Re-Starting Gate

By now, most locals know that The Starting Gate liquor store closed its doors at the end of July. The building, which has occupied the northwest corner of Rt. 198 and Whiskey Bottom Road since 1960, is slated to be demolished—soon to be replaced by a sparkling new Royal Farms store and gas station.

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The Starting Gate has been a polarizing spot for decades—particularly in the immediate neighborhood, where many residents of the relatively new Russett and Laurel Highlands communities associated the vagrancy, drugs, and prostitution problems that long plagued Whiskey Bottom Road with their proximity to The Starting Gate.

The building itself had become an eyesore over the years; its one-time iconic neon sign actually collapsed over a decade ago, and was never replaced.

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Photo: © krapow/Flickr

To be sure, not everyone had a problem with The Starting Gate. Aside from countless regular customers over the years, there’s at least one person out there who has 50,000 reasons to be fond of it:

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When I learned that it was closing, I’d planned on writing a brief history of the business for Lost Laurel. And I’ll still do that when time permits—taking a look back at the early days of the business, when it was quite the hot spot in town:

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And other times, when it got a bit too hot:

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Three alarm fire, 1963. Laurel News Leader photo.

But I discovered that The Starting Gate story isn’t actually finished yet… It’s also a story that seems to be quite misunderstood.

In fact, the business is planning to reopen in a new location nearby—3485 Laurel Fort Meade Road, which was the former McDonald’s across the street from the Maryland City Volunteer Fire Department.

However, as one might expect, the business is facing a number of obstacles, and has had a difficult time negotiating a new lease. Helen Jung, whose family has owned the liquor store for 27 years, was planning to reopen in October. But their liquor board hearing has been postponed to November 13th—if approved for a new license, they now plan to open in late January/early February 2019.

I met Helen and found her to be a kind, smart, and engaging business owner eager to clear up a lot of major misconceptions about The Starting Gate. This was particularly interesting to me in light of a thread I recently saw on another Laurel-themed Facebook page, in which someone from the Russett community had started a petition to block them from reopening, citing some “600 police calls per month,” (which I found rather suspicious, if not physically impossible, but I digress).

Let me backtrack for a moment, and just preface this with my own recollection of living in close proximity to The Starting Gate—before Russett was even built.

In the summer of 1987, my parents bought their first home—a townhouse in the then-new Laurel Highlands development on Laurel View Court, just off Whiskey Bottom Road and practically in The Starting Gate’s back yard. I was 14 years old, and well aware of the types of problems—both real and perceived—that The Starting Gate tended to draw. And I can remember a feeling of apprehension living so close by, as I’m sure many living in the community in more recent years have experienced as well.

What I didn’t know then—and what most folks probably don’t realize today, is that The Starting Gate isn’t just one entity. Sure, you may know that the building was segmented into three parts: the package liquor store on the corner, the bar in the center, and the restaurant on the opposite end; but since 1991, when Helen Jung’s family took over the liquor store, they have been completely unrelated to the bar. (The restaurant, too, having been closed for decades). In fact, she revealed that she wouldn’t even begin to know how to reach the owners of the bar—which closed in May.

Another important detail is that neither the liquor store nor the bar actually owned the property on which the building sat. It’s owned by an entity called SG Property, LLC—which is based all the way down in Vero Beach, Fl.

So, that brings me to the issue of community residents attempting to block the liquor store from reopening across the street. Although I’m no longer a Laurel resident myself—nor do I have any kind of stake in The Starting Gate’s business whatsoever—I feel it’s only fair to provide some facts that seem to be getting overlooked.

The “600 police calls”

True, The Starting Gate has indeed been the source of this hefty number of Anne Arundel County Police calls—but this figure is not a monthly total. In fact, it spans back to 2014, and represents calls from both the liquor store and the bar (again, two completely unrelated businesses, with the misfortune of a shared location).

More critically, half of these calls were actually for traffic violations—not the drunken shenanigans you might’ve expected.

Before the bar closed in May, both it and the liquor store were making daily calls to police for protection. Since the bar closed, the liquor store’s number of calls significantly reduced—once a week, if at all. Customers noted that there was less panhandling around the building, and expressed feeling safer visiting the store after the bar had closed.

Neglectful upkeep

Neither the liquor store nor the bar owned the property. Nearly a decade ago, the landlord approached the tenants with the idea of redeveloping the property—possibly adding a gas station and building a separate structure for the liquor store. Unfortunately for them, the liquor store obviously wasn’t included in the deal with Royal Farms. But because redevelopment has always been the long term goal, evidently, the landlord did not help with any upkeep for most of the 27 years that Helen’s family has been tenants.

It’s also important to note that immediately behind the former Starting Gate building is a section of Old Line Road and a patch of woodland that has been a haven to vagrants, trash piles, and God only knows what else for decades. In recent years, the road was fenced off in an effort to deter both vehicular and foot traffic behind the building. Both that road and the woods behind The Starting Gate are actually Anne Arundel County property.

When a Russett community liason approached Helen in 2016 about the trash piles and vagrancy problem, she tried in vain to get the county to acknowledge its responsibility. Neither the county nor her landlord responded, so Helen’s family actually spent their own money trying to clean up the tax payers’ property—something they continued to do until they closed the liquor store on July 31st.

A fresh start

The main reason Helen’s family has had a difficult time negotiating a new lease for their new location is that they wanted to find the right partnership with the right landlord—one who would no longer neglect their property or their responsibilities.

Starting Gate Liquors wants a fresh start. They want—and deserve—the opportunity to separate themselves from the stigma of the Starting Gate Bar & Lounge, and the neglected old property at the corner of Whiskey Bottom Road.

The new location at 3485 Laurel Fort Mead Road is a standalone structure and will house the liquor store only. There will be no bar. (The former bar owners have retired and will not be reopening again elsewhere).

Directly behind the new location is the Tall Oaks apartment complex—and their well-maintained fence sits in the clearing between the sites. This is a far cry from the county-neglected street and woods behind the old Starting Gate building.

Relevancy

Is Starting Gate Liquors still relevant? Yes.

After Total Wine opened their venerable doors less than a mile away some 20 years ago, Starting Gate Liquors didn’t wither away—it continued to thrive. Helen’s family hired a marketing firm to track their Google searches, and before closing, their monthly search hits were in the 4,000 range. Since closing, that number has nearly doubled. Customers do seem to want the business to reopen.

Helen notes that for the past 27 years, her family has seen many positive developments in the Maryland City community. She feels that their customers have matured with them, and looks forward to serving them again with a much better foundation. Crime in the area has seen a steady decline, and that trend will undoubtedly continue now that the bar is gone.

Frankly, the biggest problem in that neighborhood is the string of 1-star (and that’s probably a generous rating) motels in the short stretch of Route 198 east of Whiskey Bottom Road. Statistically, that’s where the bulk of the serious criminal activity has always been.

I would urge those who live in the immediate neighborhood (and beyond) to consider all of these factors before condemning a historic family business that has lasted longer than most—and in spite of some significant challenges that most of us had probably never been aware of. Helen tells me that since that one complaint in 2016 about the trash piles behind the old Starting Gate building, the community had not approached her with any other issues—but she has always remained open to any suggestions or concerns they may have.

I would also encourage you to support their reopening at the hearing for their new license:

Tuesday, November 13, 2018
6:00 PM

Doubletree Annapolis
210 Holiday Court
Annapolis, MD

 

 

 

 

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Walking for Dad

Way back in 1977, just as I was getting ready to start kindergarten, my parents made the decision to move from Hyattsville to Laurel. I still remember helping my dad gas up the Pontiac as we set out to explore what would be my hometown for the next 20 years.

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I know it’s cliché, but I’m amazed at how quickly those twenty years went by. I’m even more amazed—and frankly, a little terrified—at how quickly the next twenty flew by, as well.

I’ve now lived in Northern Virginia longer than I did in Laurel. Heck, I’ve almost been married now longer than I lived in Laurel. It’ll be 20 years in April.

For those who don’t know, my dad passed away on April 26th—my wedding anniversary, coincidentally. He’d been battling bladder cancer for about a year. It was already Stage 4 when they diagnosed him, and he’d had no previous symptoms or health issues in his nearly 78 years, despite a very sedentary lifestyle in the decades after his service in the U.S. Army.

Yesterday, nearly five months to the day he passed, my dad’s ashes were inurned at Arlington National Cemetery.

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Bending the rules ever-so-slightly, our Arlington representative let me attach a miniature recliner chair ornament to his urn, which I know he would’ve gotten a kick out of. (I’m telling you—the man loved a comfortable recliner.)

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The ceremony was awe-inspiring and humbling. And to have family and friends there to support us, as well as the thoughts and prayers of those who couldn’t attend—it was quite an experience.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my dad’s life recently. The theme that I keep coming back to is generosity. That’s who and what he was. We didn’t have a lot of money, mind you; but he was always giving—giving his time, or whatever he had to share.

He seemed to have an endless supply of Wrigley’s gum throughout the years, and he was never content to just offer you a stick of it—he’d insist that you take the remainder of the pack, “so you’ll have some for later.” I now make it a point to keep a constant supply of Wrigley’s gum on my desk at work, to share with my coworkers. Every time someone stops by for some, it’s a wonderful reminder of my dad.

A few years ago, a gentleman sent me a message here on Lost Laurel. He’d recognized my name, and recalled that he and my dad had worked together at an electrical supply warehouse in Northeast DC back in the early 1980s. When my dad learned that this fellow also lived in Laurel, he offered to give him a ride to and from work every day. But there was an important detail that he shared with me, which I’d never heard before. “I remember when we had to do the annual inventory one year that paid double-time, your dad was going to buy you a video game with the overtime pay. This was around 1981.”

That’s how I got my beloved Atari 2600. The fact that someone I’ve never met still remembers this seemingly insignificant moment over 35 years later, and was compelled to share it with me, speaks volumes about my dad. I’ll always treasure that story. And I’m grateful that I had the chance to relay it to my dad before he got sick, and to thank him not only for the Atari gift so long ago, but for all the giving he’d done.

Shortly before I embarked on the long drive to Holloway Funeral Home in Salisbury to pick up his urn on Wednesday, I thought about what else I can do to honor him. Pete Lewnes, one of my fellow Laurel History Boys, had been telling me about the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life that’s held every year in Laurel. Knowing what a tremendous help the American Cancer Society was to my parents throughout my dad’s ordeal, I decided to start a Laurel History Boys team—and now I’m looking forward to participating in the walk on June 8th. To raise money for a very good cause—in my dad’s name, and in our old hometown—is going to be a very special thing.

If you’d like to make even a small contribution, it would mean so much to me. If you’re local to the Laurel area and would like to join our team or volunteer in some other way, that would be just as welcomed. I encourage you to check out the Relay for Life site and learn more about this great event. It’s still several months away, so there’s plenty of time to spread the word.

Your generosity, much like my dad’s, will be remembered. Thank you.

~ Rich

Donate to our Relay for Life team

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Maryland City

My next Laurel History Boys presentation will be on October 13th at the Maryland City Library, where Kevin Leonard and I will be discussing Maryland City. While Kevin covers the history of the residential community, my portion of the talk will focus on the area’s retail history.

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While I’ve found quite a few vintage photos and ads from various businesses, I have to admit—pinpointing exactly where some of them were in the two ever-changing Maryland City shopping centers is proving to be a chore.

Following are two site maps for the shopping centers. I’ve removed the current tenant list and simply numbered the units, and I’m hoping some of you can help fill in a few blanks—literally.

Please take a look and let me know in the comments if you can identify the locations of any particular businesses from either Brockbridge Shopping Center (198 & Old Line Avenue) or Maryland City Plaza (198 & Red Clay Road). Whether you recall them from the 1960s or the 1990s, let’s try to compile a list of historical tenants.

Starting with Brockbridge Shopping Center, I know that the large anchor stores were originally Drug Fair (#1) and A & P (#2). The A & P later became E.J. Roberts—a clothing store. In the strip mall section, I remember going to Tracy Crabtree’s barbershop in the early 90s, but I can’t recall exactly which of the storefronts was his.

 

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Likewise, Maryland City Plaza was originally home to the likes of Sears Surplus, Dart Drug, and Acme. The library branch was also located here before Russett was built.

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Part of the challenge in identifying shopping center locations (aside from fading memory) is that contemporary advertisements and phone directory listings rarely included a specific address—only that the business was located in said shopping center. Like this one, from 1968:

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Another obstacle is that the shopping centers themselves have changed over the years. Not only cosmetically, but large units have been split up, new sections added, etc. It can be surprisingly disorienting to visit an old shopping center again if you haven’t seen it in 20 years or so!

Despite having technically lived in Maryland City for a few years, (my parents bought a townhouse on Whiskey Bottom Road just behind the Starting Gate in 1987) I didn’t spend a lot of time at those shopping centers. Going back even further, my first youth football team was also in Maryland City. I still have my Mustangs jersey.

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I’d wear it to my presentation in October, but, um, it probably hasn’t fit me since I was about 12 years old. 🙂

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The Soundtrack of Lost Laurel

I grew up at Steward Manor Apartments in the 1980s, and am still in touch with many of my neighborhood friends and other residents. A few years ago, I had the idea of designing a “soundtrack” album—I asked my friends to list songs that, for whatever reason, remind them of their days at Steward Manor. As I’m working on a follow-up, it occurred to me that I should also survey folks here and create a Lost Laurel version!

That being said, what song(s) most remind you of your best times in Laurel—and why? Any era, any genre. The only criteria is that they have significant meaning to you as a Laurel resident.

Some Lost Laurel Facebook followers have already chimed in with songs that hold meaning for them: songs that played on their car stereos while cruising Laurel Shopping Center, a song they remember hearing at an early Main Street Festival, etc.

Start listing your choices here in the comments, or email me. I’ll curate the songs and will create an album free for downloading.

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A Lost Laurel Super Bowl Story

This Sunday’s Super Bowl match-up between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots has special meaning for me. And despite the conflicting geography, it all points back to Laurel.

I should start by confessing something—I grew up rooting for the Eagles. (Hold your jeers, please). I was only 7 years old when my cousin’s family moved from Laurel to the Philadelphia suburbs; and visiting there, being immersed in Eagles fever (this was 1980, the year the Eagles would go on to their first Super Bowl) I naturally gravitated towards the green and silver. The first NFL game I attended in person was an Eagles/Redskins game at Veterans Stadium—and I was hooked.

I should’ve seen it as a relationship that was doomed from the start. That January, our TV decided to break. It was still in the shop at Belmont TV by the time Super Bowl XV aired, and my dad and I were forced to listen to the game on the radio, like it was the Great Depression or something. And depressing it was—the Eagles, actually favored to win, somehow lost to the Oakland Raiders. And they wouldn’t make another Super Bowl appearance for 24 long years.

My entire childhood—and then some—was spent rooting for a team that was at times great, and at other times awful. And at all times, just never quite good enough to win the big one.

I was about 9 or 10 when my parents took me to Montgomery Ward at Laurel Centre Mall to pick up something I’d been drooling over in their Christmas catalog for weeks: NFL Action Team Mates®. They were 7″ posable figures which came with numbered sticker sheets, letting you create your own players.

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This was decades before McFarlane would introduce their magnificently-crafted NFL figures; and even several years before we’d see the first Starting Lineup® figures, which were pretty revolutionary, themselves.

But getting back to the Action Team Mates®, I had my heart set on the Eagles and Redskins.

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There was one problem. The Wards associate informed us that they didn’t have any Eagles figures in stock. I was crushed. And I had exactly 10 seconds to decide which other team figures I wanted.

I couldn’t stand the Cowboys; I had no interest in the Giants. Instead, my mind went directly to Laurel’s all-time favorite sporting goods store owner, Bob Windsor. Bob had actually played for the New England Patriots, and would always give customers an autographed photo. Mine was taped to my bedroom wall at the time, I’m sure.

So, without hesitation, I asked, “Do you have the New England Patriots?” They did. And after several minutes of waiting in the catalog order pickup department, I went home with a complete set of NFL Action Team Mates®, including the cardboard field, the goal posts, sideline markers and benches, and the Redskins and Patriots—two teams which, ironically, I can’t recall ever having even faced each other. But I digress. It was awesome.

Now let’s flash forward a few decades.

By the late 2000s, I was admittedly growing tired of being an Eagles fan—something I never thought could happen. I still loved the players; but the perennial disappointment of underachieving teams had worn on me. Worse, I didn’t like the way the management seemed to have an air of entitlement, despite having never won a Super Bowl. They’d cut veteran players as soon as they turned 30 years old, and being a 30-something at the time, myself, that was frustrating.

Frankly, I also didn’t like the reputation Eagles fans had—especially here in the DC area. As the team became more successful/popular—going to a string of consecutive NFC Championship Games, especially—displaced fans tended to overcompensate and go out of their way to be obnoxious. Having grown up attending games in Philadelphia, I knew that the majority of the actual hometown fans were not really that bad. For the most part, they’re knowledgeable and passionate about their team, and nowhere near the stereotype you see so often in this area. I certainly was never like that. And I didn’t want to be associated with that reputation.

Between that and the constantly-changing rosters due to free agency, I decided to step away from being a die-hard Philly fan, and actually tried to root for my hometown Washington Redskins in earnest these past few years. However, I quickly realized that this team—particularly its management under Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen—makes cheering for them infinitely harder than anything I ever endured with the Eagles.

But getting back on topic, it was during this period of transition that I parted ways with a lot of my Eagles memorabilia—keeping only a few mementos from the earlier years that I’ll always treasure.

And while weeding through that stuff, I came across a couple of those old NFL Action Team Mates® figures, a couple of which had somehow survived relatively unscathed. (Not this one, unfortunately):

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I found a Patriots figure to which I’d applied the number 12 some 30 years earlier, and decided to list it on eBay—playing to that legion of Tom Brady fans. To my surprise, somebody actually did a Buy It Now for $150.

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I absolutely detest the Patriots—particularly after their 3-point win over Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX—and even moreso in the years that have followed, with the cheating scandals and the general arrogance that they project. But I did get some degree of satisfaction knowing that I fleeced one of their fans for $150—for an action figure that was, to me, just a stand-in for the team I’d really wanted.

The Patriots are once again favored to beat the Eagles tomorrow night in what will be their record 10th Super Bowl appearance. And like the last time they faced off, the Eagles aren’t 100% healthy. But for some strange reason, I’m surprisingly optimistic… I can see Philadelphia actually getting to Brady and pulling off the upset. I’m just trying to visualize how it would feel, seeing the dream of them finally win a Super Bowl realized.

Either way, I’m encouraged with the direction the Eagles are heading. Win or lose, they should be legitimate contenders for the foreseeable future. And I’m happy to have rekindled some of the childhood passion I had for this team. Unlikely as it may seem, cheering for the Philadelphia Eagles brings fond memories of growing up in Laurel, Maryland.

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Matchbooks: You Are Here

I recently had the idea to take a few of my vintage Laurel matchbooks for a little field trip… back to their origins. Standing either on site or within sight of the businesses they promote, I photographed them. It’s funny how such a small (and now virtually obsolete) form of advertising can trigger so many vivid memories—especially when shown in this context.

Covering pretty much all corners of the town, the matchbooks represent a range of eras—from the 1930s to the 1990s.

In some cases, if a business was around long enough, (like Peoples Drug, for instance) it had multiple matchbooks over time, showing logo and brand evolution. I plan to photograph as many as I can, and include multiple locations, if possible.

This will be an ongoing project I’ll add to as time permits, and of course as I find more matchbooks. If you have any old ones from Laurel hiding in that kitchen junk drawer, please let me know!

All photos ©2017 Richard Friend | Lost Laurel

 

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A Childhood Apartment… 30 Years Later

I finally had the chance to tour my childhood apartment at Steward Manor this weekend—the first time I’ve stepped foot inside since my parents and I moved in the summer of 1987. It’s amazing how every inch of space still holds so many vivid memories.

Even before starting Lost Laurel, it was Steward Manor’s history that first fascinated me. I’d begun researching it in earnest in 2010, visiting the rental office to copy vintage photos; and tracking down original plat survey drawings from 1959 at Ben Dyer Associates—the civil engineering company that’s still in business today.

I’d gotten a message from my friend, Joe Leizear, a longtime Steward Manor resident who became a maintenance man there himself. Joe shares a fascination for this kind of stuff, and knew I’d love to tour my old apartment when the opportunity arose. Sure enough, shortly after the most recent tenants moved out, Joe invited me to see it.

The tour wouldn’t have been complete without my oldest friends, Rodney and Ronald Pressley—twin brothers I’ve known since the first grade, and grew up with at the apartment complex.

It’s a surreal experience, walking through such a familiar place again after all these years… and it’s amazing how vivid the memories remain. Even with the many upgrades and changes—and even vacant—it still feels like it did in the 1980s. It felt like home.

1986: The 99¢ Theater

Summer being the time of blockbuster movies, here’s a true Lost Laurel blockbuster: footage from 1986 leading up to the opening of the 99¢ theater at Town Center! Courtesy of the amazing Jeff Krulik and Paul Sanchez, this clip captures the Rt. 197 & Contee Road shopping center as it was in the mid-80s—including Peoples Drug, Tropical Fish City, DiGennaro’s, Church’s Fried Chicken, and more.

Much more to come—including footage from the grand opening itself (complete with performances by the legendary Sammy Ross, on loan from Delaney’s Irish Pub!) Thanks again, Jeff!!

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“Top of the World, Ma!”

Laurel Plaza shopping center, at the intersection of Routes 197 and 198, has always had something unique to Laurel at any given time. Zayre (and later, Ames) was the anchoring department store on one end, and Grand Union (and later, Basics) was the grocery store on the other—a space that would later become the longtime home to Village Thrift Store. But, of course, Laurel Plaza was also home to the greatest sporting goods store of all time, Bob Windsor’s All Pro Sports—owned by former San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots star, Bob Windsor.

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© Lost Laurel collection

But Laurel Plaza was also where the Laurel Boys & Girls Club-sponsored traveling carnivals set up when I was a kid; and every year around this time, I think back to them fondly.

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Laurel Plaza carnival, May 1987. (Photo © Richard Friend)

Operated by Winchester Amusement Company, you didn’t have to be a certified safety inspector to tell that the rides weren’t exactly in optimal condition. Disney World, this most certainly wasn’t. And you could also count on some kind of trouble brewing at some point during the two-week run—usually a drunken scuffle or three after an argument over the (very-possibly-rigged) games of chance.

But the rides were true carnival classics: the Scrambler, the Trabant, and the Scat (among others) were there year after year. The crown jewel, however—the one that literally first caught your eye and immediately registered “carnival”—was the Ferris Wheel.

And Winchester Amusement Company had one of the biggest Ferris Wheels—a 50-footer. Anyone approaching Laurel Plaza simply couldn’t miss it.

Thirty years ago this week, (on May 14th, 1987, to be exact) I got to experience that 50-foot Ferris Wheel from a very unique perspective:

I got stuck at the top, and had to climb down via the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department’s 100-foot ladder truck.

I literally remember it like it was yesterday, but my memory is surely aided by these photos that I took the day after the fateful ride.

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The infamous Ferris Wheel at Laurel Plaza, the day after the incident. (Photo © Richard Friend)

I’ve never been a particular fan of Ferris Wheels, mind you; I’m more of a roller coaster guy. But I’d had it in my mind to try out every ride the carnival had to offer. Ferris Wheels always struck me as incredibly boring; but as luck would have it, this one quickly turned into what was arguably the most exciting ride in the history of the Laurel carnival.

It was around 8PM that night when I boarded the Ferris Wheel—the ride only about three quarters full with nine people, total. It made exactly one full rotation, and as I passed the motor at the base of the ride, I flinched as a large cable literally snapped off the drive wheel system. Seconds later, as my car ascended to the top, the entire Ferris Wheel shimmied side to side briefly—that’s when everyone realized that something had gone wrong. For a split second, I thought it was going to collapse. That, or we were literally going to start rolling down Route 198.

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The broken cable the day after the incident. Photo © Richard Friend

Instead, we heard what sounded like a generator cutting off, and the wheel simply ground to a stop—with my car literally stuck at the very top.

I remember seeing the Ferris Wheel operator frantically trying to figure out what to do; and when his best option was evidently to try to manually rotate the giant wheel—with his bare hands—I knew this was serious.

With curious onlookers beginning to congregate, carnival employees shouted up to us that they would have us down safely soon; but at least an hour went by before we finally saw salvation…in the form of fire trucks.

A pair of firefighters climbed the 100-foot ladder to my car, and spent a few moments securing the car to their ladder. I was told to hold onto the back of the car I was sitting in, because the second I started moving, it would swing forward. Sure enough, I found myself looking straight down at the asphalt parking lot for a few unnerving seconds. But I was safely harnessed to the firefighter, who assured me that if I fell, he would fall, too—and that he wasn’t planning to fall.

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The safety bar on Car #9, still open the day after I’d climbed out from the top of the Ferris Wheel. (Photo © Richard Friend)

He instructed me to carefully step out of the car, and to throw my legs over the top of the Ferris Wheel, one at a time. Literally, over the top of the Ferris Wheel, and onto the ladder. I did that, and we slowly descended together. As we did, I confided to him, “this is a lot more fun than the Ferris Wheel.”

I’d just gotten safely to the ground when a man whom I assume was the owner/manager of the carnival approached me. I’m not exaggerating when I say that he looked exactly like the guy from “The Blues Brothers” who owned Bob’s Country Bunker.

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Bob, owner of Bob’s Country Bunker. (“The Blues Brothers,” 1980).

He was smiling jovially as he handed me a small cup of Pepsi. “Are ‘ya thirsty? Here, have a soda!” And then he handed me the real reward for my experience: a pair of complimentary ticket books. They included 12 tickets for free rides. I still have the covers in my collection:

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I went straight home after that, and found my mom furious that I was over an hour and a half late. Not only that, she didn’t believe my story of being stuck at the top of the Ferris Wheel—even when I showed her the ticket books I’d received. It actually wasn’t until the following Thursday, when the Laurel Leader reported the incident, that she realized I’d been telling the truth!

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To my knowledge, no charges or lawsuits were ever filed, as no one was injured. I went back to the carnival in the days afterward and used my free tickets—even riding the Ferris Wheel again once it was operational. Although, that was the last Ferris Wheel ride I’ve ever taken.

I’ve tried to find out whatever became of the Winchester Amusement Company, which (not surprisingly) seems to be out of business. I’d heard that the Laurel Boys & Girls Club, concerned with their quality control, eventually replaced them with another carnival operator in the 1990s. And in 1998, there was an incident in Hagerstown where a teenager was seriously injured after being ejected from one of the rides operated by Winchester Amusement. I doubt there were any free ticket books and Pepsis after that one, and it may very well have spelled the end for the longtime carnies.

Nevertheless, I’ll always have the memory of climbing down from the top of that Ferris Wheel at the carnival in Laurel Plaza—which may as well have been the top of the world. It’s just hard to believe that it’s been 30 years. Driving past the shopping center today, the parking lot is still teeming with activity; but nothing like the night of May 14, 1987.

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Main Street Tour LHS Benefit

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The Laurel Historical Society’s Annual Gala is just a couple weeks away on April 22nd, and one of the highlights has always been the auction. This year, there’s an extra auction component—Facebook—and I’m very proud to be part of it!

I’m donating a personal walking tour of historic Main Street and a copy of my Lost Laurel book, which you’ll be able to bid on directly from the Laurel Historical Society’s Facebook page starting next Saturday, April 15th. All funds raised go to support the Laurel Museum. Even if you’re not able to attend the Gala, this is a chance to bid on the tour and help us raise funds.

Here are the details from LHS Executive Director, Lindsey Baker:

This year the Laurel Historical Society is expanding our Auction to the Facebook world!

We will be putting 1 item up for bid on Facebook a week prior to our Great Gala. That means you can bid from the comfort of your own home, at work, or on the go–anywhere you access Facebook!

Bidding will end the night of the Laurel Historical Society’s Great Gala at 10pm.

Bidding is simple, easy, and painless!

When we post the item up for bid, we will post a minimum bid and bid increments. If you’d like to bid, simply comment on the post with an amount in a bid increment higher than the previous comment. Same as you would on the bid sheets at the Gala, but instead it’s just a comment on the Facebook post.

The last person to comment before the auction ends at 10pm will win! We will use time stamps to determine the winner if it’s a close call.

Once we’ve picked the winner, we will let them know and ask for their email so we can complete the transaction privately.

WHAT ARE WE AUCTIONING OFF YOU MIGHT ASK?

A personal walking tour with Richard Friend, LHS Board Member who is known for Lost Laurel and the Laurel History Boys. The winner of the tour will be able to schedule a personal tour, length of their choosing, on Main Street. Richard will bring photos and stories about almost every block of Main Street covering the last 100+ years. And the winner will also receive a signed copy of the Lost Laurel book.

We’ll do our Auction Post a week from today, on April 15. Keep an eye out and as Jim McCeney loved to say, bid early and bid often!

I’ll meet the winner’s group at the Museum and we’ll walk the full length of Main Street and back, (or a shorter distance, if you’re not up for the full trek) and will share some little-known history behind the businesses and residences from the past century.

Block by block, I’ll show you where past businesses once existed, where notorious crimes and accidents occurred, and much more. Ever wonder which places on Main Street might actually be haunted … and why? Take the tour and find out!

I hope to see you at the Gala, and look forward to showing a whole other side of Main Street history soon!

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