THE LAUREL CHRONICLES
History Crumbs, Vol. 2
By Kevin Leonard | March 29, 2021
These short bits of history tend to pile up as I do more research on various topics. Unless otherwise credited, all quotes are from the Laurel Leader.
In May, it was announced that a Pound and Prison House was to be built on a lot donated by Mr. Frank Collier, provided the town would remove any and all improvements if requested by him in the future. The lot was also to be used for impounded livestock. The Laurel Commissioners accepted a bid from C.F. Shaffer, owner of the Shaffer Lumber Company, who offered to build the jail for $20. However, not quite two years later, the Commissioners’ meeting minutes reported that “James Brown was arrested and jailed in the lock-up for drunk & disorderly; he then broke out of lock-up.” Mr. Collier then decided it was not secure enough and requested it be removed per the original agreement.
The 9th Street Bridge next to the pool at the end of Main Street that was swept away by Hurricane Agnes in 1972 was actually the second bridge on that spot. The original bridge was constructed in 1808 and was also swept away by flood waters in 1889 caused by the Johnston, Pennsylvania flood.
In January, Andrew Carnegie wrote to Mayor Edward Phelps and agreed to donate $10,000 for a library in Laurel if a site is donated in town and $1,000 annually for maintenance of the library building. There is no evidence the offer was accepted, as Laurel’s first library was not opened until 1916.
In November, PG County Police Officer J. Randolph Brown was found dead in a buggy at French’s Livery Stable in Laurel by an employee at the stable. Brown had rented a horse and buggy the night before to serve a summons. According to the Leader, on the way back “he stopped at The Pines and had something to drink and also bought a quart bottle of whiskey for medical use, which was found untouched in the bottom of the buggy.” William Diven, bartender at The Pines, testified that Brown was not intoxicated when he left the bar. But, officials said, “the left side of his face and under his chin was scraped and bruised, evidently caused by falling against the wheel while the horse was moving.” The horse, without any direction from Brown, returned to the stable. His autopsy reported his death “from unknown causes.”
In June, Frank L. Martin published a notice in the Leader: “I wish to state that the rumor to this effect that my wife found letters in my pocket from other women is absolutely false. The letter was put there by a person who works with me, as a practical joke, which I can prove to those interested.”
In June, the Leader reported a New York divorce case in which the father, seeking custody of the couple’s son, claimed that “the child has been practically abandoned by the mother” because “she smokes cigarettes.” The judge rejected the argument, telling the court “that it is quite a common custom among many refined women in the larger cities of the world to smoke cigarettes.”
In October, “Mr. Walter Fisher, while cranking an automobile on Sunday, broke his arm.”
The Laurel Free Public Library opened in the Patuxent Bank building in two rooms on the floor above the Post Office. Maintained by the Laurel Library Association, members were charged $1 per year. The library faced constant financial problems paying its rent until 1929, when it relocated to donated space at 384 Main Street.
In January, Laurel resident Private Arthur Phelps, who was serving with the 313th Machine Gun Company in France, wrote a letter to his sister, Edna. The letter read: “I went over to call upon some of the 23rd Engineers today, and on my way over I had to pass a lot of German prisoners whom we captured in our first drive, and one of them yelled my name and to my surprise it was a boy whom I went to school with at School No. 1, in my home town, Laurel. What do you know about this? He asked me about Miss Annie Wilson, who taught us and also whether my father was still keeping store. I was not allowed to talk to him long for it is against the rules to talk to them.” His father, Edward Phelps, a former Mayor, had at that point owned a store in Laurel for decades. Arthur did not identify the German prisoner from Laurel.
In April, the Leader editorialized: “SHALL WOMEN SWEAR? On the other hand, an anti-swearer comes across with this compelling argument: ‘It just won’t do at all because it distorts the face. Cussing must be done forcibly, to be effective. This hardens the mouth, wrinkles the brow and brings on premature age. An angry face is never beautiful. Men have used strong language since the beginning of time. That is why there are so few good-looking men.’ That should settle the question. On the face of it, the negative wins. A representative of the swearing sex can only offer, as a clincher, this modest addendum to the argument: ‘With all men’s swearing, at life, at fate, fortune, accident, misery, women, and things in general, what has it got them?’”
In January, a robbery of Sol Laserovits’ jewelry store on Main Street went very badly. Three armed men entered the store with what appeared to be a plan. While one robber tied the proprietor to a chair, a second one scooped up jewelry (later valued at $1,000), and the third robber went outside and retrieved the getaway car. But the driver “got scared and started towards Washington” on Route 1, “leaving the other two who tried to make their escape on foot.” The two robbers left behind were quickly captured and police closed in on the panicked driver of the getaway car. “Finding himself between officers,” the driver killed himself with his pistol. “Naturally,” according to the Leader, “the holdup caused a good deal of excitement in the town for several hours.”
In November, a passenger on a bus stopping at the terminal on the corner of Main Street and Washington Boulevard saw flames coming from the rear of the Laurel Hotel on the opposite corner. The passenger tried to get someone’s attention in the hotel by banging on the front door, but no one answered. So, the Good Samaritan threw a rock through a second story window, awakening the housekeeper, who called the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department. The fire caused extensive damage to the rear of the hotel and the kitchen. There was no word on what activity inside the hotel precluded anyone from hearing the commotion outside.
In June, on his way back to Washington from Baltimore, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall stopped at the Laurel Pharmacy for a soda at the lunch counter. While the General sipped his soda and chatted with a few customers who recognized him, his chauffeur waited in his car on Washington Boulevard in front of the pharmacy. Laurel Police pulled up and ordered the chauffeur to move the vehicle.
Olney Theater had a banner season in 1951, with three Hollywood veterans headlining shows. In August, Veronica Lake, a major movie star throughout the 1940s (Sullivan’s Travels), starred in “The Curtain Rises” at Olney. In September, Leo G. Carroll, star of stage and screen since the 1930s (and who would go on to play Mr. Waverly, the boss in The Man From U.N.C.L.E in the 1960s), starred in “Home at Seven” at Olney. Following Carroll’s appearance, Olney then staged “Pal Joey,” starring Carol Bruce, the star of dozens of films since 1941.
In March, the Fort Meade branch of the Citizens National Bank of Laurel was robbed by a “tall, nattily dressed man, wearing a visored cap and a trench-type overcoat” who commanded teller Hazel Gore, from Scaggsville, to “fill this bag” that he handed to her. The man then “took a glass jar from his pocket, removed the cap, thrust it near her face, and said ‘Smell it, it’s acid.’ The robber then told Stuart Dorset, the branch manager, ‘Put the money in the bag or I’ll throw acid in the lady’s face.’” The bank later reported the robber made off with $19,800. The FBI analyzed some drops spilled from the jar and confirmed it was “a dilute solution of sulfuric acid.”
FORT MEADE POST
SOURCE: LAUREL HISTORICAL SOCIETY
In April, emergency responders dealt with three bomb scares around town. The first two, at Polan’s on Main Street and then in another store, were quickly determined to be fakes. The third, however, at Laurel High School, was more realistic and caused much more commotion. A juvenile caller to the school claimed a bomb would go off within two hours. The school was evacuated, and police began a search. Laurel Police Officer Wallace Mitchell opened a locker and heard a buzzing sound under some papers. He found the homemade device that resembled a bomb but turned out to be a battery and buzzer with a switch rigged to when the locker was opened. “We’re going to send someone to jail for a long time when we catch up with the person who has been causing phony bomb scares around here,” said Laurel Police Chief Robert Kaiser.
In November, the City Council nixed the idea proposed by the Director of Laurel’s Parks & Recreation, Judith Nigh, for a “dance at the bottom of the Laurel Swimming Pool,” which would presumably be drained. Nigh thought the dance “would be quite a novelty” and that it would be “open to all teens in town.” “Has this ever been tried anywhere else in the United States?” asked Mayor Merrill Harrison. “From the expression on her face, it was clear that the young recreation director thought her idea was an original.” The council’s negative reaction to her proposal prompted Nigh to ask, “‘What is the town’s policy on bon fires?’, suggesting that the dance be held on the Laurel Swimming Pool parking lot with the dancers being warmed by the fire.” “Not on the macadam!” exclaimed Clerk Treasurer Harold T. Rice “excitedly.” It’s unclear if the dance was ever held.
In February, Columbia developer James Rouse told the Laurel Area Chamber of Commerce that both Laurel and Columbia would have populations of more than 100,000 by 1980. At a general membership meeting and dinner at the Colony 7 restaurant, Rouse gave some advice to Laurel’s planners. “You are the power structure of Laurel—you can accomplish more together than any other same-size group in this area.” His prediction was not quite accurate. In 1990—10 years after Rouse’s prediction of 100,000—Laurel had approximately 20,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It wasn’t until 2010 that Columbia was roughly 500 people short of 100,000.
Two of Laurel’s oldest bars closed within two months of each other in 1983. The misnamed Fyffe’s Service Center, which had two non-working gas pumps outside for as long as anyone could remember, closed first in May. The half-bar, half-convenience store was located on the corner of Sandy Spring Road and Montgomery Street. Owners Walter and Harry Fyffe opened the bar in the early 1950s. Then, in July, the Laurel Tavern on Main Street closed its doors for good when owner Bill Miles did not renew the bar’s lease. Dennis McCahill originally opened the Laurel Tavern in the 1930s after he opened another, Town Tavern, up the street at Sixth and Main Streets.
PRINCE GEORGE'S SENTINEL
In July, Anne Arundel County announced plans for an amphitheater next to Fort Meade at the intersection of Route 32 and the Baltimore Washington Parkway. The planned facility “would be bigger and better than Columbia’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, said David Boschert, Anne Arundel County Council Chairman.” The plan went nowhere.
In October, six people were shot dead in Montgomery County and Washington, DC over two days. The shooter was dubbed the “Beltway Sniper” by the media. For the next two weeks, the shootings increased over a wider area, extending into Virginia. Fear gripped the entire region and people modified some common habits, such as where, when and how to pump their own gas. In the middle of this terrorizing spree, a 13-year-old student at a middle school in Bowie was shot and wounded. All over the region, this prompted action by school systems and communities now that a child had been a victim of the shooters. Laurel Police, armed with automatic rifles, were a visible presence at both area high schools. The snipers were caught on October 24 and life returned to normal. But Laurel apparently had a close call. When photos of the snipers appeared on television, Laurel resident Katrina Carroll realized she had encountered them in the parking lot at Laurel Lakes, in front of the Safeway. This was the same day the student was shot at Bowie. Carroll told police she saw John Allen Muhammad crouched down in a Blue Chevrolet Caprice between the dashboard and the front seat. He then drove off, presumably to Bowie. Carroll wondered if her encounter with him “could have blundered his attempt to kill someone” in Laurel.
Former Laurel High School wrestling coach Beryle Cohen was inducted in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. Cohen started the wrestling program at Laurel in 1960 and in 17 years as coach, the team won six regional titles, two state titles, and boasted an undefeated dual meet record from 1972 to 1978.
The iconic Tastee Freez on Route 1 was demolished, revealing the old red and white tiles underneath the outside walls from the original restaurant on the site: McDonald’s.
Beryle Cohen (L) and assistant coach Al Goldstein in 1971. SOURCE: C.G. BARNETT COLLECTION
PHOTO: MIKE McLAUGHLIN
Laurel High School’s 1600-meter relay team set a record in the state championship, qualifying them for the National High School Track & Field Meet in New York City. Seniors Joel Roberson, Christian White, Jonta Miles, and Jovan Roberson ran a state-record 3:24.11 in the Maryland State Championships.
American Legion Post 60 in Laurel celebrated its 100th anniversary.
Richard Friend and Rick McGill contributed to this article.