Laurel Leader

Laurel History Boys lead Fourth of July parade

In what sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, a researcher, a collector and a graphic designer walk into Tastee Diner on Washington Boulevard.

But this is no joke; these three men are known as the Laurel History Boys.


As the dining staff clears tables from the lunch rush and prepares for the dinner crowd, a family cheers for a basketball team playing on a TV, while the three men sit at their usual table and begin casually chatting about the diner's history.

"You see these new jukeboxes?" asks the graphic designer, Richard Friend. His buddies, researcher Kevin Leonard and collector Pete Lewnes, listen.


"[Pete] was here when they were taking out the old ones. He immediately got the guy and said, 'I need you to save two of these,' one for him and one for me. They were probably from the early 1980s, but they were just going to be thrown out."

It's this historical outlook that remains intriguing to Friend, Leonard and Lewnes, who, as the Laurel History Boys, search to piece together the puzzle that is their hometown's history.

On Saturday, July 2, the Laurel History Boys, which formed last year, will become a part of that history as the parade grand marshals for the city's Fourth of July celebration.

"I feel honored," Friend said. "It seems we've been together as a group for a short period of time and people are recognizing us for the work that we've done. Now, the grand marshals? I wasn't expecting that at all, having seen mayors do that as a kid."

Some Laurel Fourth of July memorabilia the Laurel History Boys have collected features celebrations in the 1970s and 1980s, and includes a banner on McCullough Field advertising the 1982 parade, T-shirts from the 1982 and 1991 celebrations and the West Laurel Rag Tag Band's 1993 10th anniversary T-shirt.

Collected pictures also show Laurel's 1979 Fourth of July parade marching along Montgomery Street.

Lewnes said when they started the group, none of the members imagined being recognized as parade grand marshal.

"We did this for the love of it and to get people interacting," he said.


Lewnes counts nearly 10,000 items in his Laurel memorabilia collection from throughout the 20th century. He recalled his first moments in Laurel in 1972, driving down a dark road away from his hometown in Lanham.

"All of a sudden, I come upon a city in the middle of nowhere," he said. "Back in the '70s, that's what Laurel was. I bought my first car here, a 1966 Chevrolet SS Impala, at Mid-City Chevrolet, which is now AutoNation."

Lewnes left Laurel shortly after, only to come back in the 1980s, when he met his wife and established his roots in the city. The couple became fascinated with the area's history, stopping at any flea market or yard sale they stumbled upon to find collectibles; their very first was at 10th and Montgomery streets.

"I was getting ready to walk to the car, I passed this car's trunk and it had a bunch of stuff from Laurel," Lewnes said. "I said, 'How much for the stuff in the trunk?' [The seller] said, 'Take it. That way my husband has no excuse not to refinish the truck for me.' That's what started it all."

After moving to Centerville, Va., in 1997, Friend said his interest in Laurel's history began to flourish when he noticed long-time retailers and restaurants disappearing, such as the Laurel Mall, which opened in October 1979 and closed in May 2012.

"I never thought I'd outlive the mall," Friend said. "I was here when the mall was built, I was here the day it opened and I was there the day they tore it down. I just got interested in finding mementos that represented those places, especially like mom and pop stores."


These thoughts led them to choose Tastee Diner as their "unofficial headquarters," he added. On June 16, the Laurel History Boys received an honorary designated table facing Washington Boulevard.

"There just aren't many other places like it," Friend said.

Leonard said the group's name is a play on the Pep Boys automotive chain's Manny, Moe and Jack. But instead of car service, their work serves the community with historical stories, interviews and pictures on their website,

"What we try to do is, instead of having a facility, a museum or a building, everything we have and produce is online," Leonard said. "People can go look at it any time they want. We just keep adding to it and it's always there and always available."

Finding physical traces of Laurel memorabilia has become more and more challenging; but the group agreed that there are always moments of success.

"It's kind of like being a detective. I'll get wind of some story that sounds interesting and I'll start digging," said Leonard, who also writes the History Matters feature for the Laurel Leader. "I can tell you why there's so much history here, but I cannot explain the interest."


In addition to anecdotes and treasures from other Laurel natives, the Laurel History Boys have heard from people all over the world, establishing connections traced back to the city.

In early May, collector and former Laurel resident Jack Bowen surprised them with letters of soldiers stationed in Laurel during the Civil War era. Another collector in Auckland, New Zealand, sent Lewnes a matchbox in February that he found, advertising Main Street's Vogue Dress shop, once located where the Laurel Meat Market now stands.

"That's the longest distance that an item has traveled to come into my collection, traveling over 8,500 miles," Lewnes said. "How did a matchbook wind up in New Zealand?"

The community's interest has encouraged the Laurel History Boys to present their work and findings to organizations and businesses in the area, such as the Woman's Club of Laurel, the Laurel-Beltsville Senior Activity Center and Savage and Laurel historical societies.

Friend, who maintains the Lost Laurel blog and published a book with the same name, also directs and produces episodes of the "Lost Laurel" show that air on Laurel TV.

"To me, whether it's good, bad or ugly, it's all history," Friend said. "It's been here for so long and there's a lot to be uncovered yet. I think that could be said for any town."


Although the Laurel History Boys are carrying the city's Fourth of July parade forward, the trio continues to take the community back in time for a look at its unique history.

"Even with the changing demographics and the explosion of the population, Laurel is still a very old community," Leonard said. "There are generations that go way back in Laurel and there's still a really family connection to everything that happens around here.

"From what we do, nothing that interesting has happened since the early 2000s. It's just not history yet," he said.