Etelka H. Foster, 92, owner of Balto. Co. mushroom farm

The Baltimore Sun

Etelka H. Foster, longtime owner of a Worthington Valley farm that was known for more than five decades for its home-grown cream-colored mushrooms, died Sept. 2 of colon cancer at her home there. She was 92.

Born Etelka Hoen, she was raised in Bloomfield on her family's farm in the Worthington Valley. Named for a 19th-century Hungarian opera star, she graduated in 1933 from Roland Park Country School.

In 1938, Mrs. Foster, who was known as Telka, went to work as an accountant for Arthur D. Foster Jr., a Glyndon farmer who would become her husband in 1950.

Mr. Foster, who had boarded polo ponies and hunters on his 420-acre farm, converted it to a mushroom farm in 1934. Eventually, the business grew to include 31 white-and-green growing houses where the delicate fungi were carefully grown and harvested.

In addition to mushrooms, the couple had one of the first herds of Angus cattle in Maryland, and during World War II, they raised pigs, chickens, peaches and vegetables. After the war, they grew wheat, but mushrooms were what fascinated Mrs. Foster.

"Mushrooms are independent things. When they grow, they keep on growing regardless of the hour or day, and they must be picked daily," she told The Sun in a 1975 article.

After her husband's death in 1973, Mrs. Foster continued operating the farm with the help of her brother, Frank "Pinky" Hoen.

A seasonal business, the mushroom farm went into full operation after Labor Day, when truckloads of horse manure began arriving at the farm from McDonogh and St. Timothy's private schools and nearby horse farms.

The first mushrooms of that year's crop were harvested near Thanksgiving and continued to June.

Mrs. Foster was described in a 1975 article as being "a petite woman with the vitality of a schoolgirl. She thinks nothing of donning a pair of riding pants and a ski jacket to work along with her superintendents in the mushroom houses. Weekends often find her in the packing house where the mushrooms are sold to customers."

So popular were the farm's mushrooms that customers came from miles around to buy them. The remaining two-thirds of the crop -- the farm produced a half-million pounds a year -- were sent to Kennett Square, Pa., where the Fosters had an interest in a canning plant.

"There are days when cars are backed up the road," Mrs. Foster said in the 1975 article.

"We stopped growing mushrooms in 1990 because of foreign competition," said Mr. Hoen, her brother.

"In her simply furnished office, with its marvelous view of the broad expanse of the Worthington Valley, Mrs. Foster came across as a woman of most determined views on such subjects as taxes, government regulations, crime, the raising of children and, not surprisingly, the mushroom business," reported The Sun in a 1982 profile.

"She was indeed a feisty person and a woman of strong opinion. She loved the farm and wanted things done the way she wanted them done," said Tereasa Mary Collins, her housekeeper of 33 years. "I can tell you she was very nice to work for."

An outdoorswoman who was known as being an excellent shot, Mrs. Foster enjoyed training Brittany spaniels and short-haired pointers. She also was interested in land preservation issues.

For years each winter, she and her husband traveled to Turkey Scratch, their 2,000-acre plantation near Monticello, Fla., where they hunted quails, doves, wild turkeys and ducks.

"She always had a great regard for the land and loved farm life. She was active early on in the land preservation movement in Baltimore County, and in the 1990s, put 100 acres of her farm along Greenspring Avenue into the Maryland Environmental Trust, which means it will never be developed," said Henry H. Jenkins II, a step-grandson, of Owings Mills.

Mrs. Foster also shared a love of boating with her husband. They enjoyed sailing aboard the Pandemonium, their Norwegian-built motor cruiser whose design was based on that of a PT boat.

"They sailed the Intercoastal to Florida and over to the Bahamas. They just enjoyed living it up," Mr. Jenkins said. "She had so much fun with her husband that, after he died, she kind of fell apart."

Mrs. Foster was a member of St. John's Episcopal Church in Glyndon and was a supporter of the Baltimore Museum of Art and Walters Art Museum.

Plans for a memorial service were incomplete.

Also surviving are two other step-grandsons, T. Courtenay Jenkins of Owings Mills and Arthur F. Jenkins of Dover, Pa.; a step-granddaughter, Pattie J. Dillon of St. Lucia, the West Indies; and many nieces and nephews.

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