Era ends as Sparks family says goodbye Leaving: At 92, Sherman Sparks and his wife, Helen, 88, are calling it quits at the landmark store they ran for seven decades.

June 28, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

For the better part of a century, Sherman Sparks has been there for his customers, from early morning to late at night. He'd be there still but for his February stroke, two banged-up knees and the weight of his 92 years.

Instead, an era ended yesterday as he and his wife sold the Sparks General Store, a landmark at Falls and Mount Carmel roads in the northern Baltimore County community of Whitehouse.

Sparks and his wife, Helen, 88, are moving to Mechanicsburg, Pa., to be near their daughter, Adele Birx, a nurse.

The Shermans shared seven decades of marriage and hard work at the country crossroads, and say they wouldn't have traded anything for their front-row seat as highways, developers and time have changed the surrounding landscape.

"I liked every minute," Sherman Sparks said in a recent interview, "I'm really going to miss meeting the customers." Leaving, he said, has "got to be the hardest thing I've ever done."

Yesterday, returning home for the last time, he said, "I'm not in the mood for talking. There's a lot here to move away from."

The new owners, James and Barbara Douglas of Hampstead, rushed back from settlement at a Woodensburg bank to launch their new venture. "It's exciting and scary at the same time," said Mrs. Douglas, 42. "We'll be here from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week."

The Douglases said they would retain the Sparks name and would not alter the store's appearance, but would add new stock and even a section for antiques and collectibles.

"We like old things; that's why we were attracted to it when we heard it was for sale," said Mr. Douglas, 46. He said his family has been in the area since the 1840s.

In the old days, customers arrived by horse-drawn buggy or wagon and the country store was a community center, Sherman Sparks recalled in the interview. Aside from church, there was no place else to go.

Farmers would come about 6 a.m. with milk cans to be taken into Baltimore. At night, the locals would gather around a pot-bellied coal stove by the light of kerosene lamps to play checkers and gab, Sparks said.

"The farmers worked long hours and so did we; it was our way of life," he said. "Now it's become like a 7-Eleven convenience store with people running in for a couple of things and out again."

Until his stroke in February -- from which he has recovered -- Sparks was there at 7 a.m. with fresh coffee, doughnuts and the morning paper for commuters, and at 6 p.m. when those commuters stopped on the way home.

As times changed and automobiles replaced horses, the type of merchandise changed, too. Hand-weighed flour, sugar, salt, coffee and tea were replaced by prepackaged goods and self-service, which Sparks said made things easier.

The growth of area shopping centers and markets led to a decline in business at his corner, while the cost of providing an adequate variety of goods has risen faster than his sales, Sparks said.

The two gas pumps out front have become more important in recent years, producing a good part of the Sparkses' income as the store has become more of a convenience stop. "We're the only gas between Hereford and Hampstead," he said.

"The gas has been a real attracter for business," said the Rev. Hayden Sparks, 64, a son who took over the store after his father's stroke and ran it until yesterday.

Customers are strangers

Regular customers who were also good friends have gone the way of the horse and buggy, said Helen Sparks.

"We used to know everyone in the area, but now we don't know anyone. They don't even want to tell you their name, unless they're trying to cash a check."

An interchange at Mount Carmel Road on Interstate 83 opened the area for development, she said. "It's sad. It used to be all farms around here, but now there are such a lot of new houses that there's not much farm ground left."

One exception is J. Best Wheeler, 74, a retired banker and farmer who was born on his family's spread across the road. He has known the Sparkses his entire life.

"They're fine people and we don't like to see them go away. But we have to be practical; he's 92 and his health is deteriorating."

The general store was several decades old when Theodore Sparks, Sherman's father, bought it in 1921. "I was in my second year of high school. He asked me to help out for a month; I've been here ever since," Sherman said.

The Sparkses married five years later and raised four children in the apartment over the store and then in the house they built adjoining it, on the site of the White House Hotel. The hotel, razed in the 1940s for the expansion, gave the crossroads its name.

Farming a way of life

Sherman Sparks combined store-keeping with farming 120 acres nearby for years.

"We always traveled Falls Road into the city to haul produce to wholesalers and buy stock for the store. We had a platform scale out front where they weighed calves and hay."

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