No one in Fork is quite sure when or how or why Ron Turner became the mayor.
But there on Harford Road in northeastern Baltimore County, under the green state sign marked "Fork," hangs a new hand-lettered plaque: "Ron Turner - Mayor."
"I've been called a lot of things in my day, but mayor is probably the best," says Turner, a semiretired contractor, smiling a lopsided grin.
Turner is at least the fourth person in recent memory to be called the mayor of this rural community with a population of about 70. Like those who held the title before him, Turner didn't campaign, wasn't voted into office and performs no official duties, except perhaps presiding over morning coffee at the Sunshine Grille.
Some residents say Turner, 63, deserves the designation because he has always been quick to help, lending tools from his workshop and making bluebird nesting boxes for neighbors. And some say that they're just used to people around here having a folksy sense of humor.
"I saw that sign the other night and I thought, 'I didn't know we had a mayor,'" says Vera Vincent, 56, who lives across the street from the sign.
Like all communities in Baltimore County, which has no incorporated towns, Fork has no elected mayor. But for generations, the inhabitants have called one person or another by the title.
First, there was the woman who ran the grocery store and served as switchboard operator and postmaster. Then there was the young boy who roamed from one farm to another, sharing neighborhood news. Next, there was the manager at the old hardware store who dispensed free advice and coffee from his perch by a wood stove.
Fork, named for its location at the split between the Little and Big Gunpowder Falls, is dotted with many clues to its long past. First settled in the late 1700s, it was a stopping place for people traveling between Baltimore and Philadelphia. Now, hundreds of commuters pass through each day.
"Fifty years ago, five cars would go by on a Sunday afternoon and I knew all of them," says Don Smith, 62, who has lived on Fork Road all of his life, moving a few hundred feet from his parents' house to a bungalow his grandfather built for $600 in the 1920s.
Smith, a tall, powerfully built man, says a neighbor dubbed him mayor when he was a kid roaming from farm to farm. "I was the mayor two terms back," he says.
A contractor and snowplow driver, Smith still seems to know just about everyone in town. He has led the local Boy Scout troop for more than 30 years, and he and his wife, Elaine, are members of Fork United Methodist Church.
In the basement of the church, which was founded in 1771 by the area's first European settlers, Smith moves a panel in the drop ceiling to reveal the building's hidden supports, a series of rough-hewn logs.
"See, that one still has bark on it," he says, noting that the logs are at least two centuries old.
Outside, Smith points out a modern touch - a cell phone tower installed on the church steeple. The congregation brings in a little money by renting the space to a phone company, he explains.
The past and present also mingle at the shops at the town's lone stoplight on Harford Road. At Ya-Ya Designs, a bead store, customers walk across a floor made of two duckpin lanes, the remnants of a former bowling alley.
At one time, the building was attached to another, a ramshackle structure that now houses a veterinary clinic, a hair salon and the tiny Fork post office. A fire several decades back burned the passageway and the wings were rebuilt separately.
The buildings were still joined when Vera Vincent was growing up and her parents ran a grocery store there. Vincent worked behind the candy counter, selling Mary Janes, sheets of candy buttons and wax bottles for a penny each to children. Sometimes her father took her to Baltimore with him on weekends to buy slabs of meat and fresh fish wholesale.
Mornings, the smell of fresh doughnuts filled the store and the town's residents would come in for cups of coffee, she said. Evenings, the family left without locking the door.
Vincent's mother, Vera Gordon, was the first mayor of Fork that anyone seems to remember. "They'd come into the store and say, 'How's the mayor doing today?'" Vincent, an inspector with Tyco, says.
Gordon was the town operator, plugging wires into a switchboard to connect phone calls, a complicated process because callers shared party lines with three other families. She also ran an ice cream shop called the Chalfonte Confectionary and served as postmaster, passing out mail from a window in the grocery store.
In a 1991 interview with The Sun, Gordon said: "I could sell you a pack of cigarettes, then go around the counter and hand you your mail."
She died in 2003 at the age of 86, according to her daughter.
The family had closed the store about 25 years earlier because of competition from big supermarkets. After the grocery closed, folks began gathering at the Fork Hardware store for their morning coffee. That's when the store manager, Mark Danenmann, became the mayor of Fork.
"Everybody knew Mark and Mark knew everybody," says retired teacher Peggy Peeling, 70, over a cup of tea. Danenmann coached her through several projects in her 200-year-old farmhouse, where a hook for a kettle still juts from the stone fireplace.
Her son, Jimmy Peeling, 42, smelling faintly of potting soil after working in the family farm's greenhouse, says he remembers when people chatted with Danenmann around the store's wood stove each morning.
"If you were walking out of the hardware store, you'd say, 'I just saw the mayor,'" Jimmy Peeling recalls.
Danenmann worked there for more than 40 years, retiring only when the store closed in 1998, according to the former owner, John Fiorini. Today a High's Dairy store stands in its place
Danenmann now lives in a nursing home, Fiorini says.
These days, the residents of Fork drink their coffee at the Sunshine Grille, where the walls are painted a warm gold. Owners Bill and Effy Marvelis, who opened the restaurant about two years ago, serve up Taylor Pork Roll and scrapple for breakfast and pizza and Greek dishes for dinner. In the summer, they host classic car shows and outdoor movie nights.
Ron Turner, the current mayor, arrives exactly at seven o'clock each morning for coffee. He sits at a table by the window and raises a hand to greet one customer after another, asking about their health or home projects.
A newcomer by Fork standards - Turner and his wife, Jean, moved here 33 years ago - he has made many close friends, like the guys who gather in his workshop on Tuesday evenings to play cards and drink beer.
It was on one of those evenings, a year or two ago, when the guys dubbed him "the mayor," explains John Sweeney, 47, a computer artist and Ireland native who has lived in Fork for five years. They gave him the nickname not for any particular reason but because he's "much beloved," Sweeney says.
"Ron is the freaking friendliest, nicest guy you'll ever meet," says another buddy, 43-year-old Charlie Bronzert.
About a month ago, Bronzert hung the sign proclaiming Turner the mayor of Fork. Turner passed it several times before he noticed it, Bronzert says with a chuckle.
Back at the Sunshine Grille, Turner searches for the right words to describe his neighborhood.
"It's the old and the new," he says, turning a coffee cup in his callused hands. "I'm just kind of glad that I live in an area like this."