Memories of Ocean City, 1950
George Hurley and Sue Brittingham, 1950
Ocean City at that time extended from the Inlet to Fifteenth Street. To the north was Worcester County, which was pine groves, marsh meadows, and sand dunes. A narrow two lane concrete road ran to Delaware. Along it were a handful of private summer cottages nestled among the dunes, and at least one road house named the "Lucky Lindy" (after the aviator Lindbergh.) Along the west side of town where today's St. Louis Avenue is, there was marsh meadow north of 1stStreet. The fire department volunteers still used a Model A Ford that was purchased in the 1930's as a front line truck. Our school was today's City Hall. The school had a small enrollment (there was a total of 30 boys, in grades nine through twelve). The Town was so small that when my class of 1952 traveled to the University of Maryland to become the first Eastern Shore team to ever win a state basketball championship, the city leaders were concerned. They were afraid that so many citizens might attend the game that there would not be enough men available in the event of a major fire in town!
Ocean City had one policeman during the winter. (There was a chief but I never knew him.) The officer's name was Mr. Ollie Bailey. During the course of two marriages he raised at least fourteen children in a very modest home in town. The house was city property supplied by the town as a supplement to his salary. In stature he resembled Deputy Barney Fife of the television series entitled Mayberry RFD. He was a man of slim stature and took his job very seriously. That particular winter the town purchased a new Chevrolet sedan for the police department (which was Mr. Bailey.) There was just one problem; Mr. Bailey had never learned how to drive. Raised through the great depression followed by World War II, he probably did not have the opportunity. So during the winter of 1950 the citizenry witnessed the evolution of an older gentleman learning to coordinate a manual transmission, clutch pedal, and gasoline supply. He became good at applying a lot of gas and slowly releasing the clutch. His gear shifting was testimony to the rugged engineering of General Motors. Mr. Bailey's staff was augmented during the winter by one life-size steel police officer that stood welded to an old truck wheel. He rolled it out each morning to the intersection of 3rd Street and Baltimore Ave. It warned drivers with an upheld arm to use caution passing the school. (It was occasionally struck by inattentive drivers causing the arm to be in various positions.)
During the summer months men were hired to assist in policing duties when the town's population swelled to several hundred. I can never recall Ocean City Police Officers wearing side arms. Their symbols of authority were a badge, a whistle, and a baton that was attached to a thong. They were good at twirling them as they walked their boardwalk beats. A former states attorney recently confided to me that in his entire legal career his fondest memories were of that summer of 1950 as an Ocean City Police Officer.
There was no graduating class in 1950 from our high school. That was the year that all schools in Worcester County switched from being 11 to 12 grades. The Class of 1951 was the first class to have to attend an extra year in order to graduate. With the recent ending of World War II the make up of our faculty began to change. Nearly all of the faculty had always been female but more and more returning veterans were joining the staff. Each one had stories to tell of where they had served and I remember the tales still. Mr. Dondero, the coach, told of infantry life on the Italian front; Mr. Lowe who taught Algebra, had his ship break in half crossing the North Atlantic; Mr. Clemmons, (English,) assisted Russian pilots in learning to fly American planes in Alaska; Mr. Gordy, (Math,) served on naval patrol boats in the South Pacific. We heard many tales... which often meant less homework.
A much-respected teacher was Miss Elizabeth Laws. Her father had been associated with the railroad here, and had raised his family in Ocean City. She became a teacher. She taught general science, biology, chemistry, physics, home economics, and more?. she was responsible for running the cafeteria and collecting admissions for all school athletic games. She was also my Sunday school teacher. She was very frugal. As an example she would have the boys in class bring in large bull frogs from West Ocean City in the spring. Our biology class would dissect them in the morning (girls seldom participated,) and in the afternoon the home economics class would cook up the legs of the specimens for eating. Her reverence for the sixth commandment was intense. She once caught a boy stealing potato chips at a ball game. She ordered him to report to her the next morning with a stick of chewing gum. The next day he had to chew the gum for one minute and then stick it on the end of his nose and wear it there all day. The entire 2nd floor (high school) knew that this signified that he was a thief. Stealing didn't happen much.
School had a one-hour lunchtime. Students who rode the bus generally ate in the cafeteria (cheese and ham sandwiches with a bottle of milk.) Those who lived within a few blocks of school often walked home for lunch. I was part of a group that opted to walk to Talbot Street where Mr. Harlin Purdue, (who had one arm,) served the best grilled hot dog and fountain coke in town. We could also play the 5-cent slot machine. It was the busiest place in Ocean City at lunchtime.
Near the end of the school year, (and before the days of senior class trips to large cities) the teachers would organize a school beach party north of town. It was often near an abandoned coast guard station in today's 80th Street area because of the large dunes located there. Most members of the upper classes attended. Collecting driftwood and starting a huge bonfire, roasting marshmallows and hot dogs, along with various games including "king of the mountain" dune push games were the highlights of the party. Invariably as dusk approached, some upper class couples would wander off to admire the beauty of the huge dunes, and the wild bay berry bushes, whereupon the teachers would deputize younger schoolmates to locate them and have them return to the fold. Great fun for some! Frustration for others.
1950 was one of the first post World War II years that saw the beginning of new construction in Ocean City. Apartment buildings were being built in the north end of town (8th Street to 15th Street.) One refrain that was discussed in barbershops, soda fountains, hardware stores, and elsewhere was that Ocean City was being over built and that the town would never see enough vacationers to rent all of the new apartments.
Everyone looked forward to summer. It was considered an exciting time after the long winter. The hotel owners who were mostly local families, and the boardwalk storekeepers, most of whom only lived here during the summer, were of course anticipating a profitable season that would support them the following winter. Those of us attending school recognized it as a time to get a job, and meet acquaintances who came each year and spent the summer. And of course we didn't have to attend school.
Student jobs were not as plentiful then. Some older classmates worked on the fishing boats of the marlin fleet. Construction was not allowed during the summer because it might disturb those on vacation. (This policy continued until the late 1960's.) Boardwalk stores usually hired adults. The large hotels had their own staffs that returned each year and lived in small rooms under the hotel.
During the summer of 1950 I worked on the beach. I operated a beach umbrella stand on the boardwalk at North Division St. The business owners were Mr. John Dale Showell, Jr. and his sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Strohecker. The family owned several businesses in that block including several rental stores, apartments, a bathhouse, bathing suit rentals, umbrella rentals, a soda fountain, a large duck pin bowling alley complex, plus a movie theatre.
Both brother and sister were always on the premises overseeing the family businesses. Mrs. Strohecker always sat near the bathhouse entrance behind a huge bar-like mahogany counter upon which sat a large nickel-plated cash register. She rented the woolen bathing suits, issued towels to bath house customers and took care of handling the cash. She was lady of large stature and always projected a stern no-nonsense expression, though I did see her smile on occasion. No one wished to irritate her.
A case in point. Once during that summer, City Hall had given the U.S. Army permission to park a large recruiting trailer at the head of North Division St. (The Korean War had just begun in June). The trailer was parked exactly where the Victor Lynn Trucking Co. normally made deliveries to all of the stores on that block, (her stores). She politely asked the sergeant in charge to move his equipment.
The sergeant replied in a haughty manner that the U.S. Army had no intention of moving, and moreover had the permission of the local government. To reinforce his position he hailed a passing police officer who in turn supported him by ordering Mrs. Strohecker back into her bathhouse business.
My workday was just beginning as I witnessed the exchange and I glanced with a subdued smile at another employee for I could guess who would ultimately be victorious in this confrontation. And the results were not long in coming. Within the hour the policeman returned and Mrs. Strohecker graciously accepted his apology. The recruiter spent the weekend in vain trying to entice young men on Philadelphia Ave. far from the boardwalk. Later in life I would learn that I had witnessed a version of Laissez faire.
The workday began at 8:00 A.M. I would retrieve an ancient wooden wagon loaded with umbrellas and beach chairs that were stored at night in the bathhouse. After pulling them to the boardwalk they were stacked against a wooden rack that remained in place on the beach the entire summer. Those that been rented for the entire week were taken down to the surf bank and positioned in a choice spot for those customers. (The better the location relative to the ocean, the better the tip at the end of the week.)
Until the 1970's whoever owned the land west of the boardwalk had the right to operate these little rental businesses on the east side. The city was not involved in the operation. Umbrellas were 75 cents per day, and 35 cents for a chair. The Showell umbrellas were dark green and one of my first duties in late May was to paint a bright orange "S" (for Showell) on each one. I was expected to keep an accurate account of each item rented that day. This tally, at the end of the day had to match the amount of cash I had received. In that Mrs. Strohecker was known to walk up to boardwalk occasionally and count green umbrellas, I was careful to be very accurate.
By mid-morning those of my friends who had evening jobs would congregate at my stand to enjoy the beach, comradery, and occasional swims. It was a carefree time with much laughter and there was always a major league baseball game being listened to on a portable radio. The Baltimore Morning Sun newspaper front page each day showed through battle maps the position of our troops in Korea. Newspapers reported the war news (very few families had television) and the military reports were glum throughout that summer.
All of this activity at my stand was much to the chagrin of Mrs. Strohecker, but I suppose that having a seven-day a week employee with no time off except rainy days, for a weekly salary of $ 20.00 (before taxes) was cause for some concession on her part.
Mr. Showell would sometimes stroll up to the stand on quiet mid-week days. It was said that as a young man he could dive to the bottom of the only swimming pool in Ocean City (built and owned by his father and filled with continuously fresh salt water) and pull the drain plug with his teeth. He enjoyed showing the guys that gathered at my stand how to throw a baseball and make it curve. Some of us became adept at it. If his sister happened up however, the tone of his conversation would quickly become quite serious, and all business.
An interesting aside that the job exposed me to were the families that summered in Ocean City from the metropolitan areas. Some owned cottages here. Others rented the same apartments year after year. These families arrived in late June. They virtually lived on the beach. Since everything was within walking distance in the town, they would have their automobile stored for the summer in one of several large parking garages to protect them from the salt air. Grocery shopping tasks were solved simply by telephoning the order to Law's grocery market, and it was delivered to the residence. It would have been difficult with the town being so small, not to make many lasting friendships. We beheld their cosmopolitan views in awe, while they envied our living in such a neat little community. They added much to our small town during the summer months.
The most important event that happened to me on North Division St. that summer of 1950 was to meet my future wife, Sue. She was often part of the group that gathered at my beach stand. I had my first dinner date with her that summer at the then popular Sea Crest Inn on 6th Street just off of the boards. Best date I ever had. Still is. Little did we know then that we would raise our family within site of that beach stand.
At the end of the day and after everything was put away and accounts settled I would go home for a shower and dinner. But more often than not I would head back to N. Division St. the evening. It was a popular block for locals and their friends. In the evening, Mr. Showell's son, John Dale III would take over the operation of the bowling alley. At 6 foot 6 inches he was an imposing man and was, during World War II, a Marine Corps officer. He easily commanded respect and was much more prone to smile than his aunt. On some evenings his new North Carolina bride, Ann would be in charge. It cost 25 cents to play ten frames of duckpins. There was no mechanical means to reset the pins so the Showell's would pay who ever was available, and wanted the extra money, to do it. For every ten frames one could earn five cents. Many of us who wanted to be where the action was and get paid for it often volunteered.
On some summer evenings our group would wander down to the Pier Ballroom. The City government had arranged for the facility to be used as a center for young people to have a gathering place, (and stay out of trouble I suppose). It was open to locals and visitors alike, with a very nominal fee. A slightly higher fee was imposed on weekends when there was live music. The city paid local schoolteachers to be chaperones each evening. Jitter bugging, the Mexican hat dance, and the bunny hop dance were very popular; performed to the live music of the Charlie Shockley orchestra from Salisbury which included one of our school mates, Jack Esham, on the drums.
All too soon Labor Day weekend would arrive. By early afternoon on that Monday holiday there would not be a single car parked on Baltimore Avenue. Parking was allowed on both sides of that street then. Only a handful of people would be on the beach. It was as if a wand had been waved over the town, emptying it. The only evidence that summer had not been a dream, was the rich tans that those of us who had worked on the beach and the water had acquired. The next day our new school year would begin.
Two years later in 1952, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was completed. Ocean City began its amazing and fast paced journey towards becoming Maryland's second largest city for much of the year.
The dunes and the bay berry bushes are gone now. Their wild beauty and Ocean City's unique small town charm disappeared together.
It was exciting to watch a city grow that would become capable of entertaining many Americans far into the future.
It was wonderful growing up in a small seaside town.
Nothing stays the same.
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