I like to think of Beltsville Shell as the premier gathering place in the 1960's and 1970's for car-loving people. But as popular as it was, it pales in comparison to the General Store at the center of Beltsville -- Boteler and Son. For 75+ years, and three generations, this family-owned business met the needs of Beltsville residents. And as you will read below, the ideas these guys had for the retail industry were decades ahead of their time.
The Original Boteler's Store
The original store was founded by Albert Frank Boteler (1878 - 1963) and his son, Clifford Elmore Boteler (1906 - 1980), in
1929. Albert (who was known as "Pop" Boteler, even to family members) was 51 and Clifford was 23.
Clifford was a proper and intelligent young man. Here is his photo at 16 years of age (1922).
Clifford attended the nearby University of Maryland, graduating with a degree in engineering. He used his training to help build bridges in Pennsylvania at the start of his career. He was frugal and saved his wages. Before long he was able to use the money he had saved, along with a financial contribution from Pop, to invest in the purchase of a store.
Clifford possessed excellent handwriting, and coupled with his education, he sent letters to family members that were well-written and informative, forming a family history of sorts. As the eldest son, he was an important influence which was instrumental for the cohesiveness of the family.
When Clifford started dating, he was attracted to Eileen Rolf. Whenever he came calling, instead of flowers, Clifford would bring a 24-pack of Snickers bars, or a supply of Double Mint chewing gum. Eileen and Clifford would later marry and have two sons, Clifford Elmore Boteler, Jr. ("Sonny"), and Franklin E. Boteler ("Frank").
When Boteler's Store was established, Beltsville was a rural town, with many families involved in farming or working on the USDA farms. Boteler & Son was a one-stop shop for food and supplies. At its zenith, the store sold gasoline (there were two ESSO pumps), kerosene, groceries, home goods, hay, chicken scratch, dry goods, cigarettes, and more. There was a full-service butcher shop, which also would dress game for local hunters. Pretty much anything you needed for your home or farm could be bought there.
Shortly after the Store opened, the Great Depression gripped America's
economy. How would the Store survive these times? With frugality and
creativity, of course.
The original Store (which was essentially a house) was located at the corner of Rhode Island and Prince George's Avenues. The frame building included the Store on the first floor and two apartments on the upper floor. Here is a photo of the first Store.
The location was ideal, not only because of its central site in old Beltsville, but also because the northern terminus for the Washington D. C. trolley cars was across the street, meaning that trolley passengers returning from Washington and the Maryland suburbs could pick up groceries on their way home from a long day.
By 1939 the Store had been in operation for 10 years. To thank customers, Clifford wrote a Christmas Eve letter expressing gratitude for their support of the Store, which he would pass out to customers at the register.
Buying on Credit
OK, we were now in the depths of the Great Depression, before the start of WWII, and credit cards had not yet been invented. How could subsistence workers afford to buy goods between paychecks? Clifford's answer was to offer a program called "buying on account" -- buying now, then coming to the Store to pay for your goods when your paycheck arrived.
Below is a great example of how the system worked -- each time a customer came to the Store, if they didn't have the funds to pay, Clifford would look up their account on a hand-lettered ledger and fill out a new credit slip showing the balance forward, the articles purchased today, and the new balance. The customer got a carbon copy, and the Store kept a copy.
When I read reminiscences of Boteler's Store, mostly on the Beltsville Face Book Page, people frequently describe the blessing that was afforded by being able to buy on account.
Boteler's as a Bank
In 1929, and throughout the Great Depression years, most people didn't have bank accounts. Clifford responded to the need for people to have funds by cashing their paychecks for them. This was a great service, but as we will see later, having all that cash on hand came with a risk.
Decades before Amazon and other big-box retailers came up with the idea of "home delivery", Boteler's had already added this service to their Store. People would simply call the Store on the telephone, tell a clerk what they wanted, and shortly Pop Boteler would appear at their door with all the goods boxed up. This service was essential because few families had a second car, and the one car they had was (typically) used by Dad to go to work, leaving Mom home without transportation. And there was no Delivery charge ("free shipping"!). Here is a photo of Wilbur Daley, delivery driver in May 1970.
The Internship Program
Boteler's was way ahead of the market for providing (paid) internships to high school kids. So many people have told me stories of working at the Store after school.
Darryl Richards is perhaps the poster child for kids that worked at Boteler's. During a few of his years at High Point High School (1958 - 1959) Darryl would work 4:00 PM to 7:00 PM Monday through Friday, and then all-day Saturday for $21.00 per week. Darryl relates that he was able to save enough money working at Boteler's to buy his first car. His duties included stocking the shelves, tending the cash register, making deliveries, and cleaning up the store at closing time.
[Note: See Darryl's remembrance of working at Boteler's at the end of this article]
Darryl, Buddy Chilcoat, his Mom, Jeanette, Richard Armel, Gary and Wayne Franklin, and countless other kids learned the food store business or the butcher trade at the Store. After graduation they typically could get union jobs at the chain food stores making good money because of their training at Boteler's.
Sonny Boteler tells me that through the 75-year history of the store, there were many instances of second-generation Boteler's employees. I think Boteler's had an economic impact that has never been fully realized.
A Family Affair
Pop's wife, Clifford's mother, was Eliza Vick Morse (1878 - 1966), who was originally from New
Orleans. She was responsible for the majority of the store's paperwork, which was especially hectic with the advent of ration coupons during WWII.
Clifford had a sister, Eunice Marie Boteler [Jackson]
(1907 - 1953), and a brother, Elwood Vick "Buddy" Boteler (1908 - 2006). Shortly after the Store was opened, Buddy came to work there, not as an owner, but as an employee. Eunice would come to the Store to help out nearly every day, but never wanted to be paid for the help she provided to the family.
Clifford and Buddy lived just a block from the store in two adjacent houses on the corner of Rhode Island Avenue and Powdermill Road.
Here is Clifford's house (where Sonny and Frank lived).
And next door was the house Buddy lived in with his wife, Lillian.
Living so close to the Store was fortunate because the responsibility for the Store was all-consuming.
The New Store
By 1952 the original Store was replaced by a new one, located on the same corner of Rhode Island and Prince George's Avenues. By that time a Post Office had been constructed just across the street, and less than a block away the Beltsville Volunteer Fire Department erected a building that housed the fire trucks and had a sort of community hall upstairs (which is where the Beltsville Teen Club held dances on Friday nights).
This photo, taken in 2003, is the Store that
the regulars in Beltsville Shell will remember.
Pop died in 1963 leaving Clifford and Buddy to manage the store (and Buddy became a part-owner through his inheritance). Sonny was still a student at High Point High School but worked part-time at the Store.
Clifford was a kind man with a charitable heart. The Store worked with the local Lion's Club, a charity that identified widows and needy children and supported them so that they could shop at the Store for the things they needed. The Store also supported the local churches through cash and in-kind donations. In the early days of the Store's existence people were poor, and of necessity, had vegetable gardens, raised chickens, and even make clothing from the left-over grain sacks. Boteler's was a great resource to these people.
Social Awareness and Inclusiveness
Segregation was a fact of life in Maryland in 1929, but Clifford would have none of it. People of color were welcomed to the store and afforded credit and services just like anyone else.
I believe Clifford was a man way ahead of his time and was probably never fully appreciated for his character and kindness. Here is a photo of Clifford that will be familiar to many.
The people who identify with Beltsville Shell can't think about Boteler's Store without including Clifford's older son, Sonny.
Born in 1947, Sonny lived his entire life in Beltsville in the same house. He attended Beltsville Elementary, Beltsville Junior High, and graduated in 1965 from High Point High School. Everyone knew that Sonny represented the third-generation ownership of Boteler's Store.
Kids in Beltsville in the 1960's had to share textbooks that were passed down from one class to the next -- and part of the first day of school was devoted to protecting the textbooks with school-provided thick paper covers. On the front of each cover for all the schools in Beltsville was an advertisement for Boteler's Store. Everybody knew about Boteler's.
Sonny was probably the first member of the the High Point High School Class of 1965 to own a new car. His Dad bought him a 1963 Corvair Spyder -- America's first turbocharged automobile (along with the Oldsmobile F85 Jet Fire). Sonny drove the Corvair throughout high school, and then graduated to a 1966 Corvette Roadster with the 427 engine, purchased from another Beltsville legend, Stanley Moore. Sonny liked motorcycles as much as the Corvette and owned a 1969 Triumph 650 and a 1972 Harley Sportster 900cc.
Like many of the High Point Class of 1965, Sonny attended the University of Maryland in College Park. But before long it was clear that, after the passing of Pop in 1963, and with Clifford's advancing years, Sonny was needed to support the family business. So, in 1967 he left the University to work full-time at the Store.
For 13 years Sonny worked side-by-side with his father and his Uncle Buddy running the Store. Clifford entered a period of declining health and passed on June 30, 1980 at the age of 74, leaving Sonny and Buddy to run the family business.
In addition to Sonny's new role as majority owner, he ran the meat department. From his vantage point at the rear of the Store he could keep an eye on everything and see everyone who came into the Store. The only problem with that arrangement was that everyone could see Sonny, too. Sonny relates that he felt like a good bartender -- listening to everyone's problems and troubles. Sonny's nickname for the Store was "Sonny's Shop and Gossip". Before the Internet, if you wanted to know what was happening in Beltsville, all you needed to do was to stop by Boteler's for the latest information.
Eventually the two guys, both from Greenbelt, were captured, but the money was never recovered. There were other robberies, including a home invasion robbery at Sonny's house, and robbers following Clifford home from the bank and robbing him at gunpoint.
Two additional factors made sustaining the Store extremely difficult. First, the demographic of the customers -- people who needed a general store -- was quickly changing as Beltsville became another suburban bedroom community for the ever-increasing Federal machine in Washington, D.C. The second was the encroachment of the big box stores on every community in America -- including Beltsville; fewer and fewer customers came to support the Store as time marched into the new Millennium.
Throughout all of these pressures, Sonny's cheerful disposition never waned.
As I started writing Beltsville Shell, I knew that Sonny and Boteler's Store needed to be part of the book. So, I visited the Store a few times in 2001 and 2002. I could see that the longevity of the enterprise could not be assured.
A critical theme of "Beltsville Shell: You Are What You Drive" is the loyalty to an automobile brand. In talking with Sonny and Frank they reminded me that, "Back then a family was partly identified by the kind of car it had. Clifford bought a new car every three years -- always a Chevy. In large part you were either a Chevy or a Ford family. The Botelers were a Chevy family."
When we held our first Beltsville Shell Reunion in 2002, Sonny was in attendance. He has attended all 17 reunions for the past 18 years. Here is Sonny (seated at the head of the table) at the first reunion.
By 2006 Buddy had died, and it was time to bring an end to Boteler's Store after more than 75 years of service to the community. A sadder event could not be experienced. The local newspaper wrote an article about the demise of Boteler's and how the big discount stores had claimed another victim. Channel 7 News came to the Store to interview Sonny and expressed that it was "so sad to see another small business closing". This story was picked up by national news as well, giving Sonny his 15 minutes of fame.
Sonny has survived life without the Store, but he has moved from Beltsville. His life-long friendships are as strong as ever and he is dearly loved by all who know him. He is still a "car guy" and loves Corvettes. He is a huge fan of the Beltsville Shell book and tells everyone about it -- he loves the way it captured a special time in our mutual lives.
Frank graduated from the University of Maryland, and then left Beltsville to earn Masters and Doctoral degrees from Pennsylvania State University. His academic accomplishments led to high level leadership positions in the USDA and environmental programs in many States including West Virginia, North Carolina, Idaho, and Washington State. He shared with me a very personal and thought-provoking memory. He told me, "My most meaningful memory of the store was something my father said to me about it. I drove back to Beltsville for the Christmas Holiday when I was a young college professor and it was clear to everyone in the family I was headed my own way. My father had already had a serious heart attack and was a weakened man. I drove him around Beltsville to see the Christmas lights and in the only meaningful thing he ever said to me he related, 'It's good you're not going with the store, there's no future in it.'"
At Clifford's funeral, Frank's eulogy included a comment to clarify the impact that Store ownership had on the Boteler family, "The store wasn't a place they went to work. It was a place they went to live their lives. Twelve hours a day for six days a week."
Boteler's Store as a Metaphor for Life Itself
After writing this blog post, I have decided that Boteler's Store is a metaphor for Life itself.
You begin filled with enthusiasm and hope. You spend a lifetime trying hard to survive life's pressures, but in the end, no matter how much you give, you will succumb to the inevitable. But if you have had a good heart, and cared about others, you will be thought of in the fondest of terms and remembered as a particularly good person.
I want to thank the people who helped in the writing of this article. Foremost, Sonny, who spent hours talking with me about the Store and shared so many of the photos seen here. Ralph Bull, who sparked the idea of writing about the Store and also contributed photos and memories. Darryl Richards, who has written his own memoir of what it was like to work at the Store (see below). Frank Boteler for his reflections. And Canon Thomas, Sonny's biggest fan, for editorial assistance.
Cary Thomas, April 2021
Boteler's Store -- 1958
1958 was when I got my first job and it was at Boteler's Store in Beltsville, Maryland. I was looking to buy a car to drive to school and a way to avoid asking my Dad if I could use his car -- he didn't mind, but I wanted a custom Ford that my brother owned.
Anyway, my friend, Buster Chilcoate, asked me if I wanted to work with him at Boteler's Store to replace his brother, Bobby, who had quit to take a job at Food Fair in College Park. Bobby and Buster's Mom was a clerk at the store and she knew me. So I was a shoe-in to get the job.
I was paid $21.00 a week working after school from 4:00 - 7:00 weekdays, and 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM on Saturday. When you worked at Boteler's you needed to be a jack of all trades -- you ran the cash register, cut meat, stocked shelves, delivered feed, pumped gas. They had ESSO gas pumps in front of the store which we also used to gas up the delivery trucks.
Pop Boteler drove a 55 or 56 Chevy van, and we also had a 3/4 ton flatbed truck to haul straw and hay to local animal owners. Pop Boteler delivered the small items and we young guns would deliver the heavy stuff on the flatbed truck.
The store was a big part of Beltsville. For example, I remember that my family would have to drive quite a distance to Bladensburg to shop at the Safeway store. Boteler's was much more convenient and carried everything you needed to avoid the long drive to the only Safeway near Beltsville. Since Kenilworth Avenue wasn't built then, you needed to take the old two-lane Edmonston Road to Bladensburg.
Speaking of old roads, one day when I was working with Pop Boteler he showed me a picture of him with a horse-drawn wagon going up Route 1 to get supplies for the store from the markets in Baltimore. Route 1 was a dirt road until it was paved in 1913.
I remember that Clifford ran the register and books and Buddy cut the meat. Buster and I would fill in wherever we were needed. There was a storage building behind the store where they kept the hay, straw, horse feed, etc. and Buster and I would load up the the truck with whatever the locals needed. Buster and I were well liked by Clifford and Buddy and we somehow managed to stay out of trouble when one of them would leave us unsupervised while they went home (just 1 block away) for lunch.
Saturday was the big day at Boteler's selling meat, stocking shelves, pumping gas, etc. Buster and I got along very well wiht each other as we also hung out together after work and on weekends.
Clifford was famous for running a tab for people short of money on some weeks. He was a great man with a big heart, very soft spoken. I never saw him lose his temper.
Saturday was Pay Day, just in time for Saturday night dating. You would get your $21.00 for a week's work. I would go home, pay my Mom $10.00 as my installment payment on my load for my first real car, leaving me $11.00 -- but that was plenty of money for dates and gas for the car. Thankfully, my parents paid my car insurance.
Vansville was one of our delivery locations and one family bought lots and lots of sugar, so one day I asked Clifford, "Why do they buy so much sugar?". He just laughed and moved onto another subject.
[Editor's note: the family was running a moonshine still!]
I also remember that Jim Noll's brother also worked at Boteler's. It was such a great job for local teenagers to earn money. Adults also found Boteler's as a good place to work. For example, Mrs. Dudley, mother of my friend Richard Dudley, was a clerk at the store for many years.
For Buddy Boteler, Briggs meat company would bring a beef hind corner about once per week, and Buddy, me, or Buster would help cut the meat, grind hamburger, etc. I often laugh when I think that a pound of hamburger was 49 cents and a box of Cherrios was about the same price! What a deal!
Boteler's sold all manner of things: vegetables, eggs, milk, bread, you name it -- they sold it. They even sold farmer's Bib Overalls! A half loaf of Kester bread was 13¢ and sodas out of the vending machine in the back of the store sold for 5¢
I remember that "Sonny" (Clifford's son, Clifford Junior) and his younger brother "Frankie" would stop by the store once in a while to grab a Coke -- they were 5 and 8 years respectively younger than me and Buster.
Interesting fact: Sonny's Aunt Lillian (Buddy's wife) was always stopping by the store to say hello and everyone in Beltsville loved her because she was such a nice lady. When she passed on, most of the store owners on US Route 1 came out to the edge of the highway and stood in silence as her body was driven to her resting place. That shows you what it was like in a small town with a family-owned store that most people had shopped at at one time or another.
Darryl Richards, April 2021