John H. L. Mergehenn, 79, longtime Baltimore grocer

July 22, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John Henry Louis Mergehenn, whose West Baltimore grocery store was a daily destination of local residents for decades, died Friday of respiratory failure at St. Agnes Hospital. He was 79 and a longtime Catonsville resident.

In 1936, he joined Mergehenn & Strauss, the family grocery business that was co-founded in 1912 and later owned by his father, in the 2600 block of Wilkens Ave.

Located in a two-story brick rowhouse and outlined with awnings that protected customers from summer heat, the store faced the orange-brick rowhouses that comprise the longest unbroken block of residences in the city, at 1180 feet.

"Everyone knew Mr. Mergehenn as 'Lou,' " said "Turkey" Joe Trabert, former Fells Point saloonkeeper and Baltimore bon vivant, who was reared in the neighborhood.

"He and the store were West Baltimore institutions."

A tall man with carefully combed hair and dressed in a neat white apron and carefully knotted tie, Mr. Mergehenn was the quintessential grocer who worked long hours and kept his store open six days a week.

Mr. Trabert described him as a "low-key guy with a wonderful sense of humor who was well-liked. He was a cornerstone of the neighborhood.

"The store was his whole life. Every morning at six o'clock, Lou's mother would be out there sweeping the sidewalk. She was like an alarm clock for the neighborhood," he said, laughing.

"It was an old-fashioned grocery store with sawdust-covered floors. Everyone in the neighborhood went there. They could buy on the book and pay at the end of the week or month," he said.

Meats were custom-cut to order. Hamburger was hand-ground, and devotees of ring pudding came to the store for the specialty. Grocery orders were taken by phone and sent out by delivery truck or by hand-pulled wagons that fanned out through nearby streets.

"I knew a couple who got married and settled in the neighborhood just to be near the store, because they loved Lou's pork chops," Mr. Trabert said from his Hamilton home recently.

"Kids would take their wagons down there and deliver for him. They could keep the tips and he'd pay them something a little extra. He was really fond of kids," Mr. Trabert said.

Mr. Mergehenn, who was born and raised in a rowhouse next door to the grocery, was a 1936 graduate of City College high school.

He joined the Army Air Corps during World War II, and as a navigator assigned to the China-Burma-India Theater of operations, flew aboard C-47 cargo planes that crossed the treacherous Himalayan Mountains, called the Hump, delivering supplies to the armed forces.

After being discharged in 1945 as a staff sergeant, he returned to the store, which he later took over after his father's death.

He sold the business in 1976 and retired.

Mr. Mergehenn was an avid history buff and enjoyed reading. He also liked playing bridge and pitch.

He was married in 1943 to Elizabeth Tiemann, who died in 1993.

Services for Mr. Mergehenn were held yesterday at the Witzke Funeral Home in Catonsville.

He is survived by his son, Robert L. Mergehenn of Baltimore; a daughter, Anne T. Mergehenn of Catonsville; and a granddaughter, Elizabeth Stewart Mergehenn of Baltimore.

Memorial donations may be made to Gallagher Services, 250 Pot Spring Road, Timonium 21093.

Pub Date: 7/22/98

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