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Sharing memories of Laurel on its 150th anniversary

The city of Laurel will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its incorporation on April 4.

Festivities began on Jan. 13 at the first mayor and City Council meeting of the year, when event planners announced a slew of special events planned in recognition of the milestone anniversary. Many of those events — including Laurel Historical Society’s Gala planned for April 4 — have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic; hopes are high that events will resume once the health emergency is over and the governor removes restrictions.

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While the coronavirus may be the story residents remember when Laurel celebrates its 175th anniversary, for its 150th anniversary, local Laurel residents shared the recent events they have experienced that they believe are noteworthy.

Mayor Craig Moe

First elected for mayor in 2002, Moe was reelected to his fifth term as mayor in 2019. In an email, Moe shared the following memories:

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"In 2001, a tornado came through the city of Laurel causing property damage to many structures, knocking out power and downing numerous trees. The city of Laurel and its citizens, businesses and volunteers helped each other recover, repair and rebuild.

“In 2005, the city of Laurel, its citizens and businesses went above and beyond to assist our ‘sister city’ Laurel, Mississippi, that had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina, by raising $20,000 to aid in relief and recovery efforts.”

Moe also mentioned the city’s numerous events, including its Main Street Festival, the Fourth of July Celebration, the holiday parade and holiday spirit awards, Golden Shovel awards, Hometown Hero Banners, Neighborhood Cleanups, etc., that show Laurel’s sense of community.

He then recognized The Great Team Laurel (city staff) for working hard every day for the citizens of Laurel.

Karen Lubieniecki

Chairwoman of Laurel Historical Society

“While it happened before I moved to Laurel, I believe creation of the Historic Districts and the Historic District Commission has played a critical role in preserving and encouraging the preservation of many historic structures. Laurel was, in 1976, on the leading edge of this movement,” Lubieniecki shared in an email.

Lubieniecki served the HDC for a term in the late 1990s and am is currently a member.

While president of the Laurel Historical Society, Lubieniecki helped open the Laurel Museum in May, 1996.

“Creating the Museum was truly a community event — many people worked at many levels for many years to make it happen, and I can still see the opening in my mind today,” Lubieniecki wrote. “It was a sunny day with a line-up of people eager to see our first exhibit ‘From Mill House to Museum.’ Being part of the creation of a new community museum has been a highlight of my life. And I believe the LHS has added significantly to the Laurel community since it opened.”

Lubieniecki also noted the community’s efforts to save several landmark buildings: the Fairall Foundry Public Works Complex on First Street was saved by raising funds for a new roof, cleaning the building and receiving a grant. The historic train stop was saved through the Save Our Stop movement

Today, she believes the city’s and the community’s response to the coronavirus crisis is bringing out the best in Laurel and will be remembered.

Jean Wilson

Wife of Leo Wilson, mayor of Laurel from 1972-1978

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Wilson and her husband, Leo, raised three daughters in their house on 12th Street, and Wilson said Laurel “was, is and continues to be, a wonderful place to raise children.”

“I love this city and am very proud of it,” Wilson said in a phone interview. “I am very happy that I have been a part of its growth.”

Wilson can remember “a lot of events” from the past few years, including the Laurel Centennial Ball, which was “so much fun.”

She also remembers some “not happy times” including when the gates of the T. Howard Duckett Dam were opened in 1972, flooding the city.

“My husband was mayor at the time,” she said. “He got a call and went out and got our three daughters and they went down to the old mill to salvage what they could.”

She was active in planning both the city’s 100th and the 125th anniversary celebrations, and while not part of the planning committee for the 150th celebrations, she is very excited about it despite the coronavirus pandemic canceling many of the events.

“It is going to be a little hard to celebrate when you’re not allowed to get together,” Wilson said. ”Maybe we can do what the Italians do and open our windows and yell out.”

The silver lining?

“We can celebrate all year long,” she said.

Betty Compton

Founder of the Laurel Museum

For Compton, it was planning the city’s celebrations for America’s bicentennial in 1976 that came to her mind first when asked about important events in her memory.

“Because of that three years’ celebration 1974 to 1976 … when schools, civic organizations, churches, the city and everybody got involved, it spurred interest in the unique history of Laurel,” Compton said. “It was a great time to organize and get members to form the Laurel Historical Society.”

After fundraising, donations and support from the city, the Laurel Museum opened in 1996 and it is one of Compton’s proudest moments.

“That is what I think about when I think about the people of Laurel,” Compton said. “I love the community and the happy childhood I had there. All the good memories.”

Now 94 and living in a retirement community, Compton still has ties with the Laurel Historical and Museum and visits as often as she can.

“Laurel has a lot to be proud of,” Compton said. “It started as a little mill town and is now a much larger community.”

Joe Murchison

Former editor of the Laurel Leader from 1990 to 2007, and now the CEO of Side By Side Inc.

“As editor of the Laurel Leader from 1990 to 2007, the biggest story we covered during that period ironically was something that didn’t happen,” Murchison sent in an email.

“In December 1993, Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke announced that he planned to build a new stadium for his team in Laurel, smack in the center of Brock Bridge Road next to Laurel Park racetrack. For the next 10 months, the entire Laurel community passionately debated this proposal. Some were convinced it would bring a new level of prosperity to the town. Others loathed the idea of choked local roads and possibly increased crime on eight Sundays a year. Everyone cared, and everyone had an opinion.

“Early on, Jack Kent Cooke came to the Laurel Leader office for an interview to promote his plan. He was imperious, saying a lot but declaring most of it off the record. At one point, I told him he needed to stay on the record, and he verbally slapped me down, saying I wasn’t going to tell him what to do. I do admit that he showed some grace a few weeks later by signing for us a front cover of a Leader issue that had the title ‘Can we trust this man?’

“The Leader staff focused on the Redskins stadium plan for 10 months, with multiple stories in each issue. And then, abruptly, it was over. In October 1994, an Anne Arundel County administrative hearing officer rejected the zoning change needed for the stadium, saying the project was too large for the site. Cooke quickly turned to Landover as the place he would build his stadium. The high-pressure area that was the Leader office subsided, and we went back to focusing on City Council meetings, run-of-the-mill crimes and neighborhood doings.

“The next most memorable story during my editorship was 9/11. I remember someone running into our office early that day, which was our copy deadline for that week, telling us to turn on the TV. The World Trade Center was already spewing smoke out of a jagged hole after one hijacked airliner had crashed into it. Then, as we viewed in horror, a second plane crashed into the building. Then, as we continued to follow the TV coverage, we witnessed the horrific sight of the entire tower collapsing in on itself.

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“This was, of course, an international story. But it also turned into a Laurel story. My features editor, Melanie Dzwonchyk, was desperately, tearfully trying to reach her husband by phone at his Pentagon office after we learned that an airliner had crashed into that building. Finally, in the afternoon, he was able to reach her and tell her he was safe. On tight deadline, Melanie wrote a poignant front-page story for that week on her first-person experience with the terrorist attack.

“Then we learned something amazing — that some of the plane hijackers had been staying in Laurel before the attack. Our staff fanned out to the motel, surrounding restaurants and businesses, and to a local mosque. The front page of our next issue painted a picture of their movements and local sightings, anchored by a photo of several of the men taken by a bank camera.

“Later that year, a freak tornado passed through Laurel, ripping roofs off buildings and causing other major damage in its narrow path. Of course, even that was overshadowed by 9/11.”

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