Publisher’s Note: Sykesville was recently voted the coolest small town in America. But not too long ago, and for many years before that, Sykesville was a struggling place. In 1986, Bob Allen, who grew up in the area, wrote an article about the town for the Baltimore City Paper. It was a very long article that basically filled the entire paper. I thought it would interesting and enlightening to publish that article to see what the town was like in 1986, 30 years ago, and to see how far the town has come since.
We got permission from the City Paper to publish it. We edited it some and shrank it, but it’s still very long and very interesting. The writing is great. Start it when you have some time. And hopefully enjoy it. — J.W.
Sleepy Hollow, Baltimore City Paper, 1986
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 in front of the Captain’s Table Restaurant at 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, save for a teenager in a sleek chrome and steel pleasure machine — most likely a refugee from one of the nearby Southern Carroll county subdivisions. He steers his car slowly, aimlessly down Main Street. The rattle of his muffler clatters softly off the brick and wooden storefronts; it’s as if he’s looking for something he already knows isn’t there.
Then further down Main Street, where the avenue widens slightly, begins to curve, and angles towards the small bridge that crosses the Patapsco River into Howard County, the teenager punches down on the gas. The blast of his exotic muffler and a Rod Stewart song blaring from his stereo make angry ripples in the quiet evening stillness. These foreign sounds echo contemptuously through the small town, like an insolent thrust of the middle finger, a symbolic gesture of restive youthful protest against all that is old, slow to change, and perhaps even dying.
As the teenager’s taillights disappear over the bridge and into the next county, the sounds of his tires screeching on the pavement quickly fade to nothing, like ripples receding on the surface of a still pond. A forlorn and almost ghostly silence once again settles in on the little town.
Farther north in Carroll County, where the glacier-like expansion of the greater Baltimore-Washington area’s suburban corridor has not yet reached, there are many towns like Sykesville — small towns, their vitality sapped by changes going back as far as the decades immediately following the Civil War, when many of them were in their cultural and economic heydays; sleepy, antediluvian towns, which seem as much propped up by the forces of memory and nostalgia as by the crumbling mortar and brittle wood in their sagging foundations.
But the case for Sykesville is a bit different, located as it is a mere 20 miles west of Baltimore and 36 miles north of Washington, D.C. Situated amidst the rampant, hurly-burly suburban development that has wiped much of the rest of southern Carroll County clean of whatever sense of history and traditional continuity it might once have possessed, and flanked to the south by the urbane prosperity of Howard County, 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.
The town’s more recent struggles are not readily obvious to an outsider who might pause to survey its little domain, carved out of a riverside ravine. The town is without even a single stoplight — there’s not even a blinking light at its once significant downtown intersection. Its aesthetic centerpiece is a small, slightly dilapidated, old B&O train station that has not been in use as such for more than a few years.
The town’s disarming — and slightly misleading — image of timelessness and imperviousness to change is particularly vivid on a cold day in early spring. As traces of wood smoke rise from the chimneys of the old Victorian style turn-of-the-century houses on the hillsides above the city, a faintly discernible mist rises from the shallow, swiftly moving Patapsco River where it runs past the old train station, the Southern States feed mill next door, and past the resting old box cars that languish on a nearby rail spur. Up the street, old men gossip and drowse in the chairs at the barber shop on Main Street, while customers leisurely peruse the wooden floor aisles of the Sykesville Hardware Store, which is just up the street from the imposing, white wooden frame structure of the 90-year-old St. Paul’s Methodist Church.
On such days, the town seems a lifetime away from the frantic pace of the congested downtown streets of Baltimore and D.C., as serene and unchanging as a child’s train garden underneath a Christmas tree.
Implicit in the squat, self-sufficient symmetry of its downtown architecture (no Main Street buildings are over three stories tall), there is a celebration of the small-town egocentricity and fatuousness which Sinclair Lewis parodied more than a half-century ago. Yet, today, surrounded as it is by bland subdivisions and the ramshackle depersonalization of the characterless suburban non-communities of the South Carroll building boom, Sykesville, with its antiquarian pretensions and its intimations of a gentler, more graceful and scaled-down era, today seems almost noble.
The years — particularly the last few decades — have not been kind to Sykesville, just as they have not been kind to small towns all up and down the eastern seaboard. Again and again, over the years, the town’s most enterprising and ambitious intentions have been repeatedly undercut by everything from floods and hurricanes to shopping malls and zoning laws. But again and again, it has struggled back, at times holding onto its identity — its incorporated charter — merely by the skin of its proverbial teeth.
To much of the rest of Southern Carroll County, at least to those who have no emotional attachments to it, Sykesville is a bit of an oddity, a quaint piece of irrelevancy whose continued existence is sometimes even puzzling.
“It’s a dead town, and it’s been a dead town for the last 30 years,” one middle-aged denizen of Carroll County notes. He points out that, even though he lives only a few miles away, he seldom has reason to go there. “It’s just on the wrong side of the county, the wrong side of 32, the wrong side of the railroad tracks, the wrong side of everything. I don’t think it’s ever going to change from that, either.”
But in the face of such passive adversity and collective indifference, Sykesville is, in the late 1980s, making a valiant if uphill effort to retain its determinedly rustic small-town identity. It is attempting, against some rather daunting obstacles, to re-inject much-needed vitality into its beleaguered downtown business district. The town’s struggle is not only against the countywide image of cultural irrelevancy; it is a fight to overcome economic extinction as well.
“Even though Sykesville bottomed out badly in the 60s and 70s and almost died, there are still a lot of us who love the place,” explains one long-time resident who has become part of the town’s recently reactivated efforts at urban renewal and economic survival. “To let it just slide off the map and go downhill, like it almost did in the 70s, would be a terrible loss to us. I think, in its old-fashioned way, this place represents many of the small-town ideals and potential for community and self-containment that has been lost upon the people who engineered all the subdivisions [in the surrounding county]. It represents a lot of what is good that much of the rest of Carroll County has either already lost, or can feel slipping away. I think it can serve as kind of the model, locally, for a reawakening of interest in small-town life. I think its survival means a lot more than most people around here realize.”
That region of the Patapsco Valley where the town of Sykesville presently slumbers is located near Carroll County’s southeastern tip, near where it borders Howard and Baltimore Counties. Before it became a remote outpost of Western civilization in the early 1700s, it was an Indian no-man’s land through which passed the warpath of the powerful Iroquois nation to the north. As such, the area was scrupulously avoided by the Nanticokes and other weaker tribes of the south.
The first white settlers arrived in that part of what is now Carroll County around 1720, drawn by the area’s abundance of heavily forested land and fresh water.
By the turn of the last century, William Patterson, an eminently wealthy Baltimore shipbuilder, had acquired some 3000 acres nearby, including much of what is now the Springfield State Hospital grounds, two miles to the north of Sykesville’s present downtown district. Over time, the Patterson family built a huge, elegant summer manse nearby, which stood until 1912, when it was destroyed by fire. Patterson’s daughter Betsy caused quite a stir when, in 1803, she married Jerome Bonaparte, younger brother of the French emperor, Napoleon, who opposed, and eventually destroyed the marriage, leaving Betsy with a long lifetime of bitter regret.
In 1825 an enterprising English merchant named James Sykes bought many acres of land abutting Patterson’s. Sykes quickly grasped the area’s commercial potential, due to the already existing crude roads, the abundance of water power from the swift Patapsco (which in the early 1800s was still a formidable enough river to enable oceangoing vessels to pass as far inland as Ellicott City, just a dozen or so miles downstream), and the rapidly growing farming and iron and copper mining industries that had taken shape nearby.
When Sykes arrived, there was already a combination saw and gristmill in operation on what is now the Howard County side of the river. He set about enlarging the mill, and also constructed a five-story, 47-room stone hotel to accommodate the summer outflow of thousands of tourists from Baltimore seeking respite from the stench, disease, and summer heat of the growing city.
In 1831, William Patterson used his influence as a board member of the fledgling Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to induce the company to reroute its original “old main line” (the first public railway built in the U.S.) up through the Patapsco Valley and the incipient settlement that was beginning to spring up near his summer residence.
The advent of the railway meant growth to local industry as well as a considerable swelling in the tourist trade, which, during the warmer months, sometimes reached several hundred visitors a day.
By 1837, the year that Carroll County was carved out of existing portions of Baltimore and Fredrick Counties, a thriving commercial center had grown up across the river from the town’s present location, on what is now the Howard County bank of the Patapsco.
After the War, the Flood
The Civil War came and went, leaving the town, with its strong Northern sympathies, virtually unscathed. Briefly, the town did fall into Southern hands in 1863, when Brigadier General Jeb Stuart, the commander of General Robert E. Lee’s Cavalry Division, sent General Fitz Lee’s brigade toward Sykesville to tear up railroad track, and where on the dawn of June 29, they cut telegraph wires and burned the bridges crossing the Patapsco and Piney Run Creek, before heading onward into the jaws of destiny at Gettysburg.
It was the brute force of nature rather than the cruel hand of war that finally brought the town to the brink of ruin in 1868 and halted its forward rush into boom and prosperity. On July 24, a storm abruptly dumped 18 inches of rain on the upper Patapsco floodplain; the ensuing flood washed away the hotel Sykes built (which he had sold to John Grimes) and most of the rest of the town with it. (The same flood killed 50 people and caused one million dollars damage downriver at Ellicott city.)
After the flood of ’68, the town slowly began to reassemble itself across the river at its present location, in a narrow, hill-studded and elongated ravine. The ravine had been carved out over the millennia by the swift freshwater stream that runs beneath Main Street before emptying into the Patapsco. The town fathers simply built their new town over the stream and used it as a crude sewer and storm drain. Today, the stream can still be heard rushing through the basement of many main street structures. It was not replaced by a more sanitary and efficient system until the 1970s, when the county finally came in and installed a more up-to-date water and sewerage facility.
“It’s a unique situation,” admits Lloyd R. Helt, Jr., the town’s 37-year-old Democratic mayor, who also happens to be Sykesville’s only attorney. (You can read more about Lloyd here.) This is the only town I know where the decision on where to build the business district was based on access to a free-flowing stream, which was used as the town sewer.” As he considers this, the bearded, outspoken young mayor affords himself a rare laugh at the expense of the town he takes very seriously.
In their novel choice for the town’s location, Sykesville’s second generation of founding forefathers succeeded in laying the foundation for one of the recurring problems of later years: the town’s limitations on physically expanding its central business district. In its present location it is hemmed in closely by hills on the better part of three sides. On the fourth side, it butts up against the river and Howard County.
“Sykesville is in a bowl,” adds Helt. He gestures out the large window of his renovated turn-of-the-century office/residence, a large, three-story brick building that originally housed a bank. The window offers him a rather panoramic view of the lower Main Street area.
“Everywhere you look, you see a hill,” he points out as he surveys the town from his lofty perspective. “Before cable came in, it was difficult to get TV reception down here. If our city police car is over on School House Road, which is in an even deeper part of the valley, it can’t communicate out by radio.”
Despite these inherent geographic limitations, Sykesville did continue to prosper in the final decades of the 19th century. It became the hub of South Carroll’s thriving agricultural economy. In 1883, the red brick Queen Anne style B&O Station, which is still one of the dominant structures of lower Main Street, and the centerpiece of the town’s present hopes for historic preservation, was built. By 1890, many of the buildings that still stand along Main Street had already been built to accommodate all manner of retail and wholesale enterprises that catered to local banking, agricultural, mining and railroad-related businesses.
Into the 20th Century
As Sykesville entered the present century, it was replete with muddy streets clogged with horses and buggies, taverns, livery stables and other street front businesses. The second floors of many of these establishments served as residences for their proprietors; railed porches hung out over the sidewalks, giving Main Street a bustling, informal residential spirit. There was even a large flour mill that turned out 100 barrels a day of a sought-after brand called “Cooks Delight.”
In 1896, the state established Springfield Hospital, the Second Hospital for the Insane of the State of Maryland, nearby. By the 1950s, Springfield had grown into a huge facility, with a combined patient-employee population of nearly 10,000. The hospital not only brought hundreds of new jobs to the local economy, but also a healthy new revenue base to downtown businesses.
In 1904, the town formed its first municipal government. Sykesville’s growth was also propelled forward by the efforts of a wealthy local landowner and businessman named Frank Brown, who owned 3000 acres and an impressive residence nearby. Brown had a deft hand when it came to mixing civic pride and vested self-interest. “He was quite a man,” says Thelma Wimmer, 76, president of Sykesville’s historic commission. “He even spent his own money building roads.”
In 1891, Brown, who’d earlier been rewarded with the position of Baltimore’s Postmaster General for his diligent work in Grover Cleveland’s 1883 presidential campaign, captured the Maryland governorship. Running on a platform of “good old-fashioned horse sense,” he carried the state with a 30,000-vote majority. It’s a feat no one else from the county has ever managed, but his tenure in the governor’s mansion was not particularly memorable, and he failed to win a second term.
All through the early 20th century, right up to the brink of World War II, Sykesville continued to hold its own.
“When we came here in ’36, it had butcher shops, a hardware store, a barbershop, a department store, an A&P store, and all of that,” says Thelma Wimmer, who, as a former town council member and a citizen activist, is deeply involved in the town’s present struggle for rejuvenation. “On Saturday night, people would come in from all around to do the shopping. They had an ice cream parlor and an adjoining room where they’d push the tables back and dance. It was quite a lively town.”
But as early as 1938, the chronic shortsightedness of small-town officialdom was already paving the way for future crises. That year, Sykesville was the only one of eight Carroll County municipalities to refuse an offer from the federal government to build, without charge, a modern water and sewer system. Unwilling even to accept the annual expense of maintaining a new system, the town’s elected officials decided to stick with their tried and true natural sewer instead.
”We would be a strong, vital town today if they had let that go through,” says Helt, with a dire shake of his head. “I think Sykesville would be a town of 10,000 to 20,000 today.”
Besides Lloyd Helt, it is doubtful if anyone has so thoroughly charted Sykesville’s historic ebbs and flows over the last five decades, or become so emotionally involved in its more recent struggle for survival as Thelma Wimmer.
Wimmer’s own long-time residence is a stately old stone house on a quiet residential street, a half mile or so up the hill from the town center, and across the road from the old Sykesville High School (which had its last graduating class in 1966). She was born in Roanoke, Virginia in 1909. She came to Carroll County in 1918 and settled in Sykesville 18 years later. Her late husband prospered locally with a Main Street plumbing and heating service.
Looking back, Wimmer expresses fond nostalgia for Sykesville’s former years of prosperity, and frank concern for its more recent troubled economic condition.
“I think the trouble all started when they built the Route 32 bypass [in 1968],” she explains. “Then people started going to the malls [instead of downtown], and that, of course, had a big impact. Then they moved the post office [to a newer facility, a half mile or so away from the central business district, nearer to where Route 32 now runs].
“It saddens me particularly that some of those historic buildings downtown have been changed,” adds Wimmer, who has a huge collection of old black and white photos, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia that document the town’s history and growth from as far back as the late 1800s.
“For instance, when Maryland National Bank came in and bought out Sykesville State Bank, they filled in those beautiful old arched windows on the front of the old bank building with cement, and put up that ugly metal façade. It’s awful.
“It seems like just about the only one of our historic buildings that hasn’t been cut up into apartments is the townhouse,” she adds glumly, referring to the old restored wood frame house on a nearby hillside that now serves as the city’s office building and police headquarters. “A lot of them, as far as I’m concerned, have just been ruined. A lot of the second floors have been rented by absentee landlords, and the people just tore up and trashed the places.”
Wimmer has never been a shrinking violet when it comes to civic affairs. A former PTA president, she was also voted Sykesville’s most outstanding senior citizen in 1979. She served on Sykesville’s six-person city Council, and even ran to become the town’s first woman mayor in 1969.
She was defeated by a man in his mid-eighties, one of several octogenarians the town had at its helm during its more recent decades of decline. Since as far back as 1974, she has been actively involved in the town’s ultimately successful efforts to have its business district placed on the National Register of Historic Places. More recently, she has also been active in the city’s efforts to buy the old B&O station at the foot of Main Street from its present owner, the Chessie System. “Most of the changes I’ve seen since I came here, I like,” she emphasizes.
“I can remember, back in the 30s, all the roads were cinder, most of them. There were open ditches that ran along the side of the roads, and people’s septic tanks flowed right into them. The businesses built their sewers right into that stream, and it emptied straight into the river.”
Wimmer admits that there has been a certain salvation in the town government’s traditionally backward-looking stance. “Oh yes,” she agrees. “I’m so glad Sykesville hasn’t gone the way of Eldersburg.”
She refers to the heavily developed Outer Liberty Rd. corridor, just 3 miles or so to the north, just across the Liberty Reservoir from Baltimore County. Quite unlike Sykesville, this nearby area has, in the past two decades, developed into a heavily populated suburban bedroom community whose lifeline to Baltimore is the badly congested Liberty Road. “It’s important that we keep Sykesville a quaint town,” she adds. “Otherwise, I don’t think we’ll have much luck getting people to come see what we have here.
“I am particularly pleased with some of the steps that have been taken. I’m pleased to see some of the downtown businesses painting and fixing up their buildings. They’re really trying … but it’s still an uphill fight.”