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The Empty Lot on Cokeland South

February 19, 2017

Rich has written about a fascinating, tragic story from 1978, when Maryland City was literally rocked by an explosion in the wee hours of February 1st. The mystery deepened when firefighters discovered the home’s occupant dead in the front yard—of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. What happened at 355 Cokeland South that morning, that led to it being an empty lot for more than half a decade?

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Laurel real estate agents may periodically stumble across what appears to be a typo on the books in the sprawling neighborhood of Maryland City, just off Route 198. In the sea of single family houses built in the early 1960s, there’s one on Cokeland South that stands out on paper, if not in person. As the home’s Zillow.com profile indicates, “355 Cokeland S, Laurel, MD is a single family home that contains 1,120 sq ft and was built in 1984.”

Wait. 1984?

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The houses directly beside it were built in 1963. In fact, all of the other houses on Cokeland South and the surrounding streets were built in 1963. So that has to be a mistake, right?

Not according to those who lived in the neighborhood in the late 1970s and early 80s—particularly the kids who enjoyed playing on what they called, simply, “The Empty Lot”. And aerial photos from 1980 do indeed show an empty lot on the site:

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However, aerial photos from 1964 clearly reveal a house there at that time:

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So what happened here? It’s certainly not unusual for homeowners to completely rebuild—whether it’s the result of a devastating fire, flood, or other natural disaster. Or, simply by aesthetic choice—sometimes, people decide to make significant changes to their property that requires tearing it down and rebuilding something new.

But why would the house at 355 Cokeland South disappear, and its lot sit completely vacant for several years?

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This past December, I received an email from Lost Laurel follower Werter Arrington. He knew the basic answer to this question; because as a child, his family lived directly across the street at 350 Cokeland South. And in the early morning hours of February 1, 1978, he witnessed the aftermath of a violent explosion that destroyed his neighbors’ home.

But this wasn’t a horrific accident or freak occurrence, as Maryland City firefighters and Anne Arundel County Police first responders soon determined. The occupant of the house, Frank Stanley Kotra, was found dead in the front yard—of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

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Front page of the Laurel News Leader, February 9, 1978 edition

Werter remembered his parents trying to lend aid—covering the man in a blanket and talking to him until help arrived, knowing that it was likely far too late. It was. Firefighters converging on the blaze had quite a task on their hands that morning: multiple 55-gallon drums of cleaning supplies had become involved in the fire that originated in the basement, prohibiting them from making any attempt to attack the fire from inside—or what was left of the inside.

And in what must have been a particularly macabre scene, firefighters realized they had inadvertently been kneeling on the victim’s body while operating a hose line at the front of the house. By that point, Kotra’s body had become partially covered by debris; and worse, his face and head had become frozen to the ground.

“He was frozen to the sidewalk and had to be chipped from the ice before they could remove his body.” —Maryland City Fireman Dave Smallwood

Maryland State Police reported that the cause of the fire was “ignition of a flammable liquid, possibly gasoline,” and the State Medical Examiner officially ruled the death of the 48-year-old retired military man a suicide.

There’s no way of knowing exactly what transpired at 355 Cokeland South that morning, but it stemmed from a domestic incident. Most theories have Kotra’s wife, Hannelore, planning to leave the marriage and take their children—leaving Frank despondent. Some suggest that he intended to kill everyone in the home. (Firefighters reported that he had blocked egress with furniture). But others claim that the family was safely away with relatives, and that Kotra himself had even made arrangements for his children to spend the night with a neighbor. At any rate, a distraught Frank Kotra was fortunately home alone at 4:45 AM on February 1, 1978, when he decided to set a fire in his basement—likely knowing that it would trigger a massive explosion—and then walk to the front yard, put a gun to his head, and pull the trigger.

***

Frank Stanley Kotra was born on February 14, 1929 in Tarnow, Poland to Karol Kotra and Stefania Siedlik.

In 1955, he became an American citizen residing in Chicago; and the following year, he married Hannelore in Manheim, Germany. The U.S. Army Staff Sergeant and his wife spent time in Fort Smith, Arkansas before moving to Maryland City.

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Norther District, Illinois Naturalization Index for Frank Kotra, 1955
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Fort Smith, Arkansas City Directory, 1959.

After retiring from the Army, Kotra sold Amway products—which might explain the unusually large volume of cleaning products in his basement, further fueling the fire.

Kotra was just two weeks shy of his 49th birthday when he took his life, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on February 3rd. His headstone revealed another intriguing fact about his short, troubled life—he’d served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars.

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Kotra’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery: Section 67, Site 871.

Little was known about post-traumatic stress disorder during Frank Kotra’s lifetime. In fact, the term “PTSD” didn’t first appear in the psychiatric lexicon until 1980. Could that have potentially played some role in this tragedy?

The house sitting at 355 Cokeland South today was indeed newly built in 1984, and bears no scars from February 1, 1978. Nor would you guess that the site had been an empty lot for more than half a decade after an explosion rocked the community. It looks very much like the other houses on the street and surrounding blocks throughout Maryland City—peaceful. Let’s hope that Frank Kotra found peace, and that his family, friends, and neighbors who lived through this event nearly 40 years ago have found peace, as well.

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My thanks to Werter Arrington, John Floyd, Maryland City firefighter Dave Smallwood, MCVFD Chief Rayburn Smallwood, and retired AAFD Battalion Chief Joe Ross for their recollections.

2016… Almost history!

As this eventful year draws to a close, let’s take a quick look back at some of the positive things that came out of the past 12 months.

Last December, the Laurel History Boys organized an informal and nostalgic roundtable discussion with Mayor Craig Moe and each of the living ex-Mayors of Laurel—including Mike Leszcz, Joe Robison, Dani Duniho, and Robert DiPietro. Moderated by Kevin, the event was filmed at the Laurel Police Department’s Partnership Activity Center.

In January, Rich was named the Laurel Historical Society’s Volunteer of the Year. He has donated graphic design services since 2014, producing the exhibition graphics for the Laurel Museum’s past three annual exhibits.

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During renovations in February, Pete was able to save a limited number of historic stadium seats from the Laurel Park grandstand, including a few complete wooden chairs dating to 1954. If you’re interested in acquiring a full seat or a numbered plastic seat back, please contact us.

In March, Rich saw firsthand the Stefanie Watson cold case saga finally come to a close, when he joined her family at the killer’s sentencing. His 2012 Lost Laurel blog post about the crime’s 30th anniversary—the first piece written about the crime in three decades—helped prompt detectives to fasttrack the DNA testing that ultimately convicted John Ernest Walsh of the crime.

Stefanie’s story finally received national attention when On the Case with Paula Zahn aired “A Nightmare in Laurel”.

May’s Main Street Festival marked the second straight year that we’ve ridden in the parade in Mike Templeton’s beautiful 1956 Chevy Bel Air, but little did we know it would be the first of three parades for the Laurel History Boys this year! We had the honor of being named Parade Grand Marshals for Laurel’s 4th of July Celebration, and just a few weeks ago, rode in the Christmas parade, as well.

Our participation in the 4th of July parade also garnered another pretty cool honor—front page of the Laurel Leader!

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2016 will be long-remembered for its remarkable number of celebrity deaths; but closer to home, there was no tragedy more unexpected than the murder of beloved Tastee Diner waitress Windy Floyd in August. Windy always took good care of us during our frequent Diner visits, and we felt the need to do something to help her kids in the wake of this nightmare. The GoFundMe page we established has raised over $3,400 for her daughter, Lacey; and Diner staff and customers raised an additional several hundred dollars through on-site fundraising efforts.

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On a brighter note, this past year also saw an increase in speaking engagements for us, as we were invited to give presentations to the Savage Historical Society, the Friends of Montpelier, and the Laurel chapter of the American Rosie the Riveter Association.

We also saw a couple of Laurel landmarks demolished (literally) in 2016—the Laurel Theatre/Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre at 312 Main Street and the Laurel Town Lodge at 41 B Street—and had the unique opportunity to tour the vacant properties as guests of Sorto Contracting before they were demolished. Blaine Sutton of Sorto helped ensure that some pieces from both old buildings were preserved, and we’ll be producing videos about each place’s history as soon as possible in the new year.

As the clock ticks down on 2016, we hope that 2017 will bring nothing but good things and wonderful new discoveries—and look forward to sharing them with you. Happy New Year!

Tom’s Reindeer Run

Pete Lewnes represented the Laurel History Boys well last Saturday morning, as he participated in the 15th annual Tom’s 5k Reindeer Run—a charity race that raises funds for Sarah’s House in memory of Tom Linsenmeyer, who took his own life in 2001 at the age of 17.

The annual West Laurel race—a fitting tribute to a young man who was both a fierce competitor and a gentle soul—raised over $7,000 this year! The money will be used to support local women and families in need, and will undoubtedly make a real difference this holiday season.

This wonderful event is open to runners and walkers alike, and Pete finished with a respectable time of 00:49:21.

Laurel has developed a nice little niche of charity races in recent years, including the new McCeney March, in memory of the late Jim McCeney. This was our first event of its kind, but we look forward to supporting (and participating in) more in the coming year!

Laurel’s own Rosies

Did you know that Laurel has a chapter of the American Rosie the Riveter Association? These ladies were hard at work on the homefront during World War II, and we were extremely honored when they asked us to give a presentation last Saturday about what was happening in Laurel during that era.

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Richard Friend, Kevin Leonard, and Pete Lewnes with the Rosies: Rena Van Buren, Lorraine Miller, and Wilma Foster.

We gave a brief year-by-year recap of various events, and then focused on three stories from the war years—including Kevin’s recent article about the civilian internees and prisoners of war held at Fort Meade. And for show and tell, Pete brought an array of artifacts from his massive Laurel memorabilia collection.

But it’s difficult to tell a more inspiring story than that of the Rosies themselves, and to have these three remarkable women present was truly an honor.

During the war, Rena Van Buren was a shell casing inspector who knew soldiers’ lives depended on her accurate work.

Lorraine Miller was a Department of Justice stenographer, who met her husband while volunteering at Laurel’s USO club (now American Legion Post 60).

And Wilma Foster worked as a riveter at Fairchild Aircraft in Hagerstown. Wilma’s daughter, Ann Marie Miller, is the President of the Laurel chapter of the American Rosie the Riveter Association.

 

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Lorraine and Eddie Miller, who met at Laurel’s USO club.
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Lorraine, second from left, with other USO girls.
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Lorraine enjoys perusing some vintage Laurel memorabilia.

Many thanks again to this wonderful organization and its members, as well as the First United Methodist Church at 424 Main Street, whose Fellowship Hall hosted the event.

Windy

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A typical Saturday scene: Kevin, Windy, Pete, and Rich at Laurel’s Tastee Diner. (Photos: John Floyd II)

There are a number of good people both working at and frequenting the Tastee Diner who make it the special place that it is. But for us, the first was a waitress named Windy Floyd.

Over the past 3 years or so, Kevin, Pete, and I have had the pleasure of becoming “regulars” at Laurel’s legendary Tastee Diner. To say that there’s no other place quite like the Diner would be a tremendous understatement; its historic ambiance alone just genuinely inspires us as we compare notes and go about uncovering new stories from Laurel’s past. I could sit for hours at Starbucks and not come up with a single idea; but give me ten minutes with a cup of coffee at the Diner and the wheels already start to turn. And it all began by sitting at a table in Windy’s section.

This being its 40th anniversary under the Tastee Diner banner, we’re in the process of putting together a very interesting history of the three diner cars that have occupied the site at 118 Washington Boulevard since the early 1930s, originally started by Walter Susini.

But sometimes real life has a way of interfering with things. This past Saturday—at the Diner, of course—reminded us of that.

Windy didn’t seem to be working her regular shift. Another long-time waitress, Melissa, came over to help us instead. But rather than take our order, Melissa began with an unusual question:

“Have you all heard from Windy?”

She went on to reveal that the Diner hadn’t heard from her since Tuesday—that she’d missed her Friday shift without calling in, and was scheduled to work that day (Saturday) as well… but still hadn’t called in.

Calls to Windy’s cellphone went straight to voicemail, she said. Even more worrisome, a visit to her house in Jessup yielded no response, although “all the cars are there,” according to Melissa. “The dog isn’t even barking.” that didn’t sound good at all. We lost our appetites.

We left the Diner that afternoon while Anne Arundel County Police were doing a welfare check at Windy’s house, prompted by a call from Diner staff. There was a brief bit of hope that she may have traveled to visit her family in Tennessee—that, perhaps, something had happened that caused her to leave unexpectedly. But even still, by all accounts, Windy would’ve made time to call the Diner to let them know.

A few hours later, we learned the devastating news. Windy was dead. She’d been shot—apparently while she slept—by the man with whom she lived. He’d then turned the gun on himself, taking his own life.

Apparently, there was a history of domestic strife that wasn’t reported to police—problems that had increased in severity in recent weeks, according to investigators. Windy, unfortunately, never let on that anything was wrong. She was only 49 years old.

* * *

The Diner was literally a brighter place with Windy working there. Her smile and laughter were immediately welcoming, whether you were a regular or not. Getting to know her over these past few years has been a pleasure—sitting in Windy’s section was truly part of our routine. We looked forward to seeing her. She’d actually save “our table” if she knew we were coming in when there was a crowd. And she genuinely took an interest in the research we do, often stopping to sit with us for a few moments to get a look at some vintage photos Pete had found, or at Kevin’s most recent Laurel Leader article.

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She was one of the first people to receive a Lost Laurel book from me, and could always count on Pete to bring her back a t-shirt from a concert at Atlantic City. She was proud of her Laurel History Boys swag, too: t-shirts and stickers courtesy of Kevin—who enjoyed asking her for a menu every single week, despite ordering the same thing time and again. “I already know what you’re gonna get, so don’t even ask for that menu,” she’d playfully chide.

Kevin, Pete, and I always took turns paying the tab, and even though we’d often forget who got the last one, Windy never did. If I reached for the check, she’d put it in front of Pete instead. “No, Rich, you got it last time. Let him pay!”

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This has been a sad, surreal week. And it will undoubtedly be sad and surreal at the Diner for quite some time. But Windy wouldn’t want that, I’m sure. She was excited about the prospect of this 40th Anniversary of the Tastee Diner that we were just discussing last weekend, and would’ve loved to see how it shapes up. Whether you’re a Diner regular, or even if you haven’t been in years, stop by one day soon and let the staff know that you’re thinking of them. If it feels like we’ve lost a family member, we can only imagine how tough this must be for Windy’s co-workers. Jeff, Joy, Melissa, Patty, Emily, Kevin, Gene, and everyone in the Tastee Diner family—you’re in our thoughts and have our sincerest condolences.

UPDATE:
We’ve established a GoFundMe page to benefit Windy’s children and grandchildren. All proceeds raised will go directly to her oldest daughter, Lacey. Please visit https://www.gofundme.com/windyfloydmemorial and contribute what you can—no amount is too small, and you can donate anonymously. Also, kindly share this link to spread the word.

A Grand Day, Indeed!

July 2, 2016 will go down as a day the Laurel History Boys won’t forget. As reported earlier this week, we had the honor of being named Grand Marshals of the city’s Fourth of July Parade.

With this year’s theme focusing on Laurel’s history, it was a quite a thrill to see a record turnout of over 90 antique and classic cars participating in the parade and car show. Kevin, Pete and I had the pleasure of riding in Jerry Seitz’ ultra-rare 1940 Plymouth pickup, which still has its original paint and cargo bed!

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Photo: John Mewshaw

Jerry shared an interesting historical note about the truck, which he acquired just a few years ago. He’d first seen it—and tried to purchase it—from a gentleman 40 years earlier. When he finally got it, the original owner’s son also gave him an old address book that had belonged to his father—which included countless names and numbers of Plymouth collectors and enthusiasts. Among the references was Jerry’s name and number… from 40 years ago. Clearly, this beautiful truck has finally made it to its rightful home, and what a pleasure it was to ride with Jerry this morning!

I thought I’d share a quick recap of the sights and sounds of this unique experience, coming from one who’d never been a Grand Marshal of anything before. I’ll also include a few pointers, if you will, should you ever find yourself riding in this grand Laurel tradition.

One of the things you have to take into consideration when riding in any parade is transportation to said parade. It’s not simply a matter of just showing up to the starting point… because unless you plan to walk (or catch a ride) all the way back to where you originally parked your car, you’ll need to give that some thought.

The three of us parked near the end of the parade route at Laurel Lakes, where we’d be able to enjoy the car show afterwards and then have easy access to our own vehicles. And we had the benefit of catching a ride over to the starting point at Sixth and Montgomery Streets in true historic style, thanks to 4th of July Committee Member Mike Templeton. He picked us up in his 1956 Chevy Bel Air, and we enjoyed a quick cruise through the heart of the Historic District en route to the staging area.

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Once there, we got to meet Jerry and get our first look at the Grand Marshals’ vehicle itself.IMG_5735

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Waiting for the parade to start at 11:00, we had the chance to visit with Mayor Craig Moe, and City Council members—all of whom admirably walk the full distance of the parade, happily greeting folks and putting those of us who comfortably ride in vehicles to shame. 🙂

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Upon starting, Kevin and I hopped into the back of the truck while Pete rode shotgun.

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Photo: John Mewshaw
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Photo: John Mewshaw

 

This was something else that was new to me—riding “backwards” through Laurel. It’s a bit more disorienting than you’d imagine. This was the view we had looking back along Montgomery Street:

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Photo: Alexander Butler
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Photo: Alexander Butler

Another unique sight was riding past the legendary West Laurel Rag Tag Band, which traditionally brings up the rear of every parade. I managed to snag a photo of them getting ready to fall in line near Laurel Elementary School.

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Photo: Brian Krista, Baltimore Sun Media Group
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Photo: Linda Ekiss Lemar

Just before turning onto Fourth Street, I caught sight of one of my favorite former co-workers from the Laurel Library, whom I hadn’t seen since I left that job (my very first!) way back in 1997. Maria Raynes was my supervisor as a clerical aide, and coincidentally, she just retired from the job this week—there was a wonderful story about her in the Laurel Leader!

She took a photo of us, and after quickly dispersing candy to the nearby youngsters, I had to snap a photo of her as well.

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Photo: Maria Raynes

Heading onto Fourth Street, I snuck a couple of shots over the top of the truck’s cab to see what the route ahead looked like. Here, we’re approaching the intersection of Talbott Avenue, (Route 198 West) which Laurel’s Finest was just about to block off.

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We offered them some candy, too, but they declined. But I’m guessing the folks who really could’ve used some refreshment were the drivers stuck on Route 198 west-and eastbound to let the parade pass through.

Heading further south along Fourth Street, we were approaching Marshall Avenue at this point… and there’s a lot of eager kids with candy bags along this stretch. One can never have too much candy—that goes for both parade participants and spectators. (Kevin and I ran out just before Ashford Boulevard, so that’s a lesson learned.)

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Just past Crow Branch, I saw another familiar face—one of my best friends since the first grade. Rodney Pressley captured a quick video, in spite of being pelted with candy. (If you listen closely to the video, you’ll also hear his nephew, Kevin, hilariously remind me that I owe him candy.)

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Standing at the corner of of Montrose Avenue, where he’s photographed countless parade moments over the decades, John Floyd captured this shot—proving that trying to throw candy across Fourth Street from the back of a small truck is more awkward than you’d think!

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Photo: John Floyd II

Nearing the judges stand at the end of the route, I noticed this very patriotic lady enjoying the parade.

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At the judges stand, Committee Member Carreen Koubek briefly stopped Jerry’s truck and surprised each of us with a commemorative plaque!

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From there, it was off to Mulberry Street for the classic car show.

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I’m a sucker for the details at these shows, and there were plenty. One of my favorites was the Ford Falcon with vintage Food Town grocery bags in the back seat.

I think our only regret on this day was that we couldn’t drive home in one of those vehicles. Although if Pete has his way, that will soon change… He’s trying to find a ’67 Chevy Biscayne, a ’72 Plymouth Fury, or even a 1980s Impala—which he can modify into a historic Laurel Police car. If you have any leads on such a ride, please contact us!

The weather was perfect, the crowd was great, and Laurel’s 38th Annual Fourth of July Parade was an absolute blast. I know I speak for Kevin and Pete when I say this was a truly enjoyable experience, and one we won’t forget. Our profound thanks to the City of Laurel, and especially those hardworking members of the Fourth of July Committee, who tirelessly seek to raise funds for this special event all year round.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention just how important it is to support this great tradition in the years to come, especially as we near the 40th anniversary. The fireworks display that so many of us enjoy each July costs far more to produce than you’d probably ever suspect—we’re talking $35,000 or more—and it relies on sponsors and donations. Please be sure to visit https://laurel4th.org/ and pitch in what you can—every dollar helps. Laurel’s celebration routinely draws crowds of 50,000 spectators; if each one of us gave just $1.00, next year’s event would be truly epic. If there’s one duty as 2016 Grand Marshals that we’d like to stress, it’s that it’s crucial that we all help Laurel’s Fourth of July Committee continue to carry on this historic tradition.

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Photo: Nate Pesce, Baltimore Sun Media Group

Again, our heartfelt thanks to all who worked to make this year’s celebration a success, as well as everyone who came out to enjoy the festivities. Have a safe and wonderful Fourth of July weekend!

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 Unless otherwise credited, all photos ©Richard Friend.