Series Part 13 – Extracts from Dickeyville Days Memoirs
By Mike Gibbons.
Memories from Mike Gibbons
Every one of us kids knew her intimately, every nook and cranny.
Inside-out, outside-in. Every twist, every turn. Every nuance.
She was like an old dance partner. But we were just kids and couldn’t begin to comprehend what that meant, or what that would mean, until years later.
She was Dickeyville.
A quaint mill-town hamlet tucked into a forested corner of northwest Baltimore.
A place where all our stories began, the place we still call home.
My family came to Dickeyville in 1948 from nearby Walbrook. When we moved to 2323 Tucker Lane I was about 18 months old. First memories include my father, Lou, and both my grandfathers hauling stones from the stream across Tucker Lane to make a hearth for the den fireplace they were installing. I also remember a coal stove in the dining room and another in the first floor drawing room. They were our only sources of heat, with ceiling grates allowing warm air to filter upstairs to two bedrooms and a bath.
My father was Catholic, and maybe the first or at least one of the first of that persuasion in the neighborhood. My mother, Janice, who was raised Episcopal, told me years later that it was tough making friends in the beginning, until Freddie McDorman reached out. My mother would push me through the neighborhood in my stroller, and no one would give her the time of day. But then one day Freddie came along with her stroller-bound son Bobby, and the two mothers got to talking, and religious tensions began melting away.
Another memory, as fresh as yesterday, is of Pat Weigman, (the mother of Tony, one of my earliest playmates on Tucker Lane), painting an acrylic floral scene on the side of our claw-foot bathtub…a creation that lasted as long as my family occupied the Tucker Lane residence.
Behind our house and a couple of hundred yards through the woods was Tebbs Farm, which in my earliest days in Dickeyville was a menacing fence that cut distinctly through the entire breadth of the woods, just south of where Tucker Lane dead-ended. But later, maybe around 1954, I realized that, grazing on the other side of that fence were bunches of farm animals: cows, horses, goats and … a bull! Bobby Gertesen (sp), another early friend and my first baby-sitter, supervised my animal visits. We found a way to sneak through the fence, hoping Mr. Bull might give chase. It never got that dramatic. Bobby and I also spent time at the top of Tucker sitting on the front steps of Mr. Poole’s house, listening to him and Mr.Tucker telling tall tales about Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show! The Tuckers had a son who crafted a train garden featuring miniature balsa wood houses of Dickeyville. When the Tuckers moved, the son offered his model houses to the families whose homes were featured in the garden. I have our model proudly displayed in my study.
More on Tebbs Farm. One cold morning I recall my father waking me with some urgency, telling me to look out my front bedroom window. What I beheld proved to be perhaps the most surreal of all my Dickeyville impressions. Sprawled before me, right there on Tucker Lane, was a crowd of Tebbs Farm moocows! Dozens of them. There must have been a break in that darned fence, and out they poured. It took the collaborated efforts of farmhands and neighbors to herd them back to pasture. True story.
There were places that –to all Dickeyville kids- were known by the simplest of designations: the Big Rock (there were two), the Dam, the Big Hole, the Cliff, Suicide Hill, the Studio, the Parish Hall, the Corner, and, most distinctly, the Triangle…as in ‘meet me at the Triangle.’
A couple of stories tied to our Landmarks.
The Cliff – In the mid-50s (I’m guessing), we had started to wander away from the neighborhood along Wetheredsville Road and through the surrounding woods. Several hundred yards beyond the Dickey Mill and the Moran house was a bend in the road that followed the flow of the Gwynns Falls stream. Across the stream at that bend rose a steep, almost vertical rock formation that was maybe 60-70 feet high. We called it The Cliff. Many a Dickeyville kid dared to climb to the top, and many made it. But one summer day a silent but tangible sense of alarm shot through the village. Word spread that someone had fallen from the top of the cliff. I remember Oscar Moritz leading rescuers to the accident scene. We children followed, at a distance. Firemen arrived and used their ladders to cradle a young girl across the stream and to assistance. But it was to no avail. The child died. None of us could come to grips with that. What did it mean to die?
The Dam – So much of being a kid in Dickeyville in the 50s centered around activities at The Dam, a wood-plank-and-stone water-work along the Gwynns Falls that powered Dickey Mill production during the industrial heyday of the village. For us, the dam meant ice-skating and bonfires every winter, fishing and crawdad surfing in the summers, and a place to drink and neck during our teenage years.
The Dam also conjures a funny memory involving young Wendy Gilliss, a Tucker Lane lass, and one of the village’s two resident swans, who presided over a flock of ducks that added a touch of rustic charm to the watery landscape for most of our childhood. Wendy was one of several kids at The Dam one day, and she got a little too close to Mr. Swan, who chased her down and pecked her on the butt. Scary then…but pretty funny now.
The Corner – This references the Sloman ball fields at the intersection of Forest Park and Windsor Mill Roads. For many of us, it was a second home, the place of 1,000 games. Almost every summer day and then well into the fall we played. Baseball and football. Five, 10 or more of us, seeking diamond and gridiron glory and, ultimately, village pride. The corner gave us our choice of small, medium and large diamonds, and a couple of nice, open spaces for football. It also offered up a crop of kids who lived in the neighborhoods flanking those fields. We called them the corner kids. Over the course of, what, ten years of competition there, the corner kids served as, first, our opponents, and, later on, as teammates against Howard Park and other neighborhoods. Our Dickeyville athletes included boys like Donny Gillespie, Mark Brady, Wayne Markert, Nelson and Ramsey Crosby, Kevin and David Weber, Rick Spranklin, Ralph Lloyd, Pen Smith and Jim Jarvis.
The Triangle – For us 50s/60s kids, the Triangle was the magical crossroads and pulsing heartbeat of Dickeyville, another place for athletic competition, or games like hide ‘n seek and kill the lady.
But it was also a place to meet and mingle. And, on occasion, to break a church window or two. The Methodist Church whose yard comprised The Triangle faced onto Pickwick Road, presenting a wonderful vantage of the village’s most picturesque street from the wide steps that rose to the church’s main entrance. Those steps also proved the perfect platform for a 4th of July gathering of Dickeyvillians who served in the military in World War 2. I still have the photo.
The Triangle was also a place to settle a score, as in fist-fights; quick, slightly bloody gambits that helped define the pecking order of the neighborhood’s adolescent males.
Parish Hall – Just across Wetheredsville from the Triangle was the Parish Hall. Whereas the Triangle was the outdoor community gathering place, the Parish Hall was its indoor equivalent. Under the most dire of 1950s circumstances, the snowstorm of 1958, many residents were forced to take refuge in the Hall until power could be restored to the neighborhood. The Gibbons family toughed it out on Tucker Lane thanks to two working fireplaces. My father and I did, however, strap my sisters in boxes on sleds and hauled them over the hill and through the woods to Grandma Nell’s house, which still had power!
A few other Parish Hall memories to share. One summer I attended Vacation Bible School there, a one-week religious sojourn where and when I think I discovered that girls were different from boys. The local Cub Scout troop convened at the Parish Hall. I stayed a Cub only one year, propelled to exit after being selected to play Maid Marian in the troop’s rendition of “Robin Hood.” “You look the most like a girl,” our Den Mother proclaimed! Thanks a lot, Den Mother! Later, there was the full enjoyment of witnessing performances by the Dickeyville Players on the Parish Hall stage. Hayes Mowers, Fred Markert, Ed Johnson, Marsha Shore, et al. I acted in a repeating role with Ed in a message play about parents coping with their delinquent 12-year-old. You can guess my role. At least it wasn’t Maid Marian. We played the show a few times at community centers and school PTAs, and we rehearsed at the Parish Hall. It was my first time on stage, and the experience propelled a lifetime of performing on stage or in front of a camera.
Suicide Hill – Every time we had snow of any significance, bunches of us would head up Tucker Lane, pass through the Wakefield Apartments (formerly Tebbs Farm), and then enter Leakin Park. After trudging past the Park’s tennis courts and chapel, and then the mansion, we’d navigate a short distance through the woods to a clearing that swept down and around to the left, a beautiful quarter-mile sledding run. Suicide Hill. But the name wasn’t about that long, sloping run, but instead referred to a 100-yard straight down cannon shot of a path on the edge of the longer run. It was a daredevil course that most of us, including yours truly, eventually tried. Some actually managed to stay sled-bound all the way down!
The Studio – My family’s small Tucker Lane property featured a one-car garage that my Uncle Ray had converted into a live-in artist studio before he got married in the early 50s. His cramped but efficient Studio consisted of a single bed, a small pot-belly stove, and a knotty-pine bar constructed by Ray and my father. By my 9th birthday or so, and with Ray long gone, I claimed the Studio for a clubhouse. For the next decade it served as a neighborhood hangout, an experimental shop for us to learn how to wire a building with electricity (thank God we didn’t burn the place down!), a music rehearsal hall, and a college weekend party place.
Imagine that single car garage, with its bar and stove, and a makeshift couch and a refrigerator, packed with 60 jamming college kids. It happened over the Thanksgiving break of 1967, when several of us were attending the University of Maryland. My UMD roommate, John Wetzelberger, arrived late and carting a Styrofoam cooler filled with beer and ice. He squeezed to the center of the space, proclaimed squatters’ rights and profoundly sat on the cooler, which collapsed under his weight, sending John sprawling and the crowd into hysteria.
Through baby-sitting, cutting grass and shoveling snow I think I became acquainted with about 90% of the interiors of the homes that fell within the village footprint. We kids knew that the village offered an alluring collection of unique, architecturally exquisite residences, and I think we kind of appreciated that, even though we didn’t process such thoughts to our frontal lobes until much later in adulthood. Many places stand out in my memory, like the Sandlasses, who had a nice, flat side yard for badminton, the Naylors, who sported the largest sandbox in the neighborhood, and the Stissels, whose backyard served as home to village croquet court and to the coolest swing set in the village.
But I mostly recall the homes of my friends, especially the McDormans, Bradys, Markerts, Conrys, Spranklins, Lloyds, Willams, Crosbys, Smiths and Webers. I got to know those places from top to bottom.
The McDorman’s back yard became our first baseball field, and their dining room was where I ate my first tomato. Silly memory. One day Bobby and I planned to rendezvous at Mark Brady’s house. I got there first. Mark’s mother, Jane, took care of infant zoo animals for Baltimore Zoo director Author Watson, and on this occasion she had a baby Puma housed in the attic. Mark and I tried playing with the animal, and realized right off that you had to be careful or you might lose a body part! Nevertheless, when Bobby arrived, we told him there was something special in the attic that he had to see. Up he went, and down he came, shrieking and screaming obscenities at us. He may not be over that yet!
The Lloyd’s large property on the northwestern fringe of the village featured the first in-ground pool I ever saw or swam in. It also featured a fairly large outbuilding that served as the four Lloyd brothers clubhouse. All cool stuff, but what I remember most was their big front yard, which, of course, translated well as an ad hoc ball field. We staged a co-ed softball game there, featuring Dickeyville kids of a different ages, with older and younger players equally divided between the two teams. Older guys like Pen Smith, Mike Canon and the Sieck brothers may have, and probably played in that game.
Mark Brady’s bedroom served as the genesis of this musical chapter. His parents had purchased him a reel-to-reel tape recorder. We were just getting into the Kingston Trio and started trying to sing, and record, their harmonies. Mark got a guitar. Wayne Markert followed suit, and the two of them took up guitar lessons. As they played, I’d sing.
Mark kind of faded out of the music scene for his bigger calling…Boys Latin football, but Wayne and I kept going, him playing, me singing. I finally broke down and bought a cheap 4-string Kent guitar, and Wayne taught me the basics. And then one day my mother introduced us to a new kid in town, George Choksy, whose family had moved into a place on Upper Pickwick. George was a couple of years younger than us, but he could play the guitar waaaay better. We asked if he’d like to make some music with us, and when he agreed, The Villagers, three boys from Dickeyville, came to be.
Let me back up a second to 2323 Tucker. Music was a big part of the Gibbons’ household. Mom and Dad loved listening to broadway recordings, a little jazz, along with some Sinatra and Harry Belafonte. Sisters Linda, Karen, Janny and I knew all the words to all the songs on all the albums. We sang almost every day. But it was my mother’s father, Charles ‘Pap’ Weyrauch, who introduced me to the Kingston Trio and, ultimately, to Mark Brady’s tape recorder. Pap had been a drummer and local big band leader in the 30s and 40s. When I stayed over at my grandparents, he would sometimes play me his favorite new albums, and when he played that first Trio album, my life transformed.
So when Wayne and Choksy and I started building a song list, it featured a bunch of Kingston Trio tunes, but also selections from Ian and Sylvia, Hamilton and Camp, Tom Paxton, and other popular folk and bluegrass acts of the early 60s. We were further influenced by a new folk act, Peter, Paul and Mary, and then, in quick succession, by the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkle, and on and on and on. It was the 60s, after all. We played our first concert during one of the first Dickeyville 4th of July celebrations. The village had gathered at the dam for a holiday dinner (I think it was 1962) and we provided the entertainment. We were scared to death, but somehow got through the set.
The Villagers played a bunch during our high school years, with Ralph Lloyd and Luke Schallinger joining in and George Choksy exiting somewhere around 1965. We carried the act to College Park in 1967 and added our first (and foremost) lead female singer, Theresa “Sam” Miller, that fall. Ralph, Sam, Luke and I played on until I went into the Navy in November, 1969. In 1976 The Villagers recorded some original music in Washington at a place called Arrest Records, and recorded again in December of that year at Maryland Sound Industries, located in the old Dickey Mill complex. I worked for Maryland Sound for three years (75-78) and got to know my way around the property pretty well.
Ralph Lloyd and I continued to play, mostly at parties, as the years racked up, and this past December we revived the group as an opening act for my son Mike’s band at a place called 8×10 in Federal Hill in Baltimore. As in the past, The Villagers featured three-part harmony that night. Management invited us back!
As we were finishing high school and starting college, two houses became our social hubs: the Markerts and the Gibbons. Why? Both sets of parents worked! We were free and easy, on our own, with record players blaring, guitars percussing and lots of ‘experimenting’ episodes. When my parents went away for long weekends, we’d produce instant parties, with scores of friends, family, classmates and hangers-on coming and going. It was in the Markert’s living room that we witnessed Neil Armstrong’s moon walk. And from there, on a snowy December 24th evening, was launched the neighborhood’s Christmas caroling tradition.
Let me digress a bit by taking you back to the kids on Tucker Lane in the 50s…before our parents allowed us to venture out to other parts of the neighborhood and beyond. The group consisted of Kevin and David Weber, Beverly Railey, Eric and Michele Howard, Wendy Gilliss, Anne, Irving and Lucy Williams, Linda and Karen Gibbons and yours truly. Certainly there were others, but for me, this was the core. I recall those times with a squint in my eye; wonderful sequences of playing and exploring, and learning how to fit into a group. Those early days were not all silver-lined, though. My world felt green after I hit Anne Williams in the head with a rock, sending her to the hospital. So reckless. It felt even greener when my three-year-old sister Karen was run over by the newspaper man as she darted between two parked cars to the jingle of the Good Humor truck. Anne and Karen made it, and are a big part of this 2017 Reunion!
I mentioned working at the Dickey Mill (for Maryland Sound Industries) from 1975-1978. During that span, in 1978, my fiancé, Sandi Marx, and I moved into an apartment in Ralph Woodruff’s house on Wetheredsville Road. That December, Sandi and I got married in my parents’ house, one of the last of myriad wonderful moments at 2323 Tucker Lane. We moved away from the village the following April. Lou Gibbons suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1986. Two years later my beloved mother, Janice, died of Leukemia. Like so many of our parents, they were icons of the village. We sold our little piece of Dickeyville in 1990.
Incredibly, but maybe not so, many of us Dickeyville kids have stayed together –or at least in touch- over the years. I think it’s because we have always known that we were part of a special brotherhood and sisterhood, a bond that now reattaches to the larger group through this reunion. Yes, we were part of something unique, the incredible life-experience of growing up in good old Dickeyville.
By Mike Gibbons
Editor’s note: Please check back each Sunday to the Dickeyville Village blog to read extracts from the Dickeyville Days memoirs – a compilation of memories from previous Dickeyville denizens reflecting on a childhood spent growing up in the village during the 1940s, 50s, & 60s. We hope you enjoy their stroll down memory lane.