truck events, you undoubtedly remember the radio announcer’s rallying cry of “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!” For Lost Laurel, tomorrow—Sunday, February 9th—is every bit as exciting. And then some.

The Lost & Found Laurel exhibit has its grand opening tomorrow at the Laurel Museum from 1:00–4:00.

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The museum, located in what is believed to be the oldest house in Laurel (dating to at least the 1840s, with some estimates going back to 1802) is at the corner of 9th & Main Streets. Admission is free.

Even before it was the Laurel Museum, the oldest house in Laurel was a landmark. (Ceramic tile courtesy of Peter & Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes).

Both the Laurel Leader and The Gazette have been spreading the word this week, and the Leader will be covering the grand opening, as well! Here are a few of the media links to date:

Collectors Find Plenty of Laurel Memories  |  Laurel Leader “History Matters” column by Kevin Leonard

Amateur Historian Inspires Laurel Museum Exhibit  |  Gazette feature by Emilie Eastman

Laurel Museum Opens “Lost & Found Laurel” Exhibit Sunday  |  Laurel Leader web feature by Melanie Dzwonchyk

Laurel History Memorabilia  |  (Laurel Leader photo gallery)

Lost & Found Laurel Opens February 9  |  Eventful.com

While I did have the chance to get a few sneak peeks along the way, I’ll be experiencing the opening for the first time along with everyone else. When I was at the Museum last weekend, the exhibit panels had been printed but not yet installed, and many of the displays were only just beginning to take shape.

Laurel Museum pre-opening

I won’t even attempt to list the full variety of things you’ll discover, but yes—that is the original Hershey’s Ice Cream sign that hung from Keller’s/Knapp’s Laurel News Agency for decades. Beside it (partially hidden behind the glass showcase with the fleet of Lost Laurel toy trucks) is the cash register from Cook’s Laurel Hardware. Both of these treasures have been in the Laurel Historical Society’s archives since the businesses closed.

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I also have an update on the Lost Laurel book, as we’re all anxiously awaiting the printed shipment.

James River Bridge cargo ship 2/7/14

The cargo ship carrying the books arrived in New York yesterday, and I was told to allow an additional 7–10 days for customs clearance and delivery; so I’m expecting to have the books in hand the week of February 17th, at which point I’ll begin mailing out the pre-ordered copies.

You can still pre-order copies right here, and I’ll also have copies available for sale at my “(Re)Collecting Laurel” presentation and book signing event on March 13th—a fun talk that I’m looking forward to as part of the Laurel Historical Society Speakers Bureau!

But remember, you can also win one of the very first copies of the book at the grand opening tomorrow! I donated the two advance copies I’d received (one paperback and one hard cover edition) to the Museum for this purpose, so be sure to come out and take a chance! I look forward to seeing many of you there and hearing what you think about the exhibit!

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Stefanie Watson: Case Closed

Sometimes, the truth really does turn out to be stranger than fiction. And as the other old truism goes, life really does often imitate art.

Although, sadly, there wasn’t actually anything fictional or artful about the 1982 murder of Stefanie Watson. It was all too real, and all too disturbing; and for three decades, not only was the crime unsolved, it was as cold a case as one could ever imagine—virtually nothing had been written about it for nearly 30 years. Growing up, I’d always felt it should have been a national news story—it certainly had all the elements of a Hollywood whodunit or a New York Times bestseller.

Last summer, in the midst of curating Lost Laurel, I realized that the 30th anniversary of Stefanie’s death was approaching. I wanted to not only mark the occasion, but somehow generate interest and possibly even rejuvenate the investigation into her murder. In the process, I developed what I thought to be a compelling theory—albeit an unlikely one. I became convinced that Stefanie’s killer(s) were the notorious drifters, Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole—the latter having been the murderer of young Adam Walsh, son of America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh, almost exactly one year earlier in 1981. Erratic travelers active primarily in the south, both had connections to Prince George’s County, the opportunity, and certainly the will and the means to commit such a crime. They’d been free at the time of Stefanie’s disappearance, confirmed having traveled through Maryland in the summer of 1982, and owned a car at that time matching the description of the one seen that fateful night on Larchdale Road, dumping partial skeletal remains—Stefanie’s only remains ever recovered, to this day.

The question I posed was simple: could there really have been anyone else even capable of such a horrific crime, not to mention the numerous coincidences? As it turns out, there really was. And in yet another incredible coincidence, his name is John Walsh. But we’ll get to him in a moment.

Learning the news

In addition to bringing the case back to the public consciousness among Laurelites last summer, one of the unexpected blessings has been making contact with the family of Stefanie Watson. I was only 9 years old when she died, and had never met her. But as I explained in the original post, I’ve never forgotten the summer of 1982, and the feeling of dread standing for hours near the missing person flyer taped to the large window at the entrance to Zayre. Stefanie Watson’s face—still strikingly pretty through that faded Xerox photocopy—was the first and last face I saw each day at Zayre, as I manned my post outside—a shy kid trying to sell Olympic Sales Club products to approaching customers. For long, lonely stretches at times, it was just me and that flyer; just me and Stefanie Watson.

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Before I published the article, I had considered trying to contact Stefanie’s family for information. But the fear of opening old wounds for them was great, and being neither a journalist or investigator, I just didn’t feel comfortable doing that. Instead, I spoke to Laurel Chief of Police Rich McLaughlin first, and he directed me to Prince George’s County Homicide’s cold case division. There, I spoke to Sgt. Rick Fulginiti. I explained to them that in writing the piece, I wanted to make sure I didn’t do anything that would impede their investigation, or upset Stefanie’s family, should they happen to come across it. Both men encouraged me to write it.

Surprisingly, Stefanie’s family did come across it. I first received an email from her cousin, Leanne last October, and it was such a relief to hear that they were grateful for what I’d written. I learned that Leanne’s older sister, Chris, had been Stefanie’s best friend. Chris was, in fact, the one who had the unthinkable task of reporting her missing.

Leanne and I corresponded a bit, and the blog posting continued to get its share of comments over the next several months. Then, on Friday, June 21st, I got an email from Leanne that I never could’ve expected. She was letting me know that there had been an arrest in Stefanie’s murder, and that the DNA matched an inmate named John Walsh. “No kidding,” she added.

And then, on Sunday, June 23rd, I got a call from Sgt. Fulginiti, confirming this stunning news. “I’ve spoken to Stefanie’s family, and I wanted to call you next,” he said; and in what was a tremendous honor, he told me that the Lost Laurel article had indeed helped breathe new life into the cold case. He let me know that he would be issuing a press conference in the following days, formally announcing that charges have been filed against John Ernest Walsh, a 68-year-old inmate who has been incarcerated on an unrelated charge since 1989. Preserved DNA from the back of the driver’s seat of Stefanie’s blood-soaked 1981 Chevette unequivocally matched that of Walsh. Stefanie, it’s clear, put up an incredible fight in that small car—as a significant amount of that blood evidently belonged to Walsh, whom Sgt. Fulginiti reports still bears distinct scars.

The press conference came on Tuesday, June 25th, and a lot of local minds were thoroughly blown—including my own.

For the remainder of the week—and for the first time since this unspeakable crime occurred back in the summer of 1982, there was no shortage of news coverage. The Laurel Leader, rightfully, was one of the first to break the story. Fox5 aired a report, as did WJLA 7, and plenty of others. (Just Google it).

John Ernest Walsh, we learned, had been arrested in 1969—when he was only 24 years old—for the kidnapping, rape, and attempted murder of a woman in Prince George’s County whose throat and wrists he cut before literally leaving her for dead in the woods. Against all odds, she survived; and Walsh was sentenced to 72 years in prison. But unfortunately for society, this was just the beginning of his story.
John Ernest Walsh (Photo: Prince George's County Police)

John Ernest Walsh (Photo: Prince George’s County Police)

Walsh was deemed a psychiatric patient, naturally, and was handpicked by the Patuxent Institution in Jessup “for rehabilitation”. After serving only 8 years, he was deemed “rehabilitated”—at least enough to be allowed out on work release. That was in 1978. Two years later, in 1980, he was paroled outright. You read that correctly—this man kidnapped, raped, and cut a woman’s throat, then ended up really only serving 8 years of a seventy-two year sentence. And so it came to be that on July 22, 1982, John Ernest Walsh—the “rehabilitated” kidnapper/rapist/attempted murderer—crossed paths with Stefanie Watson. The exact circumstances of just how their paths crossed may only be known to Walsh himself, and so far, he claims he “doesn’t remember”.

Having had his parole revoked in 1989 for failing a drug test, Walsh has had the last 24 years to think about it in Eastern Correctional Institution, where he is Inmate #113067. That may bring some solace to the family and friends of Stefanie Watson, but it raises even more questions—not the least of which is, how many other people did this man kill during his years of “rehabilitated” freedom, between 1978 and 1989? And what about the Patuxent Institution itself? Surely, there is a record somewhere that bears the signature of a fatally misguided psychiatrist who literally released this monster on the public. The individual (or group) who made that decision is, in my opinion, just as responsible for Stefanie Watson’s death as John Ernest Walsh is, and should rightfully pay for it.

Shifting focus

Watching the press conference and news coverage last week was surreal for a number of reasons. Honestly, it still hasn’t sunken in yet that the case has actually been solved; and that the killer has been sitting in prison for the past 24 years thinking he’d otherwise gotten away with it. In fact, in January 2000, he actually tried to petition the U.S. Court of Appeals to return him to the cushier confines of Patuxent, feeling that he’d been unfairly sent to a more “punitive” environment. Again, fortunately for society, that was overruled.

That being said, I’ve written all I care to write about this man. I trust that he’ll be in court soon to face the charge of first degree murder, and when he does, he’ll return to the spotlight of our local news. My wish, however, is that the spotlight returns to the rightful person—Stefanie Watson.
With the news of the arrest came another pleasant surprise—the first fairly clear color photo of Stefanie I’d ever seen.
Stefanie Watson (Photo: Prince George's County Police)

Stefanie Watson (Photo: Prince George’s County Police)

It was her driver’s license photo, used by police during the investigation. Granted, few people are particularly fond of their driver’s license photos, but this one came into focus on television screens and computer monitors like a breath of fresh air. For nearly 31 years, Stefanie Watson had been a fading name and a grainy, black and white image on a photocopied missing person flyer. Suddenly, there she was again—this time in full color. It gave me a wonderful idea for my follow-up story, which I wanted to focus primarily on Stefanie herself, rather than the man who killed her.

I immediately contacted her cousin, Leanne again, and inquired about writing a piece that really showed who Stefanie was as a person: the music she listened to, the shows she watched, etc. Leanne had her older sister, Chris, give me a call—and for nearly an hour and a half, I was treated to a first person account of growing up with Stefanie—not only as her cousin, but as her best friend.

Invaluable help came from even more of Stefanie’s family. Her niece, Kate—who had only been three months old at the time of her aunt’s disappearance—shared a treasure trove of photos of Stefanie through the years:

Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.

Family photo courtesy of Stefanie's sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.

Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.

Family photo courtesy of Kate Adams.

Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.

Stefanie (left) with older sister Margaret. (Family photo courtesy of Kate Adams).

Stefanie (left) with older sister, Peg.
(Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate).

Stefanie's senior high school photo, 1973.  (Family photo courtesy of Stefanie's sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.).

Stefanie’s senior high school photo, 1973.
(Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate).

Family photo courtesy of Kate Adams.

Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.

Stefanie was only two years older than her cousin, Chris—an obvious factor in their closeness. Her sister, Margaret (known as Peg)—while undoubtedly close herself—was seven years older than Stefanie. But Stefanie and Chris were, by all accounts, inseparable best friends. Speaking to Chris on the phone all these years later, the joy in her voice was palpable, as were the memories. “Oh, she was a good time. Just a really good time,” she said—clearly smiling while recalling the days leading up to the summer of 1982. And in particular, Stefanie’s all-too brief time in Laurel. She arrived in September 1981, and Chris would frequently make the drive down from Pennsylvania to visit. Coincidentally, it was Stefanie who taught Chris to drive some years earlier, in what Chris remembered as an orange Buick Skylark.

“She had a wicked sense of humor,” Chris mused, “and she loved the beach.” To that point, Deborah Moore, an 18-year-old neighbor who lived in the building beside Stefanie’s in 1982, even remembers her sunbathing on the 8th Street Field right in front of her apartment. “She was fearless,” Chris reiterated. “She would walk her dog along those fields early in the morning and late at night.” Her dog, a striking red Siberian Husky, was named Kito. Chris sent me the following photos, which beautifully capture them both.

Stefanie with Kito.  (Family photo courtesy of Christy).

Stefanie with Kito.
(Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s cousin, Christy).

Stefanie with Kito.  (Family photo courtesy of Christy).

Stefanie with Kito.
(Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s cousin, Christy).

“That’s more Stefanie than most other pictures,” Leanne replied, fondly recalling her “cool cousin”:
“I look at her face, and still see the girl that I thought was so pretty, and had great clothes… I would sneak them out of her bag when she spent the night, wear them to school, and have them nicely folded and back in her bag before she and my sister got home from work. They were older than me—Chris is four years older and Stefanie was six years older. Chris always thought of me as her pesky little sister and would tell me to get lost, and Stefanie would tell her to stop being so mean.”

Chris also attested to Stefanie’s fashion sense, and how she was always “super-neat, and had to make sure everything was clean and pressed”.

I asked about Stefanie’s favorite foods, and with a laugh, Chris explained that Stefanie “could eat like a hog and never gain weight!” She added that they would often eat frequently and at odd times, undoubtedly due in part to Stefanie’s late work schedule at what was then called Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital. She would typically report to work at 11:30 PM, where she was the overnight admitting clerk in the busy emergency room. Chris thought about restaurants they frequented together in Laurel, and one name came instantly to mind. “Tippy’s Taco House,” she said, knowing that it’s still open at 315 Gorman Avenue, albeit under the name Toucan Taco since 1992. The girls would get their Tex-Mex fix, and Chris would even buy more for the trip home to Pennsylvania.

Chris and I talked about TV shows that Stefanie watched, too:

“I remember she loved Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I.Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, One Day at a Time, The Love Boat, Saturday Night Live—when Saturday Night Live was good, of course”.

Music was a big part of Stefanie’s life, and she and Chris frequented concerts—including several at Merriweather Post Pavilion in nearby Columbia. “We’d go to any concert,” she said. “It really didn’t matter who was playing—we just loved to go”. She cited a number of Stefanie’s favorite recording artists, and while the list paints a veritable time capsule of the era, it also attests to her diverse taste in music. Rod Stewart, I expected. Charlie Daniels, I did not. But Chris said they were both part of Stefanie’s playlist:

“The Bee Gees, Blondie, Rod Stewart, Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker, Christopher Cross, Elton John, David Bowie… and how could I forget Todd Rundgren, and her all time favorite Dan Fogelberg—loved him. She was also a huge Steely Dan fan!”
With Christy’s help, I’ve put together a little playlist that Stefanie would approve of:

A few years earlier in Pennsylvania, she’d also had a dog named “Jackson”—because she also loved Jackson Browne.

It’s easy for us to use the term “playlist” today, and forget that it wouldn’t have been part of Stefanie’s lexicon 30+ years ago. Chris and I talked about this as well; how there were no cell phones, no internet, no MP3s—none of the modern conveniences that we take for granted today. Consider the things that Stefanie missed out on within just that first year alone: Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Return of the Jedi. A Christmas Story. Friday Night Videos. Flashdance. Madonna. Then consider everything she missed over the next thirty years. It’s staggering.

Stefanie would have just celebrated her 58th birthday on July 3rd, and it’s hard to fathom that she’s now been gone longer than she was here. This is especially true for Laurel, where she was really only a resident for a total of 10 months. Even if the unspeakable crime hadn’t occurred, she was literally just days away from relocating to Fort Worth, Texas.

I’m 40 years old today. That’s 13 years older than Stefanie was at the time of her disappearance. It really is amazing how time flies by. And while the rest of us continue to get older and live our lives, Stefanie will always remain that beautiful and kind 27-year-old who loved the beach, her dog, and concerts. And she’ll forever be a part of Laurel. Personally, I like to think that had she lived, she would even be an active Lost Laurel follower on Facebook—reminiscing over photos and artifacts she’d recall from her time in our hometown.

(Lost Laurel collection).

Glass ashtray, circa 1980s.
(Lost Laurel collection).

Ballpoint pen, circa 1980s.  (Lost Laurel collection, courtesy of John Floyd II).

Ballpoint pen from Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital, circa 1980s.
(Lost Laurel collection, courtesy of John Floyd II).

T-shirt from Laurel’s 4th of July Celebration, 1982.
(Lost Laurel collection, courtesy of John Floyd II).

This banner from 1982 adorned the 8th Street Field fence directly across from Stefanie's apartment. (Laurel Historical Society collection).

This banner from the 1982 celebration adorned the 8th Street Field fence directly across from Stefanie’s apartment. Coincidentally, the day also marked Stefanie’s 27th birthday.
(Laurel Historical Society collection).

I never would’ve dreamed, as a little kid nearly 31 years ago, that I’d grow up and contribute a small part to finally catching the monster responsible for Stefanie Watson’s death. That has been a truly unexpected blessing, and it’s only through the diligence and cooperation of the Laurel Police Department, the Prince George’s County Police Department, and these amazing P.G. County cold case detectives that we’ve finally seen this case resolved.

Plenty of questions remain, but even after all this time, we may finally be about to learn the answers. The main question, however—who did it?—has finally been put to rest. Thirty years removed, the man responsible has been living a miserable existence behind bars; an existence that, as we speak, is only becoming increasingly more miserable. I’ll drink to that.

The coincidences that permeate this chapter in Laurel’s history continue to astound me: the sheer randomness of the crime; the timing of Stefanie’s last night at work and plans to relocate; and now the very name of the killer. As they say, you couldn’t make this stuff up. Nonetheless, it happened, and those of us who lived in Laurel during the summer of 1982 have never forgotten. Nor will we ever.

As Laurel celebrates another 4th of July, let’s remember Stefanie as more than just a victim. Her family has been kind enough to share photos and memories with us that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen, and it’s my hope that it paints a clearer picture of who this young woman was. There’s a line from an Elton John song—whom we now know was one of Stefanie’s favorites—that best sums up my feelings, and probably those of everyone else from my generation who grew up in Laurel:

“And I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid.
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did”.

*****

My immeasurable thanks to Sgt. Rick Fulginiti and his team of cold case detectives at the Prince George’s County Police Department, for taking the time to not only talk to me about a haunting case that predates their careers, but for then going out and actually breaking it wide open once and for all. Thank you, DNA evidence! And most of all, thank you again to Stefanie’s incredibly strong family members: her sister, Peg; her niece, Kate; and her cousins Leanne and Chris—for helping us remember the Stefanie that you knew and loved.

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Happy 80th, Fred Knapp!

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Admittedly, a blog update here is long overdue… (the Lost Laurel Facebook page has been getting all the action lately).

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t note this very special day on both pages. Fred Knapp is celebrating his 80th birthday today! According to his step-daughter, Debbie, Mr. Knapp is doing well and living in Elkridge.

While I’ve yet to get over the fact that we’ll never see another Keller’s/Knapp’s Laurel News Agency, the very thought of the jovial Fred Knapp enjoying his well-deserved retirement brings a smile to my face.

Happy birthday to a man who will always represent everything that was wonderful about Main Street.

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Santa’s First Visit to Laurel Centre

This being the first year that Santa Claus (or anyone else, for that matter) won’t be at Laurel Centre Mall, let’s take a look back at his very first visit in 1979.

IMG_1247

(Laurel News Leader)

 

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Hobby House

Perhaps more than any store, restaurant, or other business in Laurel’s retail past, the one place that I’ve consistently heard the most about is a little shop that opened in (and along with) Laurel Plaza Shopping Center in October 1965. It was at least a decade before pinball and video game arcades became the rage; and by all accounts, Hobby House may have topped them all in terms of sheer awesomeness.

Throughout the summer of ’65, Hobby House advertised heavily in the Laurel News Leader—bold, exciting ads that showcased the store’s massive tabletop slot car racing tracks. As if that wasn’t enough to draw you in, they also carried a full line of all things hobby: coins, stamps, model airplanes, model ships, model trains, and more. It was essentially Laurel’s precursor to HobbyWorks—which, coincidentally, remains open in Laurel Shopping Center to this day.

While Hobby House was part of the new Laurel Plaza Shopping Center, it wasn’t actually a brand new store. It had previously been located at 342 Main Street—current location of the Laurel Board of Trade—for five years. The Main Street location, however, didn’t have the slot car racing tracks; and its new store was the first of its kind in the Laurel area. In fact, owner Bill Bromley proclaimed his three new championship-approved tabletop tracks “the finest facilities available in the state”.

The new store also boasted some impressive hours for its era, open daily from 10AM to 11PM, and noon to 11PM on Sundays. Customers were encouraged to bring their own slot cars to race, and there were plenty available to buy or rent for a nominal fee.

I’ve also heard nothing but great things about the store’s staff, including owner Bill Bromley, and his brother, Dick—who served as assistant manager. I was glad to unearth a couple of photos of these gentlemen from September 1965 issues of the News Leader as well:

 

And a May 1966 full page ad captured a number of Laurel Plaza store entrances, including Hobby House.

Unfortunately for me, Hobby House had apparently already closed by the time my family arrived at Steward Manor in the late 70s, and I never did get to experience it. (You don’t have to pity me too much—I did get to surf the wave of awesomeness that was Time-Out and Showbiz Pizza Place in their respective heydays).

But I wanted to share a wonderful Hobby House recollection from our good friend John Floyd II—a lifelong train buff who remembers a special day and the equally special customer service that went along with it:

Hobby House was wicked! Those large racing tracks were cool and it was always fun to see them in action, but electric model trains were my thing and Hobby House had plenty of them in the new “N scale” whose compact size appealed to me. Mr Dick Bromley was either owner or manager of HH and he was ever so accommodating. In 1968, the ill-fated Penn Central merger between Pennsylvania RR and New York Central System endeared me to that poorly-conceived, behemoth railway company, not to mention being amongst a thousand spectators who gathered at Odenton to see the solemn and dignified funeral train PC ran for RFK in June of ’68. So, for my 11th birthday that year, Mum took me to Hobby House to select a train set. Alas, there were none to be had in Penn Central colours, but Mr Bromley soon sorted that out by combining an individual locomotive, passenger cars, freight cars, and a caboose into a splendid custom Penn Central train set!

Eventually, he would be involved with the operation of Laurel Shopping Center and Laurel Centre Mall (Rich, I’ve got one of his business cards for you!) as well as the Chamber of Commerce. I believe one of Laurel’s Fourth of July Parade trophy awards is also named in Mr Bromley’s honour. When Hobby House closed (late ’70s or early ’80s?), it left a void not filled until Hobby Works (for general hobby interests) and Peach Creek Shops (for hard-core railway modellers) came along in the 1990s.

John did indeed have a business card for me, from Dick Bromley’s term as Promotion Director at Laurel Centre—complete with its original logo before the ill-advised April 1998 “Laurel Mall” rebrand!

I’m looking forward to digging further into the 1970s archives, to hopefully determine when Hobby House closed and for what reasons; and for more information about the Bromley brothers. But in the meantime, I’ll just have to imagine what it must’ve been like, racing slot cars against Laurel’s fast and furious. I have to believe that I’d be the only one who’d show up with a custom Bob’s Cab racer, though.

Get ready to pay the meter, kids. Next stop, Hobby House.

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Laurel’s Safeway(s)

While I was growing up at Steward Manor during the late 1970s and early 80s, grocery shopping was never really a problem. In just a matter of minutes, if my mom and I were so inclined, we could walk to and from Safeway—which, at the time, was just around the corner from us on Bowie Road. In fact, during the one year that we lived at 2 Woodland Court, it was literally just across the railroad tracks. For more extensive shopping, of course, my dad would drive us there (or more likely, to one of the bigger and/or cheaper stores in the area: Giant, Pantry Pride, or Basics). But on any given day, my mom might have decided to bake a cake or something; and needing only a few select items, she and I would take a quick walk over to Safeway.

Until this past weekend, I hadn’t been able to find a single photo of the Safeway that I so vividly remember from childhood—before it relocated to a new and larger space at Laurel Lakes in 1985 (where it remains today).

For me, the old Safeway was the real Safeway; and when it left, it was like losing an old friend. To this day, I occasionally have dreams in which I’m back in that store—perusing the Cragmont soda aisle and noting the vintage cash registers at the checkout counter, amongst orderly stacks of weekly magazines featuring the likes of Diff’rent Strokes and President Reagan on their covers.

So in the course of my research, when I turned the page in the April 21, 1966 issue of the Laurel News Leader and came to this photo—I smiled at an old friend.

There it was, just as I remembered it. But even newer, because it had just opened. From this angle, (taken from the adjacent shopping center, which had also just opened) you can even see that awesome roller track/conveyor belt thing, which transported your groceries from the checkout counter, outside, around a hairpin curve, and to your awaiting vehicle beneath that covered driveway. (This, of course, was the only downside to walking over to Safeway with my mom—I didn’t get to use that thing nearly as often as I would have liked, but I digress).

Admittedly, I suspected that I might actually find a photo of the store; in an earlier newspaper, I had come across this bold announcement, which included a stock illustration of a similar Safeway store (but without the aforementioned awesome roller track/conveyor belt thing).

Laurel Leader, January 27, 1966.

So, a question I’d often wondered about was finally answered. The Safeway on Bowie Road first opened its doors in January 1966. The adjacent shopping center, which included Market Tire, Arundel Furniture, and Chicken Roost, among others—also another story for another time—opened in April.

But the photo also raised an interesting question, because conspicuously absent in all this was my other beloved store—Dart Drug. I had always assumed that Dart Drug was the original tenant beside Safeway; that they had been built together. Evidently, that wasn’t the case at all.

As I continued through the 1966 newspapers, I spotted the following ad in an August issue—which references the mysterious “Super S” store noted in the photo caption above.

Safeway Super S? I’d never heard of or seen such a thing, but there it was, in the proverbial black and white.

It also immediately struck me as rather ironic that Safeway had actually occupied this entire, massive structure—yet would ultimately move to Laurel Lakes nearly 20 years later in need of more space. What happened there? What exactly was Super S, and how (and when) did it eventually become the Dart Drug that we all knew and loved?

The Super S story turns out to be a super-short one, actually. By April 1967—a mere eight months after its grand opening, ribbon-cutting ceremony with then-Mayor Merrill Harrison, the store was closed.

Laurel Leader, April 20, 1967

Super S, according to the fantastic vintage retail blog, Pleasant Family Shopping, was an early (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt by the supermarket to parlay its brand into an ancillary store; one which offered the types of non-food items you wouldn’t find in the Safeway proper: small appliances, sporting goods, toys, outdoor accessories, and more. Basically, like what Dart Drug would become. In retrospect, it’s a bold idea that, frankly, seems ahead of its time. Who knows.. with a little tweaking of the Super S business model here and there, Safeway could’ve very easily hit the jackpot. (Not that they haven’t been successful enough on their own, but again I digress).

It’s not yet clear if the old Super S building hosted any interim tenants, (my guess is no) but in February 1969, Dart Drug officially took up residence. It would remain there until the company went bankrupt nearly 20 years later.

Laurel Leader, February 6, 1969.

 

Here’s another view of the Safeway Shopping Center (as it came to be known) from across Route 1, in what was at that time the Food Fair parking lot. Food Fair, of course, would eventually become Frank’s Hardware, which in turn would eventually become Frank’s Nursery and Crafts—but that’s yet another story or two, as well.


Coincidentally, just a few miles west along Route 198, another Safeway opened in mid-February 1966. With a Peoples Drug at the opposite end of the Burtonsville Shopping Center, I guess the builders wisely saw no need for a Super S.

Last, but not least, I’d heard many a story about Laurel’s original Safeway—a location just off Main Street that, like its successor, was eventually deemed too small. That store was located on C Street, in the little building that would actually become City Hall and the Laurel Police Headquarters in 1972. Apparently, it continued to briefly do business even after the larger, new store opened on Bowie Road. In fact, according to this amusing snippet from September 1969, customers were still showing up even after it had closed.

Laurel Leader, September 25, 1969.

I can relate. They, too, must’ve felt like they’d lost an old friend.

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