Galesville traces social, economic importance of village stores

The wooden signs from two of Galesville's general stores, Kolb's and Leatherbury's, are on display at The Galesville Heritage Society, which wants to highlight the history of the West River town's Main Street stores.
The wooden signs from two of Galesville's general stores, Kolb's and Leatherbury's, are on display at The Galesville Heritage Society, which wants to highlight the history of the West River town's Main Street stores. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

In a bygone era, Galesville's house-size stores — mostly trading in household goods for this rural town — were miniature economic engines of the community.

They were also places in the southern Anne Arundel County town where people gathered with their neighbors, catching up on news and playing checkers.

Now the old culture and commerce in this village of about 200 households feels like ancient history. Advocates are working to preserve recollections and mementos from a time before residents were accustomed to traveling miles by car to shopping centers.

Next week, members of the Galesville Heritage Society will begin recording interviews with longtime residents about the stores. And in coming weeks, families will be asked to look through their attics — and some Galesville families go back more than three generations in the same house — for items from a former era.

"I think it's a piece of our history that could easily be forgotten," said Bill Whitman, 60, president of the society.

The center of Galesville now is made up of the post office and places that thrive mostly because their appeal extends beyond the town's residents. They include a few antiques and art shops, restaurants and a marine supplier.

To many longtime residents, the demise of stores like Kolb's and Leatherbury's that supplied everyday goods is a loss, and not just because you've got to get in your car to buy milk.

The stores fostered small-town trade, sold the community outside merchandise and reflected the lives of the town's residents. From shoelaces to slices of meat, from coal to cod, general stores sold the items families couldn't provide on their own, and the store owners typically lived behind, above or next to them.

"It was a marvelous thing when they started putting chicken feed in patterned bags. The material was dress material," recalled Galesville native Jean Trott, 86, author of the book "Galesville, Maryland … the Legend, the Legacy." "My grandmother made them for me. I wore them to high school."

But the number of people with those memories is dwindling.

It's a key part of history for a peninsula town on the West River that emerged as a tiny Colonial-era port. It prospered during the heyday of steamships in the 1800s and early 1900s, when ships such as the Emma Giles unloaded summer visitors along with goods to sell, and carried away local wares and farmers' bounty.

The heritage society is planning an exhibit for its museum, called "The Story of Stores: How Small Businesses Helped Build Community in Galesville." Parts of the exhibit will be displayed at Southern High School; organizers are hoping to include students in developing the project.

"I'm hoping to put it on a DVD and intersperse old still photos and oral histories," Whitman said. Other segments will be on posterboards.

The museum has some store memorabilia. Among the items are signs from H.E. Leatherbury Fresh Meats and Grocery — a store started around 1900 by Trott's grandfather in a building that now houses an antiques shop — and from the C. Francis Kolb shop, which was founded before the Civil War.

A pair of Kolb's checkerboards are there, too, reminders of the stores' social side.

Trott recalled seasonal workers at the Woodfield Fish & Oyster Co., an oyster packing company, spending evenings at Leatherbury's.

"They would come in every night to hear "Amos and Andy" on the radio. My grandfather had a bench, and they'd all sit there," said Trott.

What's been the tiny town's post office since 1983 had previous incarnations as a furniture store, a grocery store and a variety store, and at one time featured a two-lane bowling alley and soda fountain, she said.

Kolb's became West River Market when brothers Bill and John Whitman bought it 1977, and Bill Whitman remembers children sitting on the porch and devouring ice cream as adults gabbed. John Whitman took it on alone from 1986 through the mid-1990s. A succession of owners kept the store alive until about five years ago, and now the building houses the offices and marine supply store for Hartge's Yacht Yard — another Galesville family business more than a century old.

In the days before credit cards, people ran a tab and settled up when farming and their trades brought in cash.

"I can remember my mother, usually on a Saturday, would give me a handwritten grocery list. I'd walk across the field, I'd walk through the woods," said Wells Dixon, 65, a buyer for Hartge's. He brought it to Kolb's. An employee would then deliver the groceries to the family's kitchen.

Occasionally, a family outing on those post-World War II Saturdays was a drive to a chain supermarket in Annapolis. They were so taken by the big store that they talked about it for a week, Dixon said.

It was exactly the kind of trip that spelled the end of the Galesville stores. The more cars, the more people left town to shop. The tiny markets, with higher prices and less variety, couldn't compete.

The significance of that community-focused lifestyle can be seen in the new town centers that are springing up. "I think local governments are trying to get back to that, where you walk to everything and have that town," Whitman said.


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