Gaithersburg Then and Now


History of a small town - Boyds, Maryland

By Hardy Stone
The Frederick News-Post
April 26, 2009


Take the Andy Griffith Show and the small, wholesome town of Mayberry. Opie at the fishin' hole, Barney apprehending imaginary criminals, Goober tussling with an oil filter and Otis staggering as he locks himself in jail. Floyd gives Andy a shave while Sarah is at the switchboard and Aunt Bee spends work-a-days as usual. Apple pies are on windowsills and cherry Cokes are at the drug store soda fountain.

A similar aura surrounds "Boyds: A Character Study," by Arthur Virts, accounts of a Maryland rural community in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Through nostalgic anecdotes, Virts, 80, highlights the friendships, loyalties, joys, sadness and struggles of small-town Maryland. His work helps us remember the rock-solid bonds and community personalities that made America's small towns warm, quiet and safe.

Virts was born in 1928 in the living room of his home on Barnesville Road in the heart of Boyds. His mother died when he was 15 and his father raised three girls and two boys.

"We were not poor, but had very few extras. After she died, he was sawing old railroad ties to burn for our kitchen stove and he said he didn't know what we'd do without her," Virts recalls. His dad did a pretty good job raising a boy who would become a pillar of the Boyds community and its most famous historian.

Arthur attended grammar school in a one-room schoolhouse in town; stepped up to a spacious two-room middle school in Clarksburg; then to an expansive three-room schoolhouse in Germantown.

With a wide grin, Arthur recalls that fresh water and a warm restroom at the Germantown school were definite luxuries. He graduated in 1946 from Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville with 28 young women and nine young men. A high school diploma was a big deal back in those days.

"After graduation, a bank offered me a job at $100 a month, but I decided to join the Army instead. I was stationed at the Panama Canal, and because I graduated high school, I had a top-secret clearance at age 18," Virts said with a smile. Today, as it was then, it pays to stay in school.

Snowy romance

On Dec. 8, 1951, Arthur married Mary Fitzwater at the Presbyterian Church in Boyds. The wedding was officiated by The Rev. James Kerr, who had baptized the groom 23 years earlier.

The couple met on a snowy day sledding down Barnesville Road. Though their two children and five grandchildren haven't had a sleigh ride in years, that cherished old sled is still around.

After his service in the Army, Virts worked as a clerk for the Boyds grocery store. The original store opened in 1873, and had several owners over the years. The owners rarely, if ever, made a profit. "We gave just about everyone credit. Mr. Brice Selby, the owner when I worked there, would not cut anyone off because he knew that our supplies were vital to their lives."

The book explores the fluid romance of trains, unknown destinations, possible fortune and tragedy. The hub of the Boyds community was the train. Arthur's father and grandfather were track foremen for the B&O railroad. During World War II, thousands of soldiers bound for harbors on the East Coast rolled through town in uniform, and Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower passed through on their way to the presidential retreat in the Catoctins.

Traveling carnivals were a thrill for the children as the colorful load rolled through Boyds. Passing hobos were common on freight trains headed for Brunswick and points west. With a hint of sadness in his voice, Virts notes: "A place without trains is an empty place."

The carnivals now use trucks to travel their gypsy trail, selling thrills, cotton candy and funnel cakes. But where have all the hobos gone? Just as trains have virtually been replaced by big rigs, still nights have supplanted the burning barrels and faceless men down near the tracks.

Mail call

The U.S. mail was picked up and delivered to Boyds by train six times a day, loaded on three passenger trains and three "through" trains. Unusual mail -- oversized parcels, chickens, turkeys and domestic pets -- were loaded and unloaded by hand on the passenger trains.

"The through trains usually traveled at high speeds on the way to distant cities," Virts said. Incoming mail packed in heavy-duty canvas bags were pitched from the high-speed trains to the station platform. Outgoing mail was a bit more complex. About 20 yards beyond the station platform to the right of the tracks was a 15-foot high swinging crane with an attached ladder. Extending from the crane toward the track were two poles, one above the other about four feet apart. Attached to these poles were spring-loaded grips that clasped both ends of an outgoing canvas mailbag.

As the train blasted through Boyds at 60 miles an hour, a U.S. Postal Service employee on the mail car would swing out a metal rod and "hook" the canvas bag suspended between the two poles of the crane. The "mailman" then swung the metal rod back -- with the mailbag -- through the window of the mail car. In those days, outgoing mail was handled like this in many rural towns across the country. Before he was hired as the Rural Carrier, Arthur would work the general store and climb the ladder to "hang mail."

When the incoming mailbags hit the Boyds Station platform, that's when the real work began for Arthur. Wedged in an 8- by 10-foot enclosed room in the back of the general store, he would sort mail for delivery later that morning. A high-ranking postal official once described the Boyds Post Office as "so small you can't cuss a cat without getting hair in your mouth."

The spring rains made Virt's job doubly difficult, and often he delivered mail in mud halfway up his shins. He would trek 37 miles on his rural route everyday. One spring morning after a steady overnight rain, his car sank up to the frame. With a friendly grimace, he laughed and said: "You know that bi-annual Sears Catalogue was always fun. "

When asked her fondest memory of Arthur as a rural mail carrier, Mary Virts did not hesitate: "The most memorable event was when the Boyds Civic Association honored Arthur by naming Feb. 9, 1986 'Arthur Virts Day' to celebrate his 30 years of 'exceptional delivery service.'" Arthur Virts will agree that his wife of 57 years shares equally in that honor.

Small towns of 70 years ago were intimate places where everybody knew everybody and it was everybody's business to take care of each other.

Mary Virts commented on the difference in social relationships that the years can make: "We don't have a small-town atmosphere like we had 40 or 50 years ago, when friends and neighbors celebrated weddings, new babies and new houses. Back then we knew something about most people in Boyds. Now, we don't know very many people because of the growth and development of the area."

Fifty years ago, folks may not have been the best of friends, but they were sincerely concerned about their neighbors. When Boyds mourned the death of one of their own, everyone showed up at the funeral.

Now called simply "Boyds" on the Brunswick line of the Marc train commuter route, the station noises and the bustling of human activity are nearly gone. Commuters to Washington know very little about the colorful days when trains were the center of commerce in Boyds.

Virt's description of this rural American town is a puree of remarkable personalities: Hard working men and women, homebodies, artisans, bootleggers, the town bad boy (or girl), little old ladies, the pranksters, ne'er-do-wells, folks who paid the bootleggers, cantankerous old men, professionals, dairy farmers and on and on.

In a swirl of distinct faces traced through good and hard times, we realize that the history of small towns like Boyds are the roots of the American dream. Arthur Virts knows -- he delivered mail to these American characters for more than 30 years.

The late Hal Baker, an attorney and owner of the Susanna Farm in Boyds, convinced Virts to put his memories together. The first print run of 500 copies quickly sold out. Selling for $10, all proceeds are collected in the "Baker Fund," an account held in Boyds for children with special needs.



Boyds Railroad Tracks