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Laurel businessman Fred Frederick remembers the city's history

In a Q&A with History Matters columnist Kevin Leonard, Laurel businessman Fred Frederick remembers Laurel's business climate, and its government, in the mid-20th century.

When did you come to Laurel?

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When I got out of the Marine Corp I went to work for Lustine Chevrolet and later the DeSoto/Plymouth franchise became available here.

What's the history of the garage before you bought it?

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It used to be the Chevrolet dealership and then it was Davis Distributing, which was a beer distributor. It's glass tile. You don't see that anymore. Some of it's cinder block but the original building was glass tile. When I purchased it, up in the attic there were doors for cars in the early 1930s and fenders. Back in the early '30s they shipped cars by rail and the dealer put them together.

How many pieces would there have been?

I don't know, that was before my time. But I know they did that, and these were parts left over. The door panel, for example, was about an inch and a half thick and the glass was already in the door. So it was the whole door assembly. And the fenders — there was more metal in the fenders than in the whole side of a new car today.

When did you first start becoming involved in community affairs?

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Right after I came to Laurel.

What were some of the things you were doing back then?

Well, we formed the Chamber of Commerce back then, [with] Bob Kluckhuhn; Col. Phil Pope, the past commander of Fort Meade; John Sippel; Wolford Berman; and Melvin Berman.

So what else did you do as far as community affairs?

Well, I was chairman of the Laurel Regional Hospital and on the Hospital Commission for Prince George's County. One thing I did as chairman of the Chamber of Commerce — this was when Ted Agnew was governor. For the soldiers at Walter Reed and the hospital at Fort Meade, we had a day at the races for them. I put that thing together not realizing how big it was going to be. They have a place in front of the clubhouse seats; we had it filled with home-cooked food given to us by people in the community. It was so big we were out of control. We had to rent trucks to get it all over there. We had money we gave to the soldiers. Plus, the people — the old hard-nosed betters that don't say hello, go to hell, nothing — would go down and give these guys a real ticket. We had all of these gifts that we auctioned off so that they could use the money. We had 60-some patients. They had buses converted into ambulances, bringing them in on stretchers. And the race track, who was a little reluctant to start with, they jumped right in and did whatever they could do to make it as good as it could be. That was a community effort.

Who was Laurel's best mayor since you've been in business?

I'd pick two: Merrill Harrison and Craig Moe.

Their presence was well known. In other words, they were not absentee mayors. They've been involved and both of them had great affection for this city and everything that happened in this city.

Who would you say were the most difficult to work with of all the mayors?

Probably P.G. Melbourne.

Why was he difficult to work with?

Well, he wasn't really involved in promoting the city and that type of thing.

Were there any City Council members over the years that stand out in your memory as being particularly beneficial to local business?

Of course Bob Kluckhuhn. Leo Wilson, Sy Soper and Merrill Harrison.

What should good council members do to benefit local businesses?

They listen and react in a positive way for the benefit of the community.

How well has the city managed its growth from your historical perspective since the '50s?

Not very well. We had a project back in the early '60s that was an urban renewal project that would have rebuilt the city from the south side of Main Street to the river and from Route 1 to Fourth Street. There was to be a city hall in the center and a city square in the center. The jail would have been on the third floor but the building would look like a two-story building. Somewhere there must still be the model of that. The last guy I remember that had it was Harry Hardingham.

Obviously that didn't come to fruition. What do you think would've happened for the city if it had?

Well, it would have expanded the historical desirability of a small-town atmosphere. The race track, for example, agreed to build a museum.

And urban renewal back then [in the 1960s] had some issues we had to deal with. We had an instance where Fort Meade was going to make Laurel out of bounds for the military because there wasn't open housing.

When you say "open" do you mean no discrimination?

Yes. We delivered that to the Pentagon. We went over and met with Wilbur Mills. Melvin Berman and I went to the Pentagon with all of our documentation to say that we could deliver almost 70 percent but there were some apartments and houses and some rooming houses where families owned it and we couldn't deliver those. But we could deliver 70 percent open.

Do you think Laurel's housing boom in the 1960s was an attempt to placate Fort Meade?

No, I think there was a demand for housing and that was what instigated that.

Let's get back to the city's growth. Besides the project you talked about, since the 1950s what could or should the city have done as far as managing its growth?

In my opinion, they needed to upgrade the Main Street area and to attract the right kind of business.

What does Main Street need to do to become a vibrant shopping option in the city?

Well, they need to create parking and encourage occupancy in those business buildings that are empty.

You don't think they've done a good enough job to encourage occupancy? Who would that fall on?

We have community redevelopment — CRA — that Mayor [Craig] Moe has put in place. That has created a movement in the right direction, I think. We still need to do a lot. What we have is nail and hair salons and that doesn't do much.

What was it like for all those years in the past being next to the Laurel Hotel?

The Laurel Hotel wasn't that bad. Nat Diven and his wife ran a restaurant in there. The hotel wasn't that great but they ran a restaurant there and that was successful. Now the Osbone Hotel — story has it — the guy mixed cough syrup in a bathtub and sold it on the street that was really alcohol. The Osbone Hotel was a story all by itself. And the Outriders Diner. You could go to the Outriders Diner at 6 in the morning and get $10 million worth of information. But they all had to chip in to buy a Morning Telegraph. They were all broke but they had $10 million worth of racing tips. [Laughs] There's a hundred stories about horse racing. You know of Hohman Poist? Well, Hohman Poist was also an engineer and he built the buzzers that the jockeys would use on the backstretch — and then throw 'em away — that would shock the horse. He would go get those units and bring them back and rebuild them and sell them again to the trainers. [Laughs] And I remember a guy that painted a horse, eyes, nose so he'd look different than he really was. Of course, they all had a tattoo on their upper lip. So many stories. Another one: Dr. John Warren was in the back of Keller's News Stand and there was a pot with hot dogs boiling in it. So the county is raiding the news stand, the health people. Two guys came in with badges. "Everybody out-we're closing this place up." They get back where Warren was and they said "Did you hear us? Everybody out." And Dr. Warren says "Who are you?" "We're the county health department." Warren said "Glad to meet you. I'm the city health officer. Now you guys get out." He was sitting there eating a hot dog and reading the Telegraph. [Laughs] Those stories go on and on.

Just over the last 10 years or so we've seen a lot of the old-time businesses on Main Street close down. You think parking is the main problem?

Parking and businesses that draw, like if you had a Teeter grocery store. The Safeway grocery store was right back there. There was another grocery store on Main Street. Eve McKnight's dress shop was where the meat market is. You had balance in business on Main Street. We don't have that balance in business today.

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That's what they should be striving for?

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Well, that's what you need to do. You need to make it convenient for the consumer. The biggest asset they have is the post office. That's a stabilizing influence. And the banks; but the banks aren't like they used to be. Things are different. There was a department store on Main Street and it was snowing and raining and I went in to get a pair of boots. They had a potbelly stove to heat the place. The guy that owned the department store and the guy that was the Ford dealer were playing checkers. I said "I need a pair of boots." He said "Go upstairs, they're on the far side of the building." I go up and get a pair of boots and I go down and said "Okay, I got 'em. Here, let me pay." He said, "See that cash register over there? Put the money in the cash register." These guys never stopped playing checkers. [Laughs]

How come you never ran for office?

I did. I ran as a Republican for county commissioner. Back then they had county commissioners.

What year was that?

Jeez, I don't even remember. Probably in the '60s.

Did you ever have any aspirations to run for mayor or the city council?

No. I don't know if you ever went to a city council meeting. It's torture. [Laughs]

Where do you see the future of Laurel from a business perspective?

A lot depends on the ability to get some things done. I think the current mayor and city council are favorable to make some moves that need to be made. But if you can't get that done, it's going to stay about like it is.

Can there be too many businesses in a community of this size?

You've got to have good businesses. Most of what you see today is not owner-operated businesses. The owner-operated businesses are entirely different. I remember the shopping center when almost all the stores were owner-operated, except the grocery store and the bank.

How are they different?

Well, you've got an owner that's there every day. And you don't have to have somebody directing his activity that's never set foot in the city of Laurel. It's like when I built this building. Three guys from Chrysler showed up and they told me that I needed to do this, that, and the other thing. I spent an hour and a half with them. I said "Now tell me how much of this you guys are going to pay for." "We're not going to pay for any of it." I closed my book and I said "I'll see ya."

Where does your dispute with the WSSC stand?

We're suing them. The city's suing them. There are several people that are suing them.

Is this a result of the last flood or more than that?

No, this is from the last flood. But Jerry Johnson, who is the general manager, he hasn't done anything except make the statement they're not responsible for controlling the flood but controlling the dam. What they did is they held water, water that's already on the watershed. The watershed goes as far as Frederick and it flows to Tridelphia, and from Tridelphia it flows to Laurel. It's a disaster. An example: the river right now is plugged up. If we got a heavy rainstorm, we'd see more of this [points to a photo of the swollen river] without them ever opening the dam, because you can walk right across the river without getting wet.

Whose responsibility is it to clean that up?

That's what we're trying to find out. WSSC — in his statements — he's saying they have no responsibility for flood control.

So the flood control issue is not just the dam, it's the condition of the river itself?

The river's plugged up. They need to dredge the river to get it back to where it was originally.

And you don't know whose responsibility that is?

No, I don't know who it is. We'll probably find that out at some point. But I think it may be a federal-it's a federal waterway. But there's several people suing them and that's critical for the city.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Laurel?

I don't think I'm either one. It's going to grow in spite of itself but it's going to grow outside of the city unless we can do something about the Main Street area.

With the costs that would necessary to revitalize Main Street, it almost seems like it would require some big ticket developer to come in and start buying up properties and do the whole thing.

Well, we have the CRA and that's our cause.

Are you on the CRA?

Yeah. But they overreact after seeing all the newspaper articles about it and so on. I said "You can't air your business in the public." I remember back when they put Columbia together. The guy that put Columbia together — a Realtor — used to have coffee every morning at Dougherty's Pharmacy. He put that whole thing together and we never knew anything about it. We can do some stuff but we can't air everything in the newspaper. I'm up in Gettysburg playing golf. We go to some hotel and the lady says "You're from Laurel." I said "Yes, I am." She pulls out an article from that newspaper about the theater. "They need to save the theater." She's got these people, I met my husband at the theater and we used to go there and all that stuff. And that kind of stuff just throws a monkey wrench in it.

Assuming that they're going to put something there — not a parking lot — not something where they would have to demolish it ...

Well, you've got to demolish it.

You don't think it would be viable to save the facade because of the historical significance?

They could do that. That, to me, is the dumbest thing in the world. I used to be a member of the Methodist Church on Main Street and they wanted to enlarge the auditorium. So they decided they have to keep that wall. I went up there and they're moving that wall, I think it was 30 feet. The whole wall. They're moving it like a half inch an hour. And they did; they moved it all the way out to retain that wall. What it cost them to do that, as opposed to knocking it down and building another wall was unbelievable. But you get people — and I'm not opposed to retaining solid, historical properties — most of those buildings on Main Street are the front of a house. Think about that. And when you talk about government; those people spend money like a drunken sailor on Saturday night. You know that grass lot next to the BB&T bank? The city owns that. I said we should go to PNC and BB&T and say we would like a $100,000 contribution to redoing this parking lot in a first class manner so you'd pull in off Main Street and exit in the alley in the back. And if the Board of Trade wanted to use it on Saturday for a farmer's market, that's okay. They do that in other areas as well. The first response from the city was "They're not going to contribute to doing that parking lot because they don't own it." I said "You're going to create probably an 80-car parking lot. Do you know what it would cost them to go out and buy a piece of property and pay taxes on it? Here they're making one contribution — they do that all the time in different communities — and it's not costing the city anything."

Where do see that going with the theater?

My recommendation was let's just close it up, take the signs down, and leave it sit there until everything settles down.

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Because it is an emotional issue for some, would it make sense to try to preserve something, as opposed to knocking it down? Would there be any benefit to that?

Well, there may be benefit to put it back exactly like it is, but to save the front fuels cost. But you could replicate the front.

How bad is it in there?

Terrible.

Should it be condemned? Is it that bad?

I don't think anybody could operate in there.

That's too bad. The history of the building goes back to 1929.

Oh, yeah. Listen, it has a great pedigree. There isn't any question about that. But you've gotta be a realist, too.

History Matters is an occasional column rediscovering Laurel's past. Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.

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