Ocean City Maryland - Then & Now - Lot 49
The Edwin Z. Purnell Store Part One:1875 - 1914
Figure 1: Talbot Street, looking west from the Boardwalk circa 1910. Note the lack of building activity along the south side of the street. The view of St. Mary Star of the Sea, on the west side of Baltimore Avenue, is completely unobstructed. (Courtesy of the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum)
Worcester County farmer Peter L. Davis (1808 – 1889), one of the initial investors in the Atlantic Hotel Company, drew lot 49 at the special meeting held at the Atlantic Hotel on August 31, 1875 to distribute building lots in the new resort to company stockholders. Davis did nothing with his lot, but for whatever reason, that was true of most of the building lots along Talbot Street between the Boardwalk and Baltimore Avenue. In fact, by 1897 only one building existed along the south side of Talbot Street, a former saloon that had been transplanted from a spot on Wicomico Street to the corner lot on the Boardwalk in 1879 and turned into a cottage. On the north side of the street, there was only Anna Showell’s “Isle of Wight Cottage”, later known as the Mount Vernon Hotel.
When Peter Davis died in 1889, he left unpaid assessments for the tax years 1887 – 1889 totaling 65¢ on his lot in Ocean City. His heirs failed to pay the taxes due and the vacant lot was sold for $70 at a public auction held on August 12, 1890 to Jacob M. Holloway, a farmer from Sussex County, Delaware. Holloway held on to the lot until May 1897, when he sold it, still unimproved, to Edwin Z. Purnell for $200.
Edwin Zadock Purnell (1862 – 1945?) is one of the more enigmatic characters from Ocean City’s past. He was the third of five sons born to Zadock Thomas Marshall Purnell (1832 – 1898) and Andasia Franklin Purnell (1827 – 1884). His name was often misspelled as “Edward” or “Edwin L.” or even “Elwin”. Details of his early life have not emerged. In the 1880 census, for example, all of his older and younger siblings were living at home and working on their father’s farm, but Edwin was not among them.
Edwin first appears in the Worcester County land records in 1891. In August of that year he paid James B. Pitts $1,100 for a building on the corner of Main Street and Lovely Lane in Berlin, where Edwin likely operated a dry goods store. He sold the property to his younger brother William Robert Purnell in 1896, and relocated his mercantile business to the booming resort town of Ocean City. As noted, Edwin purchased lot 49 in 1897, where he had a building erected on the southern half of the lot (partially visible at the extreme left in Figure 1). He did not live on the premises, but boarded with pound fisherman Samuel Ludlam and his wife Marion.
Edwin had joined the U.S. Life-Saving Service as a surfman, and was stationed at Ocean City by 1903. The heroic actions of the surfmen in rescuing those shipwrecked along the shores of Assateague Island are well-documented. Less is known about the conduct of their daily lives between rescue operations. With six men living in close quarters and confronting unpleasant working conditions, it is perhaps inevitable that frictions could develop.
In March 1903, issues that had existed at the Ocean City station “for sometime” came to a head. Station keeper Joshua J. Dunton, who had been in charge since March 1892, was accused by his crew of favoritism, being habitually absent from his post (especially during the months of July through September), ungentlemanly conduct, misusing his position to further his political ambitions and keeping liquor at the station. The U.S. Life-Saving Service conducted an on-site investigation into the charges on March 11 – 13. After reviewing the sworn testimony given by Captain Dunton and his accusers, General Superintendent Sumner I. Kimball found both captain and crew guilty of failing to adhere to the standards of the Service, and issued a severe reprimand to all involved. Five of the Ocean City crew members were reassigned to other stations as a result. Only the previous exemplary record of the station prevented the outright dismissal of Dunton and the surfmen.
The only Ocean City surfman not involved in the reorganization ordered by Superintendent Kimball was Edwin Purnell, whose testimony at the hearing in March had been supportive of Captain Dunton. Purnell either resigned or retired from the Life-Saving Service shortly after this incident. He moved to the Norfolk, Virginia area by April 1904, where he lived with a widower named Willie Ward and managed a grocery store. The circumstances that led Edwin to choose Norfolk for his new home are unknown, as is who was minding his store on the corner of Baltimore Avenue and Talbot Street in Ocean City during his absence.
Edwin had returned to Worcester County by 1912, and embarked on a new line of business. He partnered with Turner Cropper, William Gibbs, Charles A. Parker, William H. Parker and Riley N. Quillen to form the “Atlantic Fish Company”. Christopher Ludlam, who introduced pound fishing to Ocean City in 1897, sold the partners a lot on the west side of Baltimore Avenue between South 2nd and South 3rd Streets in 1913 as a base for their operation. Edwin also continued to operate his store on lot 49, to which he added a second structure on the northerly half around 1914. That structure became known as the “Edwin Z. Purnell Store”.
John E. Lynch and his wife Minnie purchased the original building on the southerly half of lot 49 from Edwin Purnell in May 1914. The purchase price was not stated, but it was at least $1,700, the amount of the mortgage that the Lynches gave to Purnell.
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