1950s car culture keeps on motoring


June 26, 1994|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,Special to The Sun

It's Saturday evening in Churchville and, when dusk settles over this Harford county village, the feature film of the night will be projected onto a big screen under the stars at the Bel Air Drive-In Theatre.

Vintage cars cruise along this popular stretch of Route 22 and gather at the adjoining Big M Drive-In Restaurant, where customers can still get car-hop service -- 1950s style.

Across the busy roadway, families line up for a round of miniature golf at one of Churchville Golf and Baseball's two courses.

Many of them will stop next door later for a soft ice cream cone at the Arctic Circle drive-in, where customers have been cooling off for the past 37 years.

"Churchville is a family entertainment type of community," says Ken Rizer, who owns and operates the miniature golf courses with his wife, Joyce.

"This is the recreational corner of the county. There's something for everybody."

Churchville's lively business district is, without a doubt, a mecca for recreation-seekers. On weekends during warmer weather, crowds make their way here, just northeast of Bel Air, from all over Maryland and beyond.

They come for the car cruises, car shows and other special events sponsored by the Bel Air Drive-In Theatre, one of the two remaining drive-ins in the state.

On Wednesday nights, breeders come from as far away as North Carolina and West Virginia to sell cattle, hogs, sheep, calves and horses at the Aberdeen Sales Co.'s colorful livestock auction market, where bidding can go on into the early morning.

And on Sunday afternoons, visitors are welcome to stop by Cedarvale Farm -- Harford county's only buffalo farm.

Many people who live in the scattered developments, individual homesites and farms of the surrounding "suburbs" of Churchville enjoy the festive atmosphere of Route 22 and the convenience of miniature golf and movies nearby.

And lots of families, especially those with children, keep busy at the Churchville Recreation Center.

The facility, which was built in 1992, is used for community meetings as well as gymnastics, indoor tennis, basketball, volleyball and soccer programs.

There are also baseball diamonds, soccer fields and tennis courts outdoors.

But some longtime senior residents whose families have lived here for generations wistfully recall quieter days when Churchville was a rural farming community with dirt roads, a two-room schoolhouse and lots of country churches.

"To me, Churchville was a quaint little village and you knew everybody here," says Margaret Coale, who was born in Churchville and whose family ran a general store at the crossroads of Routes 22 and 136 for decades until 1982, when the business was sold.

"It's not out in the country anymore as far as I'm concerned," Miss Coale says.

"There are very few farms left around here and it just keeps being developed more all the time. I feel like I would hate to have to move though. My roots are too deep here."

Development has come to Churchville, albeit slowly, and today the area is semirural with a dwindling inventory of farmland. There are no townhouses, only single-family homes whose residents rely upon well water and septic systems.

"There are pockets of development, but it's still a pretty sleepy little community," says Pam Mackey, a real estate agent with Long & Foster Realtors.

"People who live there want to be out with the privacy. They want the lifestyle."

Churchville has a handful of housing developments, including several older, established communities with ranchers and bi-levels, which sell for about $170,000; newer two-story Colonials for about $225,000; and upscale housing currently under construction valued as high as $415,000, Ms. Mackey says.

"It's a unique little area, very nice and very pretty," she says. "But there's not a lot to choose from. The selections are slim -- really slim. People tend to stay there. There's not a lot of turnover."

Traffic has sped into Churchville at a greater pace than housing. Much of it is only passing through on Route 22, which is now a busy thoroughfare for commuters traveling from Bel Air to Aberdeen and Havre de Grace.

In a community with two-lane roads and a single traffic light, the result is traffic jams -- especially during the morning and afternoon rush hours. Some residents also complain that Route 136 has become a high-speed bypass for truckers seeking to avoid toll charges along I-95.

But controversial plans to widen Route 22 or build a bypass around Churchville to alleviate some of the congestion have been resisted by the community because of concerns about environmental and historic impact, some residents say.

Despite the growth, the village of Churchville has retained some of its small-town flavor.

"This is a very close-knit community," says Ames Lewis, principal of the 430-student Churchville Elementary School. "People pitch in to help one another and to help the school. Our parent involvement is extraordinary."

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