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Nichols family's Laurel legacy goes back generations [History Matters]

Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr. at the Prince George's County Circuit Court in Upper Marlboro in June, days before his retirement. He descends from several generations of Nichols who have served Laurel and the community.
Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr. at the Prince George's County Circuit Court in Upper Marlboro in June, days before his retirement. He descends from several generations of Nichols who have served Laurel and the community. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

There are quite a few families that can claim many generations of Laurel nativity, but the Nichols family has the unique distinction of actually helping build and shape the community. The family’s Laurel roots go back to 1870, but their ancestry in America can be traced back almost 250 years, before the Revolutionary War.

Most of the information for this story came from two sources. First, a series of interviews with C. Philip Nichols Jr., the recently “retired” chief judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit of Maryland. Although his mandatory retirement took place in July — state law required it on his 70th birthday — Nichols continues to hear cases on a part-time basis.

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The second source was a hefty 583-page “Nichols Family of Maryland Genealogy Register,” published in 2013 by one of Nichol’s cousins. The meticulously detailed register accounts for all family members in the state and also provides an entertaining family history. It would be impossible to recount here all members of the Nichols family that called Laurel home, so the focus is generally on those in C. Philip Nichols Jr.,’s direct lineage who had a significant impact on Laurel’s history.

Settling in Laurel

The Nichols family can trace multiple generations in Howard County that pre-date its founding in the 1850s. The first member of the Nichols family to settle in Laurel was the Judge’s great-great grandfather, Robert Lee Nichols. Born in Clarksville in 1825, Robert married Ann Ridgely, formerly of Highland, in 1859. They were both raised on farms in Howard County and eventually had 12 children.

Robert was in the Civil War draft pool conducted by the Union Army in 1864, but he was able to scrape together the $300 required to have his draft obligation commuted.

When they moved to Laurel in 1870, Robert went to work at the Laurel cotton mill as a carpenter. The family lived in one of the tenements built for employees, at 915 Main St., and became very active in St. Mary of the Mills Catholic Church. At some point, Robert left the cotton mill and started a Nichols family tradition in Laurel: builders and construction contractors.

This 1972 photo, looking toward the Howard County bank of the Patuxent River, shows where the Ninth Street bridge was washed away in the flood.
This 1972 photo, looking toward the Howard County bank of the Patuxent River, shows where the Ninth Street bridge was washed away in the flood. (Laurel Historical Society)

In September 1889, when he was 64, Robert was working on rebuilding the Ninth Street bridge next to the mill, which connected Prince George’s and Howard counties. The original bridge, constructed in 1808, had been swept away in May 1889 by flood waters caused by the Johnston, Pa., flood. He was crushed by falling stone and timbers, and died after being carried to his home. The bridge stood until 1972, when Hurricane Agnes swept it away, and it was not replaced.

As a result of the accident, according to the family register, “Ann brought suit against the Commissioners of Howard and Prince George’s Counties in 1889 for $10,000.00, but it is not known if she recovered any compensation.” Ann lived in Laurel until her death in 1906.

Their third child, Robert Lee Nichols Jr., born in 1863, married Mary Hines, from Fulton, in 1885. In 1889, he built a home on Laurel Avenue, as well as a small grocery store next to it that they operated. He eventually switched careers and became Laurel’s chief of police in 1918. Former Laurel Police officer Rick McGill, in his book “Brass Buttons and Gun Leather, A History of the Laurel Police Department,” provided details of Nichols’ career as police chief, culled from city records:

“The town held its local election as usual, however, and the new administration appointed R. Lee Nichols as the new [Police Chief] at $60 per month. It isn’t mentioned in the earlier records, but it can be assumed that local law enforcement officers must have been armed before 1918. In any case, the record does show what must be the first instance of the town supplying the hardware: A bill of $21.75 was submitted by shop-owner D.W.H. Donaldson for an ‘auto pistol for Officer Nichols.’”

It was during his tenure as police chief that Laurel experienced its first multiple murder case, when Joseph Englehart killed his sister, Annie Sloates; neighbor Alice Allen; and his friend Thomas Smythe. After a six-hour search led by Chief Robert Nichols, Englehart committed suicide as the posse closed in.

According to McGill, “By April 1920, R. Lee Nichols had had enough. He tendered his resignation but his sense of civic duty compelled him to agree to continue working until a replacement could be found.”

Mary died in 1918 after being hospitalized in Baltimore, but her husband survived until 1945, when he died as a patient in the Laurel Sanitarium. They are both buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery.

Building Laurel

Robert and Ann’s eighth child was Charles Ernest Nichols, born in 1873, who was Judge C. Philip Nichols’ great-grandfather. Ernest, as he was called, and Priscilla Stultz, from Ellicott City, were married at St. Mary’s Church in 1900. They moved into Priscilla’s parent’s house on Montgomery Street, where they raised their eight children. The house remains in the Nichols family today.

Ernest continued in his father’s footsteps, becoming a builder and construction contractor. He built the Laurel Armory and the original Laurel Theater on Main Street, which was completed in 1929. He got the job from owner Sidney Lust because he had the only steam shovel in Laurel.

The Laurel Sanitarium was housed in three buildings, including the old Brewster Park Hotel that was moved to the site, right.
The Laurel Sanitarium was housed in three buildings, including the old Brewster Park Hotel that was moved to the site, right. (Laurel Historical Society)

The family registry noted that “He was recognized for his skill of moving entire buildings from one location to another.” Ernest pulled off the most impressive and audacious project when he moved the old T-shaped Brewster Hotel to the grounds of the Laurel Sanitarium in 1908. The move was described in the Baltimore Sun as “the largest job of house moving ever attempted in Maryland.” The hotel was jacked up onto pilings so it could be pulled forward on a greased track and slid onto greased telephone poles laid across the Washington-to-Laurel trolley line tracks. A team of horses then slowly pulled the structure along the greased poles, using the tracks as a guide. The hotel was moved a little over 1/2-mile to its new location in this fashion.

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Ernest served as the seventh chief of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department and was on the board of directors of the Laurel Building Association. He lived until 1933, and his wife, Priscilla, died in 1937.

Ernest and Priscilla’s second child was Roland Lawrence Nichols, the Judge C. Philip Nichols’ grandfather, born in Laurel in 1903. In 1921, he married Mae Powers, from Oxford, Md., and they had three children, all born in Laurel.

Roland became the third generation of Nichols to build in Laurel, and built numerous FHA housing projects in the Laurel area. Roland died in 1951, but Mae survived until 1998.

Politics and law

The oldest child of Roland and Mae was Charles Philip “Phil” Nichols, born in 1922 in Laurel; he was Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr.’s father. Phil married Hilda Ellis, from South Carolina, in 1946 at St. Mary’s Church, and they had three children.

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C, Philip Nichols Sr.
C, Philip Nichols Sr. (Laurel Historical Society)

Phil started his career as a builder and built homes in North Laurel; he soon branched out into real estate and politics.

After being elected to a two-year term on the Laurel City Council, Phil served two terms in the Maryland House of Delegates, from 1954 to 1962. He was president of the Laurel Realty Company, which developed numerous apartment complexes in the Laurel area, for 20 years.

His biography, part of a book series in the Maryland State Archives titled “The Old Line State, A History of Maryland” and published in 1956, stats that “Much of the recent development in and around Laurel is attributed to a young native whose energy, vision and ability have made him an outstanding citizen in a comparatively short time — C. Philip Nichols. Mr. Nichols heads a group of companies which have turned unused land into some of the most attractive residential districts in the United States.”

He was honored for his public service. As described in the family register, “In 1969 the Maryland State Roads Commission designated the bridge on Route 216 over the Patuxent River at Seventh Street in Laurel to be the ‘C. Philip Nichols Memorial Bridge.’ The resolution states Mr. Nichols was instrumental in having the bridge built during his term of office as a member of the House of Delegates from 1954 to 1962.”

According to C. Philip Nichols Jr., his father championed using county or state resources wherever possible instead of relying on the city of Laurel. This prompted a feud in 1955 with Laurel Police Chief George Barkman, when Nichols proposed abolishing the Laurel Police Department and using county and state police to patrol the city. He cited statistics indicating that Laurel pays $6.31 per resident for its police force but other municipalities only pay $2.67 per person.

Barkman told the Washington Post at the time that Nichols was “attempting to embarrass the town’s police department” and the News Leader published a long, point-by-point rebuttal from Barkman to all of Nichols’ proposals. His letter in the News Leader ended with “Mr. Nichols’ actions are paradoxical. Why?”

Phil was very active in Laurel civic affairs, with memberships in the Kiwanis Club, Knights of Columbus and Chamber of Commerce. He died at age 42 in his Montgomery Street home in 1964 and is buried at St. Mary’s. His wife died in 2002.

C. Philip Nichols Jr. is sworn in as a Circuit Court judge in 1992.
C. Philip Nichols Jr. is sworn in as a Circuit Court judge in 1992. (Laurel Leader file photo)

C. Philip Nichols Jr. was born in 1947 in Prince George’s County Hospital and has lived in Laurel his whole life.

He served as an associate judge in the Prince George’s County District Court from 1985 until 1992, when he became a Circuit Court Judge. He was named chief judge in 2016.

In his retirement letter to Gov. Larry Hogan in March, Nichols listed the highlights of his long career: “During my tenure I will have signed over 18,445 search warrants, presided over more than 643 jury trials, two death penalty cases, and as we can best determine some 70,000 cases in circuit court of all kinds.”

Nichols says “the best part of the job is the interaction with jurors.” Even in this, his legendary sense of humor was always present. “Once I got a note from the jury asking ‘What is the definition of attempted 1st degree murder?’ I wrote back, ‘He is not charged with ‘Attempted Murder.’ I left off the part that he was really dead, the attempt was in fact successful.”

Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.

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