'50s beach won't stay washed up Kurtzes now cater to private parties

July 31, 1992|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Staff Writer

Before the Bay Bridge and modern highways shortened the trip from Baltimore to Ocean City, city residents would seek respite from the sweltering summer heat at pleasure beaches that dotted the shores of the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay.

Through the Depression and wars, city families packed their picnic baskets and drove to their favorite beaches, with such names as Maryland, Pasadena, Alpine and Cottage Grove.

Most have closed, victims of high insurance costs, diminishing crowds or aging owners.

But Kurtz Pleasure Beach on the north shore of the Fort Smallwood peninsula, at the convergence of the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay, remains. Although no longer open to the public, the family-owned beach is available for company picnics, wedding receptions, political bull roasts and anniversary parties.

And it still looks much as it did 50 years ago, with rows of shaded picnic tables, a circular dance hall and concrete pavilions.

"You get people coming down here who used to come here in the 1950s, and they say it hasn't changed," says Bonnie Kurtz, who went to work scrubbing picnic tables right after she married Gus Kurtz in 1960.

Gus Kurtz's parents, aunt and uncle acquired the strip of beachfront property in 1933 as repayment for a loan. They were bakers who, in the midst of the Depression, were convinced the safest investment was land.

That first year, they opened a little concession stand and didn't even bother to charge customers for using the beach. The next year, they built a circular dance hall and topped its roof with multicolored shingles resembling a circus tent.

Most of the early beach-goers were families from Baltimore who drove the oyster shell-covered Fort Smallwood Road to escape the sweltering city heat.

During World War II and the Korean War, many a soldier enjoyed his last fling at Kurtz's beach before reporting for duty.

After World War II, the beach became so popular that families had to arrive by 10 a.m. if they were to have any hope of finding a free picnic table on Sunday mornings.

Sand wasn't the only attraction. The Kurtzes offered hay rides and pony rides. In those days, the beach was so wide that youths could play softball on it. One of the biggest draws was the nickel slot machines. And unlike many of the other beaches, Kurtz's offered full lunch and dinner menus.

While Kurtz's offered customers an affordable respite seven days a week, for the Kurtz family, it was hard work. Gus says he and his sister worked at the beach from the time they were small. One of the earliest jobs he remembers was collecting soda bottles from the picnic grounds.

In 1956, he acquired his aunt and uncle's portion of the beach, operating it with his parents' help.

When she married Mr. Kurtz, Bonnie Kurtz joined the operation, cooking, cleaning tables and waiting on customers at the snack bar.

"I'm a great picnic table painter, and I can scrub floors with the best of them," Mrs. Kurtz says.

Ironically, family members never had time to enjoy the beach themselves. They never owned a boat, didn't fish from its shores and had no time to swim.

"People would say, 'You sure don't have much tan for someone who works at a beach,' " Mrs. Kurtz recalls. "That's because I worked at the beach."

The beach began to change in the late 1960s, Mr. Kurtz recalls. In 1967, the state outlawed slot machines, forcing the Kurtzes to remove that popular attraction. In the 1970s, the crowds starting becoming rougher, less family-oriented.

By the early 1980s, it became clear the beach was not going to be able to provide a life for the Kurtz's two children. The Kurtzes advised them to go to college and find other careers.

Even as neighboring beaches closed down, the Kurtzes held on until 1987. That year, their insurance company jumped the cost of their coverage from $26,000 to $58,000.

Without hesitating, they closed the beach to the public.

They considered selling the property, but decided instead to open the beach to special groups. Now nearly every weekend, the beach is the site of company picnics, bull roasts, wedding receptions and anniversary parties.

The new format suits the family better, too, requiring far less work, Mrs. Kurtz says. Their son persuaded them to try offering a flea market in the winter. Although the Kurtzes had no experience in that area, they say their first year was surprisingly successful, and they plan to try it again this year.

"It helps with the expenses," Mrs. Kurtz explains.

The family still doesn't enjoy the beach themselves, but they realize that it still has a fond place in the memories of their customers.

"It's part of their past. It hasn't changed," says John Mason, events coordinator and Mrs. Kurtz's cousin. "It's weathered the Depression. It's weathered the demise of the slot machines. It's weathered growing old. The buildings have cinder-block walls and cement floors, but there's nothing like Kurtz's beach."

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