Bay Journal

Chesapeake’s mom-and-pop stores left in the dust of new highways

  • By Kent Mountford on April 01, 2009
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Pardoe's Garage, as it appeared in the mid-1930s.  (Norma Lee Buckler ) The building that housed Pardoe's Store still stands today, as well as Pardoe's Oak, which is more than 100 years old. (Kent Mountford) The old rotary pumps at Pardoe's Store and Garage were still in place in the mid-1930s.  (Norma Lee Buckler)

Before modern road systems, Chesapeake residents relied on sailing ships, ferries and steamboats for communication. Stores sprang up on shores near-even on-community wharves. This meant people living inland had difficult journeys in wagons or on horseback to get supplies, deliver produce or even get mail.

It was the rare merchant who could sustain a store away from the Bay's water lifelines. The Lusbys, one of Southern Maryland's older families, built such a store around 1890 on Maryland's isolated Calvert County peninsula.

It was a simple, two-story frame rectangle with open retail space on the first floor. A ground level stockroom was added later to the east of the main building. Customers placed their orders from the front of the counter; the owners, behind the counter, filled the orders with items from the shelves. There was no such thing as self-service.

Upstairs, three rooms and an attic crawlspace provided quarters for the storekeeper. There were no indoor "facilities" in a time long before running water or electricity.

Refrigerators were nonexistent. Instead, there was a deep root cellar excavated under the store. Its walls contained chunks of limonite, a conglomerate iron ore gathered along the county's Bay or tributary shorelines. Dairy and meat products could be stored here during Maryland's stifling hot summers. The cellar's coolness was likely supplemented by blocks of ice cut from a creek or pond during the winter.

Outside the store's northwest corner, a young southern red oak was already coming up and would over the years provide shade for those gathering out front.

The store sat along what was probably once an Algonkin Indian trail, which ran down the ridge line of the county through hunting grounds before English colonists began logging and farming the area. The footpath, and a later highway, avoided the steep-sided ravines indenting the peninsula's edges and was relatively level, save some roller coaster descents to ford shallow streams like Parkers Creek and Quaker Swamp.

For the first decade or so, the store was probably run by John Lusby. His tax levy receipt for the property in May 1919 notes that he still owed $7.77 of the assessed $23.

Mail had been dropped off with the Lusby family since 1884, and the store later became a U.S. post office of that name.

Most other country stores in this tidewater region hugged river and harbor shorelines because steamers provided predictable opportunities to order and restock merchandise.

Overland transport in these years was a challenge. Goods had to come over poor roads from the steamer wharf at Solomons Island to the south, or from nearby, but less frequented stops at Soller's or Mackall's wharves. The road south from the District of Columbia, and parts farther afield, was a minefield of ruts, and about 20 farm field gates had to be opened and closed for each vehicle.

This remoteness prompted the Lusbys to sell and move to the county seat in Prince Frederick where they've prospered as merchants for more than two generations.

The Pardoes, who bought the store, were another old local family dating to John Pardoe, who arrived in 1667.

A network of roads was built around the Pardoe's store over the decades. Without real local highway revenues, it was local need and the goodwill of laboring men that built such arteries.

Excavations for a bridge across St. Leonard Creek in the 1990s exposed pilings for a wooden bridge of unknown date. The road across the marshy land that led to it was of "corduroy" construction: a pavement of saplings laid next to each other to spread the load.

Fred Taylor, a well-known local builder in the early 20th century got the contract to build part of the expanding county road from Solomons, through Lusby to St. Leonard.

As autos became more prevalent, the road was expanded. MD Route 2 from Solomons to Annapolis was completed in 1933. This enabled larger trucks to make dedicated trips to service outlying stores. Roy Burke-"we grew up as poor tenant farmer's on Mr. Parran's land"-recalled that the trucks "carried a little bit of everything [for] these small stores."

By the 1920s, the store was firmly established as Pardoe's Grocery and Howard Pardoe was named postmaster. The "post office" was a corner just inside of and left of the front door. The customer base consisted of about 50 farms. All of the shipments that came to Pardoe's were simply addressed to the owner and Lusby. MD with neither address nor zip code.

With the road, Pardoe's Grocery was connected to a wider community of customers and suppliers. Howard Pardoe and his wife, Elizabeth "Bessie," found themselves in a better competitive position as tributary shoreline stores became isolated in a time of failing steamer services.

As the road became more serviceable, two other Pardoes, Wyatt and Earl, built a simple frame building with two hinged wooden doors and a sign that read: "SERVICE, Pardoe's Garage, Central Lusby." They put in a small underground tank and added gasoline sales to the product line, servicing an increasing traffic of automobiles. Photos of the time show narrow, unmounted tires leaning against the wall along with a sign advertising "Hot Patches-for inner tube repairs." This was probably a much needed service on rutted country roads.

Early lever-operated pumps lifted gasoline into a calibrated glass cylinder from which it drained through a hose into the vehicle. Today's underground service station storage tanks hold thousands of gallons; the one at Pardoe's then held about 275.

I recently found a 1926 "Farm and Fireside" magazine crumbling away in the store. Its ads and articles are windows into an earlier time. There are prominent displays for two-man Simmonds manual lumber saws, well-built (horse-drawn) farm wagons and the latest harnesses and saddlery equipment from the U.S. Hames Co. (Hames are the shaped parts of a draft animal's harness.)

There are hints of the future. One could "LEARN ELECTRICITY" in three months. (The organization even paid the railroad fare for those taking the course.) Inside the cover, Atwater-Kent advertised seven-vacuum tube radios for $140. The speaker, $16 extra, was a big curved trumpet like the one on RCA Victor's logo where the attentive pup hears "his master's voice." Pardoe's eventually sold Philco radios in the store, right alongside Edgeworth Smoking Tobacco.

A Pardoe family photograph of the store shows the Pardoes' 1936 Ford Fordor touring sedan. Ford sold 820,000 of them for about $850 apiece. The same model today-restored and modernized-can cost $32,000 to $50,000. The subject of the photo, though, was not the sedan, but the debut of Pardoes' Texaco "Fire Chief" fuel pumps, run by electricity, which came to Calvert County in the 1930s courtesy of the Rural Electrification Program. Consumers joined as members in a regional Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, which still exists, and occasionally distributes tiny shares of its operating profits to the members.

Lubricating oil-also the Texaco brand-was dispensed from a rotary pump reservoir inside. This very pump, its "Star with T" logo restored, now dispenses oil in my shop.

Like many country stores, Pardoe's was also a place for local residents to gather and trade stories. The widely spread limbs of Pardoe's Oak provided shade for those enjoying a snack, cold drink or conversation, as well as others awaiting a ride to work.

Day laborers gathered here, too. John Russell McQueen, a neighbor, said that even in the 1950s, one could get as many young, hard-working men for yard, farm or water work as was needed for the going rate of $3 a day.

Alvin Grover, a farmer who died in 2008 at the age of 100, was a regular there with his best friend Oliver Foote. The two met virtually every day until Grover's health put him in a nursing home.

A Pardoe neighbor, Gordon Bennett, upon returning from World War II, raised a flock of 1,300 chickens. He collected eggs three times a day and delivered them along the midpeninsula road to Pardoe's as well as stores in Solomons and St. Leonard.

For many years, small groceries like this were a local necessity. Newspapers, local produce, bottled and canned goods, packaged rice and flour, or baking powder, were bought here. If one needed milk or butter beyond what was produced by one's livestock or that of a neighbor, or notions like a flyswatter, soap or scrub brush one got them at Pardoe's Grocery.

Local children, including those from a nearby African American neighborhood, could walk to Pardoe's for ice cream, a package of cookies, or to rummage through a lidded cooler in the back to select their favorite bottled soda.

Lifelong resident John Crane recalled a 1950s snowstorm- the worst in his lifetime-during which roads down to the Patuxent River drifted beyond the capability of the county's plows. His father and neighbors rode to Pardoe's on horseback for staples.

I have a 1950s pair of aluminum ice tongs given to customers as a promotional gimmick. They are stamped "You won't get burnt at Pardoe's Grocery, Lusby, Maryland." A plastic, key-shaped advertisement-also given customers in the 1950s-features a thermometer and the reminder: "Your Key to Savings: Pardoe's Store, Gene and Gladys" It was hung in my workshop at Osborn Cove by its builder Dave Allen.

Roy Burke noted that credit-in the old sense-was offered by old family stores like Pardoe's. Signing the tab was a critical tide-over for poor country people until pay day, and even well-to-do plantation families would pick up things and settle their accounts at the end of the week, or when payment for their tobacco crop came in.

This was risky for the Pardoes, but they knew their clientele personally, and would titrate the risk with compassion and forgiveness when regulars fell on hard times whether from unemployment or illness. True deadbeats or drifters might cost them something, but the goodwill lost by these schemers from merchants and in the community never made it pay for long.

The store was also a weather-safe depot where schoolchildren could be dropped off by one school bus to be delivered by another to their up-county school.

It wasn't until years later, maybe as late as the 1960s, that better roads made travel fast enough for larger chains like IGA or the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company to make damaging inroads into the mom-and-pop stores' business. The local, family-run operations lasted for a long time because they were the "convenience stores" of the time. Their costs were low-after all, Gene and Gladys Pardoe staffed the store. Markups could be selectively high, but were tolerable because of convenience and the tradition of local credit.

Pardoe's Grocery and Pardoe's Garage were still in operation when we moved to Calvert County in the early 1970s. The automotive business was better than ever. In the early 1970s, one of the Pardoe nephews, Wayne, was the service man who came out, pumped gas, checked the oil and washed the windows-every time. He was friendly and efficient, something lost at almost all of today's service stations.

But the Pardoes were having an increasingly harder time competing in a market of wildly fluctuating gasoline supplies and prices, from 29 cents a gallon before, to more than a dollar during, the 1973 oil crisis.

Meanwhile the grocery end was slipping from competition. The family members were getting older. Mechanic Earl Pardoe's wife, Irene, became postmistress, but the facility moved out of the store and across the street.

In the mid to late 1970s, the old Ridge Road-now Maryland Routes 2 and 4-became a four-lane divided highway. This opened up the southern end of the county, and with the Johnson Bridge, provided an emergency exit for residents should an accident occur at the nearby Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant.

Plans for the divided highway alignment originally had it going right through Pardoe's, but citizen activists intervened. Pardoe's Oak, then close to 100 years old, was spared, but the rerouted highway bypassed Pardoe's Grocery, and business dried up.

The properties-garage and store-were sold. Frustrated by escalating gasoline prices, the new owners shut down and sawed off the pumps, but kept the auto repairs business. They also tried to run an antiques business in the old store, but, cut off from the nearby highway, they did not draw enough customers.

The store was sold again. To the consternation of nearby residents, it reopened as a liquor store, with a drive-up window. This, too, eventually failed.

The old store has been on the market for years now and is prey to termites and vandalism.

There is irony in the 1936 Pardoe's Garage sign, which states "Central Lusby." County planners, after examining development patterns during the 1990s, decreed that the true center of Lusby was, and would be, about five miles away.

The resulting "town center" has three shopping complexes, cheek by jowl, around a crowded intersection. There are four or five pharmacies and five self-serve gasoline stations-three within a stone's throw of each other. Some stores that were built have failed to open.

There are those of us in "old Lusby" who are quite content to have this development, with all its senselessness, pass us by.

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About Kent Mountford

Dr. Kent Mountford is senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kent Mountford

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