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The Village Idiot


Jack Deatherage, Jr.

(8/2016) "So, do you know the man that owns Zurgable's Hardware store at the top of the hill south of town? Of course you do." A librarian at the Emmitsburg branch library laughs. "I love his patois."

"You mean Mark?"

"Yes. That's his name. Has he always lived around here? I don't know anyone else around here that speaks with such a wonderful patois."

What the hell is a "patois"? It sounds French. And where might Mark have gotten it? Is it contagious? (That's the trouble with librarians. They occasionally cause me to think.) Googling "patois" confuses me. So I drive out to the hardware store (16663 Old Emmitsburg Road) to take a look at Mark and see if I can spot his patois. I suppose I could have called (301) 447-2020 and gotten him to jabbering, but I never know who else might be hanging around the counter with something interesting to tell of.

I have vague memories of being taken along to Zurgable Brothers' farm store when we visited this area in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Mostly I remember the candy bars on display behind the counter glass and being told "No. You'll ruin your supper." It sticks in my mind that either Roger (Mark's dad) or Morris (Mark's uncle) would hand me a candy bar with a grin, knowing whichever relative I was with would have to fork over the nickle, pretty much guaranteeing I'd be a customer for life.

Not that I could avoid being a customer once Dad settled us in this area. With Grandpap Cool's farm just two good stone throws from the store and us only living a few miles away it seemed only logical everyone in the clan would patronize Zurgable's. (We can't prove it, but Mark and I suspect the Standard Twin tractor my dad bought from GrandpapC was probably bought sometime in the 1950s from Zurgable's.) While Mark no longer sells the Oliver line of farm equipment, or any other that GrandpapC used, he still sells seed for field and garden as well as feeds for livestock, and various nuts, bolts and tools the area farmers come in to buy as needs be.

When US 15 cut through my grandfather's farm, and many others' in the mid 1960s, everything around Emmitsburg changed. All at once it was possible and practical to drive to bigger towns for higher paying jobs. Emmitsburg went from a nearly self-sufficient small town with a car dealership, factories, mom and pop grocery stores, a clothing shop, bowling alley, movie theater, two colleges and a TV/radio repair shop to a bedroom community feeding worker bees into such far flung places as DC and Bal'm'r'.

People driving down-the-road to work began exploring the commercial offerings elsewhere. It wasn't long before shopping at bigger (higher volume/lower price) stores began to hurt Emmitsburg's local businesses, Zurgable's among them.

Gasoline was cheap and the highway led to the promised land, the Frederick Towne Mall! The offerings were vast and mesmerizing! Why, people could walk all day in the air-conditioned mall and with the concurrent issuing of plastic money cards to nearly anyone with a job we could bring our new found treasures home and brag about how much we owed on them.

While US 15 led us locals into temptation it also brought escapees from exotic places such as Montgomery and Fairfax Counties to Emmitsburg to live in a simpler, quieter community. Some of the new people found Zurgable's hardware store a blessing that saved them another trip down-the-road they had recently come-up. It took thick headed locals, myself specifically, a bit longer to realize how valuable having a hardware store within walking distance is. (Not that I'm likely to walk the mile out of town and back, but I could. Maybe. On a good day.)

When I was paying someone to trim out and paint our house, and they were driving to Frederick and back to fetch paint or trim, and I was paying them by the hour, it didn't take long to realize any money saved on paint was more than lost in drive time! I took to insisting "If Mark stocks it, buy it from Zurgable's!" Which led to many a heated argument, which I won 'cause I was doing the paying.

But does Mark stock it? Well, that depends on what "it" is. Over the years I've bought hunting and fishing licenses there as well as a Winchester rifle, though he no longer deals in that trade. I could buy everything needed to distill alcohol, though Mark says he'd report me. Though I suspect it might take him awhile to do so if he was getting a bottle now and again, strictly for medicinal purposes. On more practical, if less interesting items, I tend to think of Zurgable's as a hardware convenience store. Most everything a balding, fumble fingered home owning Jack might need (if he knew what to do with it) is represented at the store. Basic plumbing, carpentry, welding tools and supplies. Garden hoses, fittings, fencing and such. Workshop tools from sets to single pieces as needed.

I've bought several nice pairs of work gloves that have worn very well, because, according to some people (DW and Mark) I hardly use them. Red Wing work boots, which DW says I don't have need of. Holland grills and some outdoor cookery thing called The Egg? Paints, tapes, brushes, shovels, garden forks (DW isn't allowed to use those, she tends to snap the handles off. The woman's a brute!) Window glass, various wooden and metal rods. Cleaning supplies (I try to avoid those things.) Lighting needs from simple fixtures to bulbs and tubes, stove pipes and- Well, if I don't see it I just ask Mark if he can order it for me, like the Earthway seeder he got me at a better price than I could find online!

And here's what I like about Mark, "Jack, I don't have it in stock. I can order it for you, or if you need it now I think 'so and so' in 'whatever' town carries it." Sometimes he'll even send me over the mountain to a "big box" competitor.

When Mark gets to talking about some motorcycle exploration into wine country, his last fishing trip, or pontificating on the slow demise of small town brick & mortar businesses I try to spot his patois. Whatever the librarian hears I don't. Probably my tin ear combined with my lack of exposure to outside influences during the last fifty-two years prevents me from hearing Mark's odd speech habits?

What I do hear is yet another small business owner in a small town struggling to compete with online and big box stores. What I worry about hearing is Mark someday saying "to hell with it". And him closing the store, hopping on his Harley and heading off into the sunset. Not that I'd do anything more than yell "GO for it!", but then I'd have to drive over the mountain for a roll of masking tape.

Sadly, I don't see anyone coming after Mark willing to take up servicing the Emmitsburg area.

Read other articles by Jack Deatherage, Jr.