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Friendly village of Ferndale remains true to its past


About every seven minutes, the red lights flash and the wood rails come down in Ferndale, stopping vehicular traffic.

Then the cars on the light rail line, which recently began serving this sleepy Anne Arundel County village, go by.

Until the big white cars began rolling along Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard (Route 648) last month, Ferndale hadn't had passenger rail service since 1950, when battered electric interurban cars were junked in favor of buses.

"We don't notice the light rail too much, but they did build us a nice station," said Helen Weishaar, one of the three, part-time post mistresses at the one-room Ferndale Post Office.

Customers like her post office because it's not crowded like the bigger and more impersonal one in nearby Glen Burnie, where the lines are long and the service not as cheerful.

"We're really classified as a rural station. We close an hour for lunch," said Ms. Weishaar as she hand-stamped in bright purple ink two first-class letters to Canada.

Ferndale may be considered a branch of Glen Burnie, but it does rate its own zip code (21061).

At the post office, customers can also shop for hand-made embroidered, ice box magnets known locally as butterfly fridgies. If Helen Weishaar's not on, then Winnie List or Mary Sperry are weighing packages and selling stamps.

It doesn't take long for news of a suspected shooting on Hammonds Ferry Road to travel to this counter. And it's also rare for a customer not to be saluted by anything but a friendly first name.

It's not too hard to imagine what Ferndale looked like when the Baltimore and Annapolis interurban electric cars ran along its main street. It hasn't changed that much.

Ferndale, which at one time had the headquarters of the county police department, cultivates the appearance of a 1940s town in which railroad tracks run through the middle of the main street.

On both sides of the asphalt is the neighborhood's compact business district -- a gas station, a charter bus company, an Oriental food shop, a cake decorating business and a hardware store. Not just any hardware store, but Law Brothers, a 57-year-old Ferndale institution. It has all the required components of a classic hardware store -- the worn wooden floors, the scent of turpentine and the bins of assorted parts.

A gas pump once stood outside the vintage cinder block building. Before construction of Ritchie Highway, you can be sure that Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard, then the main route between the two cities, brought Law Brothers plenty of give-me-a-dollar's-worth business from motorists.

Today, owner George Law is known for his inventory of old plumbing parts that keep the pipes working in many a pre-1950 (( Cape Cod-style house.

Across the light-rail tracks is another Ferndale institution, its volunteer fire company. Organized in 1942, the unit's siren horns point in several directions from atop the main station house. Neighbors complained of the noise so the big horns are sounded today only on ceremonial occasions. Beepers and telephones now call the volunteers to fires.

It would be hard to miss the signs for Jim's Food Market, a Ferndale store that people know as Cohen's, or Giles', or Lucky's or Jim's, depending on their ages and memories. What people readily recall about the store is its sliced lunch meat counter.

The light rail stop, with its pitched roof, shelter for waiting passengers and new town clock, seems to fit in. There was a train through Ferndale before people started building homes some 75 years ago.

Rail passenger service expired in 1950, but freight trains never really stopped running over the next 43 years. A couple of times a week, a freight engine pulls a string of box cars often loaded with paper for the big Quebecor printing plant (its color presses print the National Enquirer) in the 7300 block of Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard, which is adjacent to the end of the light rail line.

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