Couple now enjoying the pre-packaged era


September 14, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

WHITE HOUSE -- Sherman Sparks doesn't work so hard any more -- only 11 hours a day instead of 17.

But when you're 88 and have tended the same crossroads country store for 71 years, you've earned the right to take it easy.

"I was in my second year of high school when my father bought [the store] in 1921," said Mr. Sparks. "He asked me to help him for a month. I've never left."

The old general store, which has stood at the corners of Falls and Mount Carmel roads for more than a century, is a landmark in northern Baltimore County. It is the last store before Falls Road enters Carroll County.

Over the decades, Mr. Sparks and his wife, Helen, 84, have watched highways, developers and time change the surrounding landscape. In the early years, Mr. Sparks said, his father's store had competition. The man who sold the store decided it was a bad deal after all and built a new store across the road. "That was a dirty trick, but we got through it all right," said the white-haired storekeeper.

The rival store has since housed many different businesses and is currently a sandwich and pizza shop, flanked by a cornfield.

Along with the changes in scenery have come changes in the rhythm of rural life.

"We used to open at 6 o'clock when the farmers brought their milk down to be picked up at the stand outside [and taken to Baltimore]. We'd stay open until 11 p.m. because the people around here would come in at night to play checkers and dominoes," Mr. Sparks recalled.

A potbellied coal stove kept the store warm in winter. Carbide and kerosene lamps provided light in the days before electric power reached the area. Jay Best Wheeler, 71, remembers those days before malls and easy transportation, days when the little country store was the community center.

"It used to be they didn't have any place else to go except to church and to the store," said Mr. Wheeler, a retired farmer and banker, whose family has owned the farm across Mount Carmel Road since 1831.

In the old days, "the farmers worked long hours and so did we. It was a way of life," Mr. Sparks said.

Now, he said, he opens at 7 a.m. with fresh coffee, doughnuts and the morning paper for commuters, and he stays until 6 p.m. when those same commuters stop on the way home to shop for the same on-the-spot items seen in most convenience stores.

"It really is a convenience store," said Mr. Wheeler, who has known the Sparkses all his life. Self-service and pre-packaged foods have replaced individual orders of flour, sugar, tea and coffee beans once measured out into paper sacks from barrels and bins. Horse, cattle and pig feeds have been supplanted by bags and cans of food for pampered cats and dogs.

"We worked behind two long counters," Mr. Sparks said. "The farmers would bring in a list and we'd fill it. We had to weigh and measure everything. This [pre-packaging] is better. It's a lot easier. We used to do a lot of walking to fill those orders."

Customers pop in all day; many for a cold soda and a snack, others to shop from the crowded shelves or fill up their cars at the twin gas pumps. Farm hardware is a thing of the past, "but we sell a lot of work shoes. Farmers come in for them," Mr. Sparks said.

In a store window, a stoves-for-sale sign reminds one of the wood-burning iron stoves so in vogue about five years ago.

"We had stoves everywhere when oil prices got high but that's slacked off -- a lot," Mr. Sparks said. "We only have one left for show, out in the old feed shed."

When Mr. Sparks and his wife married nearly 67 years ago, they moved into an apartment above the store. They have shared store-keeping duties ever since. "I spent a lot of time in here alone, too, while he was out farming," Mrs. Sparks said.

For many years, Mr. Sparks combined store-keeping with operating a nearby 120-acre farm, which is now farmed by one of his sons. "It was a real farming area then; people came here in buggies. We always traveled Falls Road into the city to haul produce to wholesalers and buy stock for the store," Mr. Sparks said. "We bought eggs, butter and chicken. The women used to drive here by horse and buggy. . . . We had a platform scale out front where they weighed calves and hay."

The crossroads took its name from the two-story, wood-frame White House Hotel, which stood beside the store -- and housed the defunct Black Rock post office. The hotel was included in the deal when Mr. Sparks' father bought the store.

Even then, the hotel was deteriorating and was operated as a rooming house rather than as a full-service hotel, Mr. Sparks said. The Sparkses tore it down in the 1940s when they added a wing to the store. A grove of trees now stands in the hotel's place.

Of all the hotel's tenants, Mr. Sparks remembers the construction workers on Prettyboy Dam -- completed in 1933 -- as the worst. "They stuck us for hundreds of dollars for the bills they ran up while they were at the hotel, and then they just left when the dam was done," he said.

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