Graphic designer Richard Friend, left, and writer Kevin Leonard stand at the historic Laurel train station holding a vintage photo of the station from their upcoming book, "Laurel 150: Celebrate Our History, Anticipate our Future."
Graphic designer Richard Friend, left, and writer Kevin Leonard stand at the historic Laurel train station holding a vintage photo of the station from their upcoming book, "Laurel 150: Celebrate Our History, Anticipate our Future." (Phil Grout- Baltimore Sun Media/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

When “Lost Laurel” and “Laurel History Boys” webmaster Richard Friend reminisces about his hometown, he remembers mom-and-pop shops like All Pro Sports at the old Laurel Plaza Shopping Plaza owned by Bob Windsor.

An NFL tight end for the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Windsor stocked hard-to-find sports merchandise long before the days of internet shopping, signed autographs for starstruck kids at the counter and knew his customers by name.

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“That kind of experience can never be matched by giant chains,” said Friend, who grew up at the Steward Manor Apartment complex within walking distance of the shopping center where Windsor’s Team Warehouse on the other side of the plaza was destroyed by fire in 1984.

Recalling other vanished retailers, movie theaters and restaurants that have been lost over time inspired Friend, a graphic designer, to publish the “Lost Laurel” website at lostlaurel.com in 2011.

Little did he know what he would find.

His love of collecting and restoring Laurel memorabilia captured a niche audience and led to finding kinship with two like-minded history buffs: Kevin Leonard, a professional researcher and writer, and Pete Lewnes, a private collector.

The trio formed the Laurel History Boys at Leonard’s suggestion and pursued their shared passion together for years. “Laurel History Boys” was published online (laurelhistory.com) in 2015 and a Facebook page now has more than 6,500 followers.

This past August, Laurel History Boys acquired 501(c)(3) nonprofit status at about the same time the AMC Laurel Lanes bowling alley suddenly closed.

Richard Friend, left, and Kevin Leonard display a reproduction of a vintage photo of the John O'Brien General Store, which is now the Laurel Mill Playhouse along Main Street.
Richard Friend, left, and Kevin Leonard display a reproduction of a vintage photo of the John O'Brien General Store, which is now the Laurel Mill Playhouse along Main Street. (Phil Grout- Baltimore Sun Media/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

As Laurel’s remaining landmark businesses head toward extinction — Nuzbacks Bar and the Tastee Diner are both up for sale, Friend said — the townscape grows increasingly homogeneous.

But the nonprofit Laurel History Boys — Friend, Leonard, Lewnes and new executive board members Jeff Krulik, City Councilman Carl DeWalt and Howard County Historical Society Executive Director Shawn Gladden — stand poised to safeguard Laurel’s unique small-town character.

Becoming a nonprofit opened the door for the group to apply for grants and receive tax-deductible donations. Its members aim to catalog Friend’s and Lewnes’ individual collections (and photos and artifacts from anyone who’d like to share theirs) and publish a virtual collection.

“All finds, no matter how small or large, are great additions,” wrote Lewnes (who houses more than 10,000 artifacts dating back to the Civil War in his home) in an email.

Leonard and Friend have also given and scheduled dozens of free history talks addressing topics as diverse as 20th-century crime, Laurel pop and jazz festivals, Laurel’s housing boom, retail development and the Laurel Sanitarium.

“Our mission is to bring history to you,” said Leonard, who is the Laurel Leader’s “History Matters” columnist. “With the obvious exceptions of Baltimore and Annapolis, I think there’s more history in Laurel than any other city in the state.”

Among the dozens of presentations scheduled, “Laurel at 150” at the Partnership Hall in February and “Laurel War Stories” at the American Legion in July will commemorate the city of Laurel’s 2020 sesquicentennial — or 150th — anniversary.

Frequently found at their table at Oliver’s Old Town Tavern on Main Street, the Laurel History Boys are happy to share oral history, too, including stories about Laurel’s ghosts.

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For instance, the waitstaff from the Bay n’ Surf Restaurant (demolished the same year Friend launched “Lost Laurel” online) told him tales of dishes and glassware being stacked on the floor overnight, knives being randomly thrown across the room and feeling the sensation of being touched by unseen hands.

“I do know that in 1955, when it was the Oak Crest Inn, the owner, Sam Elam, was shot and killed there by his own brother,” he said. “Some people believe [the violent death] made it conducive for haunting.”

"Laurel 150: Celebrate Our History, Anticipate our Future" will be published in early 2020.
"Laurel 150: Celebrate Our History, Anticipate our Future" will be published in early 2020. (Phil Grout- Baltimore Sun Media/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Friend said the group is also currently “knee-deep” in book projects — one about the Berman family (who founded and developed the Laurel Shopping Center), an update on a history of the Laurel Police Department produced by retired officer Rick McGill 20 years ago and one spanning the 50-year history of Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia.

They are prioritizing finishing a professionally designed and written legacy piece, entitled “Laurel 150: Celebrate Our History, Anticipate our Future,” which Friend hopes readers with connections to Laurel will enjoy 50 years into the future at the city’s bicentennial anniversary.

Dating to 1870, the 150th anniversary history book is organized by decade and includes a directory of volunteer and nonprofit organizations that highlights Laurel’s tradition of community service.

Expected to be in print by early next year, “Laurel 150: Celebrate Our History, Anticipate our Future” is not all positive, but includes the good, the bad and the ugly, Friend and Leonard said; there are stories about segregation, integration and murder.

Fresh off the press, Friend’s new hardcover “Postmark Laurel” contains images of hundreds of Laurel postcards, with a two-page introduction that nods to the work of well-known photographer and Laurel native Bert Sadler (1875–1963) and speculates about J. Edgar Hoover’s connection to the Laurel Sanitarium.

Fascinating handwritten notes in the postcard book offer glimpses of a few of Laurel’s 20th-century departed, such as Allie, who writes to Henry Brown of Havre de Grace in 1909, “Are you shooting many frogs now …”

Copies can be purchased directly from postmarklaurel.com and will be available at the Montpelier Mansion on Saturday, Oct. 12, when Friend is speaking at a free fall history talk entitled “Stories and Postcards from US Rt. 1.”

Friend’s prior book, “Lost Laurel” (a nostalgic retail journey through photos with text) is currently sold out online and at the Laurel Museum — 1,500 copies were printed through a Kickstarter campaign in 2014. It is also available from the Laurel Branch Library and Laurel High School.

From left, Laurel History Boys Richard Friend, Kevin Leonard and Pete Lewnes in 2016.
From left, Laurel History Boys Richard Friend, Kevin Leonard and Pete Lewnes in 2016. (Nicole Munchel / Baltimore Sun Media Group)
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