Goodbye, Guttenberger’s Store

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Goodbye, Guttenberger’s Store

By Jackie Nickel
(The Avenue News 5/30/1991)

A chapter of Essex history concludes today as John Guttenberger closes for the last time the doors of the general store at the corner of Eastern and Mace that his family first opened in 1910. Poor economy rather than age or health is the reason John cites for his retirement. “I’m lucky if I sold one soda and a pack of cigarettes a week in the last few months,” says the white-haired proprietor who has been a fixture at the store since age eight. Now with his business licenses up for renewal June 1, the 88-year-old gentleman is ready to close shop rather than face another year of losses.

John, along with his nephew George Guttenberger and niece Joann Geiger gathered recently to reminisce about the significant role of their family in Essex history.

John’s memories go back to the early 1900s in Highlandtown where Henry and Barbara Guttenberger began raising their family with John the oldest, then Mike, and later Anna and George born in Essex. Henry was a grocer with a store on Lombard Street and a home on Foster Ave. He had aspirations to offer his family a better way of life – a life in the country.

Beckoning to the east down the shell road and across the sparkling waters of Back Rive, was a new way of life, an innovative development called Essex: “the rising suburb of the east,” so dubbed by the developer. Sixteen cents a day could buy a lot, priced at $150 and up – “about 2¢ a square foot.” Terms were $5 down and $5 a month.

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Henry Guttenberger, a wise businessman as well as a smart investor, knew as the settlement of Essex grew, so would the need for a general store. He approached the Schluderberg-Kurdle (Esskay) Company for backing and in 1910 moved into the custom-designed store with upstairs living quarters at the prime location in the center of Essex. The store was equipped with solid oak shelves, decorative moulding and built-in bins for spices and vegetables. Remarkably, it looks much the same today. A wide front porch allowed for lounging by customers who frequented the store not only for groceries, but for dry goods including clothes, and even for Henry’s services as justice of the peace.

The name “Essex” did not catch on right away, recalls John. Folks still referred to the growing community as Rossville, the postal designation.

Attached to the store was a packing house where local truck farmers would bring their tomatoes to be canned. John remembers looking across the shell road and seeing nothing but woods: a glance to the left would bring a glimpse of the one-room schoolhouse (now the comer of Taylor Ave.) An occasional horse and buggy would pass by: the streetcar line went only as far as Back River Bridge.

John began working at the new store almost immediately, putting in full-time hours after he left school at the end of third grade. “All us kids worked in the store,” he explains. Besides waiting on customers, weighing food and stocking shelves, they also delivered to customers’ homes, either by foot or horse and buggy. As the community grew, so grew the business. “Doing $1,000 business on a Saturday was nothing,” interjects Mr. Guttenberger.

Social life in those days revolved around the church and the Guttenbergers were loyal members of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish, attending weekly if not daily Mass, chicken dinners, plays and other “socials.” There were lots or kids in the neighborhood to call on for a game of stick ball, tag or a romp in the woods.

Henry Guttenberger had milk, bread and meat delivered to the store but made a weekly buggy trip to Baltimore markets for products such as Gold Dust soap powder, Fels Naptha and Octagon soap (a few or which still sit on the shelves). By the 1920s, the store had added gasoline pumps for automobiles and was delivering goods as far away as Middle River.

Some of the early customers John recalls are Joe Banz, Ida Hawk, Melvin Brehm, Charles Fousek, Ronald Benedict, Thomas Seubert, John Reese, Laura Regulski, Howard Hundley, Joe Schamer and Marie Bradley.

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In 1921, John’s brothers George and Mike left the store to open a car agency selling Model T’s and other automobiles on an Eastern Ave. lot where the Essex Medical Center now stands. Neither John nor his sister Annie ever married and continued running the store with their dad after their mother’s death in 1929.

In the 30s, the Depression was felt by the business as well as the family. Folks were just buying necessities, relates John. As for the Guttenberger family, Henry, who always enjoyed “gunning”, began bringing home more of his prey to help feed the clan.

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In the 40s, as Middle River boomed with the opening of Glenn L. Martin Company, the general store boomed also. The store was open from 8 to 4 daily, and just a half day Wednesdays, informs John, and at night they’d stock the shelves. “Our father had us working all the time – you know bow the Germans are …”

Unfortunately, the 50s began a downward slide for the store which never quite recovered to its previous prosperity. A massive fire in the Essex business district put many merchants out on the street and although Guttenberger’s wasn’t affected physically, it drained shoppers from Essex to other areas such as Middlesex and Eastpoint.

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Goodbye, Guttenberger’s Store, Part 2

By Jackie Nickel
(The Avenue News 6/6/1991)

A lot of well-known people have 10 visited Guttenberger’s Store, recalls owner John Guttenberger who closed the business last week after 81 years of operation. Long a meeting place for locals, the store was also visited by former politicians Ted Venetoulis, Don Hutchinson. Dennis Rasmussen, and Norman Lauenstein and was the subject of several newspaper articles which John has saved. Just a few 11 weeks ago Guttenberger’s was featured on WJZ’s “Maryland by George” with George Baumann who discovered the store while In Essex on another assignment.

Some of the most frequent clients of bygone days were children. Coming In with a nickel, they spent many minutes choosing penny candy from the confection case. John’s niece Joann Geiger especially remembers the red hot dollars, lollipops and licorice sticks. A dime would buy you a whole bagful. Although Guttenberger’s never had a fountain, they served hand-dipped ice cream which kids would sit out on the front steps to eat.
When his sister Anna died in 1965, John took over the business singlehandedly, closing only in the event of severe illness. “He’s never had a vacation and never travelled past Towson,” interjects nephew George Guttenberger. John never considered modernizing the store, other than replacing the porch when it began to deteriorate. The same oak shelves, old- time meat scale and cash register that greeted customers years ago are there today.

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John’s retirement was not a long-planned event. “I just made up my mind a couple weeks ago.” nods the owner. License fees were due and business down to almost nothing. John hasn’t handled meat at the store for over 10 years and a few staples, sodas, and cigarettes were the mainstay of his stock.


…next day. They regularly “charged” a week’s groceries with the tab tallied by John In a large ledger: he never used an adding machine. There were a few, however, who never paid up, and their names are still recorded in the back or John’s ledger. Most are dead now.

About the only hobby John kept up with over the years has been caring for the plants which decorate his storefront windows, some 50 years old.
John still drives a car, but only to church on Sunday. Although his roots are at Mt. Carmel where he served as an altar boy and attended dally Mass for years, he switched to St. Clare’s Parish since it was less distance to travel.

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What does he look forward to in retirement? John’s not sure. “I’ll just take it easy for a while then decide what to do.” His family hopes he will travel a bit and see a little of the world. “A lot of businesses have come and gone In Essex,” says nephew George, “but John’s always been here. I hate to see it happen,” he adds of his uncle’s retirement, “but he’s paid his dues.”

One plan John announced last week is sure to please his old friends and customers – he says he and his 14-year-old dog Boomer will continue to lounge on the wide wooden porch or the store when weather permits. Old habits are hard to break.

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Thomas Nickel’s 2016 Golf Accomplishments


Thomas with golf great, Ernie Els

Jackie’s grandson Thomas made his hole-in-one at 11 years old and made his eagle at 12 years old, both at Waverly Woods Golf Course in Marriottsville, MD.



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My Story of Cancer: Cause, Care and Cure

By Jackie Nickel (2003)

“I’m afraid we’ve got some bad news. The tumor was malignant.”

The words had hardly left the surgeon’s lips when the numbness set in. I went dead inside, stone cold, seeming to look down from above on this unbelievable scene in a
doctor’s office on Belair Rd. three and a half years ago. How could a stupid lump on the inside of my upper arm, nowhere near my breast or vital organs, be cancer?

It wasn’t a skin cancer, this damned lump, but a growth deep inside my arm. It was soft and moveable, the size of a jelly bean, when I first felt it while rubbing my
arm a year before. I mentioned it to a doctor who told me it was probably just a lypoma, a fatty non-malignant tumor, but should be removed anyway. He referred me to a
surgeon downtown at Mercy Hospital, writing the phone number on a card. Then life stepped in and the card got lost among the receipts and gumwrappers in the bottom of
my purse. The lump was just a harmless ball of fat anyhow.

Life and times

There was a hotbed of political strife in my community in the year 2000 with Senate Bill 509 and the referendum/election and I was right in the middle of
it. Trips to Annapolis, meetings, strategy sessions, petitions, lobbying, ear and elbow bending. Every time I’d feel the lump, it would remind me of my promise to get
it taken care of but there just wasn’t time, especially to travel to a not-so-great part of the city to an unfamiliar medical practice. I even went so far as to call my
insurance company to make sure they’d cover a procedure at Mercy and there was no problem. But I put it off.

In early 2001 it was obvious that the lump was growing and becoming more solid and attached. Things had settled down in my life and I finally made an appointment with a
surgeon I knew at Franklin Square.

Dr. A. Vanguri checked out the lump and agreed it had to be removed but I insisted on his using just a local anesthetic. I’m usually more afraid of being “put under”
than of surgery itself, and I’ve had my share of both. The operation, done in an OR at Franklin Square, seemed to go OK although it took longer than I anticipated.
Through the numbness I could feel Dr. V. pulling to release the tumor which had grown to the size of a small egg. Of course it was sent for biopsy, which brings us to
my follow-up visit, described above.

The word CANCER sends chills down my spine and seems to stick in my throat as I try to say it. My parents both died of the horrible disease, but theirs was LUNG cancer
caused by years of smoking. I’ve never smoked so why…? I drove home in a fog, repeating Hail Marys over and over and over. Then I started cleaning house, throwing
things out. No use leaving all this junk for my kids to go through when I’m dead. And I hadn’t even told them yet.

Plan of attack

Dr. V. sent me to see Dr.George Elias, Chief of Surgical Oncology at Franklin Square, a man known for his precise treatment of the disease. My son John
went with me, all 6-ft. 7 of him. He was the rock to lean on as I almost passed out during the explanation of my cancer and more surgery to come. This was a very
aggressive type of blood-borne cancer, some of which still remained in my arm and might have spread beyond. Dr. Elias warned me of the consequences of not following
through on treatment until I told him I didn’t want to know any more. He was stern yet fatherly and I knew my life was in this man’s hands.

There were CT scans and blood tests and the decision to do surgery followed by radiation or chemotherapy, depending on the outcome. I was so cold during those days of
testing and waiting, I felt like I was already in the tomb. Meanwhile, I found great relief in talking to anyone who would listen, but especially those who had lived
through the disease. And I prayed. I prayed in church and in the car, in bed and in the grocery line. I put myself on the prayer list at Mt. Carmel and friends put me
on prayer lists all the way from Hope Lutheran in Middleborough to the Monastery in Catonsville.

The next surgery went well with excellent treatment in the oncology unit at FSH where I spent one night. Dr. E. set up the unit, the nurses told me, with private rooms
and lots of personnel to attend to patients’ needs. But when I went back for my check-up, Dr.Elias wasn’t happy. “Our margin isn’t good enough,” he said. “We have to go
back in.” I wasn’t at all upset, but thankful for a surgeon who wanted more than just “good enough” for me. I was blessed.

We had to wait until my foot-long incision “cooled down” enough to go in again. I was taking vitamins and drinking green tea and meditating a lot to prepare myself for
the next round. Cards and flowers were coming in from friends and relatives and my kids got me laughing when my mood was at its darkest. My friend Carole who had nursed
more than one person through cancer was perhaps my best support, a sounding board at any time, day or night.

Then I discovered a power within myself, a glowing white light I could visualize flowing into me, warming my bones and burning away the poison of cancer. I could turn
it on at any time, anywhere. I welcomed the whiteness throughout my body and surrendered to its healing as I went under the knife for a third time. All went well in the
hospital and I nervously waited for the biopsy “margin” results. A few days later, my son and I went to Dr. Elias’ office for the report and ran into him in the waiting
room. He opened his arms saying “We’re clear now” and I gave him a big hug and cried.

Then we discussed treatment to make sure all stray cancer cells were destroyed. Dr. E. ordered six weeks of radiation treatments and check-ups four times a year for who
knows how long. I didn’t care. I was still alive.

Franklin Square radiation machines at the time couldn’t rotate around my arm the way my treatment mandated so I was sent to St. Joe’s for treatment. The staff there was
wonderful but it was tough sometimes as my arm became redder and more tender to drive to Towson in the hot summer of 2001. I bought an off-white, long-sleeved, light-
weight man’s cotton shirt at the thrift store to protect my arm. I wore it over a tank top every single day that summer, washing it out each night. It was loose fitting
enough to accommodate the vaseline-saturated gauze that soothed my burned arm and it slipped off easily several times each day when I soaked my arm in a healing
solution. It protected my arm from the sun when I began to work my way through the weeks outside in the garden. And it kept me from getting arrested since I couldn’t
wear a bra.


Following the radiation treatments came exercise to regain strength in my arm. But I was still very tired, whether it was from stress or the radiation or a
combination I don’t know. So I continued to work part-time waiting to build up my stamina. I read and took naps and long drives with friends, appreciating each day.
When I turned 60, I decided to collect my Social Security widow’s benefits rather than waiting until age 62 or 65. A few dollars more wasn’t worth the gamble I thought.
I could do freelance writing parttime and devote the rest of the week to community work and enjoying the things I’d been missing out on. The most wonderful new
diversion came with the birth of my grandson Thomas 16 months ago.

I didn’t die from the cancer but learned to live through it. I made it with the help of faith, friends, family and wonderful care. This doesn’t mean the cancer can’t or
won’t come back. I had a basal cell skin cancer removed from the bridge of my nose just this summer. The disease can return in many forms, especially in a family so
predisposed and I’m always on the alert for signs, sometimes over anxious perhaps. But I know where to go to get help when I need it. And it’s all close to home now…
so there are no more excuses for putting things off.

P.S. Since my diagnosis going on four years ago, many of my friends and acquaintances are undergoing similar battles. My personal prayer list seems to be getting longer
as months go by. Early detection is the key to beating cancer so please get regular check-ups and know your own body signs. Let your inner light guide you to peace,
health and happiness. J.N.

A few years later the cancer returned. Jackie passed away on August 17th, 2007, a few weeks after her 65th birthday.

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