Gene Frock hanging up apron Milestones: Three generations of families have had weddings and reunions at Frock's Sunnybrook Farm. But the tradition is coming to an end.

March 10, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A banquet hall full of nostalgia is closing in Westminster, leaving a void for the thousands of Marylanders who for decades have celebrated milestones within its knotty pine walls.

Gene Frock is taking final reservations from customers booking weddings, reunions and retirements in his 600-seat hall -- once the largest between Baltimore and Harrisburg, Pa.

Frock's Sunnybrook Farm has entertained crowds with big bands, led by Harry James, Woody Herman and Count Basie, who all invited Frock to sit in with his trumpet.

Frock has created a home for community theater, service clubs and family fun. And he has welcomed powerful politicians, who waited for election results in a room so thick with smoke the politicos could barely see the tally boards.

"Every governor in the state of Maryland from Herbert R. O'Conor to Harry R. Hughes has been here," Frock said. "Agnew made his announcement for governor here."

State Treasurer Richard N. Dixon recalled the crowded bipartisan parties on election nights. "As they put numbers on the board, you would hear cheers for the winners and you could see the excitement on their faces. Of course, there were sad faces, too."

State Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein stopped at Frock's during his 1958 campaign and returned many times for the "wonderful home cooking." He particularly favored the fried chicken, pies and biscuits.

The down-home atmosphere played a role in making Frock's place popular with politicians, celebrities and the public.

But, after spending most of his 67 years in the business started in 1932 by his late father, Frock is retiring and selling the 20-acre property near Westminster's downtown business district. He had hoped to eke out a few more years, but government regulations and increasing competition from newer, fancier halls changed his mind.

On the market are two banquet halls and ample parking; a bath house but no pool, one stately farm house, purchased by Frock's parents in 1932 and still home to their son, and, a sizable chunk of history.

The phone rings frequently with callers scrambling for the remaining dates and rearranging events so that they can have one of the last parties at Frock's.

Since 1970, Frock has automatically reserved the first Friday in May for the Frederick-Carroll chapter of the Bowie State Alumni. The 300-member group changed its long-standing date to April 25 rather than change the location.

Deep fried shrimp

"We wanted to go out with Gene because he has been so gracious to us over the years," said Marvin Cornish, reunion organizer.

Events sell out, as long as organizers promise that Frock, who alone does the cooking, will reprise the favored entrees: deep fried shrimp and slow roasted beef.

"Nobody does fried shrimp like Gene," said Sandi Myers, who is organizing the 30th reunion for the Westminster High Class of 1967 on April 19.

"Then, there's the beef and the hush puppies," she said. "This is food full of cholesterol, but once every five years doesn't hurt."

Every five years, nearly two-thirds of the class gathers at Frock's, site of its junior and senior prom parties three decades ago. Playwright Ernest Thompson joined his former classmates the year he won an Oscar for "On Golden Pond."

"It is really like going home for us," said Myers. "The atmosphere, the memories, Frock's is where we went for everything. At the reunions, it's like the years in between didn't happen."

Myers remembered pool-side dances on cool summer evenings. Elmer Frock and his children built what was once the only swimming hole in town in 1938.

"My dad dug out that pool with three horses and he mixed the cement by hand," said Frock.

On summer weekends, as many as 1,000 guests escaped the steamy heat at Frock's. Change of seasons sent guests inside but did not dampen the party atmosphere.

"We would clean out the barn floor, make a stage of hay bales and hold dances," said Frock. "I would pick up my horn and play with the band."

In the movies

Barry Levinson, producer of the movies "Diner" and "Tin Men," had such fond childhood memories of the Frock's that he wanted to include it in his family saga, "Avalon." He was too late, though: The pool had been filled in. Still, he used a Frock's sign when he shot pool scenes in Baltimore County.

Festivities got a little fancier in 1964, when Gene Frock built the banquet hall. His bankers lent him the money, but predicted he would never fill the cavernous space.

"I had weekends filled within six months and we were 70 percent booked the rest of the time," Frock said.

Erma Frock Groft, who often works with her brother, offered a simple explanation for the popularity.

"We are just plain people, like all the people that have met here," Groft said.

Third generations of families have chosen Frock's for weddings. When Heather Fish married Kevin Dell March 1, she was following in her father's footsteps to Frock's. Ronald Fish celebrated his wedding to Heather's stepmother there eight years earlier.

"The other places were too classy and too pricey," said Heather. "Frock's is much homier."

The April 30 closing will leave homeless the Lions, the Shriners, the electrical contractors and the Carroll Players, the county's community dinner theater group, which has mounted two productions a year at Frock's for 18 years.

'An institution'

"In many ways, Gene let us exist," said Terry Brown, treasurer of the theater group. "The business is more of a hobby and he enjoys socializing with people. He is an institution, but he can't stay around forever."

Frock often starts cooking days ahead of time for the big dinners. He has prepared as many as 2,000 meals in a month, but, he leaves the serving to a staff of about 25. Still wearing a full-length white apron, stained with dinner fixings, he loves to circulate among his guests, talking politics, show business or the stock market.

"I used to know everybody in Carroll County," he said. "They were all country people like me."

Pub Date: 3/10/97

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