Along the shade-dappled back roads of White Marsh, folks gather their mail in the quiet mornings and discuss the truly great issues of the day: whose garden patch is bearing the first sweet corn, and Betty Rupp finally getting over her illness.
Insulated thus far from the crush of development and packed shopping hubs across Pulaski Highway, old White Marsh creeps along at its own pace. It's quirky, tightknit and sometimes wonderfully generous.
Who better, then, to chronicle the life and history of her community than 75-year-old Jane Bickel, publisher of Ye Olde Hometown News, a free and modest compilation of the area's news and gossip that first went to press in 1941, and has survived wars, floods and assorted other catastrophes.
During calmer times, Bickel's stationery-sized journal carries such details as, "Blanche Cox says she doesn't have a good excuse for not coming to church" and "If you died while I was on vacation I'll never know it."
Or, in an April issue banged out on her trusty Smith Corona portable typewriter, which sits on her dining room table, Bickel captured the growing fear of government encroachment: "Seems to me that I read where Dutch Ruppersberger got his money allotment for the extension of Route 43 to Eastern Ave. - opening the Williams Place. The world is changing rapidly, too much so."
Like her eastern Baltimore County neighbors in White Marsh, Middle River and Essex, Bickel is concerned about legislation that would grant the county condemnation power over targeted neighborhoods that County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger wants to revitalize as part of a waterfront destination on Middle River.
Proponents argue that Ruppersberger's plan is essential to redeveloping the deteriorated sections of the east side. Opponents contend that the law could set a dangerous precedent, with the government's power to condemn homes, apartments and businesses growing unchecked.
The law could be challenged by referendum in November. Also, a group of property owners in the Villages of Tall Trees has sued the county for $40 million, alleging that the county's method of purchasing the 105 buildings in the apartment complex is cheating them out of potential profit.
Ruppersberger's plan "has such wide consequences, is extremely far-reaching," said Bickel, seated at her workstation in her dining room, with magazines, books and papers piled high on the table. "It's the same old song, where the government knows best, where those in power will care for us, make our world better. I have a feeling they don't know what they're doing."
Her cynicism was sharpened by waiting 40 years for water lines to be brought into her community. "Many people feel the developers will make out better than the people who live around here," Bickel said.
The spirit that Bickel brings to her newspaper and community comes by way of some harrowing experiences and the influence of her parents.
Her mother, Ida Gambrill, was a suffragist who marched for women's rights in New York and Philadelphia. Her father, Frederick Gambrill, was seriously injured when he was hit by a tree stump-puller near Ebenezer Road. The doctors wanted to amputate his leg, but he refused. He eventually owned the largest general store in the area.
"I had scarlet fever when I was five," Bickel recalled. "You either got over it or died. Two years later, I was in a car with my aunt and uncle when we got into an accident. Both of them were killed; I got thrown 60 feet but somehow made it."
She married Raymond Bickel after graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, where she studied history and home economics. Her husband died in 1991.
When World War II erupted, Bickel, then 17, started her newspaper and mailed it to local men serving overseas. One was Bill Mercer, a resident of Red Lion Road.
"Jane was a reporter by birth," said Mercer, 74, who worked the banana boats on Pratt Street in Baltimore after the war. "I got that little newspaper in England and Germany, actually right after the Battle of the Bulge. She hasn't changed much since then. She continues to be astute, slightly eccentric, deeply devoted to her church."
When not cranking out her weekly journal, Bickel walks the roads, meeting up with her neighbors and gathering tidbits for her newspaper, or she works at the Cowenton United Methodist Church, helping to collect clothes for the homeless.
"She is such a treasure," said Myrtle Wright, a longtime friend of Bickel's who works with her at the church. "One day after our son entered community college, Jane sent him $50 for his books. She does that for every young person around here who goes to college."
Bickel has published a comprehensive history of White Marsh that traces the area to 1606, when Capt. John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay. She dedicated the 1974 work to her parents, quoting her father:
"This is your community. You live here. You can work to support it or watch it fall to pieces. I chose to work here."