It’s at the top of the hill as you come up Kalorama, near Springfield Cemetery, at the point where old Sykesville winds down and new Sykesville begins, a big structure built on top of a little structure that was hardly more than a concrete slab not that long ago.
It’s an unusual house, but it’s perfect in many ways and a fine example of a way of getting things done that prevailed here for a brief time not that long ago. Sure, it’s a home, but it’s also a symbol of a bygone era.
It’s where Matt Candland lives with his wife, Jenny, and their seven kids. When they first moved in, there were only two kids, the big top hunk of house did not exist, Matt was 28, he’d been hired as Sykesville’s Town Manager, and he was about to play a central role in Sykesville’s recently initiated Great Restoration.
Now he’s moved on to a bigger job in a bigger place, the Borough of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he started his new position on July 2. It’s the final end to an era that’s been slowly ending for a few years now. Some people might think that’s a good thing.
History says otherwise.
If you read Sykesville, The Town That Refused to Die, you know now that by the mid-'80s, Sykesville was in a terrible state, isolated, forgotten, slowly dying, or as Bob Allen wrote in his great 1986 article for the Baltimore City Paper, “mysteriously marooned in the sluggish backwaters of time…struggling almost desperately to make some vital reconnection with the late 20th century, which, by and large, has passed it by.”
I promised to tell the rest of the story, to tell how the town picked itself up and became the place it is today. But this is not that story, with all its heroes and villains and plots and subplots. This is a simpler version. This is the story from Matt Candland’s view, and very few people had a closer view than Matt Candland. He was, after all, one of the main characters.
Back at the House
But first, back to the house. The Candlands were adding kids fast. They’d arrived in ‘95 with two, but after six years there were five packed into a tiny three-room rancher with no upstairs and no basement.
Candland says, “It was a little slab. So we either had to get another job and move somewhere, because we couldn’t afford a house here in Sykesville, or we had to do an addition.”
So he talked to the mayor, Jonathan Herman, the owner of Herman Construction Inc. and a specialist in that sort of thing. Herman said, “Matt, you ought to think about building up not out.”
And so he did.
“That building is poured concrete. I could literally build a five-story building on that. So I came up with a design based on the train station and the tower. I took Jonathan’s idea and I designed my house, and then I took my drawing to Wiley Purkey, who had the train store in town, and he made a couple really good suggestions, and then I took it over to Mark Rychwalski, and so at the end, it was technically my idea, but it had a lot of handprints on it.
“And this is how we did so many things. Jonathan, or any number of other people, would come up with a kernel of an idea, and then someone else would take that.”
For years, that’s how they operated, not just Candland and Herman, but the entire town government, town staff, and the town’s citizens. Candland refers to it as “a sort of golden age” when everyone worked together toward a common goal.
Matt Candland was born in Washington, DC, in 1966, the son of a real estate appraiser and a homemaker, and raised in Rockville. A Mormon, he attended Brigham Young University, picking up a dual major in English and American Studies, and then a Master’s of Public Administration from North Carolina State and an MBA from Frostburg State University.
When Candland arrived, Herman had been mayor for three months. Candland had brains and education and zero experience, but he and the new mayor hit it off, and Herman hired him, because, as he told him later, “Everyone else did a lot of pontificating, but you’re the only one who answered the questions.”
So he became the youngest town manager in Maryland.
“Every year the MML [the Maryland Municipal League] would send me a note, ‘Matt you’re the youngest town manager in Maryland.’ Then the next year, ‘Matt you still are.’ It was like that till I was in my mid-30s.”
So the mayor was new. The town manager was new. And the town was depressed, with maybe a 50% vacancy rate on Main Street. But the timing was good. A group of citizens, cooperating with town government, had banded together to restore the train station, and now there was a nice restaurant at the entrance to town. Plus, Shannon Run and Hawk Ridge Farm, two large developments with expensive houses, were going up.
For every house they built, the builders paid the town between $900 and $1200 in impact fees to cover the effect of the houses on the existing infrastructure, and this brought the town several hundred thousand dollars to pave roads and make other necessary repairs.
Lloyd Helt, who’d served as mayor from 1982 through 1994, had been what Candland describes as a “lone voice in the wilderness for a long time trying to make Sykesville a better place.” It was during Helt’s last term that things began to change, as others of like mind moved into town and joined the Town Council. And now, though Helt had moved on, the momentum continued after his departure.
Herman came to restore the old Victorian mansion on the hill. Wiley Purkey and Mark Rychwalski, both of whom worked with Herman on the mansion, opened a custom picture framing store on Main Street, and eventually became members of the Town Council.
The newcomers connected with an older generation led by people like Thelma Wimmer, who’d moved here in the '30s and set out to save the town with her cohort, Dorothy Schafer, long-time organist for Springfield Presbyterian, who’d grown up on Springfield Avenue in a house bought from Wade H. D. Warfield. They were joined by Jim Purman, who’d rescued Old Trinity Cemetery in Eldersburg and ran the Gatehouse Museum, and Bill Hall, who published a book on the town – Images of America, Sykesville.
Candland says, “Their philosophy was, ‘we’ve got a great town, let’s preserve it. Let’s maximize the competitive advantage of our downtown. Let’s not try to be like Eldersburg, let’s try to be like Sykesville.’ Thelma Wimmer would have said, ‘Let’s preserve our history.’ Wiley Purkey would have said, ‘These are cool buildings we ought to save them.’ Someone else would have said, ‘This is our competitive advantage.’
“But they all had the same goal. They might have been doing it for different reasons, but they ultimately thought it made most sense for Sykesville.”
At the time, Bill Hall put it this way, “No one can define the vision in words, but we know what it is, and are all working towards it.”
Historic District Commission
A few years earlier, they had made a big and controversial move to back the vision and give it some teeth, by creating the Sykesville Historic District Commission, and now they were beginning to enforce it. Much of the enforcement fell to Candland.
“The Historic District really started that whole process of restoring buildings. It was this decision that you weren’t going to tear buildings down. The Historic District Commission was created by law, and it means you can actually force people to do things.
“It provides guidelines. If you’ve got a wood window and you’re repairing it, you don’t need a permit. If you’re going to replace it with the same type window you don’t need a permit, but if you’re going to replace it with vinyl you need a permit.
“All it is really is zoning. The rationale is that the town wants to preserve its history and restore its buildings because the town’s unique competitive advantage is its Historic District. Eldersburg doesn’t have that. So economically, for the town to thrive, we needed to preserve that.
“Does it affect people’s property rights? Yes. But zoning does, too. The idea with zoning is that there’s a public benefit that outweighs that.
“People fought it. I found myself in court on a number of occasions. There was a small group of property owners who owned a dozen or more buildings downtown. Some of them were running this sort of low-cost housing, and not because they wanted to give discounts, but because the stuff wasn’t in the greatest shape.
“Mainly people were against the Historic District because it cost them money to fix their places up. We agreed to provide some financial incentives, we even had a grant program, but when a building has been neglected for 50 years and the life literally sucked out of it, at some point, someone’s going to have to pump money into it.
“A lot of people just want to take these old buildings and throw vinyl siding around them. All they’re doing is covering up the problem. The town was saying we can do better than that. Let’s fix the town up. We have wonderful buildings; let’s bring them all back.”
A Vision Is A Powerful Thing
Candland continues: “It was a very energetic time when there was a vision everyone rallied around. That’s the great thing about good visions. Anyone can own it.
“So, a bunch of people kind of took ownership of this idea that we wanted to make Sykesville a vibrant place. We had this core, this canvas that already had the beginnings of a great painting, and you had to come in and restore that a bit.
“They were young, mostly in their 30s and 40s, and they were trying to build a great community for their families, and they felt that the best way to do that was through preserving the town, then building it up.
“And it wasn’t just about preserving. There were a lot of new things, too — all the parks, for instance.
“And these were people who were willing to fight, who would get out there and really make a case and do the work. Like the Gatehouse. You had a lot of people volunteer their time. Most of that was done with volunteer labor. Same with the colored schoolhouse.
“And you also had a Town Council that, while they differed on things, worked really well together. I remember plenty of meetings where they had robust discussions, but always in a very agreeable way.
“Debbie Ellis might say, ‘I think we ought to do it this way.’ Mark or Jeannie [Nichols] or Mike Burgoyne might want to do it another way, but I don’t ever remember any hard words. It was deliberate, rational, very civil and respectful. It was actually very impressive what they were able to accomplish.”
So what did they accomplish? Well, the list is long, but here are some examples.
The Switching Tower
It’s the Old Main Line Visitors Center and Post Office now, but it had another purpose, another long history in Baltimore before resurfacing in Sykesville. Yet, it’s perfectly fitting that a town once so dependent on the railroad, a town with a converted train station for a restaurant, would have an old railroad switching station as a key element of its downtown.
“After the post office left for Eldersburg, a lot of the businesses said, ‘Can you do something to bring the post office back?’ At the same time we didn’t have any downtown restrooms. A lot of businesses were complaining that people kept coming in wanting to use the restrooms.
“We also didn’t have a visitors' center, or inexpensive meeting space. There were groups, like the Boy Scouts and the S & P Railroad, who wanted to have meetings but couldn’t afford places.
“So we came up with the idea of combining all those in one building, and Wiley heard about a switching tower in Baltimore City that had to be dismantled. They dismantled it, and the city of Bowie said they wanted it. So it went to Bowie and sat for a year, and then one day they put it in the MML newsletter — whoever wants this building come get it.
“I asked Wiley, 'What do you think?' And Wiley said, ‘We ought to just go get it.’ So we loaded our trucks up and went down there and picked up all these building components, and we came back and we combined the building components with new construction, and we built that.
“Now it’s a post office. It’s a visitors' center, it’s a restroom, it’s a meeting space. A lot of towns have buildings dedicated to just restrooms, and those alone can cost $15,000 a year to operate. By consolidating, there are savings not only in the construction, but in the operation. I like to say we have a visitors' center and restrooms and meeting space subsidized by a post office.
“We earn a little over $20,000 a year from the post office, and that goes a long way toward covering the costs of the building.”
The Town House
The Town House is a beautiful building now, spacious, attractive, sturdy, and a worthy place for a good town to do business. It was built for John McDonald by Harvey Fowble, the man who built most of the more prominent buildings in Sykesville. At Thelma Wimmer’s urging, the town bought the building in 1968 to serve as the government center.
But by the time Candland moved in to conduct town business, it was in terrible shape.
“As part of this effort to restore and revitalize, we developed a Main Street Master Plan in 1998, and one of its basic premises was that the town needed to fix up its public buildings. It’s great that we’re asking all these private property owners to fix up theirs, but we’re not setting a very good example.
“The Town House had this old aluminum siding that was deteriorating. All the trim work, all the detail had been kind of covered up or removed by putting the siding on. The roof needed replacing. A section was rotting. We had no ADA access, as mandated by the American Disabilities Act, and our hands were going to be forced on that.
“Plus, we had a number of meetings, especially during the Historic District controversy, when the place was packed, and we could only fit 15 people in this whole room.
“So we started talking about fixing it up inside and out. And one day I called Mike Burgoyne, who was a councilman, and he said, ‘Matt just rip that siding down, just bring someone in and rip it down.’ I checked with Jonathan, and Jonathan said, ‘Let’s go with it.’ So we had a contractor come and just rip all the siding off.
“To get it right, we worked from old pictures, and Wiley did some paint analysis, where he pulled out his microscope and dental picks and was peeling off to get down to those early layers of paint, and we discovered the original colors, and that’s essentially what’s on the building now.
“And by serving as general contractors, and doing a lot of the work ourselves, we were able to get the new police station and do the repairs to the Town House for about $300,000, which was $200,000 below our lowest bid.
“There were some people who got all upset about that, but it’s a handsome building now. And it’s actually a symbol. This is what a Town Hall should be.”
J & B Auto Salvage
J & B Auto Salvage was an ugly junkyard at the end of Main Street. It’s gone now, replaced by a new parking lot and a building that looks like part of historic Sykesville. (For more on how the town rid itself of the junkyard, read this account by former council president Jeannie Nichols.)
“It was just an eyesore. It was on the market for a couple years, but the marketplace was scared of it. Who the heck knows what’s underneath the ground. But Jeannie Nichols made some contacts and was able to get a grant for an environmental assessment, and we found out the problems weren’t all that bad, and so the town decided to buy it.
“It’s a problem, let’s fix the problem. It’s not going to fix itself.
“The town softened the blow by dividing it into two parcels and selling one of them to Howard Saslow, who built a nice building, and we got over half our money back. And we built the public parking lot, which was another real need. So that went from an eyesore to something useful and attractive that brings business and money into town.”
The Green Building
Success isn’t always obvious or immediate. A perfect example is the green building across from the post office. If you don’t remember, it sat in the middle of what is now the town’s largest parking lot, before the town put it up on a truck and moved it across the lot to its current location facing the post office. The original intent was to put a bank in it, but that didn’t work out. (Read a detailed account of the building move.)
“The building actually used to be on Main Street, but they moved it in the '60s. The building was all still there. It just looked horrible. We had to either get rid of it or move it, to put in the parking lot. So why not relocate it, increase our footage in the downtown, and preserve a historic building? We could either get a tenant, and the town could serve as the landlord, kind of like we do with Baldwin’s, or we could sell the building.
“It was another controversial project, even among some existing council members. People said, ‘Ah just tear the thing down.’ But the building moved over there and then it started coming alive. And it’s a handsome building now. We put about $15,000 of town money into it and just recently Fred Gossage bought it, and the town will net between $120,000 and $130,000 in profit.
“The building will start paying taxes and will ultimately have a use in there that generates economic activity in the downtown.”
Needless to say, if they’d torn it down, the town wouldn’t be collecting $130,000 for a building that has slowly worked its way down Main Street and dates back to the presidencies of men like Hayes, Cleveland, and Arthur.
There are already negotiations going on to bring something new and exciting to the building. (I’ve been sworn to secrecy on that.)
Basketball Hoops, Taxes, and the End
There was plenty more, but as they say, no good deed goes unpunished, and eventually that would prove to be the case, as all that progress was brought to a fairly sudden end. Mainly, due to three or four factors: taxes, of course, trash, a failure to communicate, and basketball hoops. Yeah, not the Great Recession, basketball hoops.
By now, there were three distinct groups in town. There were those who had been here forever. There was the wave that came in and banded up with the old-timers and started fixing things, and there was the second wave of newcomers, commuters mostly, subdivision dwellers moving into Shannon Run and Hawk Ridge from all over the state and country, with no sense of the town’s long-term or even recent history.
For many, the fact that it was a town with an actual downtown was a nice thing, a bonus; for others, perhaps most, it didn’t matter at all, and they would have been just as happy in a subdivision in Eldersburg.
They came for the good schools and nice houses at good prices, the decent location. Historic preservation and things of that sort were not very important and maybe even a needless extravagance.
There had been a great deal of fighting a few years before, mainly between landlords and town government over the Historic District, but that fight was over. Now the fighting would be about the concerns of these well-off newcomers, concerns such as basketball hoops and this idea among a vocal few that the town government was stealing their tax money and spending it frivolously on things like restoring the Town House.
Let’s start with basketball.
“There were two different basketball issues. The council asked me to count the number of hoops on the street. We had 125 portable hoops all over town. And a couple kids got hit. Fortunately they weren’t hurt badly, but I got phone calls from the people who hit the kids. They would say, ‘I really feel bad. The kid just darted out. You guys have got to do something about these hoops.’
“So you’ve got two kids hit, you’ve got 125 of these things, they’re out in the public street, so what do you do? Well, you have to remove them, and that’s what they decided. Folks, you can’t have your basketball hoops in the street. But a lot of people were upset about that.
“So they said, ‘You’ve got to put basketball courts in the parks.’ Reasonable request. Kids still need to play. So the town went through a fairly thorough process. They set up a committee, and they identified parks that were well-suited to having basketball courts.
“That was probably a six- to nine-month process. Once we got to funding it, there was opposition in Bloomfield Park — Wimmer Lane and Talon Lane, the streets surrounding the park. There was no opposition in any other places. We put one in Lexington Run, we put one in Burkett Park, another down along the Linear Trail.
“But at Bloomfield, they were really upset. But it wasn’t quite that simple. The people right around the park didn’t want it. A lot of people on Hawk Ridge Lane wanted it.
“There was a big to-do about it. I remember being out there with the contractor, and two residents were literally parking their cars in front of the equipment to stop it.
“And the irony is that Jonathan said, ‘Let’s just back off, if they don’t want the hoop, let’s just take it out and we’ll put the money somewhere else.’ But the other six council members said, ‘No, think about the people on Hawk Ridge Lane, we went through this process, it was all very public, nobody hid anything, this was the decision of the committee, we agreed with it, let’s stick to our guns.’
“And I think Jonathan took the heat for it. I remember him saying, ‘Guys if we go through with this basketball hoop, the entire council will turn over in the next two elections.’ And he was absolutely right.”
In the next election, Frank Robert, Leo Keenan, and Scott Sanzone came in. Keenan and Robert live a couple houses away from one another on Wimmer Lane, across from the park where the town finally installed a single basket.
They called themselves Upward Sykesville. Of the three, only Sanzone, who is no longer with the council, specifically mentioned basketball as his primary motivation.
The now defunct Sykesville Gazette quotes him as saying:
“Sykesville government needs to be more open and respectful to its residents…Not so much an us-versus-the-citizens type attitude…The first issue that made me more involved in town politics is the ban on basketball [hoops].”
Robert and Keenan ran on more open government, less taxes, and against the spending habits of the current government.
Candland says, “Jonathan was depicted as a big-spending liberal, but the irony with Jonathan is that deep down, he’s a fiscal conservative. He’s this old '60s guy. He likes to think of himself as liberal, but when you watch what Jonathan does in his personal life with finances and also what he did here in the town, he actually is very fiscally conservative. He’s a very good businessman.”
By Sykesville standards, there was a large turnout and tremendous acrimony for the election following the basketball wars. Residents of the area around Bloomfield Park sat in the corner and monitored the voting, and each of the Upward Sykesville candidates had an observer on scene as the officials counted the votes. They won easily.
Recently, the current Sykesville Town Council voted to raise property taxes two cents. The council tried to implement a tax increase in 2006. At the time, current mayor Mike Miller wrote letters to local papers condemning Herman, collected signatures against the increase, and succeeded in stopping it. He then campaigned in the next election on “Protecting your tax dollars.”
On his campaign website, he wrote:
“Sykesville has the highest tax rate among all the small towns in Carroll County yet the Mayor and Council continually make unwise decisions with respect to how this money is spent.
“Tax increases, outrageous salary increases for appointed Town positions, spending on unnecessary projects, expansions into Warfield and Howard County, fees for Trash service etc.”
When Miller won, Herman’s prediction came true. In two elections, the government that installed the basketball hoop in the park was gone. (Not all were voted out. Some chose not to run.)
But recently Miller, along with Councilmen Frank Robert and Alan Grasley, were outvoted by Julia Betz, Chris True, Leo Keenan, and Ian Shaw, and the tax increase that Miller opposed will become reality. And this time no one will collect signatures to stop it. The 21 days to do that have gone by, and the budget has been adopted with little fanfare and almost no public outcry.
Candland thinks the increase was the right thing to do. He thought it was the right thing six years ago.
“Sykesville’s got some real issues, short- and long-term, that need to be dealt with. We just got $200,000 cut by the state, and we’ve got to do our normal annual operating things, but we’ve also got some long-term capital issues. We’ve got some unfunded liabilities that need to be dealt with, and it’s much easier to deal with those now than it will be ten or 15 years from now.
“It’s a two-cent tax increase. Just to put it in perspective, the proposed tax increase six years ago was $60 a year. It would have amounted to five dollars a month.
“This is the same increase. It’s about $34,000 per penny to the town, so it’s actually closer to $70,000 for the town. For a typical house in Sykesville that’s assessed at $300,000, and many of the houses in your neighborhood (Hawk Ridge), even though they’re worth more than $400,000, are probably assessed at 300 or 325, on that $300,000 house, it’s about a $60 a year increase.
“The people who voted for it wanted to stay on top of our capital expenditures. With the $200,000 cut from the state, we weren’t going to be able to do all the road paving that needed to be done, storm drain work, things of that nature.
“The counterargument is, we have reserves, and things will turn around in the future. But we can’t go year-in, year-out, operating in the negative. You can do that for a year or two and maybe close it up with reserves, but long-term that’s a losing proposition.”
So we will all pay five dollars more a month to the town of Sykesville, the price of a Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappuccino® at Starbucks. Grande size.
A Failure to Communicate
They saved the town, but yet they were thrown out of office. Another reason, no doubt, was that over time with so many changes, they rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
“If you start talking about revitalizing, the implication is the town’s not in a good state. Maybe the town government should have been more sensitive to these people who had lived in Sykesville all those years. Maybe the town was like the bull in the china shop who came in and just started doing stuff. It was the only way it was going to get done, but from their perspective, town leaders were probably viewed as these city slickers, these young upstarts who were going to come in and change the town.
“I guess the town didn’t do a good job of communicating. At the time there were not a lot of people in town government who liked to toot their own horn. The problem with that is you don’t get the message out. So people start saying, ‘Where are we getting the money to do all that?’
“The fact is, we weren’t spending a lot of town money at all. It’s like now, all that Howard County stuff. People say, ‘Why are you doing that?’ Well, we haven’t spent a dime of town money across the river.
“We got a $100,000 grant from Howard County, then another $100,000 grant from the state, and we’re getting ready to get another $150,000 from Howard County to stabilize the buildings. We’re going to do new well and septic and get all the infrastructure in place and then you can do something with those buildings. Right now those buildings have no water and sewer.
“But if people don’t know these things, they just think you’re wasting a lot of money.”
Jonathan Herman Trashed
So there were hard feelings, there was this sense that money was being wasted. And maybe they just weren’t that good at explaining things, a perfect example being the complicated “pay-as-you-throw” trash collection scheme. It was intended to encourage recycling and save money, but it came across as an effort to charge for trash and bilk the town taxpayers out of more money. And no one liked it.
And by now it had become increasingly difficult to sustain, share, and promote their vision to the hundreds of people moving into the new sections of town. And eventually, people who didn’t care much about having a nice downtown, a nice Town House, a nice post office, and nice parks, people who didn’t care, or didn’t know, that the town had been completely turned around just before they moved in, but cared a lot about how much of their money went for taxes or trash, identified the vision with one man and came to perceive him as a careless big-spender with a personal agenda.
Miller promoted that perception. And so, in certain circles, Jonathan Herman was depicted not as a visionary, but as a villain.
Candland paints a more complex picture and thinks the sole focus on Herman for either credit or blame is misguided.
“I never viewed it as Jonathan’s vision. There were many people involved. But he was the torch bearer. He’s the one who actually made a lot of that happen. There’re some things that only the mayor can do. Building relationships. Finding funding. Politicking. You’ve got to make deals.
“I think the mark of a great leader is that he’s able to get everyone to kind of march in the same direction, and although he doesn’t do it himself, his influence is what’s actually getting it done.”
He uses the acquisition of the Warfield Complex as an example.
“That will go down as Jonathan’s greatest achievement. I was involved. Others were involved, but the brokering had to be done at the mayoral level. Jonathan got a piece of property that was appraised, not assessed, appraised at like nine million dollars. And he got it for free.
“Then he got an intersection valued at about ten million dollars for free. Then he got a tunnel valued at $500,000, then he got Warfield Park and the trails, at no cost to the town taxpayers.
“He didn’t do all of it himself, but he was the leader. He got 20 million dollars in that area up there that the town adds to its balance sheet.
“There was a guy named Wade H. D. Warfield. What you see downtown has his handprints all over it. I have his desk up in my office, and that’s where I work. His was a very sad story at the end of his life. He was a victim of the great depression. He ended up living in a house up here on Springfield Avenue. I hear he died on his porch (see author's note after article).
“But at his pinnacle, the guy built Sykesville. The Sykesville you see today is Wade H. D. Warfield. That’s how I think Jonathan will be remembered 100 years from now.”
Carlisle and the Future
Matt Candland leaves with no hard feelings. He says he was in no way forced out and has nothing but kind words for the town leaders he’s worked with.
He says, “I have no reason to believe that any of the council members wish anything but the best for the town.” He says that although they may have disagreed on the best way to get things done, “Mayor Miller was usually very good to me in our working relationship.”
When he decided to move on, he interviewed for five different jobs and finally settled on Carlisle.
“It’s got Dickinson College, the Army War College, the Penn State law school. It’s a little bigger than Westminster, but its downtown is probably the size of Frederick’s. It’s a very old historic downtown and they put a lot of emphasis on it.
“I like places that have a heart and a soul, and I think Carlisle has it, just like Sykesville has it.”
And what will he miss? What will his kids miss?
“Besides the town, besides the obvious things, my kids are as attached to the house as I am. But I think they’re okay with the move. We’re not selling our house. We’re going to rent it out. It leaves the possibility of coming back.
“Sykesville’s been very good to my family. I really did have that sort of romantic notion that I would spend my whole career here, and I could have done that and loved it. There’s still plenty of work to do. I don’t think Jonathan or Wiley or any of those folks would claim we were even close to being done.
“We just started. There’s so many other projects that need to be done, and I hope that vision will live.”
Imagine the power of that vision, the idea of using historic renovation as the catalyst for economic development, the idea of saving, developing, and exploiting the inherent value of the town’s unique history and quirky architecture to restore the town’s present and give it a future, the process of exhuming the town’s bones to bring life back to its corpse, because in the end, that’s what they did. And not for the fun of it, but because they thought it was the best way to compete.
Imagine 1985. To enter town you pass two noisy dives on the Howard side. There’s been a murder recently and a young man died in the parking lot with a bullet in his head. There are bums living under the bridge.
Imagine crossing into town. You’re greeted by an abandoned train station. Not one of Maryland’s most popular restaurants, not a venue where world-class acts perform, just an old brick building rotting beside the tracks.
Imagine the Town House up on the hill covered in dingy aluminum, the roof failing, the insides musty and cramped, the floors old, the beauty of the building falling to neglect.
Imagine the town police operating out of a small shack and handcuffing prisoners to a Town House radiator.
Imagine dirt blowing and a weeded lot where Samsara stands today. (Yes, they added that building. The original burned in the fire of '37 and was never replaced.)
Imagine cracked macadam and more weeds and dust blowing in the empty space where the post office stands, where the little park with the named bricks and tiny fountain stands, where the green building stands ready to add another destination to Sykesville.
And not a public restroom in sight.
Imagine a tiny parking lot behind Main Street ending at an ugly building covered in aluminum and surrounded by a chain link fence. Imagine an empty Main Street, with empty windows, silent and black at night and the train chugging by and no one there to listen.
Imagine an old junkyard with dead cars and oil seeping into the ground.
Imagine walking or riding your bike through Cooper Park and then it ends, no tunnel, no way to get through to the trees and paths and fishing hole and beautiful buildings of Warfield without risking your life crossing Rte. 32.
Imagine rundown apartments and rundown tenants walking to the bars across the river, then stumbling home at night, drunk, broke, and living in squalor.
The Sykesville you live in today did not happen by accident, it was not brought into existence by a stroke of luck, an act of God, or the magical powers of the free market. It exists because people wanted it to exist, because people thought, fought, planned, and picked up hammers to turn a vision into a town where you can be proud to live.
In 1993, Lloyd Helt packed up his law books and his dreams for Sykesville and moved to Westminster.
Thelma Wimmer died a few years ago. She was 100 years old and the second woman ever elected to Sykesville’s Town Council. Wimmer Lane is named in her honor.
Jim Purman is buried at Saint Barnabas. There’s a room in the Sykesville Gatehouse Museum with his name on it, and the graveyard he saved less than a mile from Walmart is arguably the most interesting thing in Eldersburg.
In Springfield Cemetery, there’s a stone that says "Dorothy Clarke Schafer, Feb. 18, 1924." There's room left for the date of death, but that final number is yet to be determined. On a recent tour of the cemetery, she spoke in a powerful voice of how she and Thelma had rescued the old black fence that surrounds the graves of George and Prudence Patterson. A very old woman in a wheelchair and black sunglasses, telling a story a few feet from her own gravestone. But once, she’d studied piano at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.
All those young people in their 30s and 40s are in their 50s and 60s now. Jonathan Herman lost by 28 votes and has very little interest in re-entering politics. Wiley Purkey closed his train shop and moved away with his paints and his dental tools. Mark Rychwalski’s slowly recovering from a massive brain injury after being rammed at the intersection of Rte. 32 and Raincliffe Road one innocent weekend morning. Jeannie Nichols would rather run a business than a town. All the others it seems have moved or faded away.
As John Lennon sang, “The dream is over. What can I say?”
Well, we could say it was more than a dream. We could say it was a vision. And it became a reality. And it saved a dying American town named for a man who defended Baltimore the day Francis Scott Key watched the bombs burst over Fort McHenry.
Or we could just say, “It was a success.”
Matt Candland has a new desk now and a new set of challenges on another Main Street in another state where they take their downtown seriously. We should thank him and wish him well.
And meanwhile, here in Sykesville, Wade H. D. Warfield’s desk is empty once again.
Author’s Note: I’ve been researching Mr. Warfield. He didn’t actually die on his porch as Matt says. He had a stroke on the porch of his house at 7318 Springfield Avenue. He was taken to Springfield Hospital, where he recovered a bit, but shortly after returning home, he died in bed with his family around him. Like James Sykes before him, he had outlived his wealth.
- To learn more about the fight over the Historic District and the early days of the Great Restoration, read this excellent 1998 account by Bob Allen in the Baltimore City Paper.
- In the run-up to the 2009 election, Charles Schelle of Explore Carroll wrote this comparison of the two men running for mayor.
- Former Town Council Head Jeannie Nichols explains how the town converted the J & B Auto Salvage lot from a junkyard to what it is today. Nichols chose not to run for re-election in 2009 so that she could dedicate more time to her business.
- Dream On Sykesville. Wiley Purkey Remembers and Suggests...
- From the July 16, 1914 Sykesville Herald: Uncle Mort on Slang Whangers and Town Knockers who run down their own town
- A memorial tribute to Thelma Wimmer by Jonathan Herman
Read more about Sykesville’s History:
- The Pattersons
- James Sykes
- The Town that Refused to Die
- The Amazing Dorseys and the Old Colored Schoolhouse