Country watering hole meets with suburban development

Ellicott City bar's regulars see way of life disappearing

September 22, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

For regulars at the Friendly Inn on the once-rural western edge of Ellicott City, the roadside tavern is a last outpost of beer and bluegrass music amid a swell of half-million-dollar homes and designer landscaping.

And patrons worry that it might not be able to hold out for long.

"They can't stand seeing a good ol' country bar," Steve Fernandes, 50, says of newcomers to the area, where family farms are giving way to suburban subdivisions. "They need to stop. How much country will be left?"

Fueled by soaring land prices, things are changing on this stretch of Frederick Road, as in most of western Howard County.

To the east of the Friendly Inn, there's a sign advertising 27 forthcoming luxury homes. To the west, construction is under way on dozens of upscale homes for people "55 and better." And across the road, new estates dot the hills, once a farm owned by Howard County Councilman Charles C. Feaga's extended family.

"I used to deliver [Feaga's] calves," says Gisela Woelper, 62, the Friendly's owner.

Woelper, a tall, tough, taciturn native of rural southern Germany, is negotiating to sell the business. She's looking to give up her 80-hour, seven-day workweeks, move out of the small apartment behind the bar and head back to her Baltimore house.

"I think I'm going to hide myself for a couple of years. Would like to look at a life where I don't have to deal with people," she says.

For locals and lovers of bluegrass - the players and the listeners - that would be a sad day.

"It's the last of the real bluegrass bars," says Jude Hawk Restivo, a Cockeysville dentist, fiddle player and leader of the five-member Satyr Hill Band, which frequently performs at the Friendly Inn on Friday or Saturday nights. "It's a place to come to see the other side and the way things used to be."

Pat Stephens, 54, of Columbia, a patron, said, "We like it just the way it is. It has character. It's like a big family."

The Friendly Inn dates to 1937, when it was a lonely watering hole deep in farm country.

Woelper, a former hairdresser, bought the place with her now ex-husband and another couple in 1979.

"The first time I walked in, it was on a Sunday at 8 a.m., and there was a card game going on and a fight. Tables and glasses were flying," she says. "They didn't like a female - or a foreigner."

After a year, the other couple got out. Later, Woelper and her husband divorced, leaving her to run the tavern by herself.

"I'd never been a bartender, a bouncer or a cook," she says. But she learned how to lay down the law to sometimes rowdy patrons, banning dozens who wouldn't listen.

Traces of that atmosphere remain. Even now, the seedy outer room where package goods are sold is called the "animal bar," the place to which she once banished patrons for questionable behavior, Woelper says.

These days, the bar draws loyalists like Fernandes - who drank a beer on a recent afternoon in his beat-up cowboy hat and white sleeveless undershirt - as well as those with a taste for bluegrass music.

Woelper says the new residents rarely come in, except during a snow storm or when drinks run short during a party.

Woelper fell into the bluegrass scene almost by accident. As a sole proprietor, she'd experimented with different kinds of music, even allowing patrons to play.

One day, a teacher named John O'Dell rode by on a bicycle and stopped in. He looked around and said his bluegrass band, Windy Ridge, might like to come play. Now, the inn advertises itself on its Web site as the "home of bluegrass."

Woelper said she's lucky to break even on the live music. The fans don't drink much, and the bands must be paid. But the music isn't as loud as rock or country-western, and she says it doesn't tend to make people so rowdy.

On a recent Saturday night, the Satyr Hill Band played before a friendly, mixed crowd sprinkled with men wearing cowboy hats, big belt buckles and boots. Patrons nursed beer, soda and coffee while sitting on dark red vinyl-padded bar stools and chairs, their cigarettes resting in dented metal ashtrays.

"The lady does make some good sandwiches, and people are not rowdy," said Gerald Gregory, 75, of North Laurel, who was there with his wife, Dee, 70, their son-in-law, grandson and a 6-year-old great-granddaughter.

Gregory takes a dim view of the idea that the Friendly Inn might give way to some upscale family dining establishment.

"New people," he said. "If they don't like it, they don't have to move into the neighborhood."

Woelper says she's in no hurry to sell the place, though she's been negotiating with several parties over the past five years. She's heavily into talks now with a buyer she declined to identify, but a deal could take a year to close, she says.

In the meantime, she's content to tend bar and offer live music.

"I don't feel like I'm missing anything," Woelper says. "All I want is simplicity."

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