Former Baltimore County educator is 'accidental restaurateur'

March 23, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

When Ron Sanders' father died in 1986, his recipe for homemade ice cream went with him.

"I regret now that I never asked for it," said the 53-year-old retired school principal-turned-restaurateur. "I guess I was shortsighted, but I never expected to take this over."

"This," is Sanders Corner, a Towson-area landmark that began as a country blacksmith shop in the 1880s, has been a general store and post office, convenience store and soda fountain and is now becoming a full-service restaurant -- albeit without that homemade ice cream.

Mr. Sanders took over the business after his father's death because, he said, no other family members wanted it. A long, hard look convinced him it could no longer survive as a convenience store. It had to change or close.

Mr. Sanders realized that the place had potential for transformation, and so was born the "accidental restaurateur."

In its relatively isolated location at Cromwell Bridge Road and Loch Raven Road, the restaurant has a panorama of lush fields and thick woods, and from the new, glassed-in dining room and rear deck, a magnificent view along Loch Raven to the lower dam.

In summer, the woods provide verdant shade and in autumn offer a brilliant foliage color display. Mr. Sanders has nicknamed it, "That Dam Place at Loch Raven."

"There were only two tables here before, mostly for my father to sit at," Mr. Sanders said. "It was all carry-out. You had a choice of four things: hot dogs, hamburgers, egg or tuna salad -- plus the homemade ice cream."

Beneath two 19th-century primitive portraits, a huge fieldstone fireplace dominates one wall, adding a homey atmosphere to the main room.

Age-darkened knotty pine paneling still bears the marks of the old display shelves Mr. Sanders ripped out during the conversion.

"When my father was here, the fireplace was covered by cases of Coke," Mr. Sanders said.

Everything is different now, he added. "My father had paper plates and cups and plastic utensils; we use real tableware. I never thought I'd get excited about a dishwasher, but here it is," he said, showing off the machine he had installed in December.

Loch Raven Station was a regular stop when the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad -- the Ma & Pa -- meandered 77.2 miles through the countryside to cover the 49-mile straight-line route from Baltimore to York, Pa.

The line reached Loch Raven in August 1882. The railroad built a pavilion and picnic ground in view of the new Loch Raven Reservoir, which became a major attraction for day excursions.

The station was razed after the Ma & Pa abandoned the line in 1958,

but its concrete foundation is visible through the trees on the hillside across the road as a reminder.

"They hauled the mail down the steps over there," said Mr. Sanders, pointing to steep stairs half-buried in the hillside. "They brought it here to the post office, that room with the bars on the window."

Loch Raven Post Office operated from 1886 until 1953, when it was transferred to Towson at the time of the final decline of the Ma & Pa, according to the Postal Service Historical Division. It is a storeroom now.

The store and post office barely survived a major fire in 1939. Scorching is still visible in some places inside.

At the time, The Sun reported the irony that while the store lay within 200 yards of 23 million gallons of water, none could be used to quench the flames.

Melted telephone lines prevented calling firefighters four miles from Towson.

Although it was rebuilt and a garage was added, from the street the building looks much as it did in an old photograph showing a horse and buggy drawn up at the door. It is covered in pale yellow siding with blue-gray trim.

Mr. Sanders' parents, Leigh and Margaret, bought the store in 1956 and ran it for 30 years as a convenience store and soda fountain. A memorial plaque with a temperature gauge, brass hinges and door handle from their ice cream locker is mounted inside the front door.

Mr. Sanders said he helped out occasionally when he was young but never took an active interest in the business.

He said he expected to spend his career as an educator, then retire and take things easy.

After earning his degree at Western Maryland College, Mr. Sanders taught math for seven years, and then served as vice principal and principal at Baltimore County junior and senior high schools until he retired in 1989.

His father had died three years earlier, forcing Mr. Sanders to hop between school and store.

A nephew managed the place for one year. Then Mr. Sanders hired managers to run it until he retired from the school system. "The first thing I did was take Foods 101 at Essex Community College, an introduction to basic food preparation," he said.

In the past three years, Mr. Sanders said, he has become a proficient cook. Aided by four full-time cooks, he runs a seven-day breakfast and lunch service, and will expand to dinners April 1.

The new dining areas were inaugurated last fall, he said.

"We sat here and watched the foliage change. It was just beautiful, a special fall, and even inside you feel like you're outside."

Business is improving, slowly, Mr. Sanders said with a laugh. "The nice thing about being retired is that I only work 60 hours a week now."

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