Fork may not be a major crossroads, but residents like it that way


June 10, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson

When Joe Snyder moved to Fork 40 years ago, it was considered a traffic jam if more than one or two cars were lined up at the crossroads that is the heart of this village in northern Baltimore County.

"Now they back up 400 feet in both directions during rush hour," said Mr. Snyder, 79, who lives just off the intersection of Harford Road and Sunshine Avenue.

"We got that traffic light a few years ago because there were a lot of accidents."

The traffic increase through this tiny country town is the biggest change in Fork these days -- and even that comes from development in surrounding areas and nearby Harford County. Fork itself remains just a quiet dot on the map.

"It's just a little one-horse town. If you blink your eyes you'll miss it," said Joan Rufenacht, a Fork native and historian of the 1893 Fork Christian Church, a few hundred feet from the crossroads.

Vera Gordon, 74, was postmaster for 21 years when the post office was tucked into her family general store. "I could sell you a pack of cigarettes, then go around the counter and hand you your mail."

The building, reportedly nearly 200 years old, has been converted to a veterinary office, beauty salon and modern post office. A former two-lane bowling alley in the rear is now an antiques shop.

"This whole corner has quite a history," said Mrs. Gordon. That history includes a famous Civil War incident: One of Colonel Harry Gilmor's Confederate raiders tried to tear down Ishmael Day's American flag, just a stone's throw down Sunshine Avenue.

Mr. Day shot the man and fled into the woods. The Rebel sergeant was taken to a hotel at the intersection and was later transferred to a Baltimore hospital, where he died. Colonel Gilmor's troops burned the Day house and barn.

In the 1870s, Colonel Gilmor served a term as Baltimore police commissioner. Mr. Day -- who became a folk hero and is buried in the Fork Methodist Church cemetery -- moved to the city as inspector of the Customs House.

"The first telephone exchange in the area -- LYRIC -- was on the second floor of the grocery store and the electric company put wiring in the store so people could see how it worked," Mrs. Gordon recalled.

Mrs. Gordon's own moment in the spotlight came in 1948 when her role in capturing a fur thief was recounted in True Detective magazine. The man drove up to the Fork post office in a York, Pa., sheriff's car and asked her to bundle up a load of furs for posting to General Delivery, Philadelphia, Mrs. Gordon said. The next day, a deliveryman left a copy of the York newspaper with an account of the robbery of a fur-storage building and theft of the police car.

"I called the postal inspectors and told them that if they wanted to catch the thief they should watch the Philadelphia post office. They nabbed him. I got a commendation letter from the post office and a small check from the magazine," she said.

"It's been a very colorful corner for a little town," Mrs. Gordon said.

Fork "is a mixture of old and new families," said the Rev. Kenneth Bowen, pastor of Fork United Methodist Church, founded in 1771 at the opposite end of town.

"It's somewhere between a small town and a suburban area. I'd say about two-thirds of the people now work away from Fork."

Like so many tiny villages, Fork inspires fierce loyalty in its inhabitants. They resent any apparent slights. Mary Crowder doesn't like the sign outside the former Fork Elementary School, which reopened last fall as a craft gallery. The sign refers to Kingsville.

"It's not Kingsville, it's Fork and it'll be Fork as long as I live here. They're trying to take our name away," complained Mrs. Crowder, 73, who has lived for 40 years in a white farm house just up the road.

Reportedly, the name came from "Forks of the Gunpowder," from its location in the area between the Great (south) and Little (north) branches of Gunpowder Falls. The term was used as long ago as 1737.

The south fork is part of the Baltimore water system, while the north fork is the boundary between Baltimore and Harford counties.

Since it was first surveyed in the 17th century, the area known as Forks has been an agricultural community but farming has been in decline for years, except for a few horse farms, residents said.

The intersection of Harford Road, Sunshine Avenue and Fork Road has always been the center of village activity, Mrs. Crowder said.

It has recently been upgraded, with Fork Plaza, a mini-shopping strip about 3 years old, replacing the old hardware store and combination carriage shop and funeral parlor.

"I remember we used to go down there and you could see the coffins through the door," recalled Neil McLain, 50.

"Old Mr. [Clarence] Arthur would sell you hardware and he'd put you away, too."

Mr. McLain also recalled his years at the red-brick, four-room Fork Elementary School, now the craft gallery, as "the best time of my life; I wish I could do it again."

In those days, he said, "there were a lot of farms around the area, and it was really nice."

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