Ghost town lives on in reunions

Events took buildings, not residents' hearts

September 12, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Daniels was a company town -- a town that in its 132 years straddling the borders of Baltimore and Howard counties was auctioned off, knocked down, flooded and burned.

Then it wasn't a town at all, except that its people still haven't gotten the message.

So even though the post office was long ago swept away and the old canvas mill that fed, clothed and housed a community is in tatters, Daniels is still standing -- every year when folks such as Douglas "Jack" Jarvis and Gary Rudacille and Alberta Collins get together.

They congregated with about 150 others yesterday for the 12th annual Daniels reunion in Patapsco Valley State Park, where the Daniels Concert Band played on, even though band leader Rudacille is the only member left who ever lived in Daniels.

They wore T-shirts and ate a cake that said "Daniels -- A town gone, but not forgotten." They reminisced over a model of the village, in which the mill at its center seemed to come to life again, with a shiny bell in its tower and a roof freshly painted green.

Most of all, they came to resurrect a way of life -- when doors stayed unlocked, work provided a common bond, and the world was contained in 500 acres.

"Didn't make no money there," said Charles Lohr, an 80-year-old retiree from the Daniels mill. "But it was one big, happy family."

Daniels began life as Elysville in 1845, when the Elysville Manufacturing Co. built a stone mill on the banks of the Patapsco River, in what is now the state park.

The mill was sold several years later to the Alberton Manufacturing Co., and the village became Alberton. It kept that name for nearly a century, though another company took over the mill, which came to be known as James S. Gary & Sons.

In 1940, this town born of business itself became a tool of commerce. James Gary's descendants, reeling from the Depression, put everything up for auction, including the factory, 118 brick and wood frame houses, the post office and the store. As most of the 800 townspeople filled the local green with sighs of relief, C.R. Daniels Inc. of Newark, N.J., purchased the village at auction for $65,000 -- and promptly renamed the town.

Through all its incarnations, the mill provided everything -- the simple brick houses, most without indoor plumbing; the Christmas parties, where children got baskets of apples and oranges; and the vacations, one day every year at Tolchester Beach. Mill workers could rent a house in Daniels for as little as $4 a week.

The general store, run for a time by Rudacille's father, sold everything from bread to gasoline. People walked across the square to work. Hours were long. Cars did not move for weeks. The worst troublemaking involved pranksters tying strings to screen doors so they would slam continually on Halloween night.

"Unless you lived in this town, you'd never find it down in the valley," said Jarvis. "We lived in seclusion."

All that changed in 1967, when Daniels announced plans to raze rather than modernize the houses.

It was a frightening time for the 90 families left in Daniels. Not only did they have to leave the town that had been home for much of their lives. They also had to buy houses on their own -- something many had never had to think about before.

Rudacille was 21 when the notice came in the mail. "A lot of people were kind of taken aback by it," he said. "The rent was very cheap, and the thought was, `Where are we going to go?' "

As it turned out, the notice was a blessing. There were often floods in Daniels. But tropical storm Agnes swept through the river valley with historic force in 1972, stealing much of what was left of the town. Those still working in the mill had to be plucked off the roof by helicopter.

Fire finished off most of the remaining structures six years later.

Now all that's left of Daniels is the people, but they are much harder to knock down.

Collins, 70, who was born in the town when it was Alberton, once missed a family wedding just to attend the reunion.

Eugene Rohrback, 64, who made the model of the town, wouldn't miss the gathering. He bemoans the fact that though he's lived many years since in Pikesville, he knows few of his neighbors there.

"Everybody's like an individual now," he said. "You do your own thing, go your own way."

Jarvis, 68, crossed the country to come to the reunion from Milton, Wash. He wore a name tag that read "Jack," a name his neighbors had stuck to him from boyhood. "Nobody would know me otherwise," he said.

Perhaps it is Daniels' very demise -- and the disappearance of the way of life that once could be had there -- that keeps it alive.

Daniels native Janet Waltz, who now lives in White Marsh, longs for the childhood home she once was eager to leave behind.

"I always said when I grew up I'd never want to stay there any more," Waltz said. "Now I would give anything to go back to that small town."

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