We're going to tell you how Sykesville died in the 20th century. Almost.
It begins when Main Street burns down, and ends with a young Sykesville man bleeding from a bullet wound to the head in a parking lot just across the bridge. In between there are three wars, another great fire, a flood, and a slow descent into irrelevance and economic ruin.
Sykesville is on fire!
October 21st, 1937. About 10:30. The kids are in school. The sun shines over Sykesville, and a stiff breeze blows north up Main Street. It’s a cold fall day, and there’s no reason to suspect that disaster is about to strike. But it is, and it does.
Something happens, possibly something in a chimney in Henry Forsyth’s store on the McDonald Block, and within minutes, the cold north breeze is full of smoke.
Main Street, Sykesville in 1937, like Main Street, Sykesville in 2012, is really only two blocks long, but in these days it’s the vital commercial center of a small isolated town surrounded by hills and Carroll County farmland and stuck up against the Patapsco River.
The McDonald block comes first after you cross the tracks into town. Today, it houses specialty shops such as In Step Leather, Contrary Mary’s, and Samsara, but back then, there’s a general store, a barber shop, a pharmacy, a pool hall, and apartments upstairs. There are three grocery stores on Main Street. It's a poor town, and Main Street is the place where the people get their food and meet their basic needs.
The buildings are mostly wood and built in 1878, before the train station and the death of James Sykes.
And within minutes flames shoot from apartment windows.
The timing couldn’t be worse. The town’s just shaking off the Great Depression. And now fire jumps from roof to roof on the wind. Sykesville’s single fire engine, which is parked in a little shed right beside the fire, rushes into action, but the fireplug at the edge of town is clogged. The volunteers are forced to run a hose across the railroad tracks and throw a suction line into the Patapsco a few hundred feet from the flames, but this too becomes clogged.
All they can manage is a single stream of water that they turn on the blaze. It’s too little, and yes, it’s too late.
Catholic priests, reporters, businessmen, traveling salesmen, and shopkeepers join in fighting the flames. A carload of mental patients from Springfield is rushed over to help. The local telephone operator calls out, station by station - Mt. Airy, Reisterstown, Westminster, Catonsville.
Within minutes, sirens blare through the farmland and country roads of Carroll County, while in Sykesville, walls collapse, furniture burns, sparks whirl in the whipping wind, gun shells pop off in one of the stores. A mix of noise, flames, smoke, and mayhem, In a few years, such scenes will be common around the world, but this is not the bombing of London or Dresden, it's a small town burning.
The out-of-town trucks pull up by the river and immediately become mired in mud. A tire on one catches fire, and they douse it with a hand extinguisher. It’s the only fire they’ll douse quickly all day. The one destroying buildings rages over two hours and continues to smolder and spew flaming embers deep into the afternoon.
Evelyn “Puzz” Brightwell, born in 1926, is 11 and in class at Sykesville Elementary when she hears the sirens. She lives in one of the buildings. Her dad owns a store downstairs. Soon word spreads through the school.
"Sykesville is on fire."
Children burst into tears. Brightwell hugs another fifth grader, who also lives above one of the burning buildings. They both cry. Brightwell heads for home, but the school's principal catches her at the top of Springfield Avenue and makes her get into his car. Her mother has called and asked them to keep her at school.
In an interview on the Carroll Media Center, she recounts: "My mother worked in Renehan's Apple Butter Factory at the time. She headed home just as word of the fire reached her. And just as she crossed the bridge into Sykesville, the whole front of the building gave way, and she saw all her furniture go down into the flames."
In another interview, this time with Errol Smith, former curator of Sykesville’s Gate House Museum of History, she adds: “We lost everything. I remember that a day before I had won a set of triangular dishes at the movie theater. I never even got to unpack them.
“Our second floor apartment was destroyed and everything in it, but the downstairs suffered mostly smoke and water damage. The display cases were not seriously damaged but always had a charred smoky smell. My dad, Ed Barnes, ran a pool hall, but we also sold tobacco products, ice cream and candy.
“Four families were burned out, and three of the families were named Barnes, but none of us were related to each other. The other family was a Hayes.
“The buildings were rebuilt to resemble what was there before. I think he [her father] only had about $300 in insurance. It was right after the depression and people couldn’t afford insurance. But, yes, he did rebuild and reopened the business later.”
There’ve been other fires. Fire burned down the house of James Sykes. But this is the worst. According to the Sykesville Herald, “Only the two-story brick building housing the Meadows Drug Store survived the flames when firemen from more than a dozen volunteer companies, after a dogged fight, finally brought the blaze under control.”
Burned are Forsyth’s Market, the office and apartment of Dr. H. A. Barnes, William Jones’s general store, Leroy Keeney’s barber shop, and the pool hall owned by Puzz Brightwell’s father, Edward Barnes.
The apartments above are also destroyed, and it’s likely had the pharmacy not been brick, it too would have burned, and the fire would have continued down Main Street, perhaps killing Sykesville for good 60 years after the flood that washed away most of James Sykes’s original town failed to get the job done.
The Herald wrote: “Readers are asked to be patient with us for being late. Like other public-spirited volunteers, the Herald force aided in fighting the fire.”
No one died. No one was seriously injured. Several buildings survived, including what the Herald referred to as “the Old Stone Store” across the street, which was once a general store, but is now home to St. Barnabas Parish House. Puzz Brightwell's father moved his business into the Old Stone Store and would not return to his place on the McDonald block till 1940.
War and Other Wounds
The fire was Sykesville’s first big tragedy of the 20th century, but there were more to come. Almost exactly a year later, the town suffered a different sort of disaster, once again involving an insufficiency of water, only this time caused not by a spark and a breeze, but human shortsightedness.
The federal government offered to help eight Carroll County municipalities build modern water and sewage systems. The government would have paid between 65 and 80 percent of the cost, and the town would have paid the rest.
Initial reaction was enthusiastic, as the October 13,1938 Herald reported.
The movement to secure a water and sewage system for Sykesville with the aid of Federal funds got over the first hurdle with flying colors last Thursday night when a representative group of local property owners, at a public meeting called by Mayor John B. Koerner, indicated by a decisive majority that they were in favor of the proposition.
At the meeting, a government official, coincidentally named G. Hunter Sykes, explained that the project would cost some $70,000, for which the town would be responsible for, at most, $19,000.
The Mayor warned that sewage conditions in Sykesville were “deplorable and a menace to the public health." He said that shortly the town would have to make these upgrades “wholly on its own” if it turned down the government offer.
Seven towns accepted. Only one, Sykesville, turned down the offer, saving a few dollars, and opting to continue using its river as a giant flowing toilet for many years to come.
Then came worse things. Hitler, Pearl Harbor, five years of all-out war. And like those in every town in America, Sykesville’s young men crossed the Atlantic or headed off to the Pacific.
Four days after the Japanese attack, on December 11, 1941, the Reverend Karl B. Justus wrote, on the front page of the Herald:
"We now find ourselves embroiled in the second World War. Though this may not be to our liking, it is the real fact of that which seemed inevitable. We must forget our likes and dislikes; we must join the call of our President, regardless of party or politics, in a national unity invincible; and we must prepare ourselves to meet untold sacrifice."
Amazingly, in the same issue with this call for unity, the Herald reported another fire on Main Street. This one started in a shoe repair shop, and once more, citizens and firefighters rushed to the rescue.
The owner of the shop, Joe Spinnichi, and his three-year-old son, who lived in an apartment upstairs, were nearly overcome with smoke by the time the “wife of a local grocer,” Mrs. Herman Reznick, saw the flames pouring from the windows of the apartment, and sounded the alarm.
Disaster was averted, but only temporarily and only locally. From 1942 through 1945, fire consumed much of the world, and the Herald, like papers from London to Tokyo to Leningrad, was filled with tales of sacrifice, loss, injury, and death during a time when over 20,000 people both military and civilian died every day.
Beginning in November, 1943, the paper included a front page section called "With Those In The Service," filled with tales of local soldiers. Three days after Christmas in 1944, we meet again with the family of Ed Barnes, whose two sons went off to fight seven years after their home above his pool hall went up in flames.
"Long delayed mail has been received by Mr. and Mrs. Edward Barnes from their youngest son, S. Sgt. LeRoy “Ted” Barnes, who is still somewhere in France."
"Robert Barnes, eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Barnes was inducted into the Navy on December 11."
That same edition recounted how ten members of the church were remembered in a Christmas Eve Service at Springfield Presbyterian. As a lighted candle for each was placed on a cross, and the congregation paused in silent prayer, the minister intoned the names and places of service of young people from Sykesville now scattered about the world.
Edgar Currens, Philippines; Margaret Currens, Australia; Seton Wausche, France; Douglas Waesche, France; Howard Warfield, Jr., California; Branch Warfield, Massachusetts; William Tomlinson, Missouri; William Wilcox, Atlantic; Edward Pieller, European area; Donald Clarke, Virginia.
Gasoline, butter, sugar, rubber, and other necessities were rationed. Hundreds of Carroll County families started their own victory gardens. Air raid sirens were tested. Blackouts were practiced. Windows were darkened at night and trains rattled past the ghostly black town while residents gathered around tube radios and listened for encouraging news from Europe.
And week after week, Sykesville opened its paper, and read about its sons in France or in ships going island to island in the Pacific.
On February 3rd, 1944, the Herald wrote lamenting "the grim reality that the war is a long way from being won" and complained of the "draft's constant drain on the men of the community. This week several more men from Sykesville's thinning ranks passed their final physicals and were accepted to military service to begin sometime within 20 to 90 days."
But in the next issue came far worse news. On January 31 of 1944, Lt. Gerald B. Lyons of Eldersburg became the first from the area to die in combat. He was a soldier. In his last letter home, he had written from the Fiji Islands, "The Japs have been bombing us rather heavily. Keep your chin up and don't worry about me. I know how to take care of myself."
He left behind a wife and two-year-old daughter.
And yet to come was D-Day, the allied invasion of France, and these words in the Sykesville Herald.
"Significantly, it was called D-Day--Day of deliverance, or at least the beginning of the noble and difficult job of deliverance, for millions of people oppressed or menaced by one of the worst tyrants, the worst abuses of power in world history.
"And just as December 7, 1941, the date of Japan's treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor is 'a day that will live in infamy,' so June 6, 1944 will live in history as a day of light and hope for the suffering people of Europe ravished for four frightful years under the evil rule of a cruel and arrogant Nazi dictator."
Week after week it continued. With those in the service. Parents learning of sons missing in action. Wives learning of husbands seriously injured in France. And headlines announcing that young men, like Cpl. Gurney Davis, would not come home.
Eventually it ended with Berlin in ruins, Hitler dead in his bunker, the concentration camps liberated and exposed, and two Japanese cities smoldering in radiated ruins.
Nearly half a million Americans had died in the war. Very few from Sykesville, but Sykesville was a town of very few, and they played their part bravely.
Post WWII Blues
Sykesville survived the war. Most of those who left came home. But it wasn’t war or fire or depression that brought Sykesville so low a couple decades later. Rather, it was an accumulation of things - the automobile, the nationwide rush to suburbia in the late 1940s and early 50s, the slow disintegration of American small-town life, and other tragedies, departures and losses, most small, but together slowly devastating.
And there was Eldersburg, South Carroll’s first convenient commuter refuge from the higher taxes and real estate prices of Baltimore County and the rising crime and declining public schools of Baltimore City.
With no municipal government, no local building codes, and an abundance of relatively cheap real estate, Eldersburg became a free-fall zone for sprawl. Unplanned, proliferating rapidly, the uncontrolled development continued into the 21st century, until the housing crash of the Great Recession stopped it cold.
Eldersburg’s growth paralleled Sykesville’s decline, as the town deteriorated from a small, self-sufficient place where you could walk downtown and get everything you needed, to a different sort of small place, where everything depended on the car and getting out to Eldersburg, or places even farther away, to acquire the basic necessities.
Once a place where people came to get what they needed, Sykesville became a place that people left to get what they needed.
In earlier times, when Baltimore in summer was a muggy, bug-infested hell with no air conditioning, or even screens in the windows, Sykesville had been an attractive escape from the heat and foul odors, but those days were long past.
In late 1949, after decades of continuous service, the last B&O passenger train stopped at Sykesville, as the line from Mt. Airy to Baltimore was eliminated.
While the High School Burns, Another Struggle for Water
In 1957, eight years after the trains stopped bringing tourists and 20 years after Main Street burned, fire struck again, this time incinerating much of Sykesville High School on the grounds where Sykesville Middle stands today, and once again burning out of control as the local firefighters struggled for water.
The April 18 Herald reported: “Firemen from a dozen companies fought the blaze for five hours. Though handicapped in the early stages by difficulty in obtaining water, they prevented the spread of the flames to two more recently constructed units of the local school, the cafeteria-auditorium and the elementary department.”
In 1937, it was a clogged fire plug. This time it was a problem of distance.
“Hose lines were laid to the nearest fire plug, in the Springfield Hospital grounds, a good quarter mile away. In the precious moments required for this operation, the flames roared out of control. Ironically, a town water line, which would have placed a fire plug within a few feet of the school, was defeated two years ago by a single vote.”
No one was harmed. The school would continue to operate for grades 1 through 12 until 1967, when Sykesville and Mt. Airy High would merge into South Carroll High School and Sykesville’s High School students would leave the town for their schooling.
Ellie Warfield Meyd, who grew up in Sykesville before moving away in 1969, remembers it well.
“In the spring of 1957, on Easter break, I believe, the junior and senior high school building, which housed grades seven to 12, burned. After the fire, partitions were built in the cafeteria and the gym for classrooms, and they went on a split-day schedule – senior high classes in the morning and junior high classes in the afternoon – while the new two-story building was constructed.
“No lunches were provided. Everyone ate at their own desk and had to bring their own lunch. We could still purchase a half pint carton of milk for three cents. Graduations were held in an auditorium in some building on the hospital grounds.”
Does anyone want to run this town?
In the same issue as the fire story, the Herald reported that the mayor, R. Earl Carter, had declined to seek re-election after serving since 1949, and that Millard H. Weer, a former town mayor and former postmaster, had also declined the nomination.
That left the town’s barber, Leroy “Happy” Keeney, as the only candidate, and the only person in all of Sykesville who wanted the job.
He won easily.
Interest in running the town hardly picked up over the next decade. In April of ’67, five candidates were nominated for three council seats at a meeting where almost no one showed up.
The town’s mayor, now a local pharmacist known as Doc McDougall, described the attendance as “pathetic.”
The Herald wrote: “With terms of half of the council at stake, during a crucial period when such major problems as water and sewerage must be met, only nineteen citizens, out of a population in excess of 1200, attended the nominating session.”
One of the attendees was Thelma Wimmer. Then already over fifty and enthusiastic about Sykesville with a passion few others could muster, she was destined to become one of the driving forces behind the effort to save the town several decades later. She was elected to town council that year, but her most important work lay far in the future.
Burned, Bypassed and Forgotten
Also in the sixties, the state re-routed Route 32, which had once come straight through Main Street, to an out-of-town bypass that stranded the town on the other side of the river, isolated, hidden behind trees, and increasingly irrelevant.
In 1968, 30 years after turning down the federal government, the town finally installed a new water system. It would be tested a year later, when again fire struck, gutting the town volunteer fire department’s Main Street station, destroying two fire engines, and most of the station’s equipment.
The station’s surviving vehicle had to drive its way out of the fire, then turn around and fight it.
Rats Eating Dog Food on Main Street
Former Sykesville town manager James Schumacher recalled the state of Main Street in the late 1960s.
“Quite a bit of it had turned to slums, and there were serious health problems in the downtown area. When I was 18 or 19, I worked in a food market on Main Street. There were terrible problems with rats. They’d eat holes in the bags of dog food and sometimes you could hear them scurrying around in the back. It was a time that inspired a lot of pessimism in this town.”
It had become a dirty place, or dirtier, and despite the new water system, a somewhat run-down, raunchy, and unsanitary town with an inclination for catching fire and a long tradition of abusing its river.
Contributing author Bob Allen, who lived on a chicken farm in Eldersburg recalls visiting the Southern States feed mill at the edge of town as a boy: “The bathroom was a dingy one-seater installed in a closet and always covered with dust inside and out, as was everything in the cold, drafty mill.
“But what set this water closet apart from all the other exotic bathrooms I'd encountered was how it emptied directly into a rushing underground stream 15 or 20 feet below.
“I've since learned that the stream, which must still flow silently beneath Main Street, served for years as the town sewer and swept all the town's raw waste and effluvia directly into the Patapsco River. It took me a while to put two and two together and figure out why I seldom saw anyone wading or fishing near the Patapsco River bridge.”
To enter town from route 32 on the Howard County side, you passed the Patapsco Inn and the Sykesville Inn, two rowdy bars at the edge of town. In one, at least, a hole in the floor opened to the water below and served as a latrine.
Once over the bridge, you encountered the abandoned train station, mostly empty, except for some supplies and kerosene stored inside, and a few yards further, a liquor store, where a noisy gang hung out and fights were common.
Lifelong resident, Katie Springer, who lives on Spout Hill Road, was married to the late Harry Sandosky, a local carpenter, who it seems more or less held Sykesville together in those days.
Sandosky owned and renovated several buildings, including the Arcade building, the Hood Building where E. W. Becks is now, Hair ‘N Place (which was once the Diamond Lunch Room), the Consolidated Stationers, and the corner building that houses Punch Graphics, but which then housed the liquor store. (This is the brick building that withstood the 1937 fire and may have saved the town.)
Springer says her husband bought the sturdy old brick building for one reason, and it wasn’t history. He was sick of the fighting and the noise. So he bought the building and closed the liquor store.
But the drinking and fighting just moved under the bridge by the river and continued until it was doused for awhile, when Sykesville endured its next great water catastrophe. And this time the blame lay solely on nature.
Hurricane Agnes - The End of the Party. The End of the Bridge
It came in June of 1972, as Hurricane Agnes put a temporary end to the parties under the nearly 90-year-old bridge by washing it away, eliminating all through traffic on Main Street.
The June 22nd Herald, which came out a day after, included the following.
Bridge on Old Route 32 going into Sykesville was washed out about 3 a.m. Thursday, June 22.
Rail lines at curve in distance were washed out. All rail traffic south from Philadelphia was cancelled due to area flooding.
Fallen cables resemble a swinging foot bridge looking across the river to Howard County. Rains started on Wednesday morning.
Water flows along road and across bridge at Gaither. Rains ended Thursday noon with more due Friday. Wind added to destruction.
After the storm, “the bridge lay in a heap several hundred feet downstream, barely recognizable.”
But except for the loss of the bridge, Sykesville was lucky. Across the state, 19 died and damages exceeded $119 million in 1972 dollars. In nearby Marriottsville, water reached the second floors of homes, and “eight school buses that were parked by the Patapsco River were completely covered by muddy water…A 100-year-old stone shed was washed away…a half mile of Marriottsville Road was washed away…
“One of the most appalling things the flood victims had to face was the huge amount of mud and silt deposited on the floors of their homes after the water receded. Mr. Tignor [a Marriottsville resident] said he had 18 inches of mud to shovel out before he could even begin to clean.”
Sykesville’s Mayor, Hick Manor, told the Herald he hadn’t heard of any damage to the town more serious than “flooded basements in downtown Sykesville.”
But on the Howard side, although still standing, both the Patapsco and Sykesville Inns were heavily damaged and closed by the Health Department, at least until Harry Sandosky could come to the rescue.
The Herald wrote that, “Jimmy East, owner of the Patapsco Inn said he has 1200 cases of pop top cans that he must dispose of, plus the river washed out a storage room wall in the rear and $1500 to $2000 worth of liquor was carried downstream. Another $1000 of spirits still on the shelves has been condemned by Health officials. Mr. East estimates his total loss at $20,000, but added determinedly, ‘I’ll be reopened in three weeks if Sandosky can remodel the place that fast.’”
Sure enough, the bars were back in business soon, but the bridge was maintained by the state, not Harry Sandosky, and Sykesville would go three years with a Main Street that hit a dead end at the banks of the Patapsco River.
The Bright Side
It may seem like a tale of unrelenting bleakness, but not everyone remembers it that way, and many who grew up here have fond memories of the town’s simple brighter side. It was a small place where the mayor was usually a local pharmacist or barber or store owner.
Puzz Brightwell says that before the war, "When you were kids in Sykesville you made your own fun. You didn't have videos and television. You either rollerskated or you rode your tricycle." She remembers rollerskating from the top of Main Street all the way to the bottom on Sundays when the streets were empty. "We pretty much had the streets to ourselves."
She remembers playing hide and seek in summer, attending a carnival by the railroad tracks each year, sledding behind Saint Paul's church, and three swimming holes in the river filled with kids on hot summer days, despite the turtles and the snakes and whatever else flowed through the river at the edge of town.
"It was a good life. We didn't have much, but nobody had much, so it didn't matter. My friend said, 'We were poor, but we didn't know it. Everybody was poor.'
"It was the best of times. Everybody knew everybody and everybody looked out for everybody. The doors were never locked. Most people probably didn't know where a key was to lock the door, and it was safe."
Ellie Meyd, who grew up here in the fifties and sixties, says, “At the time I always wished I could be somewhere bigger. Sykesville was a really small town back then. We had 90 some people in our graduating class and that was considered really big. And everybody knew everybody, so everybody knew what everybody was doing.”
Patti Meyer has lived in Sykesville her whole life. Cooper Park is named for her father, Millard Cooper, whose ghost some say smokes cigars in the town house, and who at one point, while serving as one of the town’s two policemen, was also responsible for running the town trash truck and clearing snow.
Ellie remembers that Patti’s dad “cleared the streets with a plow that he put on the front of the garbage truck. But he always left enough of a packed layer so we could sleigh ride on Carter Road.”
Patti remembers the sixties and into the seventies when Main Street was a busy place where you could actually get your shopping done, with a hardware store where her mom took her to see Santa once a year, and the Sykesville 5 & 10 with toys and just about “everything you wanted, kind of like a condensed Walmart.”
There was a clothing store, where she would buy her school wardrobe and Buster Brown shoes, and the Harris Grocery Store, which she says “made grocery deliveries to my Nanny, because she didn't drive.”
There was Sykesville State Bank and McDougall's Pharmacy where Think Oak Furniture is today, along with Henry Forsyth's grocery store and the Sykesville Bowling Alley, where you had to “walk down the edge of one of the alley's gutters to get to the bathroom.”
There were two gas stations, one on Main Street and Charlie Gaither’s Gulf Station across from the Sykesville Middle School.
“The Gulf Station sold candy and sodas, and we would stop there after school for ten-cent bottled cokes and ten-cent peanut butter crackers. Dad worked as the crossing guard and would give me money to buy something as I walked by, and kids would try to steal the bullets from his gun belt.
“Zimmerman's Store was next to the Gulf Station. Old Mrs. Zimmerman lived upstairs, kind of a country store downstairs. Much later, it was an apartment house, one of the drug houses in Sykesville, I heard. Then it burned down.”
Ellie Meyd remembers her first kiss in the Springfield Cemetery, where kids would sometimes go parking after dances. There was no fence and you could sit in your car just a few yards from the grave of stern George Patterson and his long-dead family.
Ellie says, “To earn money, I and most of my girlfriends started babysitting when we were about 12 or 13 for 50 cents an hour or 75 cents an hour after midnight. My first real job for one dollar an hour and 20 percent discount was at Harris Department Store, which was next to the Harris Grocery Store.
“Harris sold shoes, children’s, men’s, and ladies’ clothing. We also carried a full-line of nurse’s uniforms for the hospital workers.
“To eat you went to the Fire Bell next to the Fire Hall or to McDougall’s drug store counter. When we needed poster board for school projects, we went to the Herald. As teens we hung out at each other’s homes.”
Patti says, “We spent most of our date nights at a friend's house, watching our husbands shoot pool in their basement.”
Patti was there to cut the ribbon in 1986 when they dedicated the park to her father, and laughs as she remembers one of his favorite stories.
“When Hick Manor was mayor, he and Dad were riding around town, and they saw Hick's wife run a stop sign. Dad looked at Hick and said, ‘What should I do?’ Hick said, ‘Give her a ticket.’ So Dad did. Hick said it was very ‘cold’ in his house for a while after that.”
But in the years after Agnes washed out the bridge, the small town charm of Sykesville continued to deteriorate. As paint peeled and weeds grew through cracks in the sidewalk, a few of Main Street’s historic buildings fell into neglect and were retrofitted as low-rent housing by absentee landlords.
In 1973, Maryland National Bank bought out the Sykesville Bank and covered the building’s original arch windows with a tacky, contemporary cement and metal façade. (Since removed.)
Two years later, the Post Office on Main Street moved from the Hood building where E.W. Becks is today to Village Road, closer to the 32 bypass, giving people one more excuse to not come to Sykesville anymore. That Post Office would ultimately close up and move to Eldersburg.
In 1977, Harris Department Store, Sykesville’s only department store, and a vestige of Sykesville’s long past self-sufficiency, shut its doors after 76 years. And in 1981, the last freight train stopped at Sykesville’s B&O station.
Every year, there were fewer reasons to come to Sykesville and more reasons to leave. Inevitably, the Sykesville Herald shut down. The town’s weekly newspaper for 70 years published its final issue in December of 1983. By then there were an alarming number of empty storefronts on Main Street.
Former Mayor Jonathan Herman described it this way in Sykesville Online.
“When I first moved to Sykesville in 1984, the town could have doubled for an abandoned old Wild West set. You could imagine winds blowing dust and tumbleweed down Main Street.
“A Baltimore Sun reporter who visited the town wrote that the afternoon he visited there was a dog sleeping in the middle of Main Street. (I later met this reporter, and he verified that this was true.) There were no housing developments, just farms surrounding the historic town.”
Mark Rychwalski, who moved here in 1985 and later served as head of the town council says, “It was a ghost town. It seemed frozen in time. A lot of days there wouldn’t be a single car on Main Street. Nobody was around. Everything was closed. I remember thinking, what the hell is this place?”
By then people wondered if Sykesville’s steady decline had passed the point of no return, whether it had gone from sleeping, like that dog on Main Street, to for all intents and purposes, dead, a relic of another time and another way of life.
There’s a Darkness at the Edge of Town
In a 1986 Baltimore City Paper article, Bob Allen wrote:
“Even early on a Friday evening, Sykesville’s Main Street already looks like they rolled up the sidewalks hours ago. Other than a few cars parked in front of the Captain’s Table Restaurant, up near the north end of the small unimposing central business district, there is little movement and almost no sign of life.
“The windows of the darkened storefronts seem to stare blankly out upon the solitude of the empty sidewalks and the narrow street. There is little or no traffic…
“Sykesville is like a slumbering little piece of the past. It is a rustic, if slightly decayed little town of 2400 people, mysteriously marooned in the sluggish backwaters of time. It is struggling almost desperately to make some vital reconnection with the late 20th century, which, by and large, has passed it by.”
On the other side of the river, though, in Howard County, not so much marooned as reveling, the party went on. Where a park filled with wildflowers stares across at the abandoned Apple Butter Factory today, the two bars that had temporarily washed out with the bridge and Hurricane Agnes were thriving again, providing a wild and dangerous counterpoint to the dead town across the river.
They were boxy concrete dives that looked like they’d been set up temporarily and never shut down. By then they were known as Suzie’s and The Duke’s Place.
Suzie’s, the first bar over the river, was once considered the black bar. It was owned by Sarah Egolf. Patti Meyer’s husband, Marty, tended bar there in the afternoons.
“Marty was working midnight shift at Springfield then, and he would help my dad on the trash truck a couple days a week in the morning when he got off. Then go tend bar in the afternoon.
“I would take our twins and go have lunch there sometimes. We knew most of the patrons. Many also worked at Springfield, and we had gone to high school with some. After Sarah sold the place, it became Suzie’s Bar. We didn't go there then.”
The Duke’s Place was owned by Duke Bollinger. It used to be the Patapsco Inn, but by any name it had always been dangerous, going back to a time when, as Bob wrote in the City Paper, “Because the bar would not afford them admission and would only serve them booze to-go from the back door, dozens of local African Americans would gather outside and conduct a rowdy and occasionally violent game of craps.”
In 1985, Howard County tried to have the place shut down as undercover cops reported “drunken brawls and beatings (some of which ended in hospitalizations), firearms being discharged in the parking lot, illicit dice games, patrons so intoxicated that they were unable to walk (like one woman who was reportedly so loaded ‘she fell to the floor when she attempted to sit on a bar stool’) yet still being served drinks by the bartender."
“Also observed were persistent incidents of flagrant discrimination against blacks, as well as more brawls, more broken heads…”
Fights were common. Police were seldom called. During one brawl, a man fired a shotgun into the air. Another was stabbed.
Finally, in May of 1986, someone was shot.
It happened in the parking lot of Suzie’s on a night when three fights inside the bar had gone unreported to police. Reports vary, but apparently two women got into a fight. Douglas Kennedy of Sykesville tried to break it up, and Richard Overly, who may have been forcing one of the women out of the bar, killed him.
The Baltimore Sun wrote: "A witness to the shooting, who asked not to be identified, said Friday that Kennedy, a regular at Suzie's, often helped break up barroom brawls. He said Overly had tried to force one of the two women outside the bar when Kennedy interceded.
"'Kennedy was just a nice kid who always helped keep this kind of thing from happening,' said the witness."
On the day of his sentencing, Overly apologized to Kennedy's family. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison for second degree murder and using a handgun in the commission of a crime.
He claimed the murder was an accident. He claimed he merely meant the shot as a warning. But since the warning was fired point blank between the eyes with a 44-caliber Magnum revolver, it was a weak defense, and a clear-cut case of homicide a two-minute walk from the abandoned B&O station that once welcomed tourists from Baltimore to the lovely town of Sykesville.
And yet still, the two-bar honky tonk lived on, offering a dangerous welcome to anyone who journeyed off 32 and took the dark ride through the trees toward Sykesville. Finally, Howard County purchased the properties, demolished them, then leased the area to the town of Sykesville for one dollar a year.
The Spirit Leaving the Corpse
Teenagers skateboard nearby now, unaware that once on Saturday nights, Hank Williams, Motown, the Rolling Stones, and Creedence blared out of juke boxes, men bought beer at the back door and rolled dice by the river, fists were thrown, bottles broken, knives pulled, marriages ruined, the occasional gunshot echoed across the water and the rails and slowly faded on the silent streets of Sykesville.
And 23-year-old Douglas Kennedy died bleeding in a parking lot for trying to break up a fight.
Lloyd Helt, a preacher’s son from Pennsylvania, who served as Sykesville’s mayor from 1982 to 1994, summed the era up this way.
“Sykesville was sleeping for a long time and almost died. There was a point in the seventies when a lot of merchants who ran the town government were very depressed and negative. They just weren’t making it economically. The town council was ready to turn the town charter over to the county and let them run it – to, in fact, dissolve the town.
“You might say the spirit was leaving the corpse.”
But the spirit did not leave the corpse. The town did not dissolve itself.
There were no stoplights. There was no traffic or business or paper. The trains squealed and rumbled and whistled on by as if Sykesville no longer existed. A few scruffy fellows actually lived under the bridge, got up at night and staggered into The Duke’s Place or Suzie’s, where the lights stayed on and laughter and music drifted across the river to the ghostly abandonment of Main Street.
Some ninety years after the death of James Sykes, his mill and railroad town had barely a pulse. Like the old blue caboose that rusts by the river today, it sat there crumbling, a relic of another time, waiting for some kind of merciful end.
But something amazing was about to happen to the place that over the course of 150 years had been burned, flooded, abandoned, and left for dead.
Help was on the way. And like the empty train station at the edge of town and the forgotten colored schoolhouse rotting at the top of the hill, Sykesville was about to rise again.
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