Life and Times of Francis Matthews
I've often wondered about
the odd division of the building that now houses the
offices of Reckley's Plumbing and Dr. Curley. When most
buildings are split, its usually done equally, in half,
but not in this case. Reckley's Plumbing occupies the
western-most two-thirds, with Dr.
Curley occupying the remainder - a long narrow
sliver, as if it one housed something that needed a lot
To understand why the
building was divided the way it was requires one to go
back 110 years and follow through time the adventures of
Francis Scott Key Matthews, one of Emmitsburg's most
Born on September 25,
1888, Francis Matthews was the youngest child of John
and Laura Amorose Matthews. In many ways, Francis' life
was a reflection of his father's, from whom he learned
the importance and dignity of hard work.
John Matthews was the
son of the minister of the Church of the Brethren in
Eyler's Valley. Being without many worldly goods, John
learned many trades to get by, including farming,
masonry, and carpentry. Being willing, intelligent and
industrious, John quickly became proficient in all these
professions. Even so, he struggled to provide a suitable
level of living for his bride and their six children. To
augment his income, John drew charcoal portraits of his
neighbors and studied Veterinary Science through the
mail, a profession in which he would later achieve
Near the turn of the
20th century, John bought a farm east of Emmitsburg,
which he worked for fifteen years. During these years,
John pursued building his veterinary business. Success
in the latter however, taxed John's ability to work his
large farm and, around 1912, John sold the farm and
moved his family to a 30-acre farm within the northern
borders of Emmitsburg. Once within the town limits, it
wasn't long before John was active in town politics,
serving many years on the Town Council, and eventually serving as Burgess, or Mayor for 1913 and 1914. It was
during his tenure that electricity was first
brought to Emmitsburg.
Meanwhile, his son,
Francis, was a diligent student. Like many of his day,
he received his elementary education in a one-room
schoolhouse, in his case, the Ohler School. Upon
graduation, he attended Westminester High School where he
graduated near the top of his class.
In 1911, his older
brother John began casting about for money which he
hoped to use to open up a general store in Emmitsburg.
Potential lenders however, were a bit weary of lending
to John, whose reputation wasn't exactly stellar. John
convinced his brother Francis, at the time 21, to join
in on his venture, and with Francis' good name now on
the note, the name Matthews' Store was soon proudly
displayed on West Main Street.
The spot chosen by the
brothers for their new business was a small vacant
store, which had several years earlier been divided off
from a very old stable, still active behind it. The
brothers quickly went to work installing shelves for dry
goods and cigarettes, and ovens and frying equipment for
cooking. They promptly hit the jackpot with their fresh
fried oyster sandwiches. Every week Francis would take
orders for oysters from local residents as well as other
merchants in the area and travel to Baltimore to pick
them up. Upon return, the oysters were breaded and fried
and sold to eager customers at 10 cents a sandwich.
While the oyster
business was profitable, it was a lot of work -- too
much work for John, who soon exited the business. With
the store now turning a reasonable profit, Francis
signed on as a local distributor with the Hershey
Company. Purchasing a truck, he became a regular figure
on the local byways as he delivered their chocolate to
homes and stores throughout the area. Not afraid to put
in a long day, Francis quickly saw opportunity in the
distribution business, and soon added his own hand-made
soda and ice cream to his offerings.
Like the Zacharias
family, Francis would spend a better part of the winter
cutting ice from the then pristine Tom's Creek for his
home made ice cream, retrieving it throughout the summer from his
ice house as need demanded. As for his soda business,
Francis made every bottle one at a time. Starting with a
clean bottle, he would fill it with flavoring -
sarsaparilla, root beer, cherry, or vanilla - then add
carbonated water and cap it. Once numerous in numbers,
today, bottles bearing his name are a collector's item.
The throngs of
customers who descended for fresh ice cream throughout
the long hot summer led to the first major additions to
the store: a soda and ice cream bar and a one-lane
bowling alley. The soda/ice cream fountain was tended by
the Higbbe girls - Mary, Alice, Helen, and Lucy, whose
father, Rev. Higbee, was the pastor of the Reformed
Church. Others who worked at the soda bar over time
included Bechi Gingell, Libby Hoke, Mary
Fitzgerald, Ann Hoke, and Mamie Kelly.
Baumgardner Shank remembers fondly her trips to
the Matthews' Store as if it was just yesterday.
"The soda fountain was in the middle of the store,
up against the back wall. Sodas cost five cents, an ice
cream Sunday was another nickel - and it was the biggest
scoop in town. For another nickel, you could ride the
merry-go-round in the corner for what seemed like
forever. The store also had a 5-cent player-piano. We
used to sit and marvel as we watched the keys move up
and down without anyone touching them.
"Candy was in
glass jars on the shelves. But my favorite was the 'tub'
candy. Back in those days there was no air conditioning
in stores, so candy would often melt in the heat.
Anything that melted was placed into a 'tub' on the
floor, and at ten cents per pound, it was always the first
place us kids would go to. You could go into the store
with 25 cents in your pocket, eat and play your fill,
and still leave with a nickel in your pocket. Those were
bowling alley, which was located in the side of
the building that now houses the offices of Dr. Curley,
didn't have the marvels of today's modern bowling
alleys. Pins were set by hand and the ball was returned
to the thrower by the pin setter.
Back in the days when
it was up to individuals to produce their own
entertainment, the bowling alley and player-piano were
great draws, but they never produced much profit. The
introduction of a radio in the store in the early
1920's, one of the first in Emmitsburg, marked a turning
point for Francis. It wasn't long before the sound of
the merry-go-round and player piano where replaced by
scratchy voices from the radio. With a businessman's eye
he noted how everyone would gather around the new
contraption for hours, and realized that eventually
everyone would want a radio of their own.
Looking to catch the
radio wave early, in 1925 Francis went into the radio
distribution business. Since rural electrification was
still years away, most of his inventory consisted of
battery radios -- not the small little batteries of
today, but big, six and twelve-volt, car type batteries.
Every household had a stockpile of batteries. When
drained of power, you simply disconnected it from the
radio and replaced it with another. Drained butteries
were placed in cars and trucks, and recharged during the
short drive into town.
In order to make room
for the radio inventory, Francis shut down the bowling
alley and removed the player-piano. Initially given to
the Methodist church, the player-piano eventually made
its way to the fire station.
In 1917 Francis married
Jesse Rouser and moved into the apartment above the
store. Jesse loved to sit on the porch that overhung the
entrance to the store. Rumor had it that, thanks to her
perch, she knew all of the comings and going on the
street below her. This suited her husband just fine, as
like his father before him, once in town, it wasn't long
before Francis was involved in town politics.
In 1923 Francis was
appointed to serve out the unexpired term of deceased Commissioner
J. Lewis Rhodes. Rising in
prominence, he was reelected over and over again to board of
commissioners, and in
1928, was elected to the presidency of a town council,
that included among its ranks, the Honorable
In 1923 Jessie gave
birth to a daughter, Mary Jean. That summer, on a visit
to her grandmother, Jessie had a photo of Mary Jean
taken alongside the infant son of her long-time friend
and neighbor. No one could know that nineteen years
later the two infants would stand before an altar and
exchange wedding vows.
With the radio business
booming, the future looked bright for Francis and
Jessie, but little did they know that far away events
would cause their world to come crashing down around
them. The great depression hit Emmitsburg hard. In 1932
the local bank failed, taking with it all of the savings
Francis had accumulated over the past twenty years. With
creditors knocking at his door and clients unable to pay
their bills, things got tough.
A man of his word,
Francis persevered. Expanding his ice cream and soda pop
distribution business, a business whose profit depended
predominantly on his own efforts, he soon made good on
his debts. As time progresses, Francis even managed to
provide an income for his expanding fleet of drivers. In
1939 Francis added one more item to his inventory -
propane - and, like his other offerings, it proved
Francis was a meticulous sweeper
who helped to make the town
look clean. On nice days, when no one was in the store, he could be
found outside, tidied up the walk in front of his
store. To many, he
was a dear genial man, always immaculately dressed in dark suit, white
shirt and a watch chain stretched across the front of his
Francis' daughter, Mary
Jean grew much too quickly for her sentimental parents.
Before they knew it, she had graduated from grade
school. During her years at Emmitsburg High School, Mary
paid frequent visits to her aging grandparents in
neighboring Thurmont, where as a baby she had been
One day, her companion
in that photo, Earl Rice, now a strapping young man, was
also visiting his grandparents in the home next door.
Out of the corner of his eye, Earl caught a glimpse of
her blond hair. Over the ensuing summer, he strained to
catch her eye and, eventually, her heart. Upon
graduation from high school in 1940, Mary Jean's parents
enrolled her at
St. Joseph's College, (now home to the
National Emergency Management Agency), where she majored
in home economics.
World War II, like the
great depression before it, brought many changes to the
Matthews' family. Earl, like many youths of his age,
joined in the great campaign for freedom. Before
shipping out, he proposed to Mary Jean and she accepted.
Unable to wait for his return, upon graduating from St.
Joseph's, she received her parents' permission to join
him on the west coast and marry him. Francis, unwilling
to allow his daughter to travel alone, escorted his
daughter west in the style befitting a successful
businessman, bribing baggage handlers and inn keepers
with a suitcase full of then precious cigarettes. Mary
Jean and Earl's honeymoon was far too short. With the war
heating up to its climax, Earl, a bombardier, was soon
in the thick of it over the skies of Japan.
When the war ended,
Francis once again began casting about for the next
profitable opportunity. Having forgone luxury goods for
four years, Americans were starved for appliances and
furniture. Once again the store was expanded to handle
Francis' new line. In 1947, he added the latest
technological marvel - television - to his offerings.
The once profitable soda business, now pressed hard by
Coke and other mass produced soda-makers, was abandoned
in 1948, as were the ice cream and candy businesses.
While early televisions
held great promise, they were notoriously unreliable.
Following a tradition long established, Francis would
allow customers to take sets home to try out; many broke
within days, and were returned. Unable to return them to
their manufactures, Francis' television business was
soon hemorrhaging money.
1951, faced with impending bankruptcy, he leased out
his store and it's inventory to the Zurgable
Brothers and rented a local room where he
continued to run his struggling propane distribution
business. Once again, fortune smiled on Francis. Earl,
himself casting about for something to dig his teeth
into, saw opportunity in the propane business. Under
Earl's stewardship, Francis's Happy Gas Cooking business
quickly expanded and soon the pair oversaw the operation
of a fleet of modern trucks delivering gas to thousands
of homes in northern Frederick county and southern Adams
county. The pair also opened an appliance store in
Thurmont to help insure the demand for their bottled
When the Zurgable
brothers' five year lease on his old store on West Main
Street ran out in 1956, Francis struck a deal with the
Zurgable Brothers. Dividing the store into its present
configuration, the Zurgables continued to sell furniture
and appliances in the larger section - the section now
occupied by Reckley's Plumbing - while Francis ran his
Gas business out of the smaller section - now the
offices of Dr. Curely.
Ever the entrepreneur,
it wasn't long before Francis was once aging selling merchandise,
and of all things to sell, he chose TV's - the same
product that almost drove him into bankruptcy 5 years earlier.
This time however, he smartly chose to
concentrate on one brand, RCA, and in doing so, insured
a degree of profitability.
Brothers continued to operate their appliance, furniture
and toy store until 1968, when they opted to concentrate
on hardware and farm supplies at their new store just
outside of town, which they built into a successful
business, which, today, continues to be run by their
sons. Their old store was quickly filled by a
Western Auto Parts shop, and eventually, its current
occupants, Reckley's plumbing.) closing their Emmitsburg
In 1964 Francis's
companion and love of 47 years, passed away. In
1975, amid a major consolidation in the bottled
gas business, Francis and Earl accepted an offer for
their gas business from Penn Fuel. Earl accepted an
offer to run Penn Fuels local distribution business and
continued to do so for the remainder of his professional
working years. Francis closed his store in Emmitsburg
three years later and concentrated his efforts on his
Like many successful
businessmen, Francis thought it important to give back
to his community. In addition to serving as a town
commissioner, Francis also found time to serve as a
board member of the Methodist Church, as well as
actively participate in the Lions
Club, the Tyrian Lodge, and the Vigilant
Francis Matthews died
on Christmas Eve, 1980, leaving the world a much richer
place than when he entered it, 92 years earlier.
So next time you're in
Dr. Curley's office, let your imagination wander back in
time. Can you see giddy couples throwing
bowling balls? Can you see young Polly
Baumgartner put her nickel into the player piano and
then stand back to marvel at the keys moving without human
touch? Can you hear the piano? Walk next door to
Reckley's Plumbing, can you smell the sweet aroma
of candy? Taste the freshness of home made Ice
Cream or Soda Pop?
If you can imagine
these things, they you can begin to understand the
Cultural and Historical richness that men like Francis
Matthews brought to Emmitsburg.
During the writing of
'intersections of history' came to mind. As noted
in the article, John Matthews, Francis' father was the
town's first Veterinary Mayor, which also happens to be
the profession of our current mayor, Dr. Carr.
Like John Matthews, Dr. Carr got involved in politics
after moving to a house in town - a house next-door to
the old Matthews' store!
Have your own memories of Mathew's
Send them to us at: email@example.com
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