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Remembering My Term as Mayor

James Edward Houck

Being elected Burgess of Emmitsburg in the early 1960's was quite an eye opening experience for me. The regular duties that you expect to do and the things you want to accomplish are only a small portion of the job. I had been active in the Junior Chamber of Commerce for a number of years and took part in many civic programs.

I worked with a committee from the Potomac Edison Company to survey our community to find out what we could do to get more business moving into the town. When it was pointed out that the empty store fronts and lack of an active Library, Theater and places for families to enjoy living and working in our town, we were able to push for some for some action. The JC's found where the Library Books were stored and set about finding people that were interested in getting it active again and then found a home in the empty store front of the former Hokes Hardware Store. The VFW then picked up the object of rent and the new committee got it open and active again.

The Movie Theater was reopened as written in "Remembering the Gem Theater" and each of the existing factories in our town were approached and considered increasing their workforce.

A group of JC's met and decided to have a run at the town offices. I ran for the Office of the Burgess or Mayor and John S. Hollinger ran for the Town Council Office. Each of us were successful, John by a large margin and myself by a mere four votes over the incumbent Clarence Frailey that had already served about three or four terms.

After the swearing in ceremony my term began. I met with the town clerk and the town officials and began to find out what was done, what was partially done and what was needed to be done. I then met with the Lawyer representing the Town, Mr. Ed Storm, and went over the recent changes in the laws and items governing our town. Emmitsburg was just making the move from a small quiet community to move into the future. A major project was getting funding from the State for the paving of the alleys. 

This had been an ongoing project of the town as for many years before, people that had coal burning stoves and furnaces would take their ashes and clinkers to help build a solid base in the existing alleys. This had to be continued and could not be done all at once. In charge of the streets program was Norman Flax, a very dedicated worker and could get more done with less funding than anyone I knew. Norman would come to me during the day or night and we would make a survey on what should be done and what he would like to get done shortly, and then go to it.

Another project was the sewer plant and its operation and again Norman Flax was the main contact person and would take me on inspection trips of the plant and let me know the problems as they came up. One problem appeared one day and he took me down into the sewer plant where the sewage came in from the town. There caught in the blades and causing the entire plant to shutdown was the hide and carcass of a steer that had been slaughtered illegally and dropped into a manhole in the west end of town. After some searching we found where it happened and fined the culprit. There were other items that were discarded and either flushed down the system or dropped into the manholes that would break the cutting blades. Some we never could get an answer of where or who.

Johnny Law was the Community Law Enforcement Officer during my term of office and kept me aware of what was happening. I reviewed with him many of the problems that faced him day to day. One big problem was still the parking meter situation in town and that the citizens were so used to parking in front of their home every day and for all day that the meters provided a type of protest for many of them. Being a local store owner on the Square, the problem was always - Not Enough Parking Space. 

I remember when one customer came into the store and bought a pair of shoes, some underwear and a shirt. On paying for them, he returned to his car at the meter outside the store. He had a ticket. He returned to the store and told me he had gotten a ticket for not putting money in the meter and since I was Mayor, I should take care of it. I told him that was a separate job from my store work and could not in good faith take care of his ticket. With that he threw the bag back on the counter and demanded his money back and stated he would never come into my store again. I returned his money which came to a little over $35.00 and said I had to treat all the customers and town people alike. With that he stormed out and was good to his word too, never came into my store again.

Another situation with the law came up one evening as my wife Doris and I were coming home from somewhere and while climbing the stairs to our apartment above the store, heard a commotion. There was a fight going on across the street involving a man and woman. I asked my wife to go in and call Johnny Law and proceeded across the square to break up the fight. The man had knocked the woman down and I yelled at him as I approached to stop the fighting as the law is on the way. He stood over the woman and said this is his wife and that he was a policeman from Baltimore and "Who the hell are you". I told him I was the Mayor of Emmitsburg and he asked to see my badge and he produced his. I told him Mayors don't carry badges but I am keeping you here till the Law arrives. He kept swearing at me and then his wife joined him in letting me know that I couldn't do that. Thanks be, just then Johnny Law appeared on the scene and took charge. He took the both of them in and charged them both with being drunk and disorderly. When I went home, I was still shaking from the experience.

Situations would arrive fairly often with the new laws that were now on the books. One such situation came up when a milk dealer from Thurmont decided he was not going to get a license to peddle his milk in town, door to door. I knew the man and he told me flat out that he did not think this law would hold up in court. After a discussion, we decided that he would come up to the town limits the next morning to sell his milk. Johnny Law and I met him at the edge of town and asked to be shown his license or permit. He had none and we gave him a ticket and the next time we met was in court and he lost and paid a small fine and purchased the peddler license. We remained friends and he found out the law did stand up in court.

One of the better official duties that came with the office was the Presentation of the Key to the Town, when Mt. St. Mary's College won the NCAA College Basketball Championship to Coach Jim Phaelan. Nearly 300 people greeted the team when they arrived back from the tournament. The celebration was chaired by George L. Danner and was one of the largest celebrations ever put together in that short of time.

It was one of the official duties to proclaim a special week or day for different causes and then to give the first donation to that cause. With the limited pay you receive as a Mayor, this was eaten up in no time.

Another project that needed to be acted on was the purchase of the Emmitsburg Water Co.. It had been worked on prior to my election and we continued to meet with Sam Hays, the President and Manager of the company, in hopes that we could reach a price that would be agreeable to both parties. He had his appraised price and the town had an appraiser from outside come in with his appraised price. They were still far enough apart to keep us talking but not enough to meet in the middle.

Sam Hays and I had worked together on Emmit Gardens when after my dad died, I became involved and was President and he was Manager. The state was about to put in the bypass and it was cutting thru the main part to the development. The state would not give us exactly where it was to go. Sam and I talked it over and decided to meet early on the next Friday morning at the site. Sam brought his bulldozer and began putting a road where our next portion of the development would be. Within an hour or two, we had a state representative approach us and tell us we couldn't do that. He pulled out a map and then we knew the area the new bypass was going to take up. This put a stop to the rest of the project as we lost our prime area. I enjoyed working with Sam on this and the Water Co. project.

Just prior to my end of term, it was decided to put the decision in the hands of the court. We would in essence, place the Water Company in the best interest of the town of Emmitsburg and let the outside appraiser, named by the state, set the price and both parties were to abide by the decision. 

With the bypass now in existence, business in our market was dropping and people would shop for clothing and shoes in the larger Gettysburg, Hanover, Frederick areas. I did not run for a second term and sold my property and moved my family to the Washington Area. The term as Mayor of Emmitsburg has been one of the biggest memories I will continue to have. Not the meetings and normal business of a small town that can be found in the minutes of the past, but the little side situations that seem to come at you from every direction. It taught me a lot about human nature and a lot about myself.

Sincerely, J. Edward Houck

Read more articles by Mayor Houck

Read Bob Preston's Recollections as Mayor of Emmitsburg