You can see it from miles away, an orange glow in the dark skies over Sykesville. It’s a Wednesday night. Freezing cold. December, 1920. Wade Warfield’s in his forties now and the glow in the sky is an omen.

Warfield’s Mill pictured in 1910 would be the scene of one of Sykesville's most dramatic disasters 10 years later.

In 1909, Warfield built what the Democratic Advocate described as “a large elevator and flouring mill which offers a market for wheat in any quantity, second to none in the country.” By 1910, the mill was turning out more than 100 barrels per day of Cook’s Delight flour, but now, ten years later, that mill is burning.

Wade Warfield’s decade of disaster has begun.

Just two months earlier, the Herald had written: “For the past few years the town has been absolutely without fire protection of any kind. It is true the town owns an antiquated piece of apparatus, badly cared for and too heavy for quick service. It is a dead asset.

“As a result fire insurance rates have been advanced here until they are now almost prohibitive. The town will learn a severe lesson one day unless something is done to remedy conditions.”

The town’s pharmacist and mayor, Robert L. Swain, who ran unopposed and received all 62 votes, was leading the call for help. And now on this cold December night, he’s calling for help again, only this time not to local businessmen alerting them to the town’s need for protection from fire as soon as possible, but to other towns, alerting them to Sykesville’s need for rescue from fire immediately.

A blaze that started in the elevator shaft of Warfield’s mill is spreading out of control. Within minutes, firemen from Catonsville and Westminster answer Swain’s call and rush toward the glow in the sky. The truck from Westminster breaks down near Gaither. So the firefighters abandon it and head for Sykesville in a commandeered auto.

That leaves the truck from Catonsville, 20 miles away, over dark difficult roads. And as the fire burns down into the mill, the people of Sykesville take to Main Street with buckets and blankets.

Sykesville has a readily available supply of water, but is unable to tap it. Back in 1913, a volunteer fire company with the horse-drawn apparatus that the Herald now refers to as a dead asset had proudly paraded down Main Street as part of Warfield’s big poultry carnival extravaganza. But as the Herald pointed out in September, interest waned and they’re no longer in business, so as the river rushes by, the flames climb and spread.

Fire Company in a parade

Two locals dig a hole under the tracks so that a passing train won’t sever the hose. Within an hour the men from Catonsville park their engine on the river bank and feed the hose under the tracks. A man named Wilson Arndt, who runs a hauling business in town, pulls it downward and plunges into the cold water, and soon, with a powerful stream of dirty Patapsco splashing onto the flames, the firemen fight their way into the grain factory.

It’s his building, his business, his town, and Warfield takes charge. The Herald calls him “the coolest man on the scene.”

But cool or not, there’s not much he can do. The entire town’s in danger, but most immediately, the home of the town’s doctor, Daniel B. Sprecher, which stands in the darkness perilously illuminated by the roaring flames.

Steps still remain that led to Dr. Sprecher's house

Dr. Sprecher, Warfield’s immediate successor as mayor, lives in one of the original summer cottages built by Frank Brown. It stands at the corner of Norwood and Oklahoma just off Main Street. Remains of its foundation are there today on land owned by another former Sykesville mayor, Jonathan Herman.

While firemen battle the flames in the mill, others carry out all the feed and flour they can salvage, as another group feverishly unloads whatever they can from Sprecher’s house. The whole town unites in a sudden unpracticed, impromptu rescue.

They empty nearby wells. They soak blankets and throw them on dry wood, trying to keep airborne sparks from igniting the doctor’s house. Each time the heat drives the firefighters out, they fight their way back in, until finally, with a booming crash and swirl of sparks and smoke, the top floors come down.

Warfield’s mill is finished. It burns till nothing’s left, as the Herald puts it, “but a mass of charred timbers and ashes.”

The firefighters are soaked, exhausted, dirty and freezing. Warfield feeds them hot coffee, but the ordeal isn’t quite over. The Catonsville rig can’t escape the mud at river’s edge, and not until a big truck owned by Arndt, the man who plunged into the water, pulls it free, can the Catonsville men finally leave Sykesville behind.

Dr. Sprecher in the Democratic Advocate in 1910

It’s 2 a.m. The cold air smells of smoke and ruin. The neighbors move the furniture back into Dr. Sprecher’s house. It’s finally over. But the firefighters from Catonsville will be back again.

The Herald doles out praise, even to the women and the “colored folk.”

“The fire developed several resourceful and heroic workers. Aside from the splendid service of the Catonsville firemen, notable work was done by Wilson Arndt, William Forthman, Dr. J. F. Waesche, Harry R. DeVries, Balley Dudderer, Louis Shultz, William M Jones, William Melville, Harry Beall and scores of others. The colored folks gave generous aid. Women helped to carry water to the Sprecher dwelling and to remove the goods from the house.”

Dr. Sprecher’s lucky. His home survives and will be there when Herman moves to Sykesville in the 1980s. Herman says, “It was a beautiful Victorian with all sorts of ginger bread, but very badly decayed, and had to be torn down for safety reasons.”

Norwood Avenue at Oklahoma Road, where Dr. Sprecher's house was once located.

And like the doctor, the town of Sykesville is lucky, too. The Herald writes, “That a single building stands upon its foundation today in the business district of Sykesville, is due to the favorable wind, which carried the flying embers away from the town.”

And even Warfield’s lucky. The damage exceeds $25,000, which would be some $300,000 today, but despite the near prohibitive cost, he’s insured. And many of these buildings and businesses spared by the wind are his. He lost a mill. He could have lost much more. He vows to rebuild even larger.

He doesn’t know it yet, but the winds have shifted against him.

Fire and Rain - the Forgotten Flood

The town does nothing to protect itself. It’s a matter of money, and throughout its history, Sykesville has been shortsighted in its use of money. Cheap to the point of recklessness. And not four years later, there’s another blaze, another narrow escape, and another rescue by wind. This time the fire starts in a residence off Main Street just behind the Harris Department store.

The Herald reports in April of 1923, “The business section of Sykesville was standing Monday, but only because no wind blew after midnight Sunday.” Which is pretty much what they said three years earlier.

And Warfield keeps building. Just nine days after the fire, he puts eight lots up for auction at what he calls the “Sykesville Heights Addition to Sykesville.” He’ll even supply the water. The ad mentions that there is not a vacant house in Sykesville and a waiting list to get in.

And the catastrophes keep coming. In late afternoon, July 30, 1923, as a rainstorm drenches Carroll County, a sudden surge of frothing brown water pours over the banks all along the river, floods hundreds of homes, cripples the railroad, takes down the electric wires, swamps the B. F. Shriver Company, and carries away Warfield’s lumber yard.

It carries away horses and cows. It knocks down barns by the hundreds. Telephone service fails.

The Herald writes, “Town after town was plunged into darkness and cut off from all communication with the outside world as bridges were carried away or inundated by the rapidly rising torrent.”

“Practically every State road out of Baltimore to the southwest, west and northwest, was blocked a few miles from the city wherever the roads crossed the Patapsco River over bridges.”

“Tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for 20 miles north of Woodstock have either been washed away or buried beneath tons of sand from the swollen river and adjoining hillsides.”

Mills and power plants are flooded. Machinery’s destroyed. Railroad tracks are torn up, sucked into the flood, and rushed down river with drowning animals and Warfield’s lumber and hunks of barns and houses.

In Sykesville, people carry their furniture upstairs to save it from the rising waters. Others are marooned in their homes while rescue parties fight through the darkness and rising waters to save them.

It surpasses the flood of 1868. It surpasses the flood to come in 1972; it’s Sykesville’s forgotten flood.

The next Herald includes the following notes from the storm.

***

Dr. and Mrs. J. F. Waesche and sons were returning from Baltimore by way of the Frederick Pike and were cut off by the washing of the culverts at Bob Day's place, and were forced to leave their car at the home of Mrs. William Frazier, where Mrs. Waesche spent the night. Dr. Waesche and his sons walked into Sykesville.

***

“Mrs. J. N. Morris and DeVries Hering had each taken a carload of young people to Bay Shore for the day. On reaching Baltimore on their way home, they encountered a light rain, but thought nothing of it and came on out the Liberty Pike to North Branch, where they found the water so high it was impossible to get across.

“Turning their cars back toward Baltimore they attempted to take a road leading into Hollofield, which necessitated fording a stream. This was found to be impossible so they again turned and went toward Ellicott City. On reaching that point, the water was too high to continue, so they made the trip back to Baltimore in hopes they might get out the Reisterstown road to Westminster.

“They were successful in reaching Westminster and managed the get as far as the Beasman place where they were again held up by the condition of Morgan Run. They were then forced to return to Westminster to spend the night.”

***

Mrs. Roby Hering said over 200 chickens were drowned, besides the garden being completely ruined. The bridge at Hering's Mill was washed away, and a portion of the mill dam.

***

"We have the B. & O. where we want them," said a trackman after the storm on Monday, "I will not help move a thing unless we get 50 cents an hour and an 8-hour day." The one man strike did not affect the railroad very much and trains are now moving.

***

Small boys of Sykesville were swimming in the street in front of Phelp’s and Brown's Store.

***

The Sykesville Motor & Supply Co. have been busy digging out tires, tubes, tools, etc., from their cellar since the waters have receded.

***

The intersection of Springfield Avenue and the road leading to the Springfield Church looked like a rock quarry on Tuesday morning. No one seems to know where so many rocks came from.

1929 – The Crash

Warfield’s farms and businesses survived it all. And, as much of the American economy boomed through the roaring twenties, he rebuilt and fought on with the rest of Sykesville.

His state political career ended in 1920 when he lost his battle for reelection to Republican R. Smith Snader, the same man he’d beaten to become a senator four years earlier. But he was still on the Board of Managers of Springfield Hospital. Still engaged, smart, insured, flexible, experienced, determined, perhaps a bit of a gambler.

And maybe greedy.

A cyclone had damaged his farm interests in 1917. Fire had burned into the heart of his mill in 1920. Water had washed away his lumber in 1923. He endured. He owned the newspaper. He owned the bank. He owned his farms and businesses. He owned the land and the buildings. He owned Marriottsville.

But he didn’t own his destiny.

There were great forces rising that had nothing to do with hail breaking dinner plates, or raging rivers drowning chickens. Warfield was a big man in a small town in a very large world. History was on the move. And almost no one saw it coming.

The nineteen-twenties were an amazing time in America. Prohibition on the sale and manufacture of alcohol began with the 18th amendment in 1920 and lasted through the decade and beyond. The 19th Amendment, also in 1920, gave women the right to vote in national elections, although Maryland refused to vote on the amendment, and did not ratify it until March of 1941.

In 1923, President Warren Harding suffered a stroke and died in office. His Vice President, Calvin Coolidge, took power.

In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the distant cousin of Carroll County’s Francis Scott Key, published his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, a novel set in 1922 about wealth, class, greed, and love.

Fitzgerald, who died young of a massive heart attack after years of heavy drinking, called it “the Jazz Age,” but mostly it’s remembered as the “Roaring Twenties,” that great anything-goes decade that followed the war. It was the age of rural stills, bathtub gin, and hundreds of New York City speakeasies, the age of flappers with bobbed haircuts, short skirts, and cigarettes, the age of jazz geniuses like Louis Armstrong and brutal bootleg millionaires, like Al Capone, whose Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago left six competing bootleggers dead in a pool of blood. A seventh survived a few hours. When police asked who shot him, he said, “Nobody shot me.” But there were fourteen bloody holes in his body saying otherwise.

Bankers and investors and builders got rich. And so did plenty of others, mostly the old-fashioned way, working, making things, selling them. But that wasn’t the only way. There were the bootleggers and the gangsters, and Americans discovered the stock market during the twenties. Most didn’t invest, but many did. The market was unregulated, and, to a great extent, rigged to make saps of the common investor, while making the rich even richer.

It was an era of great wealth concentrated in few hands, the greatest such era in American history, possibly until today, an age of modern convenience with music on the radio and washing machines running on the electricity that lit up the streets. A new business called advertising sold it all to the public.

In 1929, after Coolidge declined to run for re-election, Herbert Hoover assumed the job after a landslide victory over Al Smith, who opposed prohibition and failed to become the first Catholic elected President. The farms and cities of Europe, if not the economies, were healing. Russia, now the Soviet Union, was exporting wheat again. Lenin was dead. Joseph Stalin, who would make Al Capone look like a girl scout, had risen to power. The Nazis would soon seize their opportunity in Germany. Japan would rise in the east.

And out West, in a part of America where buffalo had once romped by the millions, where skilled Comanche horsemen with bow strings made of bison tendon, had ridden with the buffalo and proudly taken the scalps of Texas rangers, out in the southern panhandle of Oklahoma and Texas and Kansas, determined farmers had gotten rich during the war years producing millions of bushels of wheat in the most inhospitable soil imaginable, using windmills and wells and a freak abundance of rain to miraculously transform prairie grass and sand into farmland, and swaying fields, and dollars, to build towns where there was only dust, to create a rough and wild civilization on land that had once been deemed unusable.

But the price of wheat had suddenly dropped. It had begun to accumulate and sit and overflow the silos and the railroad yards. And the rain was about to stop, and the land was about to blow away, and the sky turn black with dust in the middle of the afternoon, and people were about to die from something called dust pneumonia.

And in another part of the country, the rain was about to pour and pour harder and launch the Mississippi River on a killing rampage far greater than anything the Patapsco could ever manage.

And in October of 1929 in New York, something went wrong with the stock market. An era of prosperity and decadence that had blossomed after the war came to a sudden, jarring close. Fortunes evaporated overnight. People lost everything. The world would soon descend into 15 years of unrelenting darkness that wouldn’t begin to end until two balls of orange smoke climbed toward the heavens in devastated Japan. And these weren’t mill fires, and all the wet blankets and buckets and Patapsco water in the world couldn’t put them out.

The Great Depression had arrived. The war would follow.

The dancing, the moonshine and fun, gave way to soup lines and drought, the dust bowl, and long lines of desperate men. People fled Oklahoma with all their belongings packed on top of their cars. Unemployment reached 25%, banks failed by the thousands taking the life savings of everyday Americans with them, inflation raged through Germany, where a wheelbarrow full of marks couldn’t fetch a loaf of bread. People looked toward Hitler as an answer.

As the wheat piled up and Americans starved, Hoover refused to intervene. Farmers burned wheat while men in suits sold apples on street corners in New York and hobos took to trains, and Woody Guthrie sang songs about it.

In 1932, a polio victim with leg braces, a wheelchair, a huge smile, and a cigarette jutting from the end of a long holder would become President of the United States, institute his New Deal, and struggle to revive the economy. The depression would persist for ten years and finally end, amazingly, in something worse.

And Franklin D. Roosevelt would die in office, exhausted by four years of brutal war. Harry Truman, the son of a farmer who’d once gambled the family savings on the wheat market and lost it all, would become President against his will and drop the bombs on Japan that made the sky glow orange.

But long before that, long before Hitler invaded Poland and the world plunged into a darkness way darker than Sykesville’s dark flooded night, Warfield’s business crashed.

It was a typical story played out all over the country, a successful businessman, a banker, investor, a man of talent and ambition, always striving for more, swept away by great events and destroyed by the depression.

Except in Warfield’s case, it wasn’t true.

1927 – Stripped to the Bone

Warfield was not a victim of the Great Depression. Warfield was ahead of the curve. Warfield lost everything in just a few weeks in the fall of 1927.

It was the year Babe Ruth hit 60 homers, the year his teammate, Lou Gehrig, hit 47 and drove in 175 runs, as the Murderer’s Row Yankees swept the Pirates in the World Series. It was the year Calvin Coolidge decided he’d had enough of being President and stated so in a simple note to the press: “I do not choose to run for President in 1928.”

It was the year a pair of Italian anarchists named Sacco and Vanzetti were strapped to wooden chairs, hooked up with diodes from their legs to their shaved skulls, and jolted several times with massive doses of electric current for a murder many believe they did not commit.

It was the year Charles Lindbergh in his plane weighed down with fuel took off from New York, crossed the Atlantic, and landed in Paris a hero 33 hours later.

It was the year of “The Jazz Singer,” when Al Jolson, who painted his face black during parts of the film, spoke on screen and the age of the silent film came to an end.

It was the year of the greatest river flood in American history, a Mississippi flood so vast and destructive and amazing that hundreds died, hundreds of thousands were left homeless, an area the size of New England was inundated, and Herbert Hoover rose to prominence as the man charged with saving the people from the flood.

And it was the year where this story began, back outside the Arcade building in October of 1927, ten years after the men gathered in the same place to help the area’s stricken farmers, only this time no one had come to save someone else from disaster. They’d come to move one along.

They’d come to strip Wade Warfield to the bone.

And as would be their pattern throughout Warfield’s collapse, the Herald, which would soon have new ownership, would not report on why this was happening or provide any sort of detailed behind-the-scenes look at what had to be the biggest story in the history of Sykesville.

Perhaps out of kindness, perhaps out of incompetence, or perhaps because he requested it, the Sykesville Herald did the bare minimum to let the town in on what was happening to the man who’d started the paper 15 years earlier.

But the evidence of the collapse is all there. It begins not with a story, but with an ad in the August 25, 1927 edition under the big bold heading, Trustee’s Sale of Valuable Farm.Trustee's Sale ad

“By virtue of the power and authority in a Deed of Trust from Wade H. D. Warfield to Edward O. Weant and Harry M. Phelps, bearing date August 15th, 1927, and recorded among the Land Records of Carroll County, the undersigned Trustees appointed by said deed, will sell at public sale on the premises, near Sykesville, Carroll County, Maryland on Saturday, September 10, 1927 at 1:30 O’clock P.M. all that valuable farm containing 123 acres more or less, improved by a large Mansion House.”

The ad was the first of many beginning with those words, in which Weant and Phelps would announce the sale and their legal right and intention to foreclose on Warfield’s assets and sell just about everything he owned.

In this case, a farm, a mansion, and 123 acres owned by Wade H. D. Warfield and lived on by James O. Ridgley would go up for bid on the afternoon of Saturday, September 10, 1927. They would sell it all, right down to the 32 acres of growing corn.

It was once known as Gorsuch Farm. And James O. Ridgley was married to Warfield’s oldest daughter, Josephine Warfield Ridgley, who had lost her mom when she was three, who was 35 now and losing her home.

Josephine from her scrapbook at the GateHouse

Ad for sale of Warfield's home and propertySoon after the sale, her husband, James, would accept a job with the state road commission, and in October, their son, Wade Warfield Ridgley, would come down with pneumonia.

A week later the ad would run again, along with two more, one selling Warfield’s stock, including his shares in the Herald-Messenger Company and 2295 shares in the Sykesville National Bank, and another selling stock of a different sort, the kind that eats grass and produces milk, his entire herd of Holstein cattle.

Over the following weeks, there would be several of these sales, each taking away another hunk of Warfield’s empire.

And while this went on — without once addressing the large issue of what had gone wrong, without once writing a story about the man who was in the process of losing the entire town and the work of a lifetime — in tiny one- or two-sentence clues, the Herald reported, or perhaps more accurately, whispered that Wade Warfield was sick.

Each week the paper ran a section called the Local Epitome, usually two columns of tidbits about who was visiting whom, who was traveling, who was coming home, who was having their chickens poisoned or throwing a party or holding a picnic or suffering from the grippe, or who was advertising in the paper that week.

Excerpt from 'The Local Epitome'

And buried among them, on July 14, 1927, was this: “Senator Wade H. D. Warfield has been confined to his home this week with a severe cold.”

Then again on July 28: “The condition of Senator Wade H. D. Warfield, who is very ill with plurisy [sic], remains unchanged.”

August 4: “The condition of Senator Warfield, who has been dangerously ill, is reported somewhat improved this morning.”

August 18: “The condition of Wade H. D. Warfield, who has been very ill for the past six weeks, is much improved, and he will soon be at his office.”

August 25: “Senator Wade H. D. Warfield is able to sit up a little each day, and expects to be out in the course of several weeks.”

September 15: “Senator Wade H. D. Warfield is improving very rapidly after his recent illness, and expects to be out the last of the week.”

So by mid-September, two months after the first report of his illness, maybe he was finally getting better, but back on September 1, on the front page under the headline “Elect New President,” the Herald reported:

“At the last meeting of the Board of Directors of the Sykesville National Bank, held August 25th, Mr. Harry DeVries was elected President to succeed Mr. Wade H. D. Warfield, who resigned on account of ill health.”

He went to bed with a cold in mid-July and by September was no longer president of the bank he started over 25 years ago. The paper spelled it plurisy. No doubt they meant pleurisy, an inflammation of the pleural cavity surrounding the lungs. Pleurisy is not a disease, it’s a symptom, but a severe one that can make breathing extremely painful. There are many possible causes, but usually it results from a viral infection.

So six weeks after his illness started, when sitting up a bit each day was considered an accomplishment, he sat up, probably weak from the underlying illness and pained by his pleurisy, no doubt despondent, and resigned as President of the bank.

Was he giving up? Did he believe he was dying? Was he forced out? Was he sick because he was losing everything, or was he losing everything because he was sick? Or was it just a bad coincidence, part of an incredible run of bad luck? For one reason or another, whether ruthlessly, kindly or indifferently, here’s what they did.

On August 15, they took the farm and the home where his daughter and her family lived.

On September 15, they sold his entire herd of registered Holstein-Freissian cattle.

Ad for sale of Warfield's Registered Holstein-Freissian cattle.They sold one pure bred bull named Dutchland Creamelle King Change and thirteen pure-bred heifers.  They sold Houwtze Segis Vale. They sold Canary King Pearl DeKol and Larna Carnation Pontiac and ten others with equally long and interesting names.

The Warfields did not take lightly the naming of their cows, and Warfield, who’d grown up on a dairy farm, could not have taken lightly losing his herd of pure-bred cattle. Not to mention the five milk cows, the riding horse, and six mules that also sold.

All for cash. One cow and a calf brought in $500. In 1927, the last year Ford produced its famous Model T, you could almost get two of them for that price.

Two days after selling his cows, on September 17, they sold his stock in the Herald, the Sykesville National Bank, the Maryland Milling and Supply Company, and the Sykesville Realty and Investment Company.

On September 24, they sold his bank building. The ad noted that it was “built of Indiana Lime Stone and Brick, and described it as “an excellent business property.”

On October 1, they sold the Arcade Building, his hardware store, his extensive lumber and coal yards and warehouses and sheds and two of his properties, one of which included a large home.

On October 8, they sold Marriottsville, along with 88 acres of adjoining land.

Warfields - farm implements for sale - adOn October 28, they sold his farming supplies. They sold wagons and ladders, tractor pulls and mowers, rakes and sowers, cultivators and planters, and two international manure spreaders.

On November 3, the Herald, with its finely honed skill for underplaying tragedy, merely noted in the Epitome that “an immense crowd of people gathered at the sale of farm implements of the Trustees sale of Senator Warfield on Saturday.”

And a little further down: “Edgar C. Davis of Sharon, PA, has purchased through the Real Estate firm of Belt & Steel, Frederick, the home place of Senator Wade H. D. Warfield, known as ‘Carroll Farms.’ Mr. Davis will arrive sometime in the early spring. Edgar Currens who has been with Mr. Warfield for the past 13 years, will continue as manager.”

And finally, on November 3, 1927, they came out to the big farm where Wade Warfield lived and emptied the house he no longer owned.

Ad for sale of Warfield's personal property

They sold his washstands and washbowls and pitchers. They sold lamps and clocks and empty jars. They sold a lawnmower, a porch swing, a rocking chair, a child’s chair. They sold sofas and rugs, a 200-egg incubator, a carpet sweeper and kitchen table. They sold an iron pot. They sold hassocks and toilet sets, porch swings and porch chairs, ironing boards, barrels, beds, and a pair of lap robes. They sold cots and pictures. They sold springs and mattresses. They sold four bushels of potatoes.

Imagine that scene, people from all over the area at the giant yard sale that had become Senator Wade Warfield’s life. And the Senator, no longer the captain of industry or the thriving young farmer, sick and despondent, tired and weak and slowly regaining his strength, watching helplessly as it all goes down.

When it was over, there was very little left. Eventually, Warfield would move to a modest home that still stands today at 7318 Springfield Avenue, where as longtime Sykesville resident Dorothy Schafer put it in Sykesville Past and Present, “the grounds looked as manicured as he was.” (It was Schafer’s father, an insurance salesman, who bought the Arcade building when Warfield lost it.)

In 1927, Warfield became seriously ill. Before the year was over, the grandson named in his honor would contract pneumonia, his daughter would lose her house and farm, and he would lose just about everything he’d ever owned, except perhaps his reputation.

And shortly after New Year’s in 1928, someone would break into their home and have the Warfields’ New Year’s Eve cake. And eat it, too.

1927 Looks Bright for Sykesville

It’s hard to say how someone could be so skilled, own so much, know so much, seemingly possess so much power, and then suddenly lose everything all the way down to a few crumbs of cake.

Earlier in the year, if the Sykesville Herald had any inkling, they certainly didn’t let on. In an article called Dividend Week published in January, they wrote that the Maryland Milling and Supply Company, which had just enjoyed a “prosperous year, transacting the largest volume of business in its history, declared a dividend of 10%” and elected Warfield President.

The Herald Company gave out dividends of 8% and elected Warfield President. The bank “experienced a very prosperous year” with “resources…now over $1 million gave out dividends of 10%” and elected Warfield President. The Sykesville Realty Investment Company declared a dividend of 7%.

The Herald concluded with, “1927 looks bright for Sykesville.”

Well, they got that wrong.

In Sykesville Past & Present, a Walking Tour, Linda Greenberg suggests that Warfield lost his money due to his speculations in wheat.

Wheat Wanted ad from 1927 Sykesville HeraldWarfied was a farmer. He also sold to farmers and lent money to farmers and no doubt, as a banker, repossessed the land of farmers. And while the rest of the economy flourished during the 1920s, for farmers it was a decade of failure and depression. When the war ended and the ragged survivors returned to Bavaria and France and planted things again, prices for American farm products plummeted. The price of wheat dropped. As did the value of land, which many farmers had bought with their soaring profits.

And so for farmers, the twenties were a desperate time. Warfield was a dairy farmer. He didn’t depend directly on the price of wheat and corn to make his living, but many of his customers did. And as they fell on hard times, perhaps he fell on hard times. As they failed, perhaps he failed. And maybe he tried to make a killing in wheat at exactly the wrong time.

Not long before it all went bad, his Maryland Milling and Supply Company ran the same ad several times expressing their interest in buying oats, wheat, rye, and barley in any quantity at any time.

Whatever happened between January and September of 1927, he went from President of most the town’s chief financial entities to someone who could not pay his bills. And so, while he lay ill, they came and took his stuff.

Wade Warfield – Real Estate Agent

On January 12 of 1928, the Epitome included the following item: “The Financial Service Corporation of Baltimore have a large advertisement in this issue, and Senator Wade H. D. Warfield is the special representative for this section.”

And a single small ad advertising his services ran in the Sykesville Herald right below the Epitome. On February 9, he ran a larger ad. He ran the ad again on the 16th. And on the 23rd, he ran another.

Warfield's Feb. 23 Real Estate ad in the Herald

Wade Warfield was a real estate agent. There were several more small ads like this one, which were seemingly becoming a regular fixture beneath the Epitome.

Warfield Banking, Brokerage and Real Estate ad

But then, in the fall of 1928, they stopped. And for a long time, he would vanish from the pages of the Herald.

Life expectancy for an American male in 1928 was 59. There was no such thing as social security. Warfield was 61 and starting over, just as the American economy headed for the cliff.

And then, for some reason, the starting over stopped.

1935 – The Porch

It’s hard to say exactly what he did between 1928 and 1935. They were lean times. The worst times. Warfield lost control of the bank in 1927. And sometime in late 1930, the bank was taken over by the Central Trust Company of Maryland, a Frederick Bank, which in turn shut its doors less than a year later in September of 1931, stating that the bank had failed “due to the serious depression through which the country is passing.”

For the next few years, there would be no bank in Sykesville. And of course, Warfield’s old bank was not alone in shutting down. Some 9,000 failed between 1930 and 1935, with over 700 in 1930 alone and an amazing 4,000 in 1933.

But at least for the first few years after his business collapsed and he lost his home, Warfield had company in his new home at 7318 Springfield.

Warfield's home on Springfield Ave. in Sykesville, MD

That changed on July 23, 1932, when Ellen Waterhouse Warfield died. And for the second time, Wade Warfield buried a wife. She was 58 years old. Her marriage to her sister’s husband had lasted over 30 years. She had married a wealthy young man, raised his children, and watched as he lost everything. She had seven grandchildren and enjoyed playing cards. She had gotten sick and never recovered.

Clippings of her mother's death in Josephine Warfield Ridgley's scrapbook at the Sykesville Gatehouse Museum of History.

It’s not hard to imagine how he felt. He’d grown up in a huge home on a thriving farm filled with prized cattle and huge bulls with big long fancy names. He’d come to town at 25 and built a small rural empire. His salesmen had driven around the countryside and taken trains up and down the line selling his coal and his lumber, his fertilizer and grain and flour. Trains had pulled up and dumped coal into his bins.

He had started the town’s first bank, brought it a newspaper, and built its tallest buildings. His name was still on those buildings, as it is today. It must have seemed, for most of his life, that whatever he set out to do, he would.

But he couldn’t do anything more than watch and hold her hand as the baby cried nearby while his first wife died a week after delivering their last daughter. And he couldn’t save her sister, either.

And he never did bring that high school to Sykesville. So it probably cheered him to watch them finally build the school not long before Ellen left him, practically right across the street from his new house on Springfield Avenue, where once he’d owned the wells and the water and the houses, and where on June 17 of 1935, at the age of 70, he sat down on his porch and collapsed.

They found him unconscious. They rushed him across the road to Springfield Hospital. They called it an apoplectic stroke. Nowadays they would just call it a stroke. Simply put, the blood to part of Wade H. D. Warfield’s fine ambitious brain had stopped getting there, and that part of his brain had died shortly before the rest of him.

He recovered somewhat. He moved about in a wheelchair. But a month after the stroke, on July 24th, almost exactly three years after the death of Ellen Waterhouse Warfield, the paper he had founded and lost reported that Sykesville’s “first citizen” had died the night before with his family at his bed.

And they finally told his story. But only some of it.

The Sykesville Herald announces he death of Wade Warfield.

“The Hon. Wade H. D. Warfield, the man to whom Sykesville owes the greater part of its development as a business center, died at 9:20 o’clock Wednesday night. This announcement came as a distinct shock and today Sykesville sincerely mourns the man who for more than a quarter of a century was its first citizen.

“There is not an industrial enterprise in town, and scarcely a home or a family that has not been touched by the kindly, generous spirit of this man, in some intimate way. In business life, in community life and in political life he was for many years the outstanding leader, enjoying the love, esteem and confidence of all who knew him.”

When he was born, the United States was nearing the end of its most terrible war. Six years after he died, we would enter another. Four years after he was born, everything James Sykes built washed away. Eight years before his death, the fortune Wade Warfield built washed away.

The Herald said he “took his misfortune with courage and with fortitude and faced the future hopefully.”

They said, “He served with distinction in the State Senate of 1916 and 1918 and in the special war session of 1917.”

But they never did say how the man who owned everything lost everything.

On August 1, 1935, the Herald printed a letter by Captain Harry H. Warfield, a distant relative, and superintendent of St. John’s Riverside Hospital in Yonkers, New York.

Dear Mr. Church:

I read some weeks ago of the illness of Senator Wade H. D. Warfield and items in later editions speaking of his improvement, but when the "Herald" of Thursday, July 25, arrived, I read with great sorrow of his death. Having known him from early boyhood, when I lived in Glenwood, Howard County, and later having been closely associated with him during my seven-year connection with Springfield State Hospital, before leaving there for the University of Maryland in Baltimore, about the spring of 1910, I can fully appreciate the story of his successful business career so well written in your valuable paper, which I have learned to look forward to with great interest.

Senator Warfield was one of the finest personalities I have ever known and possessed a most unusual amount of energy, always seeming tireless in his efforts for the good of the community in general, without ever any evidence of selfish motives. It is seldom such can be said about any man, and I am glad, indeed, to know the people of Sykesville, and Carroll County in general, appreciate his wonderful achievements. It seems unfortunate we do not have more men of his type and energy at present, as I am sure many of our ills could be overcome more rapidly.

I hardly know his daughters personally, remembering them only as little girls, but please be kind enough to convey to them, and his friends, my heartfelt sympathy. His great work will long be remembered and should be as inspiration to the young men of Sykesville and elsewhere.

Sincerely yours,

Harry H. Warfield

Yonkers, N. Y., July 29, 1935

Which Rivals Sunlight in its Intensity

Warfield’s presence is still here, embedded in the fabric of Sykesville. As Town Manager running Sykesville from 1995 to 2012, Matt Candland sat at Warfield’s desk in the Sykesville Townhouse. Two of the town’s buildings still display Warfield’s name.

Wade H.D. Warfield building

Warfield’s store in 1910, photograph from The Democratic Advocate. The lumber yard is behind the store.

On the Wade H. D. Warfield building, once a modern showcase at the heart of Main Street, there’s a crack through his name, and the building looks old and small and not so special anymore.

But in 1910 the Democratic Advocate described it as “one of the most attractive stores in the state.” With an elevator, steam heat, a plate glass front, “carefully labeled compartments from the floor to the ceiling” and “lighted by acetylene, which rivals sunlight in its intensity.”

Over in Springfield Cemetery where the Beasmans have a giant plot with a beautiful angel and the Pattersons their own fenced garden of graves, Wade Warfield, the man who rode in a chauffeur-driven Cadillac with the top down and his neatly parted hair blowing in the wind all the way to West Virginia for his daughter’s graduation, is buried beneath a nondescript, rectangular slab of concrete in a crooked collection of mostly dirty family graves, not one of which rises more than a foot above the ground.

The Warfield graves at Springfield Cemetery

All the stone says is this: Wade H. D. Warfield, October 7, 1864 - July 24, 1935, Husband of Ellen Waterhouse, November 27, 1872 - July 23, 1932.

Right near this grave is another. Blanche Waterhouse, Wife of Wade H. D. Warfield. September 15, 1865 - March 18, 1895. The stone is propped up on bricks.

Blanche Waterhouse Warfield's gravestone

Two sisters and one husband all buried together and long forgotten, along with Warfield’s parents, his daughter, Josephine, and her husband.

Graves of Wade H.D. Warfield and Blanche Warfield

His wife and daughters were Catholic, and shortly before dying, Warfield converted. As local businesses closed their doors in his honor, Warfield’s Requiem Mass took place in the morning of the last Saturday of July, 1935, at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church up on the hill overlooking the train station that used to ship his goods to Baltimore and points beyond.

St. Joseph's Church in Sykesville, MD

The church was completed in 1868, the year of the first flood, when Warfield was four and James Sykes was nearly 80. According to Bill Hall’s Images of America, Sykesville, “Even without the roof completed, parishioners made a makeshift altar out of soap and starch boxes.” Then “the rear wall collapsed” and so they built it again, finally completing the job in 1873. That’s how things went in Sykesville. Things burned, they washed away, they fell down. Then someone built them up again.

Altar of old St. Joseph's in Sykesville MD

From the hill outside the church, if you look through the giant trees that have grown there in modern times, out beyond the old stone store just beneath it, and use your imagination only a little, you can see what his daughters must have seen through tear-blurred eyes the day they mourned their father’s death — the river and the old train station and the tracks into town that took the coal to the back of their father’s store, and the Arcade and the bank building with his name at the very top and the Warfield Building next door with its elevator and steam heat and acetylene light rivaling the sun with its intensity, the small row of mini-skyscrapers that make Sykesville’s downtown more than a line of old two-story shacks with apartments upstairs, the buildings that give the sense that once this was a vital town of substance and means and a future and a man who dreamed big dreams and tried with everything he had to make them real.

View of Main St. from St. Joseph's

It never did achieve the grandeur Warfield envisioned. It held on through hard times, survived the depression and the war and a brutal 1937 fire that took down half of Main Street and taught the severe lesson the Herald predicted. It settled down and fought decay and irrelevance and the changing times, and as the world passed it by and fewer and fewer roads led to Sykesville, it came very close to dying. But didn’t quite.

It’s not much of a town, really. But once it was his town. From 1889 until 1927, Sykesville belonged to Wade H. D. Warfield. Senator. Mayor. Businessman. Farmer. Father. Dreamer.

And really snazzy dresser.

Author's Note: It took about four months to write this story, and I still didn't nail it, but for now, this is what I've got.

I'd like to thank my daughter, Juliette, and her BFF, Ashley Zester, for all their hard work this summer researching for me and typing stuff up. I also got some nice help from Howard Smith at the Sykesville Gate House Museum of History, along with George Horvath, who found stuff for me, and I couldn't have pulled this off without the museum and the Sykesville Herald. So thanks Mark and Diana at the museum, and to all you dead Herald guys.

If you'd like to hear a bit more about the topic and see some left over pictures and some fun scraps of information, here you go.