There’s gold in these hills … small nuggets of pure gold that together help shed light on our region’s history. Frederick’s history is made of people, events large and small, stones, brick and mortar. But there is more to our
story that can be found only in the words of those who have lived it. Our customs and traditions did not change much from the 1800s to the early 1900s. There are still some whose stories are golden, and they can tell us much about life in Frederick County from their experiences.
Often called oral history, it is a gold mine of what life was really like — a window, if you will, into the past.
Bernie Fink can tell us about going up in the Catoctin Mountains with his father, a plumber, when he made and repaired the copper stills that brewed our famous moonshine. Bernie was paid 5 cents a bottle to clean the old ones that were then refilled for each customer’s next visit. Eddie Hobbs remembers men buying 50-pound bags of sugar from his uncle’s store in Thurmont to make into ’shine, our mountain’s liquid gold.
Oscar Sykes grew up in Catoctin Furnace, and recalled the piles and piles of barrel staves lining the street made from the dying chestnut trees after the furnace closed down. He had little education and went to a blacksmith shop in Mount Pleasant to learn to be a smithy. There was an old smithy who sat by the fire telling of the olden days. When he found out that
Oscar wanted to learn the trade but had no tools, he told him, “Then you’re just going to have to make ’em.” So, with the old man’s help, he did. Oscar then went to a blacksmith shop on South Street that had three forges. After the farmers had unloaded their corn at the canneries, they would go to the smithy to get any repairs needed on their wagons or get their horses reshod. When WWII began, this blacksmith with little education but tons of practical knowledge, who could tell iron from gold, became a metallurgist for the Navy, testing the metals that were going into our armada of ships that helped win the war.
Donald Null’s uncle rented the Hood College farm, where he grew vegetables that fed the students. Donald recalled helping gather the potatoes grown there. That farm is now a shopping center. Vince Hull worked at the Peoples Drug Store on North Market Street and would ride his bicycle to the Hood dormitories with food the girls had ordered.
Barnie Kandel, who married Rebecca Sclar, worked at the Sclars’ Reliable Junk Company, and they would fill boxcars with junk metal, which a train then drove down East Street to Frederick Iron and Steel to be melted in their pots and then poured into molds. Even when times were slow, they needed at least one train car of scrap metal a week to keep the pots
going. It may have been junk metal, but it is pure gold in Frederick’s history.
Many of you have heard the expressed “farmed out.” But during the Depression, many Frederick County children were, in fact, farmed out. They were sent from their homes to work on their neighbors’ farms as their families could not support them. Larry Myers from Creagerstown was just 10 when he was farmed out. His father was gassed in the Great War and could not provide for his family. John Reever was also farmed out, but not to a farm exactly. He went to work for Jesse Renner in his store at New Midway. A successful businessman, Mr. Renner had the first airplane, a car and motorcycle dealership, and made a salve he called “Rose Salve” in his basement. This was before Woodsboro’s Rosebud salve!
Figures and photographs help us understand the Great Depression, but the memories of those who lived through it are the gold that shines a light on this dark time in our country. James Shankle, the fifth child born to a young mother and alcoholic father, was left as a newborn in a basket by the police station. He soon became the ward of the Children’s Aid Society. Place with Annie Potts in Woodsboro, the society refused to let her adopt little James. By the age of 8, they had him help driving cattle from the Woodsboro train station to a farm on Longs Mill Road. The society told him that he could not attend high school unless he paid for his own room and board. So at night he worked at a bowling alley setting pins, and went to school during the day. He was in a Navy amphibious unit during WWII, and later worked in top-secret projects for Fort Detrick. Quite an accomplishment for an abandoned baby forced to work during his childhood. He turned a lump of coal into a nugget of gold. His sister was not as fortunate. At 16, while working for a farmer’s wife, she was burned to death by a fire in a wood cookstove that she had tried to start with kerosene.
How did I find all of these golden stories of our county’s citizens? From the oral histories I recorded for the Frederick County Veterans History Project. These contain not just information about our veterans’ military service, but golden stories of their childhood that illuminate a life long gone. We are fortunate to have a number of wonderful museums, but there are few initiatives to record the oral histories that tell us, as Paul Harvey used to say … the rest of the story! Let’s mine this gold before it is too late.