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A revolutionary idea in coffee at the Furnace Hills Coffee Co. [Eagle Archives]

In case you missed it, last Sunday, Sept. 29, was “national coffee day.” Who knew? Many cups of coffee and much more research will be needed in order to percolate the history and tradition of this holiday.

Then again, maybe not.

According to an article in Time magazine on Sept. 27, by Brad Tuttle, “Sure, it’s a totally made-up holiday based on almost no real tradition or significance other than being a day for folks in the industry to promote coffee.”

Nevertheless, National Public Radio (NPR) noted in an April 24, 2013 article, “How Coffee influenced the course of history,” that coffee is a powerful beverage. On a personal level, it helps keep us awake and active. On a much broader level, it has helped shape our history and continues to shape our culture.

“Coffee plants grow wild in Ethiopia and were probably used by nomadic tribes for thousands of years, but it wasn't until the 1400s that people figured out they could roast its seeds. By the 1500s, he says, the drink had spread to coffeehouses across the Arab world. Within another 150 years, it took Europe by storm.”

Up until the middle of the 1600s, coffee was primarily used for medicinal purposes, healing everything from scurvy to gout to smallpox. Commonly accepted folklore indicates that perhaps the first coffeehouse in history started in an academic environment in Oxford England in 1650.

National Geographic reports in a January 19, 2012 article, “How coffee changed America,” that in 1670, “Dorothy Jones of Boston was granted a license to sell coffee, and so became the first American coffee trader,” and that by “1688, coffee replaced beer as New York’s favorite breakfast drink.”

NPR observes, “It is often said that after the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when American colonists raided British tea ships and threw crates of tea into the harbor, Americans universally switched over to drinking coffee.” After 1773, it was considered unpatriotic to drink tea.

NPR notes historian Mark Pendergrast’s research, “One of the ironies about coffee is it makes people think. It sort of creates egalitarian places — coffeehouses where people can come together — and so the French Revolution and the American Revolution were planned in coffeehouses.”

Locally there is a frequent mention of coffee in many historical accounts of Carroll County; especially in discussions of social settings and dinners. However there are hardly any references to coffeehouses.

In colonial times, Westminster was located one day's journey from Baltimore on what is frequently speculated to have originally been a Native-American trail west. There were at one time seven large hotels and many restaurants in town which catered to westward bound travelers.

Dry goods and provisioning stores, restaurants and the hospitality industry has always a key role in shaping Westminster’s history. Research a number of years ago by historian Jay Graybeal refers to a September 1971 article by former Historical Society of Carroll County curator Miss Lillian Shipley, who wrote, “Around the turn of the century Westminster had seven churches, seven hotels and eighteen saloons.”

In the 1960s and 70s there was a popular coffeehouse, "B's Coffee Shoppe," where O'Lordan's Irish Pub is now located in the "old stone building" on Liberty Street.

A number of popular coffee shops have started in Carroll County in recent years. A recent trip to the Furnace Hills Coffee Co. at 71 West Main St., in Westminster reveals an egalitarian use for coffee that is revolutionary.

At Furnace Hills, the aroma of coffee wafted into the street Saturday afternoon, the day before the national coffee holiday. There, Regina Harshman was juggling business phone calls, roasting coffee beans, and doing various housekeeping chores among huge sacks of coffee beans at the one room coffee shop next to Harry’s Main Street Grille.

“I’m an employee,” said Harshman smiling, without looking up from the coffee roaster and a container of mixed coffee beans that she was studying intensely.

After gesturing to the huge bags of coffee, Harshman volunteered, “I actually drive to the port occasionally to pick up these 60 kilo bags of coffee, 132 pounds, they’re heavy. (The) business (was) started by Erin’s Dad, Dave Baldwin. He’s the pastor at LifePoint Church."

“He has a full time job. This is actually Erin’s business. They started the business at home for something for Erin to do in order for her to be productive.”

Watch Dave and Erin explain the business on YouTube

Asked who “Erin is,” Harshman gestured to a brochure, “there’s more information on the website, Furnace Hills is special coffee roasted by special people. The Chief Coffee Roaster, Erin Baldwin, has Down Syndrome. We started in 2010. We’re a gourmet specialty coffee business … Our vision is to employ developmentally disabled people in competitive jobs while providing high quality product that keep customers coming back."

According to information found on the website. “Our first employee, Erin Baldwin, has Down Syndrome. Although she is challenged in how she lives her life in a number of areas, she loves to roast coffee and is doing a great job as well. Our goal is to hire more developmentally disabled people as our roasting company grows.”

“We’re on Main St, in part because Erin’s Dad feels passionately about turning around downtown – Main St. Westminster. In spite of a big increase in business, we want to stay true to our mission. Erin loves her job,” said Harshman as she answered the phone to keep track of one of the several events in which Furnace Hills was providing the coffee.

“We were a little kitchen roaster that has turned into a name in the (coffee) industry. I mean, we are in the Whole Foods Market – the grocery chain market. We have a national customer base.”

One frequent customer, Abby Gruber, the Westminster Director of Recreation and Parks, says she loves Furnace Hills coffee. “The shop is right there near the city offices. The smell just calls you. I always enjoy the company and the coffee there.”

“I love the mission. I love working here,” said Harshman Saturday. “It’s great coffee and I love telling the story.

When he is not in one of the local Westminster coffee houses, Kevin E. Dayhoff may be reached at kevindayhoff@gmail.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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