Phillip Sinsz, snowball and Christmas tree purveyor, dies

Phillip Sinsz, whose customers bought summertime snowballs and wintertime evergreen trees, died of cancer Jan. 1 at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. He was 76 and lived in Hamilton.

He formerly owned and operated Walther Gardens, a neighborhood institution where he sold Fraser firs in December and chocolate-marshmallow snowballs on summer nights. He raised and sold cut flowers and annuals at other times of the year.

Born in Baltimore and raised in a frame house on Walther Avenue, he was the son of Henry Sinsz, a nurseryman, and his wife, Dolores Foster. He attended Garrett Heights School and was a 1960 graduate of Baltimore City College. He served in the Army in Vietnam and while injured there, he declined to accept a Purple Heart.

He began working in the family business — Mr. Sinsz was the third generation — that began as a small Lauraville farm. The Sinszes raised flowers and vegetables. The 11-acre property came into the family’s hands in 1886 when an early Phillip Sinsz acquired the land from Herman Obermann.

The original property was later subdivided until Walther Gardens, named for Walther Avenue, occupied a little more than one acre. Before the street was paved, Walther Avenue was known as Sinsz Lane.

Mr. Sinsz changed his retailing strategy to fit the season. Each August, he drove to tree farms in North Carolina with a group of other Baltimore Christmas tree sellers. He tagged trees with a distinctive colored tie. The trees he selected were cut fresh and delivered by tractor-trailer a few days after Thanksgiving. The balsam variety of tree came from Canada.

“He sold to everybody in the greater Hamilton area,” said his son, Jaime Sinsz, a Forest Hill resident. “He liked Douglas and Fraser firs and also had white pines and Scotch pines. He joked about the balsams from Canada. He said they were seven feet tall with only three or four branches.”

Mr. Sinsz also supplied neighborhood churches with greens and trees for their sanctuaries at Christmas.

He also raised and sold his own poinsettias.

“My father took great pride in working in the greenhouse,” his son said. “You have to get the light just right on the poinsettia crop. The same with the Easter lilies.”

In the spring he sold market packs of annuals from his greenhouse and later in the season grew zinnias and lilies on the spot where he would later line up Christmas trees on wood racks under strings of light bulbs.

But it was the weekend after Mother’s Day when the lines at the corner of Southern and Walther avenues began to form on warm evenings.

“On miserably steaming July nights, traffic on Walther Avenue regularly slows down at Southern Avenue,” said a 1987 Sun article. “There’s usually a clutch of people standing on the sidewalk and waiting in line for a paper cup full of sweet Siberia — the classic Baltimore snowball.”

Mr. Sinsz and his family — his wife and two children, as well as neighborhood helpers they hired — ran the shaved ice and flavoring operation. They made their own ice on the property and the bottled flavorings they stored in wire racks that once served the old Western Maryland Dairy.

Mr. Sinsz retained family recipes for the flavorings he used to top the crushed ice in a snowball business the Sinsz family established in a wooden stand at the corner of their property. In a 1987 Sun article he cited earlier generations of the Sinsz family who masterminded the flavors.

“Young fathers tow three-year-olds there in wagons,” the article said. “There’s always one or two baby strollers at the stand.”

Mr. Sinsz credited the stand’s popularity to several factors — it was well established and he relied upon repeat customers. His father told him that it started during Prohibition and bootleggers once offered to sell them their illegal liquor. The stand was a popular gathering place in the 1930s on hot summer nights when the Orioles played their International League games on East 29th Street near Greenmount Avenue.

Mr. Sinsz credited his family flavors, especially their chocolate. They sold it in two varieties — thick and thin, both made with cocoa powder and vanilla. There were also two oranges — blood orange and regular orange. He called his butterscotch flavor Rum Punch. He “doctored up” his marshmallow toppings, which, he said, gave him fits in periods of high humidity.

Depending on the weather, he sold snowballs until middle or late September, then shut the ice maker down. He continued his seasonal routine until a few years ago, when he sold Walther Gardens to new owners and retired.

“He spent his life in 21214,” said his wife, Katherine “Kitty” Seraphine.

A visitation will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Evans Funeral Chapel, 8800 Harford Road in Parkville.

In addition to his wife of 51 years, a medical secretary who assisted in the family business, and his son, survivors include a daughter, Ginny Kline of Keyser, W. Va.; and a brother, Ronald Sinsz of The Villas, N.J.

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