Working-class roots

Arbutus: Robert L. Ehrlich used his native southwest Baltimore County community to frame the announcement that he was running for governor.

March 27, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

It was created as a railroad stop, named for a flower and is known for its Fourth of July parade.

But Arbutus is also every bit the working-class community that native son Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. describes when he promotes his blue-collar roots in his run for governor.

Ehrlich, 2nd District Republican, used his parents' home in Arbutus, in southwestern Baltimore County, to announce his campaign for governor this week. For the folks who live there, that came as no surprise.

"It's as good a place as you could find to grow up and raise a family," said Leon Lineburg, who runs Leon's Triple L Restaurant on East Drive.

At 70, Lineburg should know. He was born in a house across the street from his restaurant and spent all but four of his years in Arbutus: one year serving in the merchant marine and three years in the Army during the Korean War.

Arbutus suffered through the Depression and more recent recessions like other towns, he said. But it draws strength from its economic diversity.

"A lot of people work at Westinghouse or at General Motors or at Sparrows Point, but if there were layoffs at any one of them, it never really hurt that much because there were other places with people still working," he said.

Mike Tiso agrees, but attributes much of Arbutus' economic strength to its recent growth.

Tiso moved to Arbutus from Baltimore in 1959 to open a pizza shop, stayed to raise three children and became one of the community's biggest boosters.

"When I opened, I was the only pizza shop in town and right now there's 11 within walking distance; and the reason we're all making money is the community has tripled in size," said Tiso, 67.

Arbutus is a place of tree-lined streets, with a business district that lies relatively close to brick rowhouses, Cape Cods and Colonials.

A Fourth of July parade is held each year and an arts festival each May.

Merchants put up holiday lights at Christmas, firefighters sponsor bingo five nights a week and the elderly reminisce about the trolleys that once ran through town and a time when they never had to lock their doors.

"You really didn't have to lock your doors at night because this used to be all farm country," said Dee Neighoff, 79, a retired carpenter and a 55-year member of the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department.

Arbutus was created in the 1870s when the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad, a competitor to the Baltimore & Ohio, opened a line connecting Baltimore and Washington and included an area stop.

"Many travelers could now reach Arbutus and Halethorpe from Baltimore City," according to Arbutus, A Historical Scrapbook, published last year.

Census figures show that Arbutus has grown to a community of 20,116 along what is now an Amtrak rail line. It has a demographic profile similar to the rest of Baltimore County, but with a slightly younger, more homogeneous population.

The median age in Arbutus is 36, a year younger than the county median. It is 85 percent white in a county that is 74 percent white.

Arbutus is also a community where people share histories and deep roots, some of them literal.

The Arbutus Oak, a huge tree maintained by the state, has stood for 300 years at what is now the junction of Interstate 95 and the Baltimore Beltway.

When Tiso's daughter turned 16 some years ago, he bought a car from Ehrlich's father, who was a salesman at Archway Ford on Reisterstown Road.

A painting of Lineburg's restaurant, done free of charge by Ehrlich's mother, Nancy, an amateur painter, hangs above a booth.

"It's no big deal," Lineburg said. The two have known each other since elementary school.

"She came in one day and said, `I have a surprise for you,' and there it is," he said.

At the volunteer fire department, a colorful photograph is on display of the blaze that destroyed the Hollywood Theater on Oregon Avenue in 1995.

The theater reopened with four screens in 1998.

Doug Simpkins Jr., chairman of the department's board of directors, said people still talk about the fire and see a need for volunteers to supplement the county's career firefighters. It's part of Arbutus' small-town charm, he said.

The department is about to mail requests for donations in its annual drive to meet its $365,000 annual budget.

"That's a lot of pancakes to flip, that's a lot of carnival rides, and that's a lot of bingo cards," Simpkins said. "But thankfully we have a community that supports us."

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