This is the era when things started to turn, when Sykesville almost died and was just coming off life support.
Publisher’s Note: When we first showed this story in 2016, Sykesville had just been voted the coolest small town in America. Which was amazing, because just a few years before that, the town teetered on the brink of disintegration.
In 1986, Bob Allen, who grew up nearby, wrote an article about the town for the Baltimore City Paper. It was long and basically filled the entire issue. We thought it would be interesting to publish that article again to see what the town was like in 1986 and how far it had come by 2016.
We got permission from the City Paper. We edited it some and shrank it, but it remained long and fascinating in 2016, just as it was in 1986 and remains today in 2021.
The writing is great. Start it when you have some time to spare. — J.W.
Sleepy Hollow, Baltimore City Paper, 1986 by Bob Allen
Even early on a Friday evening, Sykesville’s main street already looks like they rolled up the sidewalks hours ago. Other than a few cars in front of the Captain’s Table Restaurant at the north end of the small, unimposing central business district, there is little movement and almost no sign of life. The windows of the darkened storefronts seem to stare blankly out upon the solitude of the empty sidewalks and the narrow street.
There is little or no traffic, save for a teenager in a sleek chrome and steel pleasure machine — most likely a refugee from one of the nearby Southern Carroll county subdivisions. He steers his car slowly, aimlessly down Main Street. The rattle of his muffler clatters softly off the brick and wooden storefronts; it’s as if he’s looking for something he already knows isn’t there.
Then further down Main Street, where the avenue widens slightly, begins to curve, and angles towards the small bridge that crosses the Patapsco River into Howard County, the teenager punches down on the gas. The blast of his exotic muffler and a Rod Stewart song blaring from his stereo make angry ripples in the quiet evening stillness. These foreign sounds echo contemptuously through the small town, like an insolent thrust of the middle finger, a symbolic gesture of restive youthful protest against all that is old, slow to change, and perhaps even dying.
As the teenager’s taillights disappear over the bridge and into the next county, the sounds of his tires screeching on the pavement quickly fade to nothing, like ripples receding on the surface of a still pond. A forlorn and almost ghostly silence once again settles in on the little town.
Farther north in Carroll County, where the glacier-like expansion of the greater Baltimore-Washington area’s suburban corridor has not yet reached, there are many towns like Sykesville — small towns, their vitality sapped by changes going back as far as the decades immediately following the Civil War, when many of them were in their cultural and economic heydays; sleepy, antediluvian towns, which seem as much propped up by the forces of memory and nostalgia as by the crumbling mortar and brittle wood in their sagging foundations.
But the case for Sykesville is a bit different, located as it is a mere 20 miles west of Baltimore and 36 miles north of Washington, D.C. Situated amidst the rampant, hurly-burly suburban development that has wiped much of the rest of southern Carroll County clean of whatever sense of history and traditional continuity it might once have possessed, and flanked to the south by the urbane prosperity of Howard County, Sykesville is like a slumbering little piece of the past. It is a rustic, if slightly decayed little town of 2400 people, mysteriously marooned in the sluggish backwaters of time. It is struggling almost desperately to make some vital reconnection with the late 20th century, which, by and large, has passed it by.
The town’s more recent struggles are not readily obvious to an outsider who might pause to survey its little domain, carved out of a riverside ravine. The town is without even a single stoplight — there’s not even a blinking light at its once significant downtown intersection. Its aesthetic centerpiece is a small, slightly dilapidated, old B&O train station that has not been in use as such for more than a few years.
By 1986, Sykesville's old railroad station, initially designed by the Baltimore architect, E. Francis Baldwin, and completed in 1884, was abandoned and slowly falling apart.
The town’s disarming — and slightly misleading — image of timelessness and imperviousness to change is particularly vivid on a cold day in early spring. As traces of wood smoke rise from the chimneys of the old Victorian style turn-of-the-century houses on the hillsides above the city, a faintly discernible mist rises from the shallow, swiftly moving Patapsco River where it runs past the old train station, the Southern States feed mill next door, and past the resting old box cars that languish on a nearby rail spur.
Up the street, old men gossip and drowse in the chairs at the barber shop on Main Street, while customers leisurely peruse the wooden floor aisles of the Sykesville Hardware Store, which is just up the street from the imposing, white wooden frame structure of the 90-year-old St. Paul’s Methodist Church.
On such days, the town seems a lifetime away from the frantic pace of the congested downtown streets of Baltimore and D.C., as serene and unchanging as a child’s train garden underneath a Christmas tree.
Implicit in the squat, self-sufficient symmetry of its downtown architecture (no Main Street buildings are over three stories tall), there is a celebration of the small-town egocentricity and fatuousness which Sinclair Lewis parodied more than a half-century ago. Yet, today, surrounded as it is by bland subdivisions and the ramshackle depersonalization of the characterless suburban non-communities of the South Carroll building boom, Sykesville, with its antiquarian pretensions and its intimations of a gentler, more graceful and scaled-down era, seems almost noble.
The years — particularly the last few decades — have not been kind to Sykesville, just as they have not been kind to small towns all up and down the eastern seaboard. Again and again over the years, the town’s most enterprising and ambitious intentions have been repeatedly undercut by everything from floods and hurricanes to shopping malls and zoning laws. But again and again, it has struggled back, at times holding onto its identity — its incorporated charter — merely by the skin of its proverbial teeth.
To much of the rest of Southern Carroll County, at least to those who have no emotional attachments to it, Sykesville is a bit of an oddity, a quaint piece of irrelevancy whose continued existence is sometimes even puzzling.
“It’s a dead town, and it’s been a dead town for the last 30 years,” one middle-aged denizen of Carroll County notes. He points out that, even though he lives only a few miles away, he seldom has reason to go there. “It’s just on the wrong side of the county, the wrong side of 32, the wrong side of the railroad tracks, the wrong side of everything. I don’t think it’s ever going to change from that, either.”
But in the face of such passive adversity and collective indifference, Sykesville is, in the late 1980s, making a valiant if uphill effort to retain its determinedly rustic small-town identity. It is attempting, against some rather daunting obstacles, to re-inject much-needed vitality into its beleaguered downtown business district. The town's struggle is not only against the countywide image of cultural irrelevancy; it is a fight to overcome economic extinction as well.
“Even though Sykesville bottomed out badly in the sixties and seventies and almost died, there are still a lot of us who love the place,” explains one long-time resident who has become part of the town’s recently reactivated efforts at urban renewal and economic survival.
“To let it just slide off the map and go downhill, like it almost did in the seventies, would be a terrible loss to us. I think, in its old-fashioned way, this place represents many of the small-town ideals and potential for community and self-containment that has been lost upon the people who engineered all the subdivisions [in the surrounding county]. It represents a lot of what is good that much of the rest of Carroll County has either already lost, or can feel slipping away. I think it can serve as kind of the model, locally, for a reawakening of interest in small-town life. I think its survival means a lot more than most people around here realize.”
That region of the Patapsco Valley where the town of Sykesville presently slumbers is located near Carroll County’s southeastern tip, near where it borders Howard and Baltimore Counties. Before it became a remote outpost of Western civilization in the early 1700s, it was an Indian no-man’s land through which passed the warpath of the powerful Iroquois nation to the north. As such, the area was scrupulously avoided by the Nanticokes and other weaker tribes of the south.
The first white settlers arrived in that part of what is now Carroll County around 1720, drawn by the area’s abundance of heavily forested land and fresh water.
By the turn of the last century, William Patterson, an eminently wealthy Baltimore shipbuilder, had acquired some 3000 acres nearby, including much of what is now the Springfield State Hospital grounds, two miles to the north of Sykesville’s present downtown district. Over time, the Patterson family built a huge, elegant summer manse nearby, which stood until 1912, when it was destroyed by fire. Patterson’s daughter Betsy caused quite a stir when, in 1803, she married Jerome Bonaparte, younger brother of the French emperor, Napoleon, who opposed, and eventually destroyed the marriage, leaving Betsy with a long lifetime of bitter regret.
In 1825, an enterprising English merchant named James Sykes bought many acres of land abutting Patterson's. Sykes quickly grasped the area’s commercial potential, due to the already existing crude roads, the abundance of water power from the swift Patapsco (which in the early 1800s was still a formidable enough river to enable oceangoing vessels to pass as far inland as Ellicott City, just a dozen or so miles downstream), and the rapidly growing farming and iron and copper mining industries that had taken shape nearby.
When Sykes arrived, there was already a combination saw and gristmill in operation on what is now the Howard County side of the river. He set about enlarging the mill, and also constructed a five-story, 47-room stone hotel to accommodate the summer outflow of thousands of tourists from Baltimore seeking respite from the stench, disease, and summer heat of the growing city.
In 1831, William Patterson used his influence as a board member of the fledgling Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to induce the company to reroute its original “old main line” (the first public railway built in the U.S.) up through the Patapsco Valley and the incipient settlement that was beginning to spring up near his summer residence.
The advent of the railway meant growth to local industry as well as a considerable swelling in the tourist trade, which, during the warmer months, sometimes reached several hundred visitors a day.
By 1837, the year that Carroll County was carved out of existing portions of Baltimore and Fredrick Counties, a thriving commercial center had grown up across the river from the town’s present location, on what is now the Howard County bank of the Patapsco.
War, then Flood
The Civil War came and went, leaving the town, with its strong Northern sympathies, virtually unscathed. Briefly, the town did suffer at Confederate hands in 1863, when Brigadier General Jeb Stuart, the commander of General Robert E. Lee’s Cavalry Division, sent General Fitz Lee’s brigade toward Sykesville to tear up railroad track, and where on the dawn of June 29, they cut telegraph wires and burned the bridges crossing the Patapsco and Piney Run Creek, before heading onward into the jaws of destiny at Gettysburg.
It was the brute force of nature rather than the cruel hand of war that finally brought the town to the brink of ruin in 1868 and halted its forward rush into boom and prosperity. On July 24, a storm abruptly dumped 18 inches of rain on the upper Patapsco floodplain; the ensuing flood washed away the hotel Sykes built (which he had sold to John Grimes) and most of the rest of the town with it. (The same flood killed 50 people and caused one million dollars damage downriver at Ellicott city.)
After the flood of ’68, the town slowly began to reassemble itself across the river at its present location, in a narrow, hill-studded and elongated ravine. The ravine had been carved out over the millennia by the swift freshwater stream that runs beneath Main Street before emptying into the Patapsco. The town fathers simply built their new town over the stream and used it as a crude sewer and storm drain. Today, the stream can still be heard rushing through the basement of many main street structures. It was not replaced by a more sanitary and efficient system until the 1970s, when the county finally came in and installed a more up-to-date water and sewerage facility.
Water channeled under Main Street flowing down into the river. Photo by Bob Allen.
“It’s a unique situation,” admits Lloyd R. Helt, Jr., the town’s 37-year-old Democratic mayor, who also happens to be Sykesville’s only attorney. This is the only town I know where the decision on where to build the business district was based on access to a free-flowing stream, which was used as the town sewer.”
As he considers this, the bearded, outspoken young mayor affords himself a rare laugh at the expense of the town he takes very seriously.
The channel is the opening in the stone wall on the far left. Photo by Bob Allen.
In their novel choice for the town’s location, Sykesville’s second generation of founding forefathers succeeded in laying the foundation for one of the recurring problems of later years: the town’s limitations on physically expanding its central business district. In its present location it is hemmed in closely by hills on the better part of three sides. On the fourth side, it butts up against the river and Howard County.
“Sykesville is in a bowl,” adds Helt. He gestures out the large window of his renovated turn-of-the-century office/residence, a large, three-story brick building that originally housed a bank. The window offers him a rather panoramic view of the lower Main Street area.
“Everywhere you look, you see a hill,” he points out as he surveys the town from his lofty perspective. “Before cable came in, it was difficult to get TV reception down here. If our city police car is over on School House Road, which is in an even deeper part of the valley, it can’t communicate out by radio.”
Despite these inherent geographic limitations, Sykesville did continue to prosper in the final decades of the 19th century. It became the hub of South Carroll’s thriving agricultural economy. By 1884, the red brick Queen Anne style B&O Station, which is still one of the dominant structures of lower Main Street, and the centerpiece of the town’s present hopes for historic preservation, was in operation. By 1890, many of the buildings that still stand along Main Street had already been built to accommodate all manner of retail and wholesale enterprises that catered to local banking, agricultural, mining and railroad-related businesses.
Into the 20th Century
As Sykesville entered the present century, it was replete with muddy streets clogged with horses and buggies, taverns, livery stables and other street front businesses. The second floors of many of these establishments served as residences for their proprietors. Railed porches hung out over the sidewalks, giving Main Street a bustling, informal residential spirit. There was even a large flour mill that turned out 100 barrels a day of a sought-after brand called “Cooks Delight.”
Sykesville's Main Street. The awning says E. M. Mellor & Son. Mellor was the town’s first mayor, and he ran a large store on the corner of Main Street.
In 1896, the state established Springfield Hospital, the Second Hospital for the Insane of the State of Maryland, nearby. By the 1950s, Springfield had grown into a huge facility, with a combined patient-employee population of nearly 10,000. The hospital not only brought hundreds of new jobs to the local economy, but also a healthy new revenue base to downtown businesses.
In 1904, the town formed its first municipal government. Sykesville’s growth was also propelled forward by the efforts of a wealthy local landowner and businessman named Frank Brown, who owned 3000 acres and an impressive residence nearby. Brown had a deft hand when it came to mixing civic pride and vested self-interest.
“He was quite a man,” says Thelma Wimmer, 76, president of Sykesville’s historic commission. “He even spent his own money building roads.”
In 1891, Brown, who’d earlier been rewarded with the position of Baltimore’s Postmaster General for his diligent work in Grover Cleveland’s 1883 presidential campaign, captured the Maryland governorship. Running on a platform of “good old-fashioned horse sense,” he carried the state with a 30,000-vote majority. It’s a feat no one else from the county has ever managed, but his tenure in the governor’s mansion was not particularly memorable, and he failed to win a second term.
“When we came here in ’36, it had butcher shops, a hardware store, a barbershop, a department store, an A&P store, and all of that,” says Thelma Wimmer, who, as a former town council member and a citizen activist, is deeply involved in the town’s present struggle for rejuvenation.
“On Saturday night, people would come in from all around to do the shopping. They had an ice cream parlor and an adjoining room where they’d push the tables back and dance. It was quite a lively town.”
But as early as 1938, the chronic shortsightedness of small-town officialdom was paving the way for future crises. That year, Sykesville was the only one of eight Carroll County municipalities to refuse an offer from the federal government to build, without charge, a modern water and sewer system. Unwilling even to accept the annual expense of maintaining a new system, the town’s elected officials decided to stick with their tried and true natural sewer instead.
”We would be a strong, vital town today if they had let that go through,” says Helt, with a shake of his head. “I think Sykesville would be a town of 10,000 to 20,000 today.”
Besides Lloyd Helt, it is doubtful if anyone has so thoroughly charted Sykesville’s historic ebbs and flows over the last five decades, or become so emotionally involved in its more recent struggle for survival, as Thelma Wimmer.
Wimmer’s own long-time residence is a stately old stone house on a quiet residential street, a half mile or so up the hill from the town center, and across the road from the old Sykesville High School (which had its last graduating class in 1966). She was born in Roanoke, Virginia in 1909. She came to Carroll County in 1918 and settled in Sykesville 18 years later. Her late husband prospered locally with a Main Street plumbing and heating service.
Looking back, Wimmer expresses fond nostalgia for Sykesville’s former years of prosperity, and frank concern for its more recent troubled economic condition.
“I think the trouble all started when they built the Route 32 bypass [in 1968],” she explains. “Then people started going to the malls [instead of downtown], and that, of course, had a big impact. Then they moved the post office [to a newer facility, a half mile or so away from the central business district, nearer to where Route 32 now runs].
“It saddens me particularly that some of those historic buildings downtown have been changed,” adds Wimmer, who has a huge collection of old black and white photos, newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia that document the town’s history and growth from as far back as the late 1800s.
“For instance, when Maryland National Bank came in and bought out Sykesville State Bank, they filled in those beautiful old arched windows on the front of the old bank building with cement, and put up that ugly metal façade. It’s awful.“
In an attempt to evoke something modern, or perhaps to prevent the past from escaping, the Maryland National Bank covered the building with ugly metal grating, which was later removed when someone came to their senses.
"It seems like just about the only one of our historic buildings that hasn’t been cut up into apartments is the townhouse,” Wimmer adds glumly, referring to the old restored wood frame house on a nearby hillside that now serves as the city’s office building and police headquarters.
“A lot of them, as far as I’m concerned, have just been ruined. A lot of the second floors have been rented by absentee landlords, and the people just tore up and trashed the places.”
Wimmer has never been a shrinking violet when it comes to civic affairs. A former PTA president, she was also voted Sykesville’s most outstanding senior citizen in 1979. She served on Sykesville’s six-person city Council, and even ran to become the town’s first woman mayor in 1969.
She was defeated by a man in his mid-eighties, one of several octogenarians the town had at its helm during its more recent decades of decline. Since as far back as 1974, she has been actively involved in the town’s ultimately successful efforts to have its business district placed on the National Register of Historic Places. More recently, she has also been active in the city’s efforts to buy the old B&O station at the foot of Main Street from its present owner, the Chessie System.
“Most of the changes I’ve seen since I came here, I like,” she emphasizes. “I can remember back in the thirties, all the roads were cinder, most of them. There were open ditches that ran along the side of the roads, and people’s septic tanks flowed right into them. The businesses built their sewers right into that stream, and it emptied straight into the river.”
Wimmer admits that there has been a certain salvation in the town government’s traditionally backward-looking stance. “Oh yes,” she agrees. “I’m so glad Sykesville hasn’t gone the way of Eldersburg.”
She refers to the heavily developed Outer Liberty Rd. corridor, just 3 miles or so to the north, just across the Liberty Reservoir from Baltimore County. Quite unlike Sykesville, this nearby area has, in the past two decades, developed into a heavily populated suburban bedroom community whose lifeline to Baltimore is the badly congested Liberty Road.
“It’s important that we keep Sykesville a quaint town,” she adds. “Otherwise, I don’t think we’ll have much luck getting people to come see what we have here. “I am particularly pleased with some of the steps that have been taken. I’m pleased to see some of the downtown businesses painting and fixing up their buildings. They’re really trying, , ,but it’s still an uphill fight.”
In Carroll County’s pre-shopping center era of the mid and late 1950s, Sykesville remained the vital commercial center of the county’s many-spoked agricultural wheel.
To a small boy, whose father was a local farmer, the little town, indeed, still seemed a huge place, a place of mystery and intrigue. There were the Saturday morning trips in the old flatbed Dodge truck, loaded to the top of the wooden sideboards with corn ground into a feed mash at the Southern States mill, where a farmer could gossip and talk hog prices with friends. There was weekly trading at the Sykesville Hardware, with its long, wide, wooden plank aisles, and its bathroom with a crude commode that emptied directly into the fast-running stream that could be heard (and seen, with a flashlight) rushing far below. What child would linger in there any longer than necessary for fear of falling in?
Just next door was the imposing St. Paul’s Methodist church, standing regally back from Main Street in its own small, grassy courtyard, just as it does today. And farther down the street, back past the hardware store and the dingy old pool hall, there had once even been a movie theater where they showed John Wayne and Gary Cooper movies on Friday and Saturday nights. By the late 1950s, though, it had already ceased operations, closed down by the banker who owned the building. The older kids insisted it was on account of one night when Rita Hayworth or Jane Russell, or some other voluptuous female lead of the day, exposed a bit too much of the flesh beneath her bodice and set all the rowdy farm boys to stomping the floor so hard that they knocked the plaster off the ceiling of the bank onto the floor below.
Always, there was the expectant possibility, as one stood beside the old B&O station, or on the nearby rock-strewn riverbank, that traffic crossbars would come down in front of the bridge, and the two large red signal lights would begin blinking furiously, with huge, bloodshot, fear-pulsated eyes, signaling the approach of the morning train.
Then, from around the bend, would come the train itself, barreling through the rush of cold air tinged with the pungent smell of burning oil into diesel fumes, filled with the almost deafening, earthshaking clatter of steel against steel.
The freight trains, as they roared past, and as the children stood counting the cars and noting their points of origin, seemed to go on forever: dozens of B&O coal cars, C&O flatcars, boxcars, a procession of rolling stock from Reading, Western Maryland, Shawmut, Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Lake Erie and other faraway lines.
Sometimes the trains would even stop there at their small station, and the station clerks, cracking jokes in their dark visors and dark clothes would unload crates and packets of different shapes and sizes. Then the train would lurch away from this platform, gather speed and rush on to Wheeling, Chicago, St. Louis, or Baltimore (which, at the time, seemed as distant and unreal as all the other faraway metropolises). And long after the train had disappeared around the bend in the tracks, that smell of diesel fumes and burnt oil on hot steel would linger in the air.
The Honky Tonk
Just across the bridge, in the Howard County portion of the river valley, there had sprung up, in the decades since World War II, a new kind of cultural buffer zone, a tiny, rural honky-tonk district. Its heyday was in the 1950s, but even in the years since, it has thrived, due to Carroll County’s strict blue laws (no liquor, not even beer, sold on Sundays), and the absence of a tavern anywhere in the greater Sykesville area. (Every attempt to open one since the years of Prohibition has been successfully thwarted by petition. After all, Sykesville, despite its diminutive size, is a town with quite a few churches.)
Today, two of these bars—temporary looking, concrete block structures—still thrive. At Suzie’s, the more dignified of the two, the one right next to the bridge, you can even hear bluegrass music on Saturday nights.
But the most infamous, both in the fifties and the present era, is the old Patapsco Inn. The squat, boxy looking establishment stands on the edge of a thin copse of scrub trees that trail down to the south bank of the Patapsco, directly behind the bar. On Saturday nights, the inn (which recently reopened under the new name of The Duke’s Place) was, right up until recent months, strictly a travel-at-your-own-risk type of establishment, known far and wide for its fistfights, illicit gambling, and dubious clientele.
In earlier decades, the parking lot and the riverbank out behind the bar would be alive with excitement on a given Friday or Saturday night during the warmer months. Because the bar would not offer them admission and would only serve them booze to-go from the back door, dozens of local blacks would gather outside and conduct a rowdy and occasionally violent game of craps down at "the beach," as they referred to it.
Even in more recent times, reports indicate that not a whole hell of a lot has changed at the Patapsco Inn. In September of last year, the Howard County police presented a petition to the County liquor board (for the fourth time in eight years) to have the tavern’s license revoked. The court papers presented a shopping list of violations observed by undercover police officers: drunken brawls and beatings (some of which ended in hospitalizations), firearms being discharged in the parking lot, illicit dice games, patrons so intoxicated they were unable to walk (like one woman who was reportedly so loaded, “she fell to the floor when she attempted to sit on a barstool”) yet still being served drinks by the bartender.
Also observed were persistent incidents of flagrant discrimination against blacks, as well as more brawls, more broken bottles, more broken heads.
“Just some of the nicest people in town having the time of their lives,” is how one Sykesvillian sarcastically described the festivities.
Not long afterward, the Inn’s proprietors admitted to “antisocial and unsafe activities,” and agreed to pay a small fine and undergo a 30-day suspension. On a recent winter night, there on the riverbank, the tavern (which, as of this writing, is once again in operation under its new name) was dark, and all was quiet on the riverbank. Over the door was a homemade cardboard sign that served notice in a large childlike scrawl: “WE ARE SORRY. WE ARE TEMPORARILY CLOSED AND WILL REOPEN SOON.”
Of course, Sykesville’s most staid and long-standing citizens, such as those who congregated every Sunday at the old Springfield Presbyterian Church (built in 1836, on land donated by George Patterson, the youngest son of William Patterson), back up across the river and over the hill, would never countenance such goings-on—if only it were within their reach to stop them.
To a small boy who went to that church in the late 1950s, its staid architecture was symbolic of all that was moral, upright and sturdy in that small town. More awesome was the old graveyard behind the church, with its tall, faded, moss-covered funereal monuments to long-dead Pattersons, Browns, Beasmans, and members of other families of all but forgotten small-town burghers of the previous century.
In many cases, these timeworn stones were (and are) the only frail reminders of these peoples’ long-ago civic accomplishments and illustrious lives. Many of the stones, though now time worn and sad, are ornate and grandiose reminders nonetheless: gaudy granite and marble obelisks, such as were popular in the mid and late 1800s among those who could afford them.
The Emergence of Eldersburg
In the aftermath of World War II, the greater social and economic forces that would later erode Sykesville’s prosperity had already been placed in motion. In 1949, the last passenger train stopped at the small B&O station.
In 1966, the last class (112 students) graduated from Sykesville’s small high school, which has since become a middle school. Sykesville’s high school student population was absorbed by the newer and larger South Carroll High, which was built on Liberty Road, nearer to Eldersburg, to accommodate the explosive population growth that part of South Carroll County was now facing.
In 1968, the town suffered one of its major blows when Route 32, the heavily used north-south state highway, was rebuilt so it no longer ran down Main Street, but instead skirted the city limits and headed up toward Eldersburg. Eldersburg was now mushrooming, due to “white flight” of middle-class and lower-middle-class Baltimore City and Baltimore County dwellers drawn to Carroll County by its lower tax base and its then-rural setting.
During the 1960s and 1970s, dozens of new commercial establishments sprang up along Liberty Road to accommodate South Carroll County’s burgeoning population, and the influence of downtown Sykesville’s commercial district ebbed as Eldersburg’s boomed.
The suburbanization of the Eldersburg area has continued unabated in the years since. Its rampant expansion has, at times, been marked by a frenzy of flagrant land speculation, profiteering, and an all-too-typical laissez faire disregard for environmental, cultural, and aesthetic considerations.
While the Eldersburg area has become a densely congested suburban eyesore and a city planner’s nightmare, it has also become southern Carroll County’s new commercial capital. As dozens and dozens of farms have been cleared to make way for treeless subdivisions with boxlike houses on postage-stamp lots, nearby Liberty Road has become the local Burger Boulevard—a rather foreboding asphalt strip of fast food establishments, dry cleaning and video outlets, self-service filling stations and drive-through banks.
Between 1960 and 1980, as Sykesville’s population rose by about 500 (from 1196 to 1712), that of the greater Freedom District of Carroll County (which includes Sykesville and unincorporated Eldersburg) nearly doubled (8481 to 13,567). Since then, it has already expanded to a 1985 official figure of 17,100—which a county official admits, is “probably low.” (It is a testimony to just how badly Eldersburg’s uncontrolled growth caught county planners off guard that the area, despite its huge new population, does not even have its own post office; it is served only by a small substation, located in the back of a stationery store in the local mall.)
But Eldersburg’s transmogrification may have been a blessing in disguise for Sykesville. If nothing else, it has shown the town’s present leaders what they do not want their town to become.
“Eldersburg is an aberration,” says Helt. "It’s a deplorable situation. I don’t want to see the uncontrolled growth, the alienation, the lack of identity that you see in Eldersburg happen here. Eldersburg is not even a municipality. They don’t even have their own government. They don’t even have a community center. Somebody either up in Westminster (the County seat) or Annapolis is making all the decisions. They have no control over their environment.
“I think Eldersburg is an example of what Sykesville could have been if it wasn’t a small town with a local government of its own to control its own future.”
Indeed, there is something appalling about the ramshackle, haphazard suburbanization of Eldersburg—particularly to those longtime county residents who have watched the encroachment of suburbanization bleach the area of its once rustic rural character. Today, its bland subdivisions (with the usual assortment of euphemistic and pretentious names, like “Eldersburg Estates”) and its blank stretches of concrete, asphalt and cardboard-looking commercial buildings, have the charmless temporary feel of a wild-west boomtown.
In Eldersburg’s shadow, Sykesville clings willingly to its smallness. It remains, in the words of Helt, “a very safe town—we didn’t even have a break-in here for years. Many of our senior citizens don’t even lock their doors—which I’m not sure is a good idea. There’s just not that much crime coming into this town.”
But if those outsiders (mostly County planners) in whose hands Eldersburg placed its fate are to be faulted for rushing headlong into the future, those who held the reins of power in Sykesville in the 60s and 70s can also be criticized for dragging their own heels.
As the town took a back seat to Eldersburg and slid deeper into commercial stagnation, its leaders, both in the governmental and private sector, were overcome by a sense of pessimism. They almost literally allowed the town to slide right off the map.
“The town councils and the mayors of Sykesville have traditionally been—what can I say?—obstructionalist or backward,” Helt says.
Aided by local indifference, natural and manmade forces continued to weigh against the beleaguered municipality. With traffic on Main Street slowed to a trickle by the bypass, and the post office and high school having already fled to higher ground, the town’s contretemps continued. There was no small degree of embarrassment in 1969, when the small Main Street firehouse was itself gutted by a fire that destroyed town fire engines parked inside. Efforts to rebuild the all-volunteer facility within the town limits failed. When a newer and larger facility was finally built, it was located about two miles away, on Route 32, nearer to Eldersburg.
Then in 1972, real injury was added to this insult by Hurricane Agnes. The storm—said to have been even worse than the one that virtually destroyed the town in 1868—not only knocked out a considerable stretch of the B&O main line, it also washed away the 70-foot-long wood-floored bridge (which had been built in 1890 to replace another that had washed out in 1889) which crossed the Patapsco and afforded the town one of its two accesses to Route 32.
Remarkably, due to a lethal combination of local apathy and the slow-moving wheels of federal and state bureaucracies, it was not until 1975, a full three years later, that a new concrete and steel bridge was erected with $467,610 in federal “emergency” funds.
With or without the new bridge, the slow erosion continued. In 1974, the locally-owned Sykesville State Bank was gobbled up by the ubiquitous Maryland National banking conglomerate.
Even when, in the early 1970s, Sykesville did get a little touch of fame, it, too, turned out merely to be more gray clouds in the disguise of a silver lining. A popular Washington, D.C. rock group called Claude Jones released a single entitled “Sykesville.” The record even sported a photo of the old B&O station on the jacket. The song got considerable local radio airplay and evoked around the Baltimore/D.C. area a common refrain of “Where the hell is Sykesville?”
But on closer listen, “Sykesville,” the song did not contain any bouquets to the dying community. It was merely the bizarre tale of a hapless wanderer institutionalized at Springfield, the nearby State mental institution.
But even Springfield State Hospital, which had once been an economic blessing, could no longer be depended upon as the town’s commercial bulwark. In its heyday, Springfield had employed hundreds locally. And its combined patient-employee population of nearly 5000 in the early 70s was a significant source of revenue for downtown businesses. Due to changes in state and federal policies, however, the number of people either employed or institutionalized there had, by the early 80s, dwindled to no more than a quarter of what it had been the previous decade.
“There was a time when Sykesville was virtually a company town for Springfield,” says Helt. “They say that on a Friday or Saturday night, the sidewalks used to be so crowded with people from there, you could hardly walk down them. But not anymore.”
Meanwhile, what little new industry that did come to the area (specifically, a large facility that Westinghouse built to the east, and the Fairhaven Retirement Home to the north) were built just outside the city limits and, hence, just beyond the city’s tax base.
Helt grimaces. “That’s something that the earlier town councils just shouldn’t have let happen.”
As the 60s and then the 70s slipped quietly by, the downtown area began to gradually sink past a state of mere benign neglect and into a condition of outright dereliction; the town was poised on the brink of decay.
“During the late 60s and early 70s, Sykesville hit a real low period,” recalls 33-year-old James Schumacher, Sykesville’s present town manager, who was raised just outside the city limits.
“Quite a bit of it had turned to slums, and there were serious health problems in the downtown area. I remember when I was 18 or 19, I worked in a food market that was then on Main Street. There were terrible problems with rats. They’d eat holes in the bags of dog food, and sometimes you could even hear them scurrying around in back. It was a time that inspired a lot of pessimism in this town.”
In 1981, the last freight train stopped at the small red station. (A couple of trains a day, usually long processions of coal cars rolling from Western Maryland to the Port of Baltimore, still pass through; but there’s nothing for them to even slow down for anymore.) And in 1983, The Sykesville Herald, the once-thriving weekly newspaper that was published for 70 years, closed up shop in the face of declining circulation and stiff competition for advertising support from the Baltimore Sunpapers and the Westminster-based Carroll County Times.
By the end of the 1970s, many could hear the bells tolling for the decaying town, which had by and large become an irrelevancy to the rest of the county and stood almost forgotten. As the vacancy rate for Main Street storefronts rose to 38 percent, it began to take on the forlorn look of a ghost town.
“Sykesville was sleeping for a long time and almost died,” Helt explains. “In fact, there was a point in the 1970s when a lot of the merchants who ran the government were very depressed and negative. They just weren’t making it economically. They [the Council] were ready to turn the [town] charter over to the county and let them run it, to, in fact, dissolve the town. You might say the spirit was leaving the corpse.”
But it was Sykesville’s citizenry that, in a referendum, overruled the Council and voted to keep their small town. “They knew what they had,” says Helt.
Small Town America
From the point of view of the town’s residents, the traditional blessings and benefits of small-town America, lost in the headlong suburbanization of the Eldersburg area, still somehow seemed within reach.
“You can still walk anywhere. The kids can walk downtown where all the merchants know them,” is how one transplanted Baltimore resident put it. "They can walk to the store, they can walk to go fishing. There is still a safe, friendly atmosphere here that’s just hard to find in this day and age.”
Even as Sykesville’s condition and future prognosis worsened, like that of a bed-ridden, terminally-ill patient beset by endless medical complications, there were still a few factors that seemed to be silently working in favor of the town’s survival in the early 80s.
For one thing, new housing construction (particularly the 210-unit Lexington Run development to the west) well away from the central business district, but nonetheless within the city limits, gradually began pushing the town’s tax base up from $10 million to its present $15 million. The population, which had dwindled to 1200 during the early 60s, also began to slowly rise toward its present 2400.
It was around this time that Helt, a preacher’s son born in Pennsylvania, entered the picture. Helt, a graduate of Catholic University Law School in Washington, D.C., had worked for law firms in Laurel and Westminster before setting up his law business on Sykesville’s Main Street.
Helt had moved to Sykesville in the late 70s almost by happenstance; the town offered a central location for both him and his ex-wife to commute to their respective jobs. At the urging of a neighbor, he ran for and won a seat on the town’s six-member council. In 1981, he was elected mayor.
With Helt, Sykesville got something that the city had never had before, and something which, at first, it was at loose ends to deal with: an activist mayor with distinctly progressive leanings. Signs of a drastic departure from tradition began to surface within a year of Helt’s election. He succeeded in getting the council of the historically stodgy and archly-conservative town to adopt a resolution supporting an international nuclear freeze, as well as another which specifically declared Sykesville a nuclear-free zone.
“We were the second town in the world to do that,” Helt boasts. (Garrett Park, Md., was the first.) “We were before Takoma Park. I’m real proud of that.”
Even though Helt received congratulations from as far away as California and drew headlines all across the state, reactions in his own backyard were decidedly more mixed. It was one of several moves that created serious division on the town council, and more than a little opposition toward Helt himself.
Not long after Helt's nuclear declarations, a reporter from the Sunpapers noted a succinct message scrawled on the blackboard in the tiny office of the town’s six-member police force: “Impeach the Mayor.” There was considerable derision in the surrounding county, as people wondered why anyone would bother to drop an atomic bomb on Sykesville anyway.
“I’ll admit I look for issues that disturb me,” Helt explained one afternoon several weeks ago, as he set aside a basket of laundry in the lobby of his Main Street office and interrupted a trip to the laundromat to sit down for an interview.
Helt’s spacious but sparsely furnished office-proper is on the second floor of the immaculately restored turn-of-the-century brick building which he purchased a few years ago. In the first-floor lobby, a small wood stove burns, and his part-time receptionist (his only employee) fields the occasional telephone call as his pet cat Jasper dozes on a cushioned chair. The top floor of the three-story building serves as his residence.
Main Street, circa 1910, when the First National Bank, where the crowd in the picture is gathered, was still in business. The bank would fail in a few short years, but the building would remain and serve as everything from a barber shop to a liquor store to the home and law offices of the town's mayor.
“I am an activist mayor, and I’m an enthusiastic mayor,” emphasizes Helt, who is dressed in corduroy slacks and a flannel shirt over a turtle-neck t-shirt. “I grew up in small towns, and I know and love small town life. I’m also a product of the 60s. I grew up seeing where people can speak out on issues.
“I think one of the things I’ve really done here is make people aware of the power they have to control local affairs and show them that they can make comments on international issues, as well as state issues, through their local government. We’ve taken stands on a nuclear freeze, a nuclear-free zone, on [State proposals to build] prisons and waste dumps [in the Sykesville area]. I’ve been very active in pushing the council to take stands on such issues.
“One of the biggest concerns I have in this society is alienation, people sitting in front of their TVs, feeling like they can do nothing. You can do something. I think we’ve shown that.”
Helt’s earlier efforts were not altogether well received. Veteran town council members accused him of political grandstanding, gratuitous publicity-seeking and worse. In a December, 1983 Sunpapers article, a few council members tendered their more benign and publishable criticisms of Helt to reporter Eric Siegel. They branded Helt a political opportunist and a “dreamer.”
“There’s an awful strong feeling he’s working for his personal gain, probably in future politics,” opined Gerald Rains, who was then president of the six-seat council.
Today, Helt, who recently completed a term as president of the Maryland Municipal League, scoffs good-naturedly at such suggestions. He points out that his present elected position pays a grand total of $30 per (monthly) council meeting, even though there are some weeks when his commitment to it takes as much time as a full-time job.
“I’ve been accused of [political ambition], but that’s just a convenient way to attack me. For one thing, I’m a Democrat, and a progressive one. And, as such, I don’t think I’m electable [for higher office] in Carroll County.
“But I am electable in Sykesville—eminently so,” he laughs. “People like me down here. I’ve been through a divorce and a lot of personal things here in this town, and people have been gracious to me. And I love them.”
This was rather resoundingly proven in May of last year, when Helt handily won reelection over one of his most vocal opponents by an almost three-to-one majority (140 to 39). Some 65.3 percent, or 179 of the town’s 274 voters, cast ballots in the election, which was a record turn-out.
Love him or loathe him, Helt has admittedly been a major catalyst in Sykesville’s valiant, if steeply uphill, efforts of the last few years to turn the corner and put itself on the road to eventual rehabilitation and hoped-for prosperity.
Declaring that his adopted town was, “in danger of losing its identity,” he makes a ringing declaration of his intent in 1983, midway into his first four-year term: “I want to attempt to preserve this town as a town. A place where you live, work and shop, and not just a bedroom community. To live in a small town is a great experience, and it’s something that, if we’re not careful, we’re going to lose.”
Helt’s activism was clearly a factor in bringing focus to the efforts of a handful of other local opinion leaders and citizen activists, whose noble intentions and benevolent civic-mindedness had, until then, been floundering in a degree of demoralization and misdirection.
A major step came in November, 1984, when Helt, over the strenuous objections from some fiscally conservative quarters, convinced the council to authorize the hiring of a full-time, $20,000-a-year, professional town manager.
This position is currently held by James Schumacher, 33, a young and energetic man. New Jersey-born, but Carroll County-raised, Schumacher came to the position with a strong professional background: a B.A. in urban planning and urban government from the University of Maryland and four years experience in Carroll County’s department of planning, where he worked closely with Sykesville’s municipal government.
With encouragement from Helt and the town council, Schumacher has helped implement a number of sweeping projects, which, even if their long-term effects remain unclear, at least look good on paper.
He is credited with, among other things, applying for and ultimately obtaining a $510,000 federal Housing and Urban Development grant to replace the city’s inadequate and rat-infested storm drain system and to offer low-interest improvement loans to downtown businesses.
Schumacher, working with local citizens’ volunteer groups (the Sykesville Improvement Association, the fledgling Historic Commission, and the town’s Planning Commission), as well as the mayor and council, the Carroll County government, and the Maryland Department of Economic and Community Development, put together a sweeping and ambitious 41-page proposal for rehabilitation called the “Main Street Master Plan.”
In no small detail, the plan outlined the historic origins of the town’s current crises and analyzed its recent economic decline. Most essential, it offered a long-range program of preservation, land-use, environmental legislation and business development for “piecing together the revitalization puzzle.”
The “Main Street Master Plan” encouraged pursuit of more readily attainable goals, like “the installing of a traffic light at Raincliff Rd. and Route 32” (one of the town’s two accesses to State Highway 32), and sprucing up the downtown with benches, planters and trees. But it also outlined more sweeping and dramatic steps to “capitalize on the historic image Main Street portrays in contrast to modern shopping facilities.”
The Slow Turnaround
The activities of two relatively inactive citizens’ groups, the Sykesville Improvement Association and the Sykesville Historic Commission, were also rejuvenated. Ongoing discussions were renewed with the Chessie System for the purchase of the old B&O Station, now used by Chessie as a maintenance facility.
“I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to acquire the station before long,” says Helt, “even though the price they’re asking [in the area of $200,000] seems too high—especially when you consider that in Virginia there are actually cases where they gave their old stations to towns in similar situations.
The shared efforts of the town government and these citizens’ groups also resulted in Sykesville downtown being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in late 1985.
Ever so slowly, the critically rising vacancy rate along Main Street began to subside. Though a few more of the small retail concerns that had long been part of the town continued to close, due to the acute shortage of walk-in trade, they were replaced by a handful of new businesses. Many of these were non-retail in nature, drawn from Baltimore and elsewhere by the rural setting and the exceedingly low rents.
“When revitalization started, there were nine vacant storefronts,” Robert Anderson, owner of Sykesville Hardware on Main Street, noted a few months back. “Now we’re down to just two or three. We’re hanging in there.”
Anderson himself is one of Main Street’s newcomers. A veteran of the hardware wholesale business, he had been calling on Sykesville Hardware since the 50s. (The store itself has been a Main Street fixture since 1900.) In 1982, when Sykesville Hardware’s longtime owner decided to retire, Anderson, drawn by “the friendly small-town atmosphere and the more personal contact with customers,” bought the store.
Though Anderson still commutes from his home in the Arnold/Severna Park area, he plans to eventually move to the Sykesville area. “I’m very tired of the congestion on Ritchie Highway,” he explains. “But my daughter is still in high school there, and I don’t want to uproot her. But after that, I’d like nothing better than to get an old house in Sykesville and restore it with sweat equity.”
On a quiet weekday afternoon, Anderson is dressed casually in flannel shirt, slacks and tennis shoes as he waits on a slow but surprisingly steady flow of customers. As he explains, he sees himself as part of a definite swing back towards the small-town ethos of earlier decades.
“I think there is a definite pendulum action at work. When they put in a mall, it’s a new thing, the ‘in’ thing. It’s fancy, lots of stores, and they do a big advertising program, and the merchant in the small town bears the brunt of it all.
"But then, as time goes on, more and more people begin to miss that personal touch and the friendly attention that they just don’t get in a mall chain store. They can come to a place like this and deal directly with the owner and look him in the eye, instead of dealing with some clerk or assistant manager who doesn’t even have the power to a make a decision anyway.”
Despite his bullishness on Sykesville, Anderson does not hesitate to lay at least part of the blame for Sykesville’s downtown demise on the local merchants themselves.
“A lot [of the problem] is the people [store owners],” he observes. “They won’t advertise, they won’t promote, and they won’t cooperate with each other to promote the town as a whole. So, in the end, they don’t succeed. I see a lot of good signs in Sykesville right now,” he adds on a cautious but optimistic note. “In the last few months, when I go to [community] meetings, I see more new faces, more new blood than before. But [the town] still has a lot of struggles ahead of it.
“Has it turned the corner yet?” he mulls the question over and shrugs. “I don’t know. If I said otherwise, I’d only be taking a guess.”
Another fairly recent Main Street transplant is Bruce Greenberg, 43. In 1982, Greenberg bought the old town fire hall, just across the street from Sykesville Hardware and moved his small but thriving Greenberg Publishing Company into it. Today, as a visitor walks from the midday stillness of Main Street through an inconspicuous entrance way into Greenberg’s office, he is caught off guard by the high-energy, high-tech murmur and clatter of Greenberg’s fully computerized inventory and typesetting system.
On the ground floor of the old two-story building, in the wide room where the town’s ill-fated fire engines once combusted, Greenberg and several of his 20 employees are busy assembling a huge and remarkably elaborate train garden that is 40 feet long and almost takes in the full breadth of the large room. The large display is the centerpiece of “Greenberg’s Great Train, Doll House and Toy Show.” The train show is an essential part of the conventions for antique train, doll, and toy collectors, which Greenberg’s company hosts at convention centers up and down the East Coast.
The main preoccupation of the Greenberg Publishing Company is the writing, editing, and publishing of manuals, catalogs, collectors’ guides, and other printed matter aimed at the 225,000 American households seriously involved with model trains and antique train and toy collecting.
Before starting his own business in 1975, the New Jersey-born, Harvard-educated Greenberg earned a Ph.D. in political science. He served as assistant provost at the small branch campus that Antioch College had for a time at Columbia.
Greenberg, who lives in nearby Howard County, was drawn to Sykesville by the low rents (“one-half to one-fourth of that in areas closer to the beltway”), and the relaxed setting.
“I’ve always hated commuting, and now I’m only a couple of miles from home,” he explains with unbridled enthusiasm. “I’ve got a hardware store right across the street from me, I’m on a first-name basis with the postmaster, and he always goes out of his way to be helpful.
“Things here are on the small scale of a little village,” he adds. “I like the environment, and the fact that the people are so friendly. It’s actually small enough of a scale that people can talk to one another.”
As Greenberg speaks, he sits in his own office, hunched over a computer terminal. He has about him the effervescent cheeriness of the perennial optimist. The shelves of his office are replete with copies of the dozens of manuals he has published, as well as several dozen model trains from his personal collection.
"The drawback in a place like this is that your retail walk-in trade is limited,” he continues. “But for a firm like mine that has a marketing program that goes to the country at large [mostly by mail and phone], it works out very well.
“It gets back to this whole notion of niches,” he adds. “For instance, back in the mid-1950s, in the area northwest of Boston, along Route 128, there were a number of old mill towns and factory towns. But when the woolen and shoe industries moved out of there in the last couple of decades, due to high labor rates, the buildings, these old factories, became available for next to nothing. And as a result of the entrepreneurial spirit, those old mill towns have now become a center for the computer industry and young high-tech industries. These people bought the space and converted it.
“What happens,” Greenberg adds, making a parallel with the small central Maryland town where he’s chosen to settle, is that the decline or problems of one industry create opportunities for another industry to come along.”
A slightly younger newcomer to Sykesville is 33-year-old painter and freelance cabinet maker Jonathan Herman. Herman, a native of Queens, New York, and a 1976 graduate of the Maryland Institute of Art, last year became the owner of one of the huge, imposing old 19th-century residences that dominate the hillside directly overlooking Sykesville’s downtown.
Herman’s house, which offers a commanding view of Main Street, is an old second empire Victorian affair built in the later 1800s by former governor Frank Brown. The unusually tall and sprawling old structure looks a bit like something out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It is replete with ornate cupolas, towers, elaborate cornice work and cathedral-like stained glass windows. Beside it, atop a separate and equally antiquarian-looking old building, are the remnants of a windmill.
Most of the house’s unusual features were added piecemeal in the 1890s by a former B&O stationmaster named Norwood, who bought the house in 1887 for the grand sum of $1350. Herman and his wife Becky (also a Maryland Institute graduate) are presently restoring it in conjunction with the town’s historic preservation program. It was specified by the National Historic Register as one of the more historically significant structures in the town; but at the time Herman was drawn to it by an ad in the Sunpapers for a “rustic hillside house,” it had fallen into deep disrepair.
“I wanted to be somewhere that was close to the city, without being in a pretentious area,” Herman says of his decision to move to Sykesville, as he pauses from work in his huge carpentry shop in yet another large old outbuilding on the property. “And I found this little town sitting here, where nothing much has been changed in 20 years.”
In addition to the formidable task of restoring the old 20-room residence (where he, Becky and their two children currently are living on the ground floor), Herman has also become active in various citizen committees. He served on the volunteer task force for acquiring the train station, and he frequently attends the monthly town council meetings.
“Sykesville’s kind of dead right now,” he admits. “It’s a sleeper. There are still a lot of people here who don’t want anything to change, but I think it could be a nice town, and I look at it as having great potential.
It’s directly between Baltimore, D.C., and Frederick. You’ve already got Eldersburg booming and Westminster [18 miles north] booming, while Howard County [just across the river] is already [economically] out of reach. Sooner or later, the South Carroll housing boom is going to reach here.”
Yet another resident-activist who has settled in for the duration is Bill Hall. Hall, a Baltimore fireman and a longtime town resident, is also the current president of the Sykesville Improvement Association. He and his wife, Carol, who is also active in the Improvement Association, reside on Maple Ave., a quiet side street, not far up the hill from the town center. The house in which they live is the same one in which Carol was born.
At least one town official credits Hall and his wife (whose organization has been largely responsible for organizing the annual Sykesville Fall Fest, which has been held each October for the last eight or nine years) with keeping the Improvement Association functioning in spite of some “very strong negative opposition.”
“There was a period, just within the last couple of years, when a lack of common goals, as well as a lack of support from the town government, took a big bite out of the Improvement Association [membership] and almost put it under,” Hall readily admits, pointing out that his group now functions with a solid core group of about eight to ten active members.
“A lot of people just got discouraged and quit. But in the last year or so, we’ve had a complete turn-about from the town [government],” Hall emphasizes. “They’ve been fantastic. They’ve given us all the help that they can give.”
Hall recalls last year’s Sykesville Fall Fest with particular pride (“our biggest and our best”). The day-long event, which featured Civil War battle reenactments, a fun run, a pancake breakfast, craft displays and passenger train rides that linked the town, via Chessie’s rail system to Ellicott City’s rail museum, drew more than 4000 people, and raised substantial revenue for future town projects.
Hall finds particular hopefulness in the recently completed study by the task force for purchase of the train station, which recommends that the council secure a $136,000 loan from the Maryland Historical Trust to go toward the purchase of the station. The task force also recommended that the old B&O station be renovated to house a small restaurant, an ice cream parlor, or another similar commercial shop.
“I’m hoping that the [train station] will be the project that finally pulls us all together,” says Hall. In the meantime, the town has also procured $80,000 in state funds to refurbish its small Millard Cooper town park.
Despite the enthusiasm of citizens like Hall, and the dedication of town officials like Helt and Schumacher, Sykesville’s downtown still has an almost ominous sleepiness to it, and the road to rehabilitation promises to be a long one with no shortage of setbacks along the way. For instance, in 1985 the town lost another important piece of its past, when a private company acquired and tore down the nearly 100-year-old Beasman Mansion, the once-beautiful residence of Frank Beasman, a wealthy landowner, and the son of a former state senator.
“That was the real tragedy of 1985,” says Thelma Wimmer, who along with other historically minded citizens had hoped to restore the old building.
Meanwhile, despite a complicated insurance crisis and other calamities, Helt and the town council have tried unsuccessfully to move things forward and expand the city’s population, its tax base (under existing programs, every dollar in local taxes can often generate as much as three dollars in matching state and federal funds), and, hence, its potential for revitalization. It is towards Gaither, an unincorporated settlement to the west, that they look with visions of annexation. Gaither is, after all, the only possible direction in which the hemmed-in town can expand.
Thus far, however, these overtures have met with little enthusiasm from the potential annexees.
“With Gaither, our population would go from 2400 to 3600,” explains Helt, whose municipality, at 90 cents per mil, has the highest tax rate in the county. “I’d love to bring Gaither in and let the people there enjoy all the benefits of home rule. But all they can see is that additional city tax bill, and every time I suggest it, I get a dozen people from there at the [town] meeting, yelling at me. But that’s all right, I don’t need Gaither.”
So, for the time being, Sykesville continues to struggle on with those resources already at hand.
Speaking with quiet optimism, Schumacher recites an impressive list of signs he believes point toward continued progress. Foremost is the town council’s recent adoption of the Main Street Master Plan. “It’s an unbelievably good plan, a catalyst for change,” he emphasizes. “That [adopting the plan] is the single most important thing we’ve ever done, by far.”
Schumacher adds that he is in the process of applying for additional H.U.D. grants for additional downtown storm drains and road improvements. He also hopes to create an all-volunteer business recruitment board to help fill the remaining vacancies on Main Street.
“Welcome” signs will soon go up at the town’s two accesses to Route 32. At one of these two accesses, Route 32 and Sandosky Rd., a traffic light will finally be installed. “The state kept turning us down on that, until we finally had several real serious accidents and a couple of traffic fatalities at the intersection. Then they finally agreed.”
The Future Predicted
Helt, for his part, looks at Sykesville’s future with undaunted optimism. He points out that, along with its half-dozen churches, its one filling station, its lack of a library, high school, fire house and police chief, the town does now have two restaurants—one more than it had a year ago. In his 1985 “State of the Town” address, he was quoted as saying—a bit prematurely, in the minds of some skeptical Carroll Countians—that “Sykesville is no longer the laughingstock of Carroll County.” (He now claims that he never made the statement.) He predicts that, due to increased residential and commercial expansion, the town’s population will increase by a third in the next few years.
“We are still trying to find our own character, our own niche,” he explains thoughtfully as he gazes out his office window at the empty sidewalks and narrow streets of his adopted town, which on a quiet weekday afternoon still seems in a state of deep sleep.
“We don’t want Sykesville to be another Ellicott City or another New Market. We want our own character, our own reasons for people to come visit us. And I think that we will find them. I project that by 1990, if not sooner, it’s going to be like Ellicott City or Annapolis here. The sidewalks are going to be crowded every Saturday, because it’s that kind of town. It’s a unique place with a charm all its own.”