Advertisement
News

The heyday of the slots Boom to bust: From the 1940s until they were banned in 1968, slot machines boosted the Southern Maryland economy but raised concerns about corruption, addiction.

WALDORF — WALDORF -- When Henry Middleton used to sell the wheat crop from his farm here, the profit went to pay taxes on the family property.

One year, though, the temptation was too great: Mr. Middleton, a prominent resident of Charles County, took the wheat money and plunked it coin by coin into slot machines that were once fixtures in the area.

Advertisement

"He just blew the entire thing, hundreds of dollars," says his son, state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton.

Today, Senator Middleton, 50, says he is "absolutely opposed" to an emerging proposal to legalize slot machines in the state -- at horse tracks or anywhere else. The reasons, he says, can be found in the not-so-distant history of Southern Maryland.

Advertisement

Beginning in the late 1940s and ending 27 years ago, there were five places in the country where slot machines were legal: Nevada and the Maryland counties of Charles, St. Mary's, Calvert and Anne Arundel.

In those counties, slot machines were, as Mr. Middleton puts it, "everywhere but the churches" -- in bars and nightclubs, but also in pharmacies, gas stations, grocery stores and even restaurants a short walk from the State House in Annapolis.

Slot machines whirred in clubs built over the Potomac River and connected by piers to the Virginia shore. Gamblers also rode ferries across the Potomac from Mount Vernon to play at riverside clubs.

U.S. 301, which bisects Charles County, was the region's main north-south artery before the construction of Interstate 95. With about 200 slot machine establishments along a 20-mile stretch of two-lane highway, it became the East Coast's version of the Las Vegas strip.

Mr. Middleton remembers the hardship sometimes caused by gambling, but others recall the slot machine years as a golden boost to an otherwise sleepy economy built mainly on tobacco and seafood.

"We were all making good money down there," says Eugene Chaney Jr., whose family owned the Waldorf Restaurant and a couple of bars that offered slots.

"All of us farm guys had it made."

Tourists from New York and New England stopped on their trips south to play the machines in the Wigwam, the Desert Inn and other clubs, many of which stayed open all night.

Advertisement

Performers including Brenda Lee and James Brown provided entertainment, and the clubs offered free or reduced-rate food and drink.

"We gave away food," says Joseph Greenstone, one of the owners of the Stardust, then a sprawling, neon-frosted club. "We gave away rooms in the hotel. We gave away rolls of quarters. We just gave whiskey away."

Remembering the pain

Former state Sen. C. Bernard Fowler says three slot machines produced about a fifth of the revenue at his Calvert County boat-rental store in the mid-1950s. But now, he most remembers the people hurt by gambling.

Mr. Fowler recalls one waterman who used to "pump every nickel he had into one of the machines." One day, after losing all of his money, the man persuaded Mr. Fowler to buy his rowboat for $60 -- which the man promptly fed into the machines.

"I had people who got so addicted to it," Mr. Fowler says. "Every nickel or quarter they got their hands on, that's where it went."

Advertisement

Corruption concerns

Although such stories were not unusual, concerns over corruption were perhaps a more important impetus for shutting down the slots.

In 1954, some Maryland slot machine operators were linked to a criminal organization based in Phenix City, Ala.

By 1962, a grand jury report in Anne Arundel County called the slot machines a "sordid mess." The grand jury found that minors were playing the machines, that county oversight was inadequate and that operators were skimming profits.

At the time, there were nearly 5,000 machines licensed for operation in the four counties, and the local economies -- and local governments -- had become heavily dependent on them. One-fourth of Charles County's annual budget was coming from fees on slot machines.

Officials became alarmed

Advertisement

Elected officials from other parts of Maryland became alarmed.

"Our concern was that the slot machine interests in Southern Maryland were getting involved in local politics and spending lots and lots of money to elect county commissioners and legislators who would do their bidding," says Joseph D. Tydings, a former state delegate from Harford County and later a U.S. senator. (This year, Mr. Tydings chaired the task force that came out against casinos in Maryland.)

In 1963, Gov. J. Millard Tawes lobbied aggressively during the legislative session to outlaw slot machines, saying gambling was taking over the Southern Maryland economy.

The slot machine industry mounted an equally intense defensive strategy. Their chief lobbyist, Baltimore attorney Joseph S. Kaufman, was paid $10,000 for the year, an astounding sum at the time.

"We said that local communities ought to be able to do as they see fit for their own welfare," Mr. Kaufman recalls.

5-year phase-out

Advertisement

The governor's forces prevailed. The legislature gave Southern Maryland five years to phase out the slots in an effort to cushion the loss of one of the area's largest industries.

At midnight on a summer night in 1968, the last of the slots shut down, grimly and unceremoniously.

"When they closed the machines down, the area became a ghost town," says Mr. Greenstone, owner of the Stardust.

Some of the mini-casinos in Waldorf tried to make it as nightclubs but couldn't attract crowds from Washington or Baltimore without the gambling. Today, the Stardust is a vine-covered eyesore amid the jumble of franchise restaurants and shopping centers that have sprung up along U.S. 301 in Waldorf.

The Wigwam reopened as a bakery. The Waldorf Restaurant is still owned by the Chaney family, although Eugene Chaney Jr. moved to Nevada and owns a casino there.

As out-of-state companies urge legislators to legalize casino-style gambling in Maryland, Senator Middleton says his mind's made up.

Advertisement

"I've lived through the slot machine era," he says. "If you had lived through the time, just to see how many people had been burned, who lost everything they owned, you'd understand."


Advertisement