Work on Savage tavern a family affair


July 23, 1999|By Lourdes Sullivan | Lourdes Sullivan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

IT OFTEN seems that history isn't like the time lines we learned in school, with one event following another in measured succession. Rather, history proceeds more like ribbons carelessly tossed in a drawer -- the events of the past and present fold back and touch each other in random places. Never was this more apparent than in the building of the new Ram's Head Tavern in Savage Mill.

This old canvas cloth mill closed in the 1940s. In the past decade or so, the new owners have been converting the abandoned buildings into art studios, antiques stores and a catering facility. The installation of the tavern is part of the continuing plan to turn the buildings toward a happier use.

Richard Thomas, 38, a local graphics designer, had worked for the original Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis. He designs signs and wall-hangings for the restaurant and liquor industries. He's also one of the folks who paints the mirrors found in bars and was asked to provide his services at the new tavern location.

Vaguely, he remembered a family connection to Savage. His grandmother and her second husband had both worked at the mill. Both are buried in the Savage Cemetery. He had shown his photographs in one of the galleries at the mill. More family connections were to appear.

In unrelated events, his brother James Randolph Thomas Jr., 50, who used to own a commercial contracting company, secured the contract to build the commercial kitchen for the tavern's bar. Another brother, Jeffrey Russell Thomas, 33, who'd once worked for the eldest brother, now works for a bar equipment company. He was assigned the job of installing the draft beer lines at Ram's Head. The three brothers wound up, unknown to each other, working on the project.

James Randolph Jr. has vague memories of Santa Heim, what the mill was called in its brief incarnation as a Christmas -themed village in the late 1940s. He'd been a toddler visiting his grandmother at the time. Over the years, the Thomas family would visit Savage occasionally, but found most of their life centered around Sykesville. Parents James Randolph and Elaine Thomas met in 1946. It had been a rough journey to Sykesville for each of them, but they had made it.

James Randolph Thomas Sr. migrated to Maryland from Tennessee along with his mother, Roxie, when his father died. It was his 15th birthday. His older sister, Pauline, was here working at a High's dairy farm. She worked in a boarding house, serving meals and doing laundry. Mother Roxie went to work at Savage Mill. And Thomas Sr. worked seven days a week at the dairy farm.

Although their life seemed hard, Richard Thomas says, it was better here than in Tennessee. Work was available. It wasn't as hard. Although he didn't live with his sister or mother, he says he always knew they were around for him.

The High's dairy is gone now. The farm was turned into a quarry. But he remembers quite a bit about that farm. Thomas Sr. recalls that the farm had more than 100 head of cattle and more than 60 tractors. Once a week, someone would take the farm truck filled with employees who wanted to go to Laurel to the movies. His mother, who had married a local man and was now Mrs. Charles Lowman, lived on Washington Street.

He remembers other things, too, such as the self-flushing commodes in the mill houses.

Thomas Sr. worked at High's dairy farm in Jessup for two years and then moved to work for the farm at Springfield Hospital Center. Only 17, he raised grain and vegetables for the hospital's residents. When he turned 18, he was eligible to work with patients. He became a patient care worker, attending to their needs. He worked at the hospital for 36 years, and it was there that he met his wife.

She had moved south from Massachusetts to participate in the hospital's nursing program. They were very busy years for both. He got a new job at age 18 and was a husband and father by the time he was 19. She had her first son and her nursing degree in the same year. They bought their house that first year, too. And both are proud that they have never lived in rented quarters as a couple.

It's been a rich life, with each working for the hospital more than 30 years. Thomas Sr. says, "I have the same kids, the same house. The only thing different is the car, and that wore out."

He's also had the same spouse and the same job forever. The couple recently celebrated their 50th anniversary and were surprised to have an anniversary party thrown by their five children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren in March.

"Nobody told us a thing," says Elaine Thomas, a bit surprised that everyone kept the secret.

Though James and Elaine Thomas describe themselves as boring, and Elaine Thomas says "we haven't done anything extraordinary," many in the community disagree.

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