Revisiting the heyday of department stores and five-and-dimes

Love for Harford's Eva-Mar farm continued to owners' grave

Even in death, Lela Alice Evans Marsh Probst remains close to her beloved farm where she lived for more than 65 years.

Mrs. Probst, who died in 2008 at age 83, is buried in the cemetery at Mt. Zion Methodist Church near the corner of Routes 22 and 543, just east of Bel Air. Her husband, Eugene "Whitey" Probst, who died in 2011, lies beside her.

As the crow flies, their Eva-Mar Farm, an apparent contraction of Mrs. Probst's parents' last names, Evans and Marsh, is less than a quarter mile from the couple's final resting place.

Should someone forget their connection to the farm, there's a poignant reminder etched across their shared headstone: a panorama of the farm's home, barn and pond, complete with peacocks, geese, ducks and a cat.

The 150-acre farm, which became surrounded by housing developments during the Probsts' lifetime, is expected to experience a similar fate now that they are gone.

Plans to build 144 single-family homes and a retirement community with 514 housing units are circulating in the community, and many people from among the thousands who live around Eva-Mar aren't happy about it.

Mindful of concerns about traffic, access and other issues raised at a community input meeting they held in early January, the would-be developers, Presbyterian Home of Maryland of Towson and Elm Street Development of McLean, Va., have since revised their plan for the farm.

They have scheduled a second community input meeting for Feb. 24 at Bel Air High School, beginning at 6 p.m. The snow date is Feb. 27.

'Really attached'

A person who once worked with Mrs. Probst and then reconnected with her many years later says she would not be happy about the likely fate of her beloved farm.

"To have the picture of the property etched in your grave marker, who else would do that?" Breece Hall, 75, of Bel Air, remarked last week. "It's not a natural thing to do unless you were really attached to the property, which they were."

"I thought it was remarkable that the marker showed the etching of the property, and I didn't think much about it until was in The Aegis about this property being developed," Hall said.

Hall and Mrs. Probst worked at Baltimore Gas & Electric Company's former office on Courtland Street in Bel Air, where she was in customer service and he was a clerk in charge of organizing the books of meter readers and taking nightly deposits to various banks. He later became a meter reader.

The BGE office was once staffed by 60 people, but it closed a number of years ago. Hall said he worked there from 1957 until 1959, when he moved to New York City. The two former co-workers reconnected many years later, he said, when he was working in Pennsylvania and she ran into him on one of her frequent trips there.

"She impressed me, and I know she loved that farm," Hall recalled. "She used to talk about her farm back in those days."

Hall said he had visited Mr. and Mrs. Probst's farm, and noted Mrs. Probst kept "beautiful" rabbits.

"She loved animals," he said.

Hall said their last meeting was in the mid-1980s, about 30 years after he left BG&E. He was managing a wholesale store in Lancaster, Pa., and she came in to purchase a bathtub on a day he was not there.

Hall said Mrs. Probst asked about him, and a store employee reached him by phone. They spoke then, and he later called her at the farm about selling her the tub.

The sale did not come to fruition, though, and they did not talk again.

Hall saw the headstone with the picture of the farm, once it had been installed after her funeral.

"I thought of her often, and I always liked her," Hall said.

Hall remembers when the area around Eva-Mar wasn't houses and retail shops, just farms and woodlands.

Preserve, not develop

Hall said the Probst property should be turned into a "central park" for Harford County.

He also said he's concerned about legislation being considered by the County Council that could allow developers to obtain a waiver from the planning department to remove protected trees and other forms of vegetation if they can demonstrate keeping them would pose a hardship to their projects.

The legislation, Bill 14-1, includes several changes to the zoning code, which county planning officials say are not specific to any development but are merely an attempt to clarify portions of the code.

During the public hearing on the bill Feb. 4, however, a number of residents living around the Eva-Mar property attended, some saying they feared the vegetation protection changes are being done to aid the farm's developers. The council has not taken any final action on the legislation.

Hall noted the Eva-Mar property contains wooded areas that are "hundreds of years old" that could be cut down to make way for the retirement community and houses.

"In any event, it just isn't right," he said of the proposed development.

Land in trust

About six months after his wife's death, Mr. Probst transferred the Eva-Mar property to an irrevocable trust controlled by him and a brother, John L. Probst, of Fawn Grove, Pa., according to county land records.

The trust would be the seller if Presbyterian Home and Elm Street make their deal. Elm Street has a contract to purchase the land.

Greg Szoka of the Bel Air law firm of Stark & Keenan P.A. is the attorney for the trust.

"It is our expectation that the contract will become final and ultimately go to settlement," Szoka said last week.

Mr. Probst died on March 12, 2011, at age 89, and Wilmer Espenshade has since been appointed by the trust as a "successor trustee," Szoka said.

John Probst remains a trustee. He declined to comment, referring a reporter to Szoka.

Szoka said Mr. Probst was "the last of his nuclear family to live there and the opportunity came to sell the property" with the approval of the trust.

The lawyer stressed that the land is zoned for residential use.

He said Mr. Probst tried to obtain an agricultural preservation designation for the property from the county, but "his efforts were rebuffed."

Szoka noted the land remains a working farm, and a corn crop was harvested in December 2013. The farmer who is under contract with the trust plans to put in soybeans this spring, which would be harvested in the fall.

"The expectation is that we have another crop season ahead of us," Szoka said regarding the time frame for settling on the sale of property.

He said the trustees would determine how the proceeds of the sale would be spent and declined to give specifics.

Asking how the likely millions of dollars from the impending sale would be spent would be akin to him asking how his interviewer would spent his next paycheck, Szoka told a reporter.

Shared interests

According to her obituary published in The Aegis on May 23, 2008, Mrs. Probst grew up in Baltimore County and married Mr. Probst in 1942.

The couple settled at Eva-Mar not long after their marriage. Land records indicate the property had been in the Evans family and was transferred to Mrs. Probst's parents in January 1943, with them eventually transferring it to Mr. and Mrs. Probst in 1954.

She and her husband actively farmed Eva-Mar, which Mrs. Probst's obituary notes "became home to dozens of cats, flocks of wild geese, ducks and peacocks."

Though the Probsts did not have any children, Mrs. Probst made friends easily and had many interests, according to her obituary: "Known as 'Punky' to her many friends and friends who were like adopted children, she was a fan of NASCAR and enjoyed live music theater and dining out, especially taking trips to Willow Valley, the Corn Wagon and the Pennsylvania Dutch country."

According to his obituary from the McComas Funeral Home website, Mr. Probst came from Lancaster County, Pa., and, in addition to farming, he worked at Edgewood Arsenal/Aberdeen Proving Ground until his retirement in 1986.

He and his wife had shared interests, as his obituary states: "He loved animals, especially peacocks, geese and cats. He loved visits from friends and enjoyed drives through the countryside."

To which that headstone in the nearby churchyard certainly bears witness.


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