Footnotes to Laurel history, through the past colorfully

In 1937, the city had the C&P Telephone Co. install a police signal in a specially constructed shed at the corner of Main Street and Route 1.
In 1937, the city had the C&P Telephone Co. install a police signal in a specially constructed shed at the corner of Main Street and Route 1. (Courtesy photo/Rick McGIll)

While researching stories from Laurel’s past, I accumulate lots of brief, and sometimes odd, items that don’t lend themselves to the usual long form. These columns give me a chance to clean out that file. There will be more in the future. (The first volume was published in the Leader on May 19, 2016; a World War II edition was published on Dec. 15, 2016.)

1890: In February, a major fire on Main Street destroyed three stores and two houses. This was 12 years before the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department was formed but, curiously, according to the Baltimore Sun, “A crowd ran to the house where the hook-and-ladder truck was kept and tried to get it out, but the wheels were chained together, and the lock was so rusty that the truck could not be moved.”


1902: In August, the Springer Sanitarium opened in the former Hotel Leslie. Laurel’s was the 23rd sanitarium operated by Dr. N.A. Springer in the U.S. The facility advertised that it offered “treatment for the cure of extensive use of stimulants and narcotics of all kinds, and the method employed is the use of a special formula discovered by Dr. Springer some years ago.”

1903: In August, a letter to the editor of the Leader declared “the non-success of the Springer Sanitarium, the closing down of the cotton duck mill, and failure of the Schooley flour mill, has no doubt contributed to the depressed feeling of the town.”

1910: In May, the Laurel Free Library opened with 700 books donated by residents. Mrs. Frank H. Knowlton was the president of the first public library in Prince George County.

1918: In April, a smallpox epidemic swept through Laurel. Every residence was notified of precautions and ordered to submit to vaccinations. Shopkeepers and families were examined and a guard was placed around each home infected with the disease. Health certificates were issued to those shops deemed safe by military and medical authorities and pin maps of smallpox cases were exhibited in shop windows for the safety of the general public.

1922: In September, five Camp Meade soldiers who planned to rob the Citizen’s National Bank were captured in Laurel by a posse.

1930: In February, illustrating the sparse population and concentration of houses in downtown Laurel at that time, the city published a notice in the Leader titled “Unlawful to Permit Dogs to Run at Large.” The notice declared, “Attention of the public is called to the law relative to dogs running at large pursuing game which is very detrimental to our game supply and especially to rabbits during the propagating season.”

1931: In February, the Laurel Welfare Association was formed to help neighbors hit particularly hard by the Great Depression. George P. McCeney was elected president and Mrs. Bryan Hobbs was director of relief. Laurel housewives pledged to buy an extra quart or pound of food to be left at stores for the needy.

1937: In August, the city had the C&P Telephone Co.mpany install a police signal in a specially-constructed shed attached to the side of the Laurel Jewelry Shop, at the corner of Main Street and Route 1. The city paid $6.25 a month for a straight business line, an outside box with a phone and a relay to a light switch. When the telephone operator received a call requesting an officer, the light would serve as a signal to the officer on duty to pick up the phone. If the officer did not respond to the light, it would remain on and the operator would take the message and relay it to the officer when he answered the phone. The city had to furnish the wire and light. It was the first police answering service in Laurel.

1942: In January, the News Leader offered advice to residents if bombs fall in the town: “During an air raid, should a bomb drop near you, fall to the ground to avoid the flying fragments. For the surest way to combat an incendiary bomb, cover the bomb with sand and then shovel it into a bucket and hurry it outside. Place your garden hose in a handy place so that it may be quickly secured in case of fire.”

1945: In May, the Laurel High School student newspaper, the Tatler, ran ads from local businesses on Main Street: Western Auto; Armstrong’s Radio Service; The Vogue Dress Shop; Laurel Theater; Block’s Main St. Pharmacy; Charles H. Stanley Inc; Laurel Hardware; Hohman J. Poist; Gavriels; and Donaldson’s Funeral Home. Business ads from Washington Boulevard included Ford’s Academy Garage, Mid-City Chevrolet, Little Tavern Hamburgers and Laurel Diner.

1947: In October, Laurel High School students, under the direction of Principal L.B. Howland, marked the roof of the high school building with the name of the town and direction pointers as an aid for pilots.

1955: Under new policies adopted by Prince George’s County following the Supreme Court’s decision declaring school segregation unconstitutional, black students could apply to transfer to formerly all-white schools. In September, the process started in Laurel with three black students assigned to Laurel Junior High School. The following school year saw the integration continue with 32 black students assigned to Laurel Elementary or OW Phair Elementary, another seven to Laurel Junior High and 14 to Laurel Senior High.

1959: In April, 34 inmates staged the biggest prison break in Maryland history from the Patuxent Institute for Defective Delinquents in Jessup. Laurel Police were credited with capturing 10 of the escapees. According to the News Leader, Laurel Officer Walter Holowchak arrested some of the inmates who had stolen a pickup truck. after speeds up to 80 miles an hour. According to Police Chief John Shackelford, the fugitives “viciously ran into the rear of the Laurel police car doing about $335 damage to it before surrendering.” Holowchak also arrested five other inmates who were waiting nearby for the pickup truck. Laurel Officer Malcolm Brown captured two escapees near Markels Corner on Route 602 (now Route 198). The manhunt involved Laurel Police, Maryland State Police, the Maryland National Guard, Military Police from Fort Meade, Howard County Police, the Laurel Fire Department and the Laurel Rescue Squad.

1959: In September, William Jackson, who lived on Prince George Street, answered a knock at his door on a Sunday morning. The three men on his front porch must have been quite a sight. A staff member of the U.S. State Department was playing tour guide for the Minister of Higher Education of the Soviet Union, who was a direct report to Nikita Khrushchev himself. They were accompanied by a reporter from the New York Times. The Russian thought Jackson’s house looked like a typical American home and wanted to see it. As Jackson showed him the house, the Russian asked questions about the heating system, cooking and the piano. A telescope prompted the Russian to wonder if Jackson’s son could “see Sputnik with that.” It was an interesting choice by the Russian to stop at Jackson’s house — he worked at NSA.


1964: In July, Laurel Police Chief John Shakelford was found lying outside his car at the police station, the victim of a massive stroke while on duty. He survived, but was paralyzed on his right side, had difficulty speaking and could not perform the duties of his office. But as he recuperated from the stroke he insisted he was still chief of police <FZ,1,0,17>and tried to command the department from, first, his hospital bed and, then later, from home. The city disagreed and appointed Malcolm Brown the new chief.


1969: In January, Mayor Merrill Harrison was not happy when Police Chief Robert Kaiser explained how the recently enacted Maryland Comprehensive Intoxication and Alcoholism Control Act worked. As Kaiser explained to the mayor at a City Council meeting, the annual report of the Laurel Volunteer Rescue Squad for 1968 included 172 calls to assist the Laurel Police Department in enforcing the act. As reported in the News Leader under the headline “Mayor Outraged To Learn That Police, Rescue Squad Must ‘Chauffeur’ Drunkards,” Kaiser explained that many of the calls for help were for disorderly intoxicants. Under the new law, “the police must give protective custody to disorderly intoxicants and, instead of arresting and charging them, must help them get to their homes or to some form of care.” Mayor Harrison said to the assembly, “Agnew approved of that bill? I’ve got to write a letter — a nasty letter.”

1972: In May, prior to Alabama Governor George Wallace’s shooting at the Laurel Shopping Center, according to the News Leader, Mrs. Wallace had her hair “coifed by Edward at Montgomery Ward beauty salon.” Wallace arrived in Laurel ahead of schedule, so he rested and lunched in room 502 at the Howard Johnson hotel on Route 1. A high school senior at the time, Peggy Mitchell Mertz worked in the Fotomat booth, which was in the middle of the shopping center parking lot. For many days afterward, many out-of-town visitors stopped at the Fotomat and asked where it happened. After pointing it out, she remembered one couple took turns taking pictures of each other lying on the pavement where Wallace fell.

1974: In July, legendary Baltimore stripper Blaze Starr appeared at a book signing at Gordon’s Booksellers in Laurel to promote her biography. “She’s promoting it on the East Coast on the days she’s not performing at her club, Blaze Starr’s Two O’Clock Club, on Baltimore Street,” the News Leader reported. “She expects business to get even better after July 1, when the 18-year-old drinking age becomes effective.”

Rick McGill contributed to this story.