As greater Baltimore braced itself for icy weather on a recent morning, a woman called a radio station to say snow was falling in "The Hereford Zone." WQSR-FM morning man Steve Rouse, who rarely misses a chance to poke fun at Central Maryland's cold weather hot spot, quickly assessed the news.
"I thought this thing was coming from the south," he said, wryly adding, "That Hereford Zone is blessed."
Two decades after Baltimore County school officials designated about 200 square miles of rural north county as a separate district for winter school closings, the Hereford Zone has become part of the language in the metropolitan area.
"It's notorious," says Joan Ruark, a veteran school bus driver who knows how foul the weather can get in northern Baltimore County. "I hear it all the time: 'Oh, you're from the Hereford Zone?' "
The Hereford Zone, the only district of its kind in the Baltimore area, is a snowy land where schools always seem to be opening two hours late -- if at all. It is the stuff of local weather lore, not to mention deejay shtick.
WQSR's Rouse has been known to announce that schools in the Hereford Zone were opening two hours late -- on 80-degree, late-spring days.
Even on a day such as Thursday -- when schools were closed in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties but open throughout Baltimore County -- the Hereford Zone commanded its share of attention on radio and TV.
"It's become part of the local lexicon," WJZ-TV's Marty Bass said after a morning of announcing school closings. "There are now four things you can count on: death, taxes, delays in the Hereford Zone and 'Meals on Wheels, use emergency supplies.' "
Thursday morning on WJZ, anchorman Don Scott told viewers they were about to get a report on weather in "the infamous Hereford Zone."
Bass invited everyone on his set to say "The Hereford Zone" in unison. The three magic words were soaked in echo, making them sound ominous -- or, as Bass said, "something that would make Rod Serling smile."
Channel 13 viewers responded by faxing in weather reports from the Middle River Zone, the Abingdon Zone and the Reisterstown Zone.
To the folks who live and drive in the Hereford Zone, the joke is funny -- to a point.
"It's like we're in the zone, like it's mysterious, like we're in outer space," says Judy Harris, receptionist at Fifth District Elementary School in Upperco.
A few years ago, Hereford High School students raised money by selling T-shirts printed with the Top 10 reasons to like the Hereford Zone. (No. 1 reason: "Baltimore County schools opening two hours late, Hereford Zone closed.")
But the jokes sometimes turn to frustration, as when, for instance, a boss in Cockeysville belittles his snowbound employee's protests that conditions are more treacherous up north.
"They're just assuming that we don't know what we're talking about," says school bus driver Elaine DeMent. "It really is different out here."
Meteorologists say the north county locals aren't exaggerating. A combination of higher altitude, a more northerly latitude and a greater distance from the warm air over the Chesapeake Bay make the Hereford area more vulnerable than most of the Baltimore area to severe winter weather.
Barry Goldsmith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, says storm tracking patterns also bring an inordinate amount of snow to the area.
During the week of the 1996 blizzard, when Baltimore got up to 3 feet of snow, northern Baltimore County got as much as a foot more.
At the end of December, a minor snowstorm quickly melted in most of the Baltimore area; in the Hereford Zone, children sledded and built snowmen for nearly a week.
Perhaps no one knows the weather better than the bus drivers who ferry loads of children across the frozen north. They talk of narrow, rutted roads with steep inclines. They talk of tree canopies that shade the roads and keep ice and snow from melting.
Opinions vary on exactly where the weather changes.
Many observers, such as Hereford Middle School Principal Russ Holmes and bus driver Marilyn Blevins, say conditions change just north of Shawan Road in Hunt Valley.
Rita Fromm, the school system's transportation manager, says the bad-weather line seems to follow Middletown Road.
Ruark, the bus driver, says, "You can drop a curtain at Stringtown Road."
The special zone was created in the mid-1970s. The thinking was that a snow holiday in Parkton needn't be extended to, say, rainy Dundalk.
A few years ago, Harford County considered the idea of a snow district, only to discover it would be too complex to put into action. Fromm says the Baltimore County plan works because the Hereford Zone's bus routes are limited to the schools there.
She knows of only one similar district in Maryland -- in the mountains of Frederick County.
According to plan
Linda Fitchett, the official in charge of bus transportation in Baltimore County's central region, says the system has worked as planned but has been used less often than people think.
The Hereford Zone has been on a different snow schedule than other county schools 12 times during the past five years, and six of those days were during the rugged winter of 1993-1994, she says.
But Rouse of WQSR says it seems as if the schools are always closing up north, and therein lies the humor. "You can use the Hereford Zone in any context," he says. "Like: 'I was late for my date because I had to go through the Hereford Zone.' "
To Marty Bass, the Hereford Zone is an extension of Baltimore's image as a quirky city of distinct neighborhoods.
"You have an area of the county that has its own unique personality," he says. "It's got just as much of an identity as South Baltimore or Violetville."
And although he likes to joke, Bass acknowledges that living in the snow capital of metropolitan Baltimore carries challenges.
"They can smile at it, but they can't laugh at it," Bass says. "It looks cute on a T-shirt, but it's reality to them."
Pub Date: 1/18/98