Saturday, December 29, 2007

Whiskey Riots 1902 - When Laurel Had Two City Councils

The interregnum between the Christmas and New Year holidays provides quiet time for reading and relaxation.

Today the Laurel Connections Blog offers you a holiday rerun. It was originally printed in the Laurel Leader on Thursday April 22, 1993 on page A-1. This was the old broadsheet style, 50 cent Leader. I bought a dozen copies to send to relatives celebrating my first published article.

It's a long piece, but if you stick with it you'll get a taste of those good old days when Laurel politics was a contact sport. A number of famous old Laurel names are also in the story. They come from a time before these local names were only known as buildings or streets.

Happy New Year, rick

A time when elections weren’t boring

By Rick Wilson

City elections were not always the quiet, civilized, and poorly attended events we have come to expect.

In 1898, more than 72% of the registered voters turned out for a special Saturday election to decide if Laurel would become a dry town. The measure lost, much to the relief of a thirsty electorate.

After the 1902 election, an angry mob descended upon the city hall at Fifth and Montgomery streets, where the Armory is today, to watch two mayors and city councils argue over which had been legally elected by the people. With this kind of excitement, it’s no wonder that election participation averaged more than 80% over the 40 years from 1898 to 1938.

The Cast of Characters

The contested 1902 election was rife with intrigue, mud-slinging rhetoric and a colorful cast of characters right out of an 1890 melodrama:

- The opinionated newspaper publisher, James P. Curley, first owner and editor of the Leader. The Leader’s first masthead billed itself as “the only republican paper in Prince Georges County.” Curley and his partner, F.C. Dezendorf (son of a Virginia congressman) were also attorneys, real estate developers, brokers, bankers, insurance underwriters and merchants. Curley would later serve terms as mayor and state delegate.

- The much loved, seven-time mayor of Laurel, county commissioner and dry-goods merchant, Edward J. Phelps.

- Gustavus B. Timanus, superintendent of the Laurel Cotton Mills who had formerly served as mayor in 1894 and was the arch-rival of both Curley and Phelps.

Our Town

At the time Laurel was a town of retail businesses and commuters. Forty-six stores supported a population of nearly 3000, from Shaffers building supply at the depot to Phelps’ dry goods, groceries clothing and furniture clear across town at Ninth and Montgomery.

Thirty-four trains left Laurel’s depot at the east end of Main Street every day. It was boasted that a man could leave in the morning for Baltimore, transact business until noon, take a 45 minute train ride to Washington, work the afternoon at the capital and be home for a civilized supper at 6 p.m. It was a 10 cent fare each way.

In 1898 the city provided jobs in the cotton and shirt mills. A typical worker earned 45 cents a day. City lots (50 feet by 150 feet) could be purchased for $375 to $1,350.An advertisement in the Leader on March 25, 1898, described a seven-room house on Montgomery renting for $14 a month.

Laurel had eight churches and two schools. The new Maryland Agricultural college, just down the road at College Park, offered tuition, book, room, board and medical care for $154 per scholastic year.

Laurel also had a mayor and city council that worked diligently to keep the town from bankruptcy and from burning. Fire was a major threat.

The mayor and council met monthly to keep the town’s affairs in order. Fines for lawbreakers were levied and bills paid. Here is a peek at some of their tasks from the meeting of March 18, 1898:

- A five-year contract was awarded for 101 incandescent street lights at a cost of $12 per light per year. It was noted that “the lights must burn every night except those moonlit.”

- A bill was considered and approved for $21.50 for “road grading and repair of Montgomery Street above 10th.”

- A bill was approved for payment of “$15 to the deputy bailiff, Walter Robison, for salary.” Walter was grandfather of Laurel’s current mayor, Joseph Robison. A council meeting in 1899 approved a request for $2 to purchase a bicycle for the bailiff to use during night rounds.

- The possibility of establishing a park northwest of Montgomery Street was discussed. “The area is well shaded and watered. It would be good for fishing, boating or picnicking.”

Our Hero: Edward VII

As the 1902 election approached, Mayor Phelps was serving the last days of his seventh one-year term. He was called “Edward the VII” and was known for his large gray mare. Phelps had been born in Laurel in 1861 and attended local schools until age 14. He formed a mercantile partnership with Charles Shaffer in 1877. He was first elected to the City Council in 1888 at the age of 21. Then he was elected to the Prince George’s County Commission at 26 and was instrumental in getting three iron bridges erected over the Patuxent River at Laurel. (Iron bridges had only been in existence since 1872.) He became president of the County Commission in 1888 and mayor of Laurel in 1895, defeating his nemesis, G.B. Timanus.

Election Day, Monday, April 7, 1902.

The roads are muddy and deeply rutted from spring downpours. The polls open at city hall at 2 p.m. Mrs. Luther Brashears comes down the hill on Eighth Street in her wagon. As she negotiates the turn onto Montgomery Street, the wheels stick in the ruts. The wagon rolls over and the poor woman is thrown to the ground. The horse bolts up Montgomery Street past School No. 1 at Ninth Street. Miss Eliza Cronmiller, the principal, hurries some of the boys to harness the horse. The wagon is destroyed, but Mrs. Brashears suffers only superficial injuries to both body and pride.

The polls close at 7 p.m. The gathering crowd is told of an upset. Timanus defeats Phelps by 23 votes! The entire Timanus slate is elected. In one of the greatest turnouts in years, 427 registered voters participate.

But wait! Later in the week it is discovered that Timanus and his colleagues have failed to qualify within the proper time required by the town charter rules (the Leader is fuzzy on exactly what requirement is violated). The Timanus team, discounting the rules and calling for “the rule of the people to prevail,” shows up at city hall to take over city business.

They demand that the existing administration turn over city papers and ledgers. They constitute a council and elect officers. The bailiffs are retained only if they agree to honor the new council’s rule. The Laurel postmaster is ordered to deliver all mail to the new council.

Phelps refuses all of these requests and seeks legal advice. He is told that the only way out of the mess is a new election.

Phelps calls for the special election at the end of April and then makes his most surprising announcement. “In order to avoid expensive litigation that wastes the taxpayer’s money and causes unnecessary controversy, a special election will be held and furthermore, under no circumstances will I put forth my name for consideration.” In the end Phelps puts the town ahead of his own ambitions.

Timanus easily beats the hurriedly substituted W.E. Linn in the special election, 295-94. Phelps runs again against Timanus in 1903 and 1904. Both elections are heavily contested and full of controversy, but Phelps never again regains his office.


Phelps writes about his accomplishments as mayor in April 1902. He mentions that an electric railroad will be coming to town in the fall. A fire department and water distribution system are forming to protect the city from calamity. A high school will soon be built. Roads are in good shape. The town library is growing and will soon need a paid librarian. A number of park projects show promise.

Phelps concludes with a call to the people of Laurel to heed the following advice, even when conditions decline and economies stumble: “When progress ceases, decay begins.”

Sunday, December 23, 2007

NYT Visual Pollution Police Raid Laurel

26 Dec Update: We seem to have started a bit of an alienation rumble. Be sure to see the comments section below.

The Sunday New York Times today takes the Laurel Shopping Center to task for the crime of visual pollution. I think they take very cheap shots. Here is an excerpt:
'The Laurel Shopping Center: a seemingly endless concrete U of shops that curves around the dominant aesthetic offering of a massive parking lot, where our car is now anchored like a small vessel in an asphalt bay.

The store lights call out. Dress Barn. CVS. Marshalls. Chuck E. Cheese. Ruby Tuesday. H&R Block. And, yes, Subway.

Sitting here, suppressing the urge to flee, you begin to notice how the shopping center’s off-white walls and copper-colored top recall a minimum-security prison, and how readily the layout encourages acceptance of small absurdities. For example, people who leave the CVS with a desire to shop at Marshalls pretty much have to get back in their cars and drive across acres of parking lot.

“It’s not surprising that American society is so alienated,” Mr. Fry says.'

Read the NYT article.
Hear and see the slideshow.

What do you think? Is the Times right? Do you feel alienated by the visual clutter in Laurel? Please add your comments below.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

City Holiday Decorating Contest Winners

Please see the Mayor's post for details.

New Blogs of Note

If you've been visiting our pages for awhile you'll already know that I'm enthusiastic about using technology to grow strong connections in our community. We may have lost our porch sitting and bowling league habits over the last few decades. However, new technologies like blogs, wiki's, Flickr, podcasts and YouTube are fantastic community connecting tools.

Laurel City launched a new blog this week called Laurel Straight Up. Mayor Moe, City Administrator Kristie Mills and the Mayor's Special Assistant LouAnn Crook explain in their inaugural post that, "As we take better advantage of the technology that is available to us, we are moving forward to bring your local government closer to you and readily accessible."

This city blog is more than a billboard because it permits and encourages comments. The best blogs create opportunities for community conversation. Bravo to the city for initiating this groundbreaking service.

I also discovered this week that the First Baptist Church of Laurel is blogging. I hope that all of Laurel's faith communities will soon leverage the power of connection technologies. Beyond preaching to their own choir, blogs provide another way for churches, schools and service organizations to reach into the broader community. We need to take the Internet back from the money changers and put it to work connecting us closer together.

First daughter MB writes a "blahg" that is getting a bit of notice recently called Irregular Hours. MB has been interning at WFUV radio in the Bronx and she recently posted a radio essay on the art of Improv comedy called Follow the Fear. I think it's time for her old man to retire his keyboard and let a much more talented generation carry on.

Speaking of a seriously talented teenagers, William M. is still blogging almost about our local weather over at Maryland Weather Observation. He correctly nailed the forecast for last week's failed snow event. Although it was obvious that he was disappointed, this 10th grader was way out in front of the professionals by saying that the snow would be a no show.

I'm always looking for new local content. Please send me your favorite websites, blogs, Flickr photos, podcasts, or YouTube videos that have Laurel content or local connections. Links only please to g.rick.wilson at gmail dot com.

Merry Christmas and thanks for reading, rick

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sixty Seconds To Tragedy

I can't imagine that the whole terrible incident lasted more than sixty seconds. It happened while driving home from work on familiar roads. It was dark. It had been raining. Then ... a terrible sound. A sickening realization. Panic, and then a bad decision that worsened an already gruesome tragedy. No more than sixty seconds.

I have no idea what really happened on the 25th of November. I do know that Ruth Ann Storm was killed on the 100 block of 7th street. She was walking home a little before 1 am on a Sunday morning. She was walking on the west side of 7th street as shown in this photo. The side without sidewalks. I also know that Ruth Ann Storm left a teen aged son, who is now an orphan because he recently lost his father. The
Laurel Leader provides more details.

Last week I learned that Rodolpho Esau Ramirez-Grijalva confessed to hitting Ruth Ann Storm. He confessed to fleeing the scene two and half weeks after concocting a false story saying that he was not driving his car that night. He was
arrested and charged with multiple violations including hit and run and lying to police officers. If he is convicted, he will likely go to jail. He will then leave his one month old child and his wife. His wife and some associates may also be charged for their attempts at helping him to cover up the crime.

Rodolpho Esau Ramirez-Grijalva has a valid Maryland driver's license. His car is properly registered. He has the state-required automobile insurance. He is also an illegal immigrant.

Laurel Deputy Police Chief Rich McLaughlin said at last week's press conference that if Ramirez-Grijalva had remained at the scene of the accident, his citizenship status would not have been questioned.

I was confused about the ability of an illegal alien obtaining a valid driver's license in Maryland. A quick call to our Maryland State
Delegate Ben Barnes set me straight. It also gave me a deeper appreciation of the issue. According to Delegate Barnes, Maryland's motor vehicle law does not require proof of citizenship. Maryland only requires proof of identity to get a driver's license.


Part of me wants to build tall fences, deport all the illegal immigrants, and get tough. We are a land of laws and these people have broken our laws. Part of me is appalled that my state would grant a driver's license to an illegal alien. That part of me wants to go to Annapolis and grab our delegation and shake them until they pass tough immigration laws that stop illegal aliens.

But there is another part of me that is more confused than indignant. Is illegal immigration responsible for this tragedy? Do I really want to make it impossible for illegals to get a license and car insurance? With a license, at least they will pass a driver's test and have enough insurance to pay for my crushed bumper or worse, for my medical bills. What good will come from making those protections impossible? Will it keep illegals from driving?

Most illegals immigrate to America for the same reasons as my own ancestors. To take the dirtiest, most dangerous, most unpleasant and exploitative jobs available, for the lowest wages. My ancestors plunged into Pennsylvania coal mines and stoked Youngstown's blast furnaces. They were happy for any job and hopeful for the opportunity of a better life for their children. If we want to stop immigration, we only need to make it impossible for illegals to get jobs.

But of course it's not the same. My ancestors arrived legally in America. But that's not the most important difference between then and now.

I think the most important difference today is that many immigrants are reluctant to assimilate. My ancestors wanted to become American. Their native language was Slovak. Learning English was demanded. Slovak was never spoken around the children, except to conceal "adult" discussions. Spanish speaking immigrants today don't seem to have the same desire or need to learn English.

I guess my long-term advice to our delegates is to continue to allow anyone in Maryland to get a driver's license without proof of citizenship. However, I do want to change the current law so that everyone must pass a written and spoken English language test at the 7th grade level before getting a license. I believe that this will not only make them safer drivers, it may help all immigrants more quickly assimilate, thereby increasing their opportunities for a better life for their children.


I keep putting myself in Ramirez-Grijalva's shoes. If I was an illegal immigrant, would I be frightened to talk to the police after an accident? Especially if I could not speak any English?

His panic was understandable but I'm not condoning his crime. He confessed to leaving the scene of an accident. He may have been able to provide aid. He lied to the police.

We will never know, but maybe if he spoke a little English his decision might have been different that night. Sixty seconds is a long time.

I know that this is an important issue and many of you have strong opinions. I welcome and encourage your comments.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

LPD Solves 25 November Hit & Run Case

Laurel Deputy Police Chief Rich McLaughlin announced this afternoon that Rodolpho Esau Ramirez-Grijalva was arrested and charged with multiple violations concerning hit and run fatality on 25th of November. Ruth Ann Storm was killed on the 100 block of 7th street while walking home .

Rameriz, 30, was also charged with making false statements to police officers after he confessed to concocting a story that someone else was driving his car.

Rameriz is an illegal alien who had a valid MD driver's license, insurance and proper registration on his vehicle.

Congratulations to the LPD on another great job!

Click here for the video of the press conference.