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The Life and Times of Francis Matthews

Michael Hillman

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 or room.

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 successful entrepreneurs.

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 considerable success.

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 Hoke, Josephine Fitzgerald, Ann Hoke, and Mamie Kelly.

Polly 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 the days."

Francis' one-lane 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 Thornton Rodgers.

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 highly profitable.

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 vest. 

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 photographed.

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.

In 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 gas.

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.

(The Zurgable 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 store)

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 Thurmont store. 

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 Hose Company.

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.  

Editors note:

During the writing of this article, several interesting '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!

Earl A. Rice, Jr. and Mary (Gene) Eugenia (Matthews) Rice

R. Scott Rice

Earl A. Rice, Jr. and Mary (Gene) Eugenia (Matthews) Rice were meant to be together. Some of the family members joke that their marriage was an arranged one. They first met in the backyard of the old Rouzer home in Thurmont from which the wall paper, now in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, came. Their mothers Jessie (Rouzer) Matthews and Helen (Creager) Rice grew up as next door neighbors and were visiting their childhood homes with their first born the same weekend some time in 1924 when someone snapped this picture.

It must have been love at first sight because they grew up separated by a mountain range and 35 miles. They would see each other on occasion during these kind of weekend visits and dated during their teens and early 20s. They mostly doubled dated, the only way Jessie found acceptable, and have many fond memories of those times. Earl sometimes got to borrow his motherís Lincoln Zephyr, so they got to date in style. Mostly he came in the Model A that he and his lifelong friend Henry Steiger owned together.

After their courtship, they were engaged and Earl was off to War, training to be a bombardier on the B-29, the most advanced warplane of its time. Gene had earlier graduated from St. Josephís College with a major in home economics and a minor in physics. Her first and only teaching job was at Emmitsburg High School teaching her minor. One of the classes she taught was engine basics.

Not being able to stand the idea of being separated, they decided to marry in California where Earl was training at Victorville Army Air Base. Gene quit her job and got ready to travel west. Francis Matthews brought his daughter by train on the 2,500 mile trip to bring these two together for their 70 plus year journey. In keeping with the good customs and scarcities at the time of war, Earl shared a room with Francis the night before the wedding, which he often jokingly asks, "How many men have done that?" They were married in San Bernardino, CA on February 24, 1943. Francis, after giving away his and Jessieís most precious daughter, travelled alone back to Emmitsburg.

Earl and Gene lived for a time in California, then onto various assignments including Pecos, TX where these East Coast kids had to contend with such things as spiders and West Texas dust storms. Earl and his crew had to travel separately on a troop train while the wives followed with one of his fellow officerís mother as a chaperone, another sign of a different time. Gene made some lifelong friends with many of the wives demonstrating the love that has endeared her to all those around her. Only a short time after their marriage, Earl and his crew were assigned to their B-29 in the South Pacific Island of Tinian. They had to travel on a troop ship to meet up with their aircraft. Gene headed back home.

At the warís end, they settled outside Mercersburg, PA, where Earl worked at his familyís goldfish farm. In 1952, he decided to take his dedicated wife and two boys, Earl A. Rice III (Gus) and Robert "Scott" Rice to Emmitsburg to work for Geneís father Francis whose business was struggling at the time. In 1954, they were blessed with a daughter Mary Ann Rice Clever. Earlís efforts helped to save the business for which Francis was always grateful. They have lived in Emmitsburg the rest of their marriage.

Their time in Emmitsburg during the 50s, 60s and 70s were dedicated to raising their children, instilling great values in them and running a business. As is the case for many marriages, theirs sometimes took work. These efforts were done with their sense of humor and knowing each other to the core. As an example, one time when the family wanted to do something that Earl wasnít supporting, Gene said wait until itís your fatherís idea. She was right.

Their seventy years together blessed them with three children, nine grandchildren, and five great grandchildren. Those of us that have known them are likewise truly blessed.

Have your own memories of Mathew's store? 
Send them to us at: history@emmitsburg.net

Read other stories by Michael Hillman

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