Lloyd Helt, Sykesville's Forgotten Mayor
An interview, 2016
Sykesville was recently named “the coolest small town in America.”
Which is surprising.
Through most of its long life, Sykesville had seldom been considered a very cool place. Dead maybe. Quirky. Grungy. Real. Kind of weird. But not cool.
Yet, today, Sykesville is actually kind of cool.
People like to come here and do things. How it got that way is a long story. And this is not that story. This is the story of a guy who laid some of those early seeds of coolness and left before they fully blossomed.
His name is Lloyd Helt. Lloyd moved here in the late seventies, quickly took a seat on the town council, and by 1981 was mayor. He would stay mayor till 1993. And if Lloyd Helt hadn’t happened along when he did, it’s quite possible Sykesville would still be that dirty, dying town it was when he showed up, with the stores empty and Main Street flooding every time a hard rain fell.
Helt lives on West Green Street in Westminster now with his wife, Ruth, just a short walk from McDaniel College. He has a friendly dog, who demands dinner at precisely 3 with a silent, piercing stare. He has a couple parakeets, who hold animated conversations as I pass on my way to the bathroom. He has a beautiful backyard, with a pond full of giant koi, watched over by a stiff, possibly overinflated, female dummy, reclined unnaturally on a lawn chair, to scare off a blue heron who covets the koi, but fears the blowup doll.
And on a mantle in the room where we talk, he has a bust of Napoleon Bonaparte that once resided in the bar of Hausner’s Restaurant in Baltimore. Lloyd's a big fan of Napoleon.
He's also jovial and gracious and happy to have me and a writer named Bob Allen over for a talk. Bob once published a long piece in the Baltimore City Paper in 1986 when Lloyd was still mayor, that goes perfectly with this story.
Lloyd remembers his days as mayor fondly. He says they weren't necessarily the happiest of his life — he’s happy now, too — but they were certainly the most fulfilling.
The son of a Methodist preacher, he was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and moved out of his home state to study law at Catholic University in D.C. After passing the bar, he sent out hundreds of resumes and landed a job in Westminster.
He’d never been involved in politics and wasn’t looking for a town to run when he arrived in Sykesville. It was a matter of logistics. He lived in Laurel and worked in Westminster, and his first wife lived in Gaithersburg. They were looking to improve their commute. Sykesville seemed like a good solution, and soon enough they moved into a home on Third Avenue. Shortly thereafter, Helt, who grew up in small towns and loves small town life, was attracted to the politics of his new home.
So he got on the council, and then he was mayor, and then he set about trying to convince the people of Sykesville that they actually wanted to remain a town. A lot of them didn’t.
Saving the Charter
He says, “When I started, downtown was almost deserted. The majority of the shops weren’t open. We had Jim the barber, and McDougall’s drug store, but not much else. And there was a big move afoot to turn in the town charter. They thought it was an extra expense. They felt they were more a suburb than they were a town, and there was a sense that the town wasn’t doing anything for us, that the county could do it for us cheaper, and we wouldn’t have to pay the extra tax.”
He had just taken over a town that wasn't sure it wanted to be a town anymore. And he thought that not being a town was a bad idea.
“If they would have turned in the charter, Sykesville would have been like Eldersburg. It would have just been another suburban settlement without any government of its own.”
He was determined to convince the people that the town had great value. Which led, in ways I'm still trying to figure out, to Sykesville passing three resolutions having to do with nuclear weapons.
As he explains it, “My first task when I became mayor in 1981 was to show that there’s a value to being a town. We were going to show how important it is to be a town. It actually led to the nuclear-free zone, because I thought this was a way the town could get noticed.
“Civil defense wanted our police department to participate in the evacuation of Baltimore in case of a nuclear threat. And they were going to have odd number days and even number days by your license plates, and take everybody out of Baltimore to West Virginia. I actually got a letter suggesting that, and I said, ‘Hell, no.’
“We had a full-time police force, five officers, and they wanted them to participate in that to help people leave Baltimore and go to West Virginia.”
So Sykesville took a stand. There were three resolutions. Two passed unanimously. One passed with a single dissenting vote.
“First, we adopted a nuclear freeze resolution. We also said that we would not participate, we would not support the evacuation of Baltimore in case of a nuclear threat. And finally, we said that we were a nuclear-free zone.”
When I ask exactly what a nuclear-free zone meant, he just laughs, and says, “It was just a resolution. My intent was to show people what we could do with this thing called the town of Sykesville, that we were important, that we could take a stand on issues, and even have CNN take notice.”
CNN came to town and took pictures. They interviewed the mayor. Another reporter flew all the way in from California to do a story.
So Sykesville would not be supporting the evacuation of Baltimore. And Sykesville, apparently, would not allow nuclear weapons on town soil. Whether the psychological effects of these measures were of any truly worthwhile significance, or contributed in any way to the sense that being a town was a meaningful thing, the resolutions certainly attracted some attention. For one, they annoyed Westinghouse, just outside town limits, and the company took down its Sykesville flag.
The nuclear measures, despite his obvious joy at remembering them, hardly number among Lloyd Helt’s most enduring accomplishments, and might have contributed more to a sense that he was a bit of a flake and an attention seeker than a serious politician. But he was a flake in a good way, and far from merely seeking attention. He went about his job with a real intelligence and seriousness that would eventually lead to substantial improvements to the town and lay the groundwork for a much more cool and prosperous future.
One of his first and most important moves was to address the town’s serious flooding problem. The town resides at the edge of a river, and Main Street itself is built over a stream. In fact, for many years that stream served as a sewer, dumping the town’s waste directly into the Patapsco. You could go into the bathroom in the town hardware store or other Main Street establishments and pretty much relieve yourself directly through a hole in the floor that led to the stream, which then led to the river.
“Any heavy rain, the downtown was flooded,” Helt says. “The stream would just rise up and flood the downtown. The stream would go first and then the river. That’s what happened with Agnes, and people couldn’t get financing to purchase buildings, because the town was a flood zone.”
Helt’s proposed solution was a storm drain. The federal government, at the urging of Congresswoman Beverly Byron, had agreed to finance the storm drain with a block grant, but the town had to come up with $250,000 in matching funds and didn’t have it. The state also supplied flood grants, and might have contributed the needed money, but there was a catch. The state declared that the stream was not a naturally flowing stream, but rather a channel, and since it was not a natural resource, it didn’t qualify for state money.
Helt is a big believer in political conventions and gets agitated when people complain that they’re a waste of money, or a way for politicians to have a good time at taxpayer expense. He thinks they’re a great way to make connections, a good way to get, say, a police chief, a grant, or even, as you’ll see, a potential wife. And one day he found himself at a Maryland Municipal League convention, sitting at the bar beside the head of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Torrey Brown.
Helt struck up a conversation with Brown and explained the situation about the stream. “You’ll have it,” Brown said. “Somebody will be there Monday.”
And sure enough, "A guy came on Monday, the town got $350,000 from the State of Maryland, and the storm drain was built.”
Harry Sandosky to the Rescue
It was his first great success. But not everything was going well. Somewhere in the middle of solving Sykesville’s flooding problem and protecting the town from nuclear attack, the mayor’s marriage fell apart, he lost the home on Third Avenue, and soon found himself living alone in the Sykesville Apartments. He was there a year or so when a man named Harry Sandosky came to his rescue.
Sandosky, a marine veteran, who landed on Iwo Jima during World War II, was one of Sykesville’s most well-respected and industrious men, and over the years he’d bought and restored many of the buildings around town.
“Harry had cancer,” Helt says. “And he was sort of getting rid of properties. I was a distance runner at the time, and I used to run around the town. I had a four-mile run. It was quite a good run. It was going uphill and down and along School House Road, that beautiful valley. I used to enjoy my morning runs.
“I was living in the Sykesville Apartments and Harry knew it, and so I was out running, and Harry stops me in his Lincoln. He always bought Lincolns. He said, ‘Get in.’ I said, ‘Harry, I’m all sweaty, I can’t…’ He said, ‘Get in. I have a building to show you.’ So I got in the car. You always listened to Harry. When he said ‘jump,’ you jumped.”
The building Harry Sandosky showed Lloyd Helt that day is still there, as it's always been, at 7600 Main Street at the corner of Main and Oklahoma, facing Sandosky Road, one of Sykesville’s finest buildings, originally built as a bank building by J. Harvey Fowble, who built most of Sykesville, and now home to HeadMasters Grooming Salon for Men. But back then, Sandosky owned it.
“It was 1984, and I was going through my divorce. The practice was doing all right, but I didn’t have the money to afford it. Harry’s nickname was Dutton. And Dutton was a dreamer, too, and he wanted a lawyer in there. He was upset because it was a liquor store at one time, then it became a travel agency. He wanted a professional in there.
“And he said, ‘Do you want it?’ I said, ‘Harry, this is a dream.’ I could see me living on the third floor and across the street was the Town House. He said, ‘Well, if you want it, we’re going to make it happen.’ And he made it happen.”
Sandosky worked out a complicated financing deal that involved Helt paying a mortgage to Sandosky’s wife, Katie, and soon Lloyd Helt moved in.
“Harry had it pretty nice. My office was on the second floor. The reception room was when you came in the door, and you went up the steps and came around to the office. And I lived on the third floor. It was a beautiful, beautiful place.”
Jim Schumacher to the Rescue
Around the same time he was getting his living arrangements sorted out, the mayor came to realize that as things were, he could not properly run the town. He was basically a volunteer mayor. He made $30 per council meeting. The city council members were also, for all intents and purposes, volunteers. He needed someone to do the actual work of running the town. He needed a town manager.
He says, “If you want to apply for grants, you’re going to need some kind of professional working these things. Volunteers just can’t do it. Volunteers can oversee it, but when you talk about hundreds of pages of forms to fill out, and getting everything ready and getting the pictures taken, and getting people to look at things and talk to contractors, and all the things that had to be done, I knew that I didn’t have the time to do it if I wanted to make a living as a lawyer.”
There was resistance. Three council members, whom he refers to as “the gang of 3,” generally opposed all his plans.
“I was fighting these three all the time. They said, ‘We don’t need to pay someone twenty-thousand a year to run the town.’ ”
Eventually, Helt got his way. A member of the council, Norma Hirsch, agreed to fill the position temporarily, until Helt found his man, a Carroll County native named Jim Schumacher, who, in his school days, had actually worked on Main Street.
“The things that happened here were because Jim was doing the job. He and I worked together hand in glove, and the money started flowing, the loans started flowing, the grants started flowing. I’m very indebted to him, because he was the implementer. I would say, ‘Hey, let’s build a town park,’ and he would say, ‘Okay,’ and he would do the work. I would say, ‘Let’s save the train station,’ and he would say, ‘Yeah, we can do that.’
(Schumacher's son, Jared, now works for the town and played an important role in conceiving and implementing the improvements taking place in Cooper Park across from the Gate House Museum.)
“And you need that. You need that kind of follow-up, people of different talents, and I knew I didn’t have the talent to fill out all those darn forms and do all the stuff you had to do. We were working out of the Sykesville Town House. I would take care of my law business, go across the street to the Town House, and deal with whatever Jim had ready for me.
“And the town started taking off. The Beck Brothers were very instrumental. Jonathan Herman was very instrumental. The most instrumental person, though, in those days, might have been Jim Schumacher.”
Wallace Mitchell to the Rescue
Another problem was the police force, and once again Helt found his solution at a political convention.
“There was a struggle over whether to have a full-time police force or state troopers. I was very much for local empowerment. I said we’re going to keep our local police, but the police force was in a bad way. At another convention, I met this guy, Wallace Mitchell. He was a sergeant at Laurel, and I told him, ‘Mitch, I need a chief in Sykesville. I need someone to come there and really set up this department. I need someone who’s a real professional who can get the respect of the other officers.’
“At the time we were handcuffing people we were arresting to the radiator in the Town House until we could transfer them up to Westminster. And we got Wallace Mitchell as our police chief. Mitch came and really professionalized the force. Got them sharp uniforms. Made them proud to be Sykesville town cops. Got them good weaponry and really updated everything. And even got them a real jail.”
Millard Cooper Park
Next on his agenda was a park. “So the town police force was taken care of, and I also wanted a town park. I saw this nice area across from the Gate House and knew that would be a beautiful place for a park.”
So once again he put Schumacher on the case. They got the funding, and with the help of a college student named Cathy Young, who served as Park Director, they created Millard Cooper Park in honor of a former town police chief and well-known town character, who Helt took a liking to, a man named Millard F. Cooper, who’d passed away in 1980.
The Train Station and the Wedding
Over the years, he restored the police force, built a park, and protected the town from floods and nuclear war, but perhaps his greatest accomplishment was joining Thelma Wimmer to save the Sykesville Train Station.
He says, “I could talk for hours on the train station. When I took over, the B&O wanted to tear it down. It was just a shed. But I had this dream along with Thelma Wimmer. B&O had given us six months, or else they were going to tear it down, and Thelma and I did not want it torn down.
“I had some resistance in the town against spending the money to save the station. It got on the ballot as a referendum item, and it passed overwhelmingly. So we knew the town was behind it, and then we started finding funds for it.
“People donated, and we cleaned it up. I remember I was in there doing windows, and all of a sudden I discovered this fine window with imprinted glass. I thought it was dirt on there, but it was imprinted glass where the clerk’s office was. The glass had a design on it. It was like a waterfall. It was a beautiful design.
“I had the idea that this could be a white tablecloth restaurant. And we got some local businesses to support it. In fact, Southern States was very supportive. And we worked out a deal that the town became the owner and still is the owner. Baldwin’s rents from the town. And it’s a very good restaurant. I enjoy eating there.”
In 1990, Lloyd and Ruth were married at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, and then, accompanied by the tune of bagpipes, they marched down Main Street to his law offices for a reception before heading over to the train station for their wedding meal.
“The town owned the station but had not yet begun the process of renovation. It was a wreck in there. There was plaster falling off the walls. The toilet was still working, and we had someone clean up the restroom. We had about 40 people. We had space heaters, because it was February 17. We had it catered. We were the first ones to eat food in that station.”
Leaving Sykesville Behind
You might say that wedding marked the beginning of the end of Lloyd Helt’s reign as Sykesville’s mayor. He had met Ruth in 1987.
“She was an alderman in Annapolis. I was the immediate past president of the Maryland Municipal League. I was in the parking garage of the Carousel Hotel in Ocean City. And I had been wanting to meet Ruth for two conventions, but I could never quite meet her. She was there, and she had this Pontiac that wouldn’t start. I came into the garage with my police chief, Wallace Mitchell. We had just won a softball game. And I saw her at the end of the garage with her car and about five heads under the hood. And I asked the chief if he could start the car.
“And that’s what happened. He started her car. I got to talk to Ruth, and we had a very nice time together. She liked my building in Sykesville, and two years later we were married. And I adopted her daughter.
“I was living in Sykesville, because I was mayor. She was living in Annapolis, because she was an alderman. We used to get together on Wednesday nights and almost every weekend, either in her place or in Sykesville. And her daughter, Martha, who was 7 or 8 at the time, says, ‘I’m feeling dadless,’ because I wasn’t around the house all the time.”
And so, in 1993, Lloyd resigned as mayor, Ruth quit her job in Annapolis, and they moved into a nice home near Main Street in Westminster, where he and Ruth liked the neighborhood and the schools and mainly “so Martha would have a dad.”
Memories and Accomplishments
Helt ran for mayor three times and won easily each time. He even ran against Harry Sandosky once and beat him easily. He was an active mayor, who loved the people in his town. He lived in one of the most historic and interesting buildings on Main Street. He ran up and down the hills and through the streets. He hung out at Jim’s Barbershop.
“Oh my God, I wasted so much time in Jim’s. You’d go there on Friday nights and hear some great country and bluegrass. Jim played the bass. Jim liked Western music, which is different from country or bluegrass. It was an interesting mix.
“And I’d go up Saturday usually, Saturday morning. Jim was a conversationalist. Most barbers are, most good ones. He was a very conservative Republican, but he had fun with me, because I was openly a liberal Democrat. We enjoyed one another. Most Saturdays until Ruth came into my life, I would be at Jim’s Barbershop.”
He remembers fondly Millard Cooper chewing on unlit cigars during town meetings. He remembers a backup garbage truck called Old Blue that “was kept together with bailing wire,” and Randy Hughes, a tall gangly guy with long hair, riding on the back of the truck, “and when I’d be running around town, Randy would be on the garbage truck moving along, and he would shout, ‘Good morning, Mr. Mayor.’ ”
He’s proud of what he accomplished. “I can go down to Sykesville now, and I can see a train station, and now it’s a nice restaurant, and I had something to do with that. The storm drain. I can take you and show you the stream. And I had something to do with that. The town park, Millard Cooper Park. I had something to do with that. I tried to get the people excited about being Sykesville citizens, and there is an excitement now. The storefronts downtown are pretty full. I took the ball and got it rolling, and Jon Herman came along and kept it rolling. He really implemented it.”
When I ask if he was happy to resign, if he was tired of the stress and responsibility of being a small town mayor, he practically jumps out of his seat.
“No, I would be mayor today if I could. I loved it. There’s so much you can do as a mayor if you’re so inclined, and I was. I felt like things were happening in Sykesville. The town was growing. I had a feeling this was going to take off.”
Then he smiles and shakes his head. “Coolest small town in America.”
Lloyd Helt’s Epitaph
During his time as Sykesville’s mayor, Helt became interested in Betsy Patterson, whose ill-fated marriage to Napoleon Bonaparte’s teenage brother, Jerome, was an international sensation. Several accounts claim that one night in 1803, against her father's wishes and his attempts at restraining her, Betsy escaped out a window of the Patterson family’s Springfield mansion, just outside Sykesville, and rode a mule some 20 miles to Baltimore to attend a ball and dance with Jerome.
The former mayor’s interest in Betsy led to his fascination with Napoleon and thus the Napoleon bust from Hausner’s, the row of books about the French emperor lined up on his shelves, and the images of Napoleon all over the house.
He says, “I got fascinated by this guy who had so much power, and I read many books about him. My favorite is The Campaigns of Napoleon. Like me, he was a big believer in local government, but everything came through him, of course. He redid the French government and gave the local government a lot of power.”
Betsy Patterson is buried at Greenmount Cemetery in Baltimore, but her brother, George Patterson, with his wife Prudence and two children, along with members of the Brown family (including the father of Frank Brown who would later become the only governor of Maryland born in Carroll County) are buried in a plot in Springfield Cemetery in Sykesville. (Prudence was a Brown before her marriage and is Frank Brown’s aunt.)
And Helt says, “So we had this local contact through Jerome and Betsy, and Ruth and I were looking for cemetery plots, and I wanted to be buried in Springfield Cemetery, and we found some that were close to the Pattersons. Our two plots are right next to the Pattersons, just outside the Pattersons’ fence.
“I want to have a tombstone that says, ‘Lawyer, Mayor, Lover of Ruth.’ And have the years I was mayor, 1981 through 1993.”
So Lloyd Helt, who left over twenty years ago to become a better father, wants to be buried in Sykesville. And I suppose that someday that stone will really be there—“Lawyer, Mayor, Lover of Ruth”—right beside the black iron fence that surrounds the ancient graves of Pattersons and Browns. And people will come in far future years and look at it and wonder, “Who was this Lloyd Helt guy?”
Now you know.
Sadly, Ruth passed away not long after I wrote this story. Lloyd has a new wife now, and when I met up with him the other day, I didn't have the heart to ask about his burial plot at Springfield.