Linda Nickoles, 63, owner of popular Woodbine Inn


Linda B. Nickoles, owner of the popular Woodbine Inn that for years has served customers its signature crab balls, crab fluff and Baltimore fried hard crabs, died of lung cancer Saturday at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. The Woodbine resident was 63.

Born Linda Burriss in Cooksville, she was raised in Clarksville and attended Howard County public schools.

"She began working in a Damascus dime store when she was 12 and continued working all of her life. She was a very stubborn, independent and strong-willed woman," said her daughter Debbie L. Thelen of Westminster. "It was my mother's dream to have a restaurant, and she'd be there 12 or 14 hours a day, seven days a week. It's what she wanted to do."

Mrs. Nickoles was a waitress during the 1960s and 1970s and learned a great deal about the restaurant business working at a Holiday Inn near Woodlawn.

In 1975, Mrs. Nickoles and her then-husband, Ed Nickoles, purchased the Woodbine Inn, overlooking a branch of the Patapsco River along western Howard and southwestern Carroll counties, which has been in operation since the 1930s. The original section of the wooden building on Route 94 dates back a century, and was a Model T Ford dealership before being converted into a tavern after the repeal of Prohibition, and then a restaurant.

"It's always been a seafood and steak restaurant, and of course anything with crabs," said Mr. Nickoles. "And she was very good at managing and working with the staff."

"What made it go was her personality. She was a people person and full of vitality," said Jeanette Miller, a friend for 30 years and accountant for the business.

Mrs. Nickoles sold the restaurant in 1986 and embarked on another career in 1990 as a travel agent for Charles Center Travel in Baltimore. In 1997, she purchased Venture Travel in Columbia, and three years later changed it to its present name, St. Judes Travel.

But she longed for the Woodbine Inn and repurchased it in 2002.

During her hiatus, old customers had drifted away, and Mrs. Nickoles was determined to get them back by returning to the cuisine that had made the restaurant famous and filled its tables.

Back on the menu went the Woodbine steak and cheese, hot roast beef, and turkey sandwiches. The crab dishes included her Baltimore fried hard crab - featuring a crab stuffed with a crab cake, then dipped in self-rising flour and deep fried - and she added blackened steak, Maryland crab pasta and pork Oscar.

"Within a year, she had the business back where it had been," Mrs. Miller said.

"She'd go from table to table talking to folks and always with a big smile. Not only did she talk, but she'd listen to their problems. She took a genuine interest in her patrons," she said.

Mrs. Nickoles had a soft spot for those who were troubled, her daughter said. "If she knew someone was in trouble or needed help, she'd stop what she was doing and go to them. I can't tell you how many people have said to me, `Your mother saved my life. She told me that she'd help me through it and in the end turned my life around.'"

"Next to the restaurant, she had a love for NASCAR racing, and she enjoyed standing around the bar sipping a Miller Lite and watching racing with her customers," Mrs. Thelen said. "However, this was no biker bar. It was a family-oriented restaurant where people could come and bring their children and enjoy themselves. She did not put up with people who were drunk and rowdy."

Mrs. Nickoles was a communicant of St. Michael Roman Catholic Church, 1125 St. Michael's Road, Mount Airy, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. tomorrow.

Mrs. Nickoles is also survived by a son, Stephen G. Johnson of Westminster; another daughter, Sharon A. Leonard of Westminster; three sisters, Barbara McLain of Mount Airy and Roberta Rubino and Cindy Newman, both of Cleveland, S.C.; her companion of 17 years, Paul Stem of Woodbine; and six grandchildren. Her marriages to Mr. Nickoles and, earlier, to Dave Johnson ended in divorce.

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