Coal company still helps keep the cold out of homes

January 30, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

Every part of town used to have a coal yard like the one on Gold Street just below North Avenue.

The painted sign proclaims the Adams Coal Company, a tiny survivor of the days when Pennsylvania anthracite warmed Baltimore's homes on cold winter days and nights.

"I like this business because there is a certain amount of trust involved. You go out and meet people and you go in their homes," said Clyde K. Adams, who founded his business Oct. 21, 1946, a date that trips off his tongue with perfect ease.

His coal delivery truck is a spiffy GM model often loaded with 80-pound heavy nylon sacks full of those shiny black nuggets destined for the remaining coal furnaces and stoves left in these parts.

"The city's garbage rules make it hard for us. They won't take the ash anymore. People don't even know what ash is," regretted Mr. Adams, who will be 75 next month.

Ash and clinkers (hardened chunks of coal residue) were once regularly picked up by city sanitation crews. Both of these substances provide great traction when scattered on snowy and icy streets and pavements, but that still does not resolve their present-day removal problem.

Much of his business takes Mr. Adams to Baltimore County, where his loyal customers depend on his supply of the fossil fuel whose wintertime supremacy has been challenged by oil, natural gas and electric heat.

"Let me tell you, there is no heat as even as coal. It comes up and warms the whole house," said Marie Miller, whose Essex house is one of the stops on Mr. Adams' coal delivery route.

"My husband and I switched to natural gas for a little bit and all I had was colds and flu. He took the gas furnace apart and set it out on the sidewalk. It was gone in a few minutes. People thought we were crazy. But we've had coal since this house was new in 1940," she said.

Most cold days Mr. Adams works with two helpers. Jesse Hopkins stays at the Gold Street coal yard and opens the fence tTC door for customers who drop by for a bushel or so. A bushel of coal weighs 80 pounds and runs $5.

Ruben "Pete" Smith also works there. He hoists the bags on the truck for a delivery. Mr. Adams drives.

"This town once had a lot of coal business. They used to call Howard Street -- really Oak Street -- Coalmen's Row there just north of North Avenue. There was a railroad yard there where the coal cars came in," he recalled.

He also thought about his experience as a young coal dealer.

"The old Baltimore Service Coal Co. had a yard on Oliver Street near Maryland Avenue. They were selling a silo of pea coal off because people were changing over to oil. They sold it cheap and I bought the contents. It was a good 25 or 30 foot drop to the bottom.

"I got on the top because a frost had locked the coal up tight to the walls. The coal gave way and I fell down that silo and only my feet were hanging out the bottom. They got me out fast, but I was still in bed a week after breathing all that coal dust," he said.

He offers several varieties of coal. His biggest seller is anthracite nut coal, chunks about the size of golf balls. Smaller pieces are classified as pea coal, good for certain size heaters and stoves. Smaller still is rice coal, which looks like coarse gravel. He has a small mound of bituminous soft coal -- "never a good seller."

The coal business is by nature seasonal.

"You couldn't live off it these days," he said.

It was his ability to drive a truck that kept him busy in the non-coal months, when he took to the steering wheel of heavy commercial vehicles.

"During that time I was strong as a pair of ox," he said, recalling such jobs as moving a piano out of a third-floor window.

Born in Annapolis as one of 14 children, he went through public schools there and enrolled in a New Deal program in Beltsville for soil conservation.

"Roosevelt was a damned good president. He did things to help people, gave them jobs," he said.

While in the federal program, he learned to drive heavy equipment. During World War II, he served in the Army as a vehicle operator in the Pacific and in Southeast Asia.

Once back in the states, he moved to Baltimore, bought an Army surplus track and began making the rounds of the neighborhoods selling coal in large and small amounts to anyone who needed the stuff.

In time, he acquired his yard in the 500 block of Gold St., between Pennsylvania Avenue and Division Street, where you will find him most cold Baltimore mornings.

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