In 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson ordered a halt to bombing North Vietnam and a new house averaged $15,000, Laurel had a lot of things going for it: a popular thoroughbred race track, a drive-in movie theater and a thriving Main Street, with its overflowing selection of family-run enterprises.
However, the town lacked a place where people could get trophies and plaques built and engraved to honor individual and group efforts. People from Laurel would have to drive to Odenton or Glen Burnie to order trophies.
That same year, the husband and wife team of Don and Dottie Ault set out to change all that when they opened Dottie's Trophies. And, common with many other start-ups, they pursued a roundabout path.
In those days, Don managed the old Laurel Fair Lanes, the forerunner to the AMF Laurel Lanes operating in the same space now. When he left to begin a job at the long-defunct Silver Spring Bowl, Dottie joined him.
"I was teaching the people how to bowl and I was running the leagues," recalled Dottie, 88 and an Arkansas native. "I always ended up getting trophies for customers in Glen Burnie."
When she dealt with the Odenton shop, she often had to contend with engraved trophies ordered for the bowling leagues not being ready on time. That didn't sit well with Dottie's strong work ethic, which included hard work plowing the cotton fields on the farm back home and later waitressing to make ends meet.
Eventually, the couple left Silver Spring. Don, 85, a native of Towson and a Korean War veteran with a business degree from the University of Oklahoma, landed a job in sales at Roadway Express, a trucking company, which for decade, had a facility in Laurel.
Given Dottie's long standing passion for bowling and leagues and her commitment to making sure the awards always went to the right teams, someone suggested she open her own shop.
"I said it was too much work," she recalled. "Then I was driving down Route 1 and saw a `for rent' sign on the building where Duron Paints is now. I thought it might be a good place to start. I told the owner, Hollis Brown, I wanted to start a new business, but I couldn't pay the $300 a month rent. So he cut it in half for six months."
When she opened her shop, Dottie connected with suppliers in the New York area. Tapping the goodwill she had lovingly built with her bowling buddies gave her a ready client base.
"I didn't draw a salary for three years," she said. About three months into the venture, she began to hire extra people during the busy times.
"It wasn't easy sometimes," she said, her voice soft and animated. "I'd work from 8 o'clock in the morning until 2 o'clock the next morning."
When the intense pace put her in the hospital for three weeks, Don stepped in to keep things humming. At the start, he said, the least expensive trophy stood on a 2 x 3-inch block of marble and cost $1.50. Today, most of the bases are made of plastic.
Customers eventually came to include everyone from the White House to the Laurel American Legion, Dreyer's Ice Cream and the Laurel Boys and Girls Club.
The couple's oldest child, Phil Ault, 59, said when Dottie's was launched, every order came from a bowling team.
"It's hardly anything now," he said, with trophies being replaced by cash awards and other incentives for competing teams. "Bowling's priced itself out," said Ault, a 32-year member of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department.
While Dottie and Don Ault, of Columbia, retired two years ago, and spend part of the year at their other home in Melbourne, Fla., they still drop by the shop to greet customers and lend their deep institutional knowledge. For the most part, though, Don said that their children "can handle it."
"It's grown quite a bit to the point where my brother and I are running it," said the couple's daughter, Donna Ault-Curp, 55. Along with Ault-Curp's daughter, Ashley, 28, the shop employs Mike Ware, a 13-year plus veteran, who builds the trophies and assembles plaques. A part-time worker, Dasha Manning, has worked at the store for two years.
Ault- Curp said, like any other business, there are the everyday challenges to handle.
"We strive to keep everybody's deadline," she said. "Customers come in and need [work] the same day. We'll do our best to do it for them. That's the hardest part."
Glitches pop up from time to time. For instance, not long ago, Ware was working on a plaque for a retiring member of the Greenbelt Police Department. The engraved words said "With Deepest Appreciation for Your 29 Years of Outstanding Service and Dedication." Turned out, Ware said, the police made a mistake; it was supposed to be 30 years. They brought it back to be fixed.
"People come in on Monday and they need 100 awards by Friday," Phil Ault said. "Some others come in and say, 'oh, no hurry.' And those are great." The busiest season, he said, is spring, when graduations and spring sports make up the bulk of their orders.
Working side by side with a sibling is rewarding, they agreed, but it has its moments, too.
"We have boxing matches in the back," Phil Ault quipped. When the inevitable disagreements pop up, he added, "you just deal with it."
Ault said it's not uncommon for him to show up at the shop as much as 90 minutes before anyone else in order to make sure things are on track.
"We're fortunate," he said. "Most of our suppliers are a shipping day or two away. UPS is here everyday. We engrave them and bam, out the door they go."
Buoyed by its steadiness, customers have rewarded Dottie's with seamless loyalty.
"I am proud that Dottie's calls Laurel home, and I'm very appreciative of its community support," said Laurel Mayor Craig Moe.
Walt Townshend, president of the Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber, said the shop has been providing work to the organization since 1971. He called Dottie's a business with "family members employing family values to treat customers as family."
"We can always count on them for doing an excellent job," said Lee Luby, commander of American Legion Post 60. "Our relationship goes way back, probably 25 years or more."
Columbia psychiatrist Milan Joshi, who for years practiced in Laurel, observed that praise arouses brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.
Don Ault also emphasized the importance of being showcased, and that's where trophies come in. He knows of instances, he said, where "someone would rather get a $100 plaque than a $50-a-week raise. You can hang the plaque up."
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This is part of a new series, Landmark Businesses, highlighting the iconic and long-standing businesses that help define Laurel.