Some of the most notable years in Laurel's robust history as midpoint between Baltimore and Washington
By Kevin Leonard
Nov 05, 2018 at 5:00 AM
For a town the size of Laurel, the amount of history it can claim is remarkable. It has nothing to do with size. Instead, it’s all about location. Being midway between Baltimore and Washington, and next door to Fort Meade, has had a huge effect on the local history. But what year would qualify as Laurel’s most historic?
After sifting through nearly 150 years of historic events, I pared it down to the following five candidates. The criteria emphasized quality over quantity. I was looking for the importance of events at the time they happened, or that had a lasting effect on the community, whether good or bad.
If you would like to vote on your choice as the most historic year, go online to The Laurel History Boys Facebook page to participate in the poll. If you don’t agree with the finalists below, you can write in a different choice.
In January, the new USO building on Lafayette Street was dedicated, the first USO Center in Maryland. There was entertainment every night and the club was always packed. The USO building was donated to the American Legion Post 60 in 1946.
Fort Meade announced plans for black-out rehearsals in anticipation of an attack during World War II. Laurel’s civil defense directors reported “unusual success in the practice blackout. Only two houses were reported for failing to turn out their lights and it is believed that the occupants were away from home. All traffic was controlled and no cars entered the town after the red signal was sounded.”
In April, to beef up security during World War II, the cupola at the top of old Laurel High School on Montgomery Street was converted to an Air Raid Observation Post. Over 50 Laurel citizens took turns working two-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, standing lookout for enemy planes. Airplane identification posters were posted in the tower and a phone was installed to sound the alert if enemy planes were spotted.
In July, gas ration books were distributed at Laurel High School.
In September, Laurel High School participated in the nation-wide School Salvage Army, with the goal of moving salvage from American homes to war plants. The students went door-to-door collecting donations of metal or rubber.
In November, Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Voris reported that their daughter, Anna, became Laurel’s first female member of the armed services during the war. Anna enlisted in the WAVES.
In May, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission authorized a project to construct sewers in West Laurel. This solved a years-long problem with lots perking, and drainage that affected septic tanks. The addition of sewer lines to West Laurel opened the floodgates to developers, and subdivisions rapidly popped up. Today, West Laurel has over 1,500 single-family homes.
In August, Maj. Lawrence R. Bailey, who lived with his family on Greenhill Ave in Laurel, was one of five Americans freed from captivity. Bailey was the first American prisoner of war from the Vietnam era. He was held prisoner in Laos for 16 months after the transport plane, in which he was riding with seven other men, was shot down. Since Major Bailey was the only one on board wearing a parachute, the other men all perished in the crash. During his captivity, Bailey was tortured and starved, and he spent weeks at a time in isolation. During his recovery at Walter Reed Army Hospital, he was visited by President Kennedy, who pinned a Bronze Star on him.
In October, with President Kennedy’s announcement of a “quarantine” of shipping to Cuba to stop the buildup of nuclear missile sites, Mayor P.G. Melbourne named businessman Fred Frederick Laurel’s civil defense director. Frederick called an emergency meeting at Laurel Junior High School, which saw an overflow crowd from all over the area. Frederick and other officials provided information on family shelters, provisioning, sanitary and medical supplies, radiation detection and other survival items.
In January, the Weaver Bros. mortgage firm filed suit against Maryland City Corp., claiming they were owed $3.5 million. Three months earlier, with only 640 homes occupied of the 5,000 promised, Harvey Kayne resigned as president of the Maryland City Corp. and the company filed for bankruptcy. In February 1965, 361 unfinished Maryland city homes were auctioned in a foreclosure sale. Weaver Bros. bought all the homes for $3.4 million and said they would resume building. Eventually about 1,200 homes were built in the original Maryland City, far short of the goal.
The Laurel Athletic League formally changed its name to the Laurel Boys & Girls Club.
In May, an Advisory Decorating Committee was appointed by the National Park and Planning Commission to renovate the Montpelier Mansion interior. The vandalized mansion had been vacant for two years. As part of the renovation, the committee was authorized to acquire period furnishings.
In June, the last graduation class from the original Laurel High School on Montgomery Street received their diplomas. Students began the next school year in the old building before moving to the new high school on Cherry Lane in February 1966.
Levitt and Sons bought 176 acres surrounding the Montpelier Mansion to build 325 houses “in the $25,000 range.” Levitt was the largest homebuilder in the nation, and had received acclaim for its planned communities. Prices for the homes ranged from $29,500 to $33,500, which included a two-car garage, “ornamental gas lamps” in the driveway, a fireplace and a barbecue in the back yard.
In November, the National Security Agency announced plans to expand its campus at Fort Meade, making it large enough to accommodate all personnel in the area. NSA Director Lt. Gen. Marshall A. Carter told reporters, “It’s too bad our people have to live in an aura of anonymity, but they dedicate their entire careers to a task about which they cannot talk even to their wives and children.”
In February, a site was acquired on Contee Road for the future Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital. A 250-bed hospital was planned for the 50-acre site. It would be six years before the hospital opened.
In May, arguably the single most historic event in Laurel’s history occurred when Arthur Bremer shot Presidential candidate Alabama Governor George Wallace in the parking lot of the Laurel Shopping Center during a campaign rally. In addition to Wallace’s multiple gunshot wounds, three other people were shot by Bremer. Wallace was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. The next day, while recovering in Holy Cross Hospital, he won the Maryland Democratic primary, but his presidential campaign was over. Bremer, who had been stalking Wallace on the campaign trail, was convicted and sentenced to 63 years in prison. Bremer served 35 years at the state penitentiary in Hagerstown and was released on parole in November 2007.
In June, Tropical Storm Agnes dumped a record amount of rain on the area, causing a catastrophic flood in Laurel. Two bridges, the Ninth St. Bridge connecting Laurel with the High Ridge area, and the Race Course Bridge were washed out. Businesses and homes all along the Patuxent River, as well as the Mistletoe Garden apartments on Laurel-Bowie Road, were the two hardest hit sections in the immediate area. Both U.S. 1, which was under at least eight feet of water, and Route 198, which paralleled the Patuxent, were significantly damaged. About 1,000 residents were evacuated during the storm.
In July, the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department and Laurel Volunteer Rescue Squad played major roles in subduing an inmate riot at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup. Fire Chief Joe Robison told the News Leader, “The prisoners had complete control of the building. The situation appeared to be out of control for quite a while.” The Rescue Squad had to pry open the gates with hydraulic equipment to allow access to the prison yard by the LVFD and other officials. For some reason not explained in the media accounts, prison official did not have keys to open the gates. The LVFD had to douse multiple fires started by the rioting inmates while dodging objects thrown at them. The Rescue Squad’s mission, according to Chief James Alexander, “was not one of emergency care, but rescue.” Eventually, Governor Marvin Mandel quelled the riot by offering to meet with group of inmate representatives.
In April, Capital Institute of Technology bought the Beltsville Speedway site to build a new campus. In 1987, the college was renamed Capitol College.
In May, the first Main Street Festival was held with attendance estimated at 10,000. The festival has continued to be an annual tradition.
In July, the U.S. Postal Service replaced Laurel’s 20810 Zip Code with 20707. The old Zip Code had been in use in Laurel since 1963. The 20811 Zip Code used by Montpelier-Laurel postal patrons for the past few years was replaced with 20708. The old Zip Codes—20810 and 20811—were officially retired.
In December, Jack Kent Cooke announced that Laurel was one of the sites under consideration for a new Redskins stadium, sparking intense speculation and rumors. Cooke’s dance with different jurisdictions around the DC area for a site, during which numerous communities rejected his proposal, ended in 1993 when he announced that Laurel had been his first choice all along. The years-long divisive issue was finally settled in 1994 when his application to build at Laurel Race Course was denied by Anne Arundel County
So what was Laurel’s most historic year? Register your vote on The Laurel History Boys Facebook page.