First of a two-part series
Ray Bent was in high school in 1962, when he started working at the 117-year-old Walter G. Coale Inc., the agriculture equipment business at the crossroads of Routes 136 and 22. The busy Churchville intersection was a very different place.
"Within sight of our dealership, there was probably a minimum of 12 to 15 dairy farms," Bent, who took over the business in 1982, recalled. "Right now, there's probably only one or two dairy operations going on within 10 miles of our dealership. It's a big change."
Walter G. Coale is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, businesses in the area and among the most prominent landmarks along Route 136, the longest road to run exclusively through Harford County.
The roughly 30-mile, two-lane road stretches through most of the county, between its endpoints at Route 23 in Norrisville and Route 7 in Abingdon.
Mostly undeveloped, Route 136 winds through farms, rural businesses, homes and local landmarks, as well as busier intersections with Route 22 and Route 1 in the greater Bel Air area. It features some more industrial operations, notably Lafarge Churchville Quarry and the Army's Churchville Test Area near Harmony Church Road.
The staff of Walter G. Coale, a mainstay in Churchville and Harford County, has seen plenty of changes along the road over the years.
The shift away from Harford's agricultural heritage and history of dairy farms has especially affected the land along the southern end of Route 136. The Creswell area has become a flashpoint in county development battles in recent years, and the downturn in ag-related business has gone along with that.
"Our mainstay years ago was ag equipment, serving farmers, but, as you can tell, Harford County has changed completely over the years and we have to re-engineer ourselves all the time," Bent said about his business, which still sells "probably the best products available" like New Holland, Mahindra, Stihl, Toro, Hustler and Bob-cat.
"We're probably very strong in agricultural [products] still, but the biggest segment of business is homeowners and light hobby farmers," Bent explained. With 16 employees, "we sell ourselves as much as we sell the equipment ... It's a challenging business because it's changing all the time, but we adapt to the change."
Bent, a lifelong Churchville resident, still lives within two miles of the dealership, so he is intimately familiar with the rise in Route 136 traffic over the years. He drives the road four times a day, as he goes home for lunch.
"It's a road that I travel a lot," he said. "Traffic has really changed. I mean, the traffic is unreal. If anybody is trying to go out of our business late in the evening to go to Bel Air and come out of our lot [on 22] without using the traffic light, it's a forever process to be able to get out."
"We encourage everyone to use our exit on 136, which, hopefully, someday they will put a turning arrow in the traffic signal, which would be a big help because a lot of times people are sitting through a couple different lights," Bent noted.
"Unfortunately, with the people driving today, nobody cuts anybody any slack. Everybody's in a hurry; there's no courtesy to let anybody out. I have never seen nothing like it in my life," he said.
Last year, an average of 9,301 vehicles daily passed through the section of Route 136 just north of the Route 22 intersection, the busiest part of the route, where the road changes names from Priestford Road to Calvary Road.
That traffic count is coupled with the 22,330 daily vehicles that were counted on Route 22 just west of the 136 intersection, according to State Highway Administration's reports for 2015.
Those kind of traffic counts make the road good for business, Caleb Frick noted.
Six years ago, Frick moved his family's screen printing business, Tidewater Promotions, to a 5,000-square-foot building he is leasing on four acres on Route 136.
"We moved from Bel Air and came out to Churchville, and it's been a good move for us because there's so many business travelers that go north and south, to and from work, to Baltimore, so we get a lot of good business professionals that will come by in their spare time," Frick said.
Frick has worked in the family business since 1992, when he was 14. The company began in 1982 as Backwoods Shirts on Bel Air's Main Street; Frick now has 15 employees, eight sales representatives and seven support staff since buying out his mother, grandmother and stepfather.
He lives in Churchville as well, near the Army's test area.
"I'm on 136, so – the business is here, bank's in the middle and home's on the other side, so it's very practical for me," Frick said with a smile.
He conceded traffic has gotten worse over the years, which makes it challenging from a residential perspective.
"If anything is [backed up] on 95, this is backed up [here]," he said, although "it's never really awful."
The amount of traffic has also put major strains on the remaining farms south of Route 22.
"With more people moving in, it makes it harder for farmers getting on the road," Brad Milton, who bought 53 acres for his house and Brad's Produce stand in 2000, said. He put up his first greenhouse in 2001 and has also been leasing a 120-acre farm on the site since 1997.
Brad's Produce still gets "a good traffic flow" from people going to work in Edgewood or Pennsylvania, Milton said. A Churchville native, he called the area "a nice community" where "everybody knows each other, everybody supports each other."
Nevertheless, he thinks bicyclists coming down 136 are a little crazy, and noted "it's a two-lane road; there is no shoulder."
Although "it's a good place to farm," he said, "we are at our peak about that, too."
Ed Fielder, part of the longtime Fielder farming family that still has land along 136 north of Route 543, said pulling out in a tractor and driving slowly along 136 has become a huge challenge.
"It's almost impossible to farm in this area. There's way too much traffic," he said.
Changes and challenge
Fielder disagreed with many of his fellow farmers during a lengthy recent hearing on HarfordNext, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman's revamped master plan.
He told the County Council he supports HarfordNext's controversial "Creswell study area" because the Route 543/136 area has become unsafe and farming viability has become greatly limited since he farmed 1,000 acres from Emmorton to Churchville 25 years ago.
In 2013, the Fielders wanted to develop 255 acres of their land, proposing single-family homes on 27 lots. Fielder said those plans remain tentative, but the family wants to keep their options open.
Route 136 is positioned in the pocket of Harford County's T-shaped "development envelope," as the county tries to guide new development into the Bel Air/Abingdon/Forest Hill area and the Route 40 corridor.
That has made Route 136, especially the Calvary Road stretch, a flashpoint in some of the county's major development battles and controversies.
The HarfordNext proposal was the latest to highlight those battles. The plan also raised some eyebrows for its proposal to add 77.6 acres west of Route 136, south of Cedar Lane, to the development envelope.
In June, the County Council agreed to keep the Creswell study area in the master plan after Glassman's administration worked to reassure everyone that it is not an encouragement of future development.
The 77.6 acres west of Route 136 that were just added to the development envelope, meanwhile, back up to land on 12 Stones Road that has also seen some hesitant development and resulting pushback from residents.
Crossroads Community Church has been working to build a facility along 12 Stones Road, which some neighbors have called a ruse to get more residential development in the future. Down the street, Battaglia Homes has nine lots available for "custom home development" between 12 Stones and Bynum Hills Road, according to the builder's website.
Among the land preservation recently was a 2007 purchase by the Army of a 163.5-acre buffer zone for the Churchville Test Area, near Harmony Church Road.
The 11-mile test area, which tests Army vehicles on 250 acres of courses, "was developed during the World War II era and remains in high use today with its hilly cross-country attributes," APG spokesperson Lindsey Monger said.
The $1.4 million buffer purchase was done in partnership with county government, the Harford Land Trust and the Hopkins family, Monger confirmed.
'Wonderful, winding road'
Michael Lattin, of Aberdeen, said he worked at the Churchville Test Area 30 years ago. The first thing he said he learned about driving tanks was to go clockwise at certain times and counterclockwise at other times, because there was once an accident between two tanks.
"It was fantastic," Lattin said about working at the Army site.
On a recent weekday afternoon, he and his wife were among those stopping by Brad's Produce to pick up some food. Lattin noted he still uses 136 often to go to Pennsylvania and an auto shop.
On any given sunny day, the cars and trucks along 136 are sure to be joined by motorcycles. Occasionally, dozens of motorcyclists will come down the road on special rides or group trips.
For riders like Dustin Hinchy, who grew up in Darlington, 136 still makes for a great ride.
Hinchy has helped organize the 50-mile Ace of Hearts trip that began at Chesapeake Harley-Davidson in Darlington, with all of the ride's proceeds benefiting breast cancer patients and their families.
The ride has since moved from Harford to Ocean City, he said, but Hinchy continues to use 136 often for different purposes, such as visiting family in Delta, Pa.
Although he thinks traffic has gotten busier during rush hours, 136 is still not that heavily traveled and Hinchy said it's still scenic, with cow fields.
"It's very relaxing," he said about riding a motorcycle on the road. "For this area, for people who need to go up to Chesapeake Harley, it's a nicer ride than to go up 24 or Route 1."
"I do tend to ride it quite a bit," he said. With few stoplights, "it's a nice 'point A to point B' ride. It's absolutely a nice, wonderful, winding road."
Coming Friday, Sept. 23, Route 136 north, from Deer Creek to Norrisville.