H. Ralph Heidelbach, 92, owner of family grocery

February 17, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

H. Ralph Heidelbach, who was the last of a family to operate a grocery business that was established in 1887 and who wrote and lectured extensively on the history of Catonsville, died Monday of a heart condition at St. Agnes Hospital.

He was 92 and had been a resident of the Charlestown Retirement Community since 1992.

He cited advancing age and not competition from chain stores as the reason he closed his family's last store, Heidelbach's grocery at 411 West Cold Spring Lane, known formally as the John Heidelbach Co., in 1978.

John Heidelbach, his father, established the business in the horse-and-buggy era when he opened his first store in the 800 block of Frederick Road in Catonsville. In 1923 it moved to the 700 block.

The Roland Park store was opened in 1928. The Catonsville store closed in 1965.

From its inception during the days of horse-drawn delivery to the estates of the wealthy that surrounded Catonsville, the business was known for its personal service to its customers.

When the store's fleet of yellow Dodge motor trucks with "Heidelbachs, The Complete Food Store" logo painted on its side panels replaced horses and wagons, old-fashioned service continued to be a trademark. Customers' orders were taken by phone and deliveries were made well into the era of the supermarket and convenience store.

"I've never met half the people, but I know them so well I could describe them to you," said Mr. Heidelbach in an interview in The Evening Sun in 1978.

He joined the business in 1925 after earning his degree at the University of Maryland and studying the bakery business with General Mills. He opened the bakery that was part of the Catonsville store, saying, "I'm a bakery engineer."

He took over the operation of the Roland Park store in 1965 and in an interview in The Sun in 1978, said, "The success of our operation has been service. We have some sales people who handle a particular customer's accounts exclusively. It's strictly based on faith and honesty and they had faith in us."

Even during the Depression, the store extended credit and, according to Mr. Heidelbach, "fed some families for months at a time."

Murphy King of Catonsville, who never missed a day's work in 40 years with the store and worked as a deliveryman and later a produce buyer, described Mr. Heidelbach as "a fine person to work for. He couldn't be beat and he treated me swell."

Mr. Heidelbach was born into the grocery business in an apartment above his father's Frederick Road store in 1901.

He grew up in a home on Bloomsbury Avenue near the German Orphans' Home, attending local schools and graduating from Catonsville High School. At the University of Maryland, he played lacrosse.

He was also a prankster. He was asked by the university president, H. C. "Curley" Byrd, to refrain from filling the store's grocery bags with water and emptying them on people.

Interested in the history of Catonsville and environs, he made use of his extensive collection of photographs and documents to produce a series of books detailing what life was like in the community in bygone years. He was a frequent lecturer on local history in the Catonsville Room of the Catonsville Library.

"He learned to use a camera and draw in perspective when he was in his 70s," recalled Debbie Wagstaff, his granddaughter who lives in Red Oak, Va.

He enjoyed gardening and fly fishing and tied his own flies until he was in his 80s.

"When he'd come for a visit to my farm in Virginia, rather than wait for my husband to take him to the pond, he'd slip under an electric fence with his fishing gear and head for the pond," recalled his granddaughter.

He was married to the former Thelma Taylor, who died in 1983.

Services were to be held at 11:30 a.m. today at Sterling Ashton Funeral Home, 736 Edmondson Avenue, Catonsville.

Survivors, in addition to his granddaughter, include a son, R. Gordon Heidelbach of Ellicott City; a grandson, James T. Heidelbach of Monkton; and two great-grandchildren.

The family suggested memorial donations to the Friends of the Catonsville Library, 1100 Frederick Road, Catonsville 21228.

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