I often say that when I started Lost Laurel back in 2011, I thought maybe a handful of my oldest friends would take an interest in it. I honestly had no idea so many others shared the type of nostalgia I have for this town’s past. But I’m glad they do, and I’m thrilled that they continue to look for even more. This page gives me the chance to explore some of the broader (and often darker) themes I’ve been looking into from Laurel’s past—subjects and stories that go beyond the nostalgic businesses from years ago… the chance to go Beyond Lost Laurel.
March 14, 2018
The Murder of Audrey Blaisdell
1973 had already been a traumatic year in Laurel—a year that began with the shocking murder of Safeway cashier Edie Miles in January.
Eight months later, and literally within a stone’s throw of the Safeway on Bowie Road where Mrs. Miles had been shot to death, an equally horrific story unfolded.
The evening of September 24th should have been a routine, fun Monday night for the Blaisdell family, who’d lived in Laurel for 10 years. Kenneth and Betty Blaisdell were avid bowlers at Fair Lanes Laurel, which was less than a mile from their home at 1027 Harrison Drive. They were part of a Monday night bowling league, and their daughters, 13-year-old Audrey and 11-year-old Debbie, would eagerly accompany them each week.
Audrey Susan Blaisdell was a ninth grader at Laurel Junior High School, and a member of the First Baptist church, where she sang in the choir. She would have turned 14 on October 9th of that year. But Audrey didn’t come home from the bowling alley that night. Her grandmother, Bernice Bedell, would later tearfully tell police that she “already had her present wrapped.”
Fair Lanes was a lively spot on any given night, and Mondays were no exception. The bowling alley was still in its heyday and thriving, full of Laurelites young and old—bowlers of varying skill levels, as well as billiards and pinball players, and even casual observers. Amidst the nonstop din of rolling balls and crashing pins, it was a social center where adults could routinely run into their neighbors and colleagues, and their kids would meet friends and classmates. The unmistakable smells of lane wax, aerosol shoe deodorant, cigarette smoke, and French fries intermingled for a not-entirely-unpleasant aroma that was unique to bowling alleys throughout the country.
For as much activity as there was inside Fair Lanes, the surrounding parking lot was quite the hot spot in its own right. Shane’s Sandwich Shop, which remains open to this day in the northwest corner near Rt. 1 and Bowie Road, was still doing business as Harley’s in 1973. (It wouldn’t become Shane’s until 1979). And the tiny, late-night sandwich shop was a popular hangout for older teenagers and twenty-somethings.
Mary Penkala bowled with the Blaisdells routinely and was with them on the night of September 24th, along with her 11-year-old daughter, Theresa—who was a friend of Audrey’s. Theresa saw Audrey socializing with classmates who’d been congregating at the bowling alley. “She liked to talk to boys a lot,” she said. At approximately 9:15, Theresa saw Audrey walk alone to Harley’s to buy a Coke. “I didn’t see her after that.”
But Audrey had returned to the bowling alley. She came back and reported to her parents that she’d been harassed by a group of older boys, apparently loitering in the Harley’s parking lot and taunting the girl. Disturbed by the incident, Audrey’s father left the building to confront the youths himself, but had no luck finding them. Mr. and Mrs. Blaisdell returned to their game, thinking the worst was over. It wasn’t until close to 10:00 p.m., when they were getting ready to leave the bowling alley, that things got much worse. They realized that Audrey had disappeared. In fact, Mr. Blaisdell had not seen her since he returned from Harley’s around 9:30. Having found no sign of his daughter by 10:30, Mr. Blaisdell called the police.
Prince George’s County Police searched the area surrounding the bowling alley with canine units, working all through the night and expending some 400 man hours. The search ended at 9:50 Tuesday morning, when a pair of uniformed officers—part of a 25-person search party—found Audrey’s partially-clothed body face down in the wooded section near the B&O Railroad tracks behind the Roadway Express terminal—not far from the area beside the 7-Eleven where Belmont TV would eventually be located. Today, Public Storage occupies the site. In 1973, it was a popular place for older youths to hang out, drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana away from watchful eyes at the bowling alley parking lot.
Police interviewed dozens of youths who’d been in the area that Monday night, acting on the disturbing information they’d gleaned from Mr. Blaisdell about what had happened literally moments before Audrey went missing. All of the boys they spoke to were ruled out as suspects; and as of Tuesday night, the case threatened to go cold.
Because of the sheer number of potential witnesses, police set up a tip hotline at a special command center in Laurel and the media urged anyone with information to call.
And many did. Calls flooded the center that Tuesday night.
Laurel being much smaller in 1973—and the bowling alley being such a popular hangout—people tended to know one another to a degree that doesn’t exist anymore in most suburban towns. They tended to notice things. And several of the callers had noticed Audrey walking in the bowling alley parking lot with a young man about twice her age.
They recognized the man as 26-year-old Edward Maxwell Walters, unemployed and living with his parents at 316 Thomas Drive—just on the other side of Route 1, next to Apple’s Pie, and across Gorman Avenue from Tippy’s Tacos. Shortly after midnight, as that Tuesday turned into Wednesday, police arrested Walters without incident at his apartment and charged him with murder in the strangulation killing of Audrey Blaisdell. Investigators with a search warrant found “physical evidence” in the apartment of Walters’ involvement in the crime. Witnesses had also reported seeing Walters in the city of Laurel at 10:30 p.m. on the night of the murder “with scratches on his face.” Two of those interviewed said they had talked to Walters that night, and recalled him saying,
“I think I killed a girl.”
More details began to emerge Thursday, as police confirmed that Audrey’s body had been found clad in only a skirt, and she’d been strangled with a piece of her own clothing. While they had not determined whether she had been raped, county police spokesman John Hoxie said that the girl “was certainly sexually assaulted.”
Police were careful to discount any connection between the boys who had allegedly chased Audrey mere moments before her abduction. Police Lt. Col. John Rhoads said that she was seen walking with Walters by several witnesses. How she came to be abducted by that particular man just moments after fleeing what she had felt was a dangerous situation is tragically ironic, and it’s a mystery that Audrey took to her grave.
The case went to trial on February 23, 1974, with Walters pleading insanity. In his testimony, he claimed to have blacked out while under the influence of LSD.
According to Walters, he and a friend accompanied Audrey to the wooded area where her body would be discovered the next morning, but that he “didn’t know” whether he had killed the girl or not.
“I don’t remember… I blacked out. I got up and ran.”
It was the first time “the friend” had been mentioned publicly since Walters’ arrest on September 26th, and efforts to subpoena this supposed second man had been unsuccessful. Police said they weren’t seeking anyone else in connection with the killing.
Walters didn’t accuse the other man of the crime, however. In his version of events, he encountered the friend “on the way into the woods” on the night of Audrey’s murder. “He asked me when I’d gotten back from Georgia,” he said, “then we both went over into the woods.” According to Walters, the pair followed Audrey into the woods.
Prosecutor Arthur A. Marshall, Jr. stated in his closing argument that Walters had actually admitted to killing Audrey not once but twice: first in a conversation with two acquaintances on the night of the murder, and again while talking to a police officer on the way to jail.
Psychiatrists were called for both the prosecution and defense, and not surprisingly saw Walters in two different lights. The prosecution’s psychiatrist, however, testified that although Walters “suffers from a mental disorder, he was legally sane—a crucial difference that resonated with the jury.
Walters was found guilty of first degree murder and assault with intent to rape. Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge William B. Bowie sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences. He was eligible for parole 30 years later in 2003, and lived to see the motion denied.
This was a bad case that could have easily gone cold 45 years ago. Police rightly credited Laurel’s alert residents with providing not just the information—but the correct information—that led to a prompt arrest and ultimately kept a disturbed man from ever harming another person again. And incredibly, it all unfolded between a Monday night and Wednesday morning, in an era long before cellphones and social media.
Had she lived, Audrey would be turning 60 next year. Incredibly, both the bowling alley and the sandwich shop where she spent the last few moments of her life are still open today, unlike so many other Laurel businesses we grew up with. They have new names, and the costs have certainly increased, but the aura is still very much as it was when Audrey Blaisdell walked through these same doors for the final time that terrible Monday night in 1973.
March 19, 2017
The Murder of Edie Miles
In January 1973, Laurel was still reeling from a pair of shocking crimes—including the attempted assassination of presidential candidate Gov. George Wallace eight months earlier, and the disappearance and murder of 7-year-old Amy Morrison that September. The new year would not start off any better, unfortunately. In fact, as I’ll explore in time, 1973 would prove to be one of the darkest years in Laurel’s history.
On the night of January 9th, 52-year-old Edith Miles—”Edie,” as she was known to many—was finishing up work at the Safeway at 123 Bowie Road. She’d been the relief manager that day, filling in for a coworker who’d called in sick. Edie had worked at the Safeway for nearly 18 years, going back to the store’s time at the old C Street location. The new “Safeway Shopping Center” on Bowie Road had opened in 1966.
It had already been a difficult year for Edie. She’d just returned to the job about 14 weeks earlier, after taking several months off to recover at her home at 902 Nichols Drive from a heart attack. An active member of the First United Methodist Church on Main Street, she’d regrettably had to relinquish her role as president of the Women’s Society just a few days earlier, on January 1st.
Her husband of nearly 28 years, Hall Miles, Jr., had also been in poor health; after retiring nine years earlier, he’d been living on full disability.
Mr. and Mrs. Miles were no strangers to tough times, but nothing could have prepared them for what would happen on the night of January 9th.
At 9:18 P.M., a man calmly entered the store and walked directly to the glass-enclosed office where Edie was working. Through the pigeon hole window, he fired a single .38 caliber shot, striking Edie in the back of the head. He then approached register no. 3 and the express lane, announcing to stunned cashiers Deborah Thompson and Doris Tripp, “Turn over the money.” They complied, and he exited the store just as calmly, without additional violence.
Edie Miles likely died on the scene, as she was pronounced dead on arrival at Prince George’s General Hospital at 10:20 P.M. Her killer left the Safeway with $124.29.
News of the brazen killing spread far beyond Laurel; and one local businessman, who wished to remain anonymous, offered a $2,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. He even advertised the reward on a mobile billboard throughout the town.
The police had little to go on, unfortunately. Witnesses described him as white, approximately 30–35 years old, 6 feet tall, and weighing about 200 pounds. He was clean-shaven, with short, light brown hair, and had been wearing dark trousers with a predominantly blue plaid CPO jacket.
The January 18th edition of the Laurel Leader featured the billboard on its front page, and appealed to the public for information. “We still have no suspect in custody,” stated Laurel Police Chief Robert Kaiser.
On page 8 of the issue, juxtaposed below the police composite drawing of the murder suspect, was a poignant column simply titled, “Edie…” It was written by longtime editor Gertrude Poe:
Reports also noted a second suspect—possibly acting as a lookout. He was also described as a white male, “approximately the same height, heavy build, and wearing a business suit.” There were no vehicle descriptions.
But unbeknownst to Laurel detectives, the wheels were turning in their favor with help from another jurisdiction—detectives investigating another case entirely.
The Maryland State Police had been hard at work for more than a year, trying to solve an equally brutal crime. On the afternoon of December 4, 1971, a 64-year-old Mt. Airy junk dealer named Francis Runkles had been shot and killed in an apparent hold-up. The body of Mr. Runkles, who was known not to trust banks with his money, was discovered by a customer on the back porch of his junkyard on Woodville Road.
There had been no initial leads in the Runkles murder, either, until after seven months of intensive investigation by state troopers—which led to the identity of three suspects. Information developed that two of them were in Florida, including the man believed to have pulled the trigger, 39-year-old Jesse Newlin West, Jr.
Working with special agents of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Maryland State Troopers arrested West on January 18th, 1973 at a bar in St. Petersburg. The former Riverdale, MD native was extradited to Frederick County, where he confessed not only to the Runkles killing, but also to the murder of Edie Miles. West was also suspected in a number of other robberies throughout Maryland, (including a December 27, 1972 robbery of the Tie Establishment at Laurel Shopping Center) as well as a third possible homicide.
At his sentencing hearing in Prince George’s County Circuit Court some eleven months after the Miles killing, West pleaded guilty to two counts of first degree murder. Judge James Couch, Jr., sentencing him to two consecutive life sentences, told West that if the death penalty were still in effect, he would have had no choice but to impose it. West replied, “I believe in the death penalty.”
West’s attorney, public defender Robert W. King, would successfully petition the court to send his client to the notorious Patuxent Institution for evaluation as a “defective delinquent”—the term assigned to someone deemed a “chronic criminal.” The move was bolstered by statements West had given that were introduced into evidence, including a particularly chilling line about the Miles killing:
“When I shot at the woman in Laurel, I wasn’t shooting for practice.”
If the Patuxent Institution sounds familiar, it’s the same facility where John Ernest Walsh was supposed to have served a 72-year sentence for rape and attempted murder—but he was granted work release and parole after only eight years. Deemed “rehabilitated,” Walsh was the man who would go on to murder Stefanie Watson in July 1982. When Jesse Newlin West, Jr. arrived at Patuxent in 1974, Walsh was still a fellow inmate.
And like Walsh, Jesse Newlin West would sadly go on to benefit from Patuxent’s “rehabilitation” policy—which, under then-Director Norma Gluckstern, allowed administrators to parole any inmate after they’d served just one year. In fact, West ended up receiving an even more inexplicable break than Walsh did: despite having been sentenced to two consecutive life terms for the murders of Mr. Runkles and Mrs. Miles, West was actually paroled in 1979, after serving just five years and one month.
West, who’d been born on Christmas Day in 1933, lived for another (nearly) 20 years—he died, apparently of natural causes, on July 18, 1992. According to public records, he had an address on Hitching Post Lane in Laurel in 1987 before relocating to Bowie.
Ironically, West had something in common with Edie Miles. Both had been in the U.S. Army. He’d served between 1951–53, while Edie had been a WAC corporal during World War II. It was while in the Army that she’d met her husband. They’d married at Camp Dietrick on January 27, 1945, and settled in Laurel shortly thereafter.
Sadly, there’s no moral to this story. No redemption or epiphany that’s emerged. It was just an unthinkable act that took place one night in early 1973, robbing Laurel’s Safeway of a little more than $120, but robbing its community of so much more.
The Safeway on Bowie Road was expanded and remodeled (hiding its graceful, signature curved roof) in 1977; and relocated to the new Laurel Lakes shopping center in 1985, where it remained the anchor store until closing in October 2016.
The closing of the store last year, coincidentally, marks the first time since the 1930s that Laurel hasn’t had a Safeway.
The old building at 123 Bowie Road housed the Village Thrift store for a number of years before getting yet another makeover as Office Depot, which also closed recently.
The building, encased in concrete and unrecognizable from its Safeway days, does have one noticeable feature—its entrance. The doors are still in the same place where Jesse Newlin West, Jr. calmly crossed the threshold in January 1973 and killed Edie Miles over $124.29.
February 19, 2017
The Empty Lot on Cokeland South
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.”
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:
However, aerial photos from 1964 clearly reveal a house there at that time:
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 building something anew.
But why would the house at 355 Cokeland South disappear, and its lot sit completely vacant for several years?
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.
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.
After retiring from the Army, Kotra sold Amway products—which might explain the unusually large volume of cleaning supplies 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.
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.
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.
AUGUST 16, 2016
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.
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!”
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.
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.
FEBRUARY 19, 2016
Where the Streets Have… Names
I’ve often wondered where some of Laurel’s street names came from. Many of its earliest thoroughfares are simply numbered and lettered; but most are named after people—mayors and prominent families, more often than not.
In the mid-to-late 20th century, residential developers took it upon themselves to name new streets after their own families, friends and associates. I learned this while researching Steward Manor apartments, where I grew up—and discovered that Morris Drive was named after the developer himself, Morris Pollin. Other streets in the development were named after his children, like Sharon Court. One of his kids who didn’t get a street named after him, ironically, was Abe Pollin—who, as a young man, helped carry heavy bathtubs and toilets into the new apartment units. Abe went on to make a much bigger name for himself, however, as the eventual owner of the Washington Bullets/Wizards and the Washington Capitals, and the man who built the Capital Centre and what is now the Verizon Center. (Coincidentally, the 600 block of F Street, NW in front of the Verizon Center is named Abe Pollin Way in his honor.) But I digress.
Admittedly, I haven’t dug into the origins of Laurel’s street names in earnest yet. But I received a wonderful surprise in the mail this week from a Lost Laurel follower, Bill Murphy. Bill sent me a couple of vintage Laurel pieces he’d come across, including a Laurel Leader from 1975 and an original copy of the 1970 Laurel Centennial booklet. Tucked inside the Centennial booklet was an even more unique piece of history—a stapled, three-page document that had been typed by his late mother, Mrs. Bernadette I. Murphy, who worked as a newspaper reporter while the family lived on Turney Avenue between 1965 and 1975.
It’s an alphabetical list of Laurel’s street names… and their origins.
It’s not quite a complete list, and it doesn’t include her source information, but this is a tremendous help for future reference. Clearly, a lot of work went into this document, and it answers a lot of questions.
Thank you again, Bill, for sharing this veritable Rosetta Stone of Laurel street nomenclature!
NOVEMBER 7, 2015
History at the Boarding House
While Laurel has its share of historic mansions and fashionable residences, something about the town’s… shall we say… less-than tony addresses has always fascinated me. This is particularly true when it comes to places that probably aren’t long for this earth when it comes to redevelopment and expansion.
One that’s always stood out to me is the old boarding house at 41 B Street.
I’ve always known it simply as “The Boarding House”—a low-rent apartment building that’s been home primarily to transient folks, as well as those who simply can’t afford the rising cost of living.
I first became aware of it as a child in the late 1970s, when one of my uncles briefly lived in the top floor southeast corner room overlooking Tolson Alley. It was, for him, a temporary solution for a matter of months until his job relocation to Philadelphia was complete. I vividly remember that tiny room and the equally tiny TV that was showing The Wiz one night while we were visiting. Even more vivid is the memory of the Bee Gee’s Stayin’ Alive playing in the hallway. To this day, anytime I hear that song, the image of the Boarding House comes quickly to mind.
With the arrival of the new C Street Flats within eyesight at the end of the block (on the site of the old police station and City Hall) and the likelihood of business expansion in that area just off Main Street, I can’t imagine that the old Boarding House will be around a whole lot longer. All things considered, I’m really surprised it’s been around this long.
Built in 1933 under the personal supervision of Snowden J. Athey, the A. & H. Apartment House was noted as “quite an asset to the town” in the 1938 Album Representative of Laurel’s Official, Financial, Professional and Business Interests.
“Snowd” Athey was a well-known local businessman who, along with partner J. Frank Harrison, opened their popular Athey & Harrison hardware and feed store on the corner of Main and A Streets—the building that would later house Gayer’s Saddlery and now Outback Leather. Incidentally, the faded red gas pump that still stands in front of Outback Leather is a relic from the Athey & Harrison days, once used to fuel their delivery vehicles.
I could count the times I’ve been inside the building on one hand, (and haven’t set foot in it since 1979) but it always loomed large—literally—anytime I’d visit Keller’s/Knapp’s Newsstand or simply walk or drive past along Main Street.
On some level, I’ve always known that a building this old (and with the reputation its acquired over the years) must have a colorful history. One story that jumped off the page was this clipping from the February 20, 1975 Laurel News Leader, which details an argument between residents that led to a fatal shooting.
Notice that the article refers to the building as “a three-story rooming house.” Had this incident occurred just a few years earlier, the story count would’ve actually been four. According to the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department’s 100th Anniversary book, (2002) a three-alarm fire in 1968 resulted in the fourth floor being taken off completely. It notes another major fire there in 1961, and included this dramatic image:
Sure enough, if you take a closer look at that 1930s postcard (and yes, the old Boarding House actually had a postcard!) I’ve highlighted the ill-fated fourth floor.
With its 40 rooms, the building undoubtedly holds countless other stories, good and bad—most of which will be lost forever when it inevitably meets the wrecking ball, catastrophic fire, or occasional freak tornado that rips through Laurel. How much time it has left is anyone’s guess; but for now, it continues to sit there at 41 B Street, seemingly echoing that Bee Gees’ song that I overheard in its upstairs hallway so many years ago—Stayin’ Alive.
The Boarding House was demolished in December, 2016. Before the proverbial wrecking ball hit, however, Sorto Construction was kind enough to invite us to explore the property—I’ll be featuring that tour in an upcoming video.
OCTOBER 29, 2015
The Unluckiest Street Corner in Laurel?
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of hosting a walking tour of historic Main Street. It was part of a prize I’d happily donated (along with five Lost Laurel books) to the Laurel Historical Society‘s silent auction at their Annual Gala back in April. I had nearly forgotten all about it; I’d noticed a few older folks at the Gala start to bid on it, only to have second thoughts—they seemed to change their minds when they realized that we’d be walking all the way from the Laurel Museum at Ninth & Main to the train station… and back.
Thankfully, that didn’t deter winner Katie Meixner, who’d emailed me recently to say that she’d wisely just been waiting for the weather to get a bit cooler before claiming the prize. Katie and family were not only up for the extended hike, they asked if I could point out any particularly spooky—possibly haunted—locations along the way. (It is almost Halloween, after all.)
I find that type of stuff equally fascinating; particularly when you learn about specific, documented events that might very well have created the ideal circumstances for a haunting. They’re events that will forever haunt the community, at any rate.
Main Street has a few recurring themes of tragedy from block to block—namely fires and suicides through the years—but nothing comes close to the bizarre history of the corner of Sixth & Main.
In the early 1900s, (from 1902 to 1925, to be exact) the corner of Sixth and Main Streets was home to the final stop on an electric trolley line that ran from Laurel to the Treasury Building in Washington, DC.
In fact, the building that is currently Oliver’s Old Towne Tavern was the trolley station. It was rotated 90° after its trolley days, so its longer side would face Main Street.
It was here in 1904 that a speeding trolley hurtled off the barricaded end of the track, killing the motorman.
An even more horrific accident occurred six years later in 1910, when a trolley traveling down Sixth Street toward the station frightened a horse—which was hitched to a carriage being driven by a Mrs. Burroughs. The woman was thrown from the carriage and killed—impaled on the iron fence at St. Philips. Mrs. Burroughs had lived at the house on the Sixth Street corner across from the church.
But wait, it gets even more bizarre.
In 1918, The Laurel Leader reported the suicide of a jockey named William Allen—at his home in the same house on the corner of Sixth and Main. He was married to Mary Burroughs Allen, who was the daughter of the carriage accident/fence impaling victim.
Six months later, in April 1919, a disturbed Joseph Englehart shot and killed his sister and two others before taking his own life. While this incident occurred over 2 miles south in the Oak Crest neighborhood of Laurel, it still had an eerie connection to the corner of Sixth and Main—one of the victims was the sister-in-law of the aforementioned jockey, William Allen.
Needless to say, ever since learning of these stories, I’m always a bit leery of parking my car on that corner… even if I find a primo spot near Oliver’s. For such a picturesque location, it’s got quite the tragic, gruesome history.
Information for this story was found in “A Church and Its Village: St. Philip’s Episcopal Church Laurel, Maryland” by Sally Mitchell Bucklee, and in archived copies of the Laurel Leader and Washington Times during research for the Laurel Museum’s 2015 exhibit, “Ripped From the Headlines: Laurel in the News”.
OCTOBER 18, 2015
Beyond Lost Laurel
I’ve had an incredibly busy year here in Lost Laurel-land. I’ve been elected to the Laurel Historical Society‘s Board of Directors and its Executive Committee. I’ve donated the design of the Laurel Museum’s past two annual exhibits and am about to begin the one for 2016, which will mark the Museum’s 20th anniversary. I also had the chance to design their new Diven’s Den learning space, which had its grand opening in August.
All the while, I’ve been working with Kevin Leonard on a joint project—a book celebrating the Berman family‘s incredible contributions to Laurel. It’s going to be filled with wonderful photos and artifacts from the Berman Collection—the abundant family archives that Denny Berman has graciously donated, which will ultimately become a welcome addition to the Laurel Historical Society’s collection (and hopefully the inspiration for a future Museum exhibit).
Kevin and I have been methodically scanning, photographing, and organizing the materials since he received them from Denny, and it’s a treasure trove of Laurel history. It’s also a lot of work, but a true labor of love.
Launching this new site with Kevin and Pete Lewnes sounds like yet another busy undertaking, but it’s actually pretty serendipitous. The three of us have steadily pooled our resources over the past couple of years—meeting up to compare notes and findings, and collaborating on the Lost Laurel TV episodes I’ve been doing for the city’s cable access channel, Laurel TV. (Yet another project that’s kept me on my toes this year!)
One of the first things Pete shared with me when I first met him was a set of 8 x 10 photos that he’d bought at an estate sale. Not only were they early photos of Laurel Shopping Center—many of them were from the Fifteen Fabulous Days grand opening celebration in November, 1956. I used some of them in my Lost Laurel book, and others will now be featured in the Berman book as well.
Most of these images—photos shot by the Laurel-based photographers, Arnold & Marlow (who actually had a studio at Laurel Shopping Center)—aren’t even in the Berman Collection, so they’re invaluable additions.
Featured among the photos are Maryland Governor Theodore R. McKeldin cutting the ribbon on the first day of the grand opening, Laurel Mayor Harry Hardingham doing the honors for the opening of Woolworth’s, Tex Ritter signing autographs, and other scenes from the shopping center’s earliest days.
But there’s an incredible story behind how Pete came to acquire these photos, which really speaks to what we’re trying to do as collectors and local historians. The gentleman from whom he purchased them was the son of one of the late photographers. “I wish I’d met you last week,” he lamented, “my stepmother threw away over a thousand of these!”
The thought of over a thousand vintage Arnold & Marlow prints being thrown away probably took years off both our lives. Ugh. But it could’ve been worse—these precious few could’ve easily been lost forever as well. Not only are they now preserved and documented, they’ll be included in our Berman book.
So, starting a collaborative website with Kevin and Pete feels like coming full circle for me, especially while designing the Berman book. It’s a great way to take the Lost Laurel concept even further, and expand our collective reach—hopefully being able to save and share any other photos and artifacts that could otherwise be lost.
But I’m also excited for the chance to explore some of Laurel’s other history—things that go beyond just the old stores, restaurants, and other businesses. Since writing about the Stefanie Watson cold case in 2012, and the improbable role that blog post played in reigniting the case and ultimately seeing it get solved, I’ve been fascinated with some of the other crimes and mayhem that Laurel has seen throughout the decades. My Lost Laurel blog isn’t really the right venue for that kind of material, but this page is. This page will be all about Laurel’s history—the good, the bad, and the ugly. And I hope you’ll have as much fun learning about it as I do.