Oscar Sommer sits in his 1989 Dodge Dakota pickup truck on the White Hall Post Office parking lot. A steamy fog, boiled from a late-afternoon rain on hot earth, drifts down from the green hills near Wiseburg Road.
"There's a lot to these little towns that people don't think about," he says. "Growing up here meant a good life for me." Here is White Hall, 26 miles from Baltimore in northern Baltimore County, zip code 21161.
White Hall once bustled as a commercial center amidst ruraldom. But that past lives on only through memories and more history than such a small place seems capable of holding. White Hall was a railroad town and when the railroad ceased operations in 1972, the old White Hall began to end.
Mr. Sommer, 38, who works for the State Highway Administration, saw the old and went through the transition to the new. He left but never went too far nor stayed away too long.
White Hall is a strip, less than a mile, along Little Gunpowder Falls from Graystone Road to where Wiseburg Road ends by the old paper mill. However, the White Hall of Postmaster Jerry E. Bullock, who thinks in zip codes and mail routes, also includes a major chunk of north county to the Pennsylvania line, some of Harford County and 161 miles of countryside.
Oscar Sommer's parents, Corinne and John, are among 20 to 30 families now in White Hall proper. Forty-one years ago, they moved into a home on School House Road built by the father of S. Duncan Black, co-founder of Black & Decker, the tool manufacturer.
"When we came here from Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road, I thought I was going to the country, but White Hall was busy," says Mrs. Sommer, 67. "There were three stores, the feed mill, the bank. Trains ran day and night. The paper mill operated 24 hours a day."
That was the place where Oscar Sommer fished for trout from the Gunpowder and picked tomatoes for 5 cents a bushel and couldn't stay out of the five-story wooden feed mill on Wiseburg Road, the community's landmark for 71 years.
"As a child -- 6 to 8 years old about -- I used to go in the mill and watch the men mix molasses with oats to make the feed," he says. "The mill had a smell almost like a winery. It was honeysuckle 10 times over. The men would sit me on a sack of feed. It was an innocent time of growing up in the country."
In January 1974, the joy of Oscar Sommer's childhood burned in an arson fire. Flames could be seen in Towson.
"It was a bitter cold night but people came out from all around," he says. "The firemen kept running out of water. We stood by the old bank and watched the mill burn down."
Three years later, Bill and Wanda Orange and their young family moved from a two-bedroom Essex rowhouse into history -- a three-story Queen Anne style frame house on a high hill just above the old mill site. It has 42 windows -- many of the panes in stained-glass squares -- eight fireplaces, jerkinhead gables and a carved sunburst over the front steps. A state champion Laurel oak grows on the property. The house, probably built in the 1870s, is a Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission historic site.
"Sometimes I think about moving to a modern house but the kids say no," says Mrs. Orange, 37. "They say this house has personality."
An old carriage path from the Orange house twists gently down the hill, ending near the bank building and across from the old mill site and the railroad. It seems a symbolic connector between the two White Halls -- the one that is and the one that was.
The Parkton Local commuter line stopped operations in 1959 and Tropical Storm Agnes' flooding in 1972 ended White Hall's 134-year romance with the rails. In 1989, the old track bed around the town became part of the Department of Natural Resources' Northern Central Railroad Trail, winding past rusted signal posts and switch boxes. The National Bank of White Hall, bought out in 1958, is home to a park ranger.
The old 16-room White Hall Hotel, from which the town got its name, now is a private residence. It is owned and occupied by David Propst, owner of Propst Refuse Service Inc., and his family. He was born there. The paper mill, closed in March 1984, is partially leased by the Graystone Corp., an excavating and grading firm. The White Hall Fairground is an overgrown hilltop field reached by a deeply rutted road. One of White Hall's stores is closed but standing; one is an apartment house, and one is gone.
People treasure the benign ghosts of White Hall while appreciating what they have now.
"This is just a nice place to live," says William Orange, 46.
"I like the peace and quiet," Wanda Orange says. "On this hill, I feel secluded and safe."End of postmark