By Tony Russo
When the Rigbie Hotel burned in late January, the displaced residents received near-total community support. People wanted to help as they often do after large-scale misfortune, but this outpouring also engaged a sadness about what had been lost long before the place caught fire.
Even though it hadn’t operated as a restaurant and bar for more than two decades, the destruction of the building touched a nerve. It didn’t so much provoke nostalgia as sadness as people recalled a Laurel fundamentally changed since the time the Rigbie was part of the downtown.
It was as if it drove home the point of how much Laurel has changed since the coming of the box stores, strip malls and the highway they occupy that takes people around rather than through Laurel.
I reached out to a number of people asking if they’d share their memories about the Rigbie Hotel and the town and characters that distinguished Laurel. We’ve stitched these stories together with a little context as a way of honoring the memory of the former downtown.
For much of the 20th century, in Laurel, walking wasn’t just common, it was also convenient because there was plenty close and the shops and distractions were diverse enough that a trek to the (old) Salisbury Mall wasn’t much worth the effort.
Lora Cooper: Across the street [from the Rigbie] when I was young, in the mid- to late-60s was the youth center. Friday night, Saturday night, it was like all teenagers were there. They had dancing and a snack bar. Everything you needed was in town. The Rigbie was a hotel bar and like, snacks and pizzas. We had a Five and Dime, we had Silco’s, we had a Hallmark store, Western Auto, a fabric store, shoe store, everything right there in town.
Cathy Kennard: There was a time when I was very young when [my] mom regularly sent me on errands. I’m not sure how old I was. In fact, I’m not even sure I was in school yet. Sometimes mom would send me to one of the two drugstores in town to get Cokes and snacks. Other times, she sent me to a bar to get cigarettes. It wasn’t a problem then, but can you imagine a child buying cigarettes now? The bar is long gone now, but it was on the corner across from Moyer’s drugstore and catty-corner from the bank with the big clock.
Sandy Gaye Reid-Honess: [Her grandfather, Elva “Babe” Carey, lived at the Rigbie in the 1970s] I think he liked having a little independence. He could walk anywhere he wanted in town. He could go to the library, he could go to Silco's Department Store. You had everything right there in that little community, you know, the drug store, Connor's drug store. Go in and get a milkshake. You know, get your pills and a milkshake, and you know, Johnny Janosik’s, Frank Calio’s shoe store.
Wayne King: But there again, at that time, there used to be lots of dining restaurants in town, but they went by the wayside, everything else started moving out. It was one of the last major things that got to stay, you know?
In its heyday, the Rigbie was a proper hotel, which at the time meant it had both transients — traveling salesmen, people in town on other business — as well as residents. In addition to the things we expect from a bar, there was also a place for a lively card-playing community. People would take up the tables in the middle of the room for pinochle and gin.
Kendall Jones: They had a horse and ... a seated [cart] that met the trains, of course. We had several trains stopping here every day and we had a lot of what they called drummers, salesmen that would come here and stay in that hotel and then go out and hire a horse and buggy and go out and sell [to] all the country stores in the area.
The same people every so many weeks. You get the same drummers’ names coming and staying over for a night or two and going out because every little community had a country store in the 20s and 30s. The railroad was a big, big thing for the town.
[By the 1960s] The dining room was not open to the public, they just had this arrangement with the club to serve those particular Thursday nights and there was a large room that I think back in the ‘30s had been a very popular nightclub called the Rigbie Cove. They had bands so I've been told (this was a little before my time) but it had been a very popular place.
Wayne King: There was a gentleman, they called him Puggy Jones. His name was Elmer Bratton. His eyesight wasn't very good. And I'm trying to think of the other gentleman's name. I know right where he lives, but course they're all gone now. They played [gin] every day and they’d argue, just like cats and dogs, you know, and keep in mind, now I'm in my 30s (at the time), they're in their 70s.
Mr. Bratton, he laid them down and he had the two-three-four of hearts, five of diamonds, six of hearts, and he call out gin. He had his red cards, you know. The other gentleman, he wouldn't notice it. He'd get mad, throw his cards up in the air.
Well, maybe a few days later, the same thing would happen on the other side; Mr. Bratton wouldn't notice [the other guy call gin on the wrong cards]. It just worked itself out; it was never no real hostility.
Carrie Steelman: We would have dinners and they would have their [club] meetings and things of that sort. I just remember being very vintage, like antiquey inside. It was very beautiful inside. It looked like, in a good way, an old grandmother's home with a lot of the woodwork and things of that sort. It was like a restaurant area or banquet area where they would serve people.
Kendall Jones: On the first floor, you could go in a door beyond where the bar operated, that I suppose was really the entrance to the hotel because there was a stairway there and a hallway. In the back it was set up as a dining room.
Wayne King: That was all within the, I'll say the center of the building. They sort of reserved things on the east end of the building, if a man and his wife wanted to come in and have a little bit of privacy, you know, all the rowdy group was down on the other end of the building.
Lora Cooper: We moved to Laurel when I was a year old from Chicago, but the Rigbie was always, I mean, that was the middle of town just about. And every Friday night, faithfully, we had to have pizzas from the Rigbie. I can remember you would have to go in the little, like this little bar area, and there were all these animals hanging on the wall. I was little, and looking around at those animals hanging on the walls was very strange. I remember there was like a ram because the ram always freaked me out looking at it when I was little, animals everywhere. There was a moose.
John Trivits: There were booths along the wall. I want to say along the front wall, maybe a dozen booths and then just a few little round tables. And then, you know, the whole, all the seating at the bar, probably for 18 to 20 people.
You went in the front door to go in the bar. You turn right to go into the dining room and I remember going in there like a condemned child, like, I'm going somewhere I'm not supposed to be. You just walked in there and you just were in awe of everything. And of course, it was old. They never remodeled or anything. It was just a dingy, like, almost spooky too, you know, 7 or 8 year old.
Wayne King: It was probably about 10-foot ceilings. They had paddle fans in there, and then there was starting to be issues with smoking. You know, people started complaining about smoking, and [owner Dick Culver] put in these great big, humongous vacuum cleaners, I want to say in the walls, to suck the nicotine and smoke out.
[He would clean them on Sundays and] they were nasty. I could not believe how much, how filthy they got from week to week. I mean, not everybody smoked, but if you went in there? Yeah, you were smoking. You know, unbeknownst to you, but you were. At that time, we wasn't really concerned about it.
I never remember a jukebox being up there, and I'm sure there was, but I don't ever remember one because it was too much talk going on, you know?
Cathy Kennard: One of my favorite errands was going to the Rigbie Hotel to get a pizza. I could not go directly into the bar but had to go in the main entrance and then down the hallway to a small door that led to the back of the bar. I would order and pay for the pizza and then wait on a bench in the hallway. When the pizza was ready, someone would stick their head out of the door and call to me, and I would go get it. The best part was that along with the pizza, the bartender would also give me one or two cherries. I loved those cherries!
Wayne King: I will say that looking back on it, it was segregated. I don't know if that was by choice or something. There was a package store on the back of it and they accepted everybody, you know, but if people come up there to get meals to go, they came into the package store or to get meals but as far as coming into the bar ... I look back on it, you know, I mean, I never thought about it at the time. I think about it more and more now because of everything that's going on.
Second probably only to the pizza (which we’ll get to in a moment), memories of the Rigbie centered around its place as a home for many of the town’s civic and fraternal organizations. The monthly meetings didn’t just make the place feel like home for plenty of non-drinkers, but also the children who would tag along to the various events these clubs held.
Carrie Steelman: I do remember one time they had waitresses of some sort to wait on everyone. Everyone was making a comment about the salad dressing being so delicious they actually had to bring out more. But when they brought it back out, it wasn't the same as the original one. Come to find out one of the waitresses accidentally put coleslaw dressing in the dressing container, and everybody just loved it on their salads.
Kendall Jones: It was where the Lions Club had dinner, so I guess for 20 years from about 1960 till about 1990 I went there twice a month for dinner. There was um, there was an old upright piano in the room. We usually hired a high school kid to play music during dinner while we ate and then we always sang before our business meetings. And I don't know how some of those kids played that old piano but they seemed to enjoy it. My son (Kent) was one of those kids, and I think he was maybe 14 or so and he started playing there. But it was a little income and he enjoyed it.
During dinner, he could play whatever on his own, popular songs at the time and whatever. But the Lions had a songbook with all the old regular songs that were, you know, from when we used to do a lot more group singing.
We had printed song books and we had a song leader and he'd pass out the books and say, No. 17, No. 22 or whatever and the piano player would take it up. And that was a nice little relaxing bit, at least for me.
Carrie Steelman: I actually graduated from Laurel High School in 1996. My dad, James Littleton, was a member of the Laurel Exchange Club, and they would have their meetings there once a month with dinner and then on special occasions, they would have the wives and children there.
So like Christmas parties, and then my mom (Janice Littleton) was the director of the Little Miss and Miss Laurel pageant. So occasionally they would have the Miss and Little Miss Laurel there.
Santa came to visit the children, and I remember everyone got a present from him (I don't quite remember what it was, but more than likely something Barbie) and then got to tell him what they wanted for Christmas.
I won little Miss Laurel in 1983 and Miss Laurel 1996.
It was greeting and talking to the members of the Exchange Club and things of that sort, and them introducing themselves to you and your family.
Wayne King: I became very good friends with the owner. I mean, he was into horse racing. I was into horse racing and a lot of our friends were into it. On Sundays we would go up there. It was closed, but that's when he sort of cleaned the place up and restocked and whatnot. After that, if there was a horse race going on, we would all load up and go to the races that afternoon somewhere over in Laurel, Maryland, or up to Brandywine, or Freehold, New Jersey.
Well, being that Dick was the proprietor, he would get like a case of beer and some whiskey and stuff and take with us. It didn’t cost us anything, but he didn't drive, so we would drive in our group and we'd all run up there and do our thing.
But he would always take the Crown Royal with him on Sundays. Through the week? No, the cheapest whiskey that's doing, but on Sundays, Crown Royal, the best you can get.
The transition from hotel to rooming house followed pretty soon after the drummers stopped getting off the trains to sell their wares. In the earliest days, it was mostly men, though after the bar closed several families took up residence there as well.
Sandy Gaye Reid-Honess: Now I remember going in the front, they were like double doors, on the front of the Rigbie and we had a big long porch on the front and there was walkers out. I remember rockers that were there for the older people.
Kendall Jones: Some of those years when I went in for the Lions Club, there were a couple men, I think, still living there and certainly the rooms were there. I don't know what condition they were in or anything. There's been a hotel there probably since the early 1800s. It was called the Cannon and there was a fire in the 1890s. And it was rebuilt as the Rigbie.
Cathy Kennard: The bar was long and narrow and [my grandfather] had a room just above it. The room, like the bar, was long and narrow and had the advantage of having two windows because it was a corner room. I remember a single bed, neatly made, a radio and a chair.
Kendall Jones: I don't know how they managed with bathrooms, but I think early advertisements showed that as having hot and cold running water in every room, so there must have been some plumbing. I guess it was three stories and there was an outside stairway that led up to the third floor.
Sandy Gaye Reid-Honess: [My grandfather] was proud of that room. He loved that he could smoke up that room to his heart's content. It's not quite as big as the standard hotel room, it was not like a fancy-schmancy condo thing. I would go down and use the bathroom if I had to, and everything was clean and neat and everybody was friendly. I remember it was an older community. It was more of your like, retired, older workers.
Below: A portion of the 1904 obituary of Thomas Cannon, the owner of the Cannon Hotel that later would become the Rigbie.09 Jun 1904, Thu The Evening Journal (Wilmington, Delaware) Newspapers.com
Wayne King: In the wintertime, it would get cold and they would come down and say, “It’s freezing up there, Dick, you got to turn the furnace up.”
He says, “I’ve got it turned up, look at the thermostat.”
They’d go over and look at it, and it'd be set on like 75 or 80, and just soon as they’d go back upstairs, he'd set a lamp back up by the thermostat so it radiated heat and kicked it off.
I used to say, “Oh my God, it’s a wonder they don’t come down here and hit you upside the head!”But he says, “Look, it costs a lot of money to run that up there!”
You know, it was an old building [with] no insulation, I’m sure it did.
This is one occasion on a busy evening, one night, and in the wintertime, and a gentleman was sitting at the bar. He'd been there quite a while.
He put his coat and Mr. Culver says, “What? Are you going home?
He says, “No, I'm going to the bathroom. It’s so daggone cold in there, you’ll freeze to death.”
And of course, looking back on it and walking into the bathroom in the wintertime, the pipes froze and there was icicles hanging from the ceiling down.
Sandy Gaye Reid-Honess: Walking in the front doors to the left big stairway, there were wooden stairs. You go up ‘em. I guess, gosh, it must have been three floors. [My grandfather] was on the very first floor and it had long hallways, just like a hotel, you know? All down there with those wooden brown doors. I’d come down the hallway and there's the door with, not a skeleton key, he had his own key, but it was an old lock. Some of the door handles, I think, were like crystal, like glass.
He'd be waiting for us. He'd either be waiting on the front porch, smoking cigarettes, or he'd be up in his room, I can just see him now. You know, sitting with his legs crossed.
Pizza is inexpensive and celebratory by nature. Like beer, the best pizza is the one you’re having now, and childhood and young-adult Friday pizza nights seem as if they were the primary thing people miss about the Rigbie Hotel.
John Trivits: We always marveled why the pizza was so good because it was frozen cardboard crust. You know what I mean? Frozen sauce out of a can and cheese, but everybody would die for a Rigbie pizza. On Friday nights, and that's all [Culver] did was cook pizzas on the old fashioned pizza oven with slide-out. He's checking it every six or seven minutes to see if it's done, and he cooked two pizzas at a time. It was great. It's a great memory for a lot of people in the town.
Sandy Gaye Reid-Honess: Oh my gosh, these little pizzas, these brick oven pizzas they make and you can ask anybody around town. Those pizzas would sell like hotcakes on Friday nights, for some reason Friday night, maybe that's because it's movie night.
Wayne King: They were really good and then all of a sudden the pizza business fell off and, I included, stopped getting them.
And he said, “Why aren't you buying them?” And I says, “They're no good, no more.”
“What do you mean, ‘They’re no good!?’”
Of course, he didn’t eat them.
“You've done something,” I says. “You've changed them up.”
“I ain't changed nothing!”
And then his wife, Ruth, she says, “Dick, you know you did as you started buying that different cheese and that different sauce; that man said that you could save so much money.”
So he started asking and then everbody says, “Yeah, they don't taste right, no more.”
So he got rid of that, and he started making them the old way, you know, even though they were a little bit more expensive, you know, but he's wanting to make more money, which I understand that too.
He said, “I just have to put the price up,” but everybody was more agreeable.
John Trivits: I remember one particular story, a gentleman called in and ordered a pizza and he was going to come pick it up for him and his wife. He was one of the town characters. His name was Chester Taylor, he’s long since deceased, but he ordered this pizza and everybody knew him and he was a big jokester, so they got his pizza all ready.
Before he got there, some of the guys at the bar took his pizza out of the box and put one of these big giant glass ashtrays full of cigarette butts in the pizza box. He went all the way home with it, set it on his kitchen table and there was the ashtray full of cigarette butts. So, of course, he went right back up there, and as soon as he walked in the door, everybody just roared laughing, you know?
The bar at the Rigbie was as much a part of the downtown scene as anyplace else. It was from a time where you drank at the same bar your dad drank in. It was mostly a men’s place (and as Wayne King pointed out, mostly a white place) but it was also a place that tied people together. A club of loose affiliation, say.
Wayne King: Well, when I first started going probably [I drank] Pabst Blue Ribbon. There was beer called Yuengling and, of course, Budweiser. When Miller Lite came around, that sort of got real popular. Matter of fact, at the time, I sort of drank Budweiser, but it would give me a headache and so I sort of switched to Miller Lite. I don't want to sound like I was a big drinker. I mean, I did like to go up there and have a couple of beers before I come home and my wife, she probably tell you right now, if I didn't come home after work, she knew where I was.
When I went to work for the post office, my supervisor at the time, Mr. Ray Foskey, who has passed since, he says, “If you get done early just stop up and we’ll have a beer before we go back to work.”
I'd go in and there’d be maybe three or four other postal employees in there, and we're all on the clock. I said, “Oh my God, this is a good job.”
John Trivits: Then when I became old enough, I went in the bar and partook of some beverage and ate pizzas, and they used to have a great big jar of pickled sausages on the counter. You would get the big pickled sausage and your pizza and you'd sit there and socialize.
It was like a gathering place and you had conversations and a lot of jokestering went on in there and carrying on. That's a feeling of achievement, you know? "Hey, look, I'm 21 now." I could go in when I was a kid with my parent, but as a teenager, I couldn't go in alone. When I turned 21, I could go get my own pizzas. I could get my own beer. As a young man through my 20s and 30s until it was changed over, I spent a lot of time in there eating giant pickled pickles out of that big jar and eating that pizza that everybody dearly loved.
Wayne King: There was a few boys from Laurel that worked on the railroad. The train come through town and crossed out by where the wastewater plant is now. Those boys had told Dick [Culver] previously, “When you hear the whistle,” they says, “bring us down ...” whatever beverages they wanted to drink. There would be someone who’d go down to that crossroads and hand them all off as the train was poking through town so they could have a little bit of brew in them.
When Dick Culver died the Rigbie was sold, and there was a time when someone else tried to make a go of it as a restaurant and bar, but it didn’t take. Eventually, like many of the town businesses that preceded it, the building transformed into the apartment building that it was for most of the 21st century.
John Trivits: One really interesting story that I have in particular is that the one gentleman bought it. I owned the hardware store in town, kind of a block across from the Rigbie, and he would walk over and get stuff from me. He was remodeling, trying to make something out of it before it turned into apartments.
He asked me one day, “So you want to come over and go through there?”
I never been in anything but the bar in the package store. He said it's like a walk through history.
So he took me all through the upper parts of Rigbie, what it used to be a hotel and there was rooms and hallways and the uniqueness of it. Then we went into the attic. In the attic were stored an archive of ledgers from when it was a hotel.
The earliest date I remember seeing in what was one of the ledgers from 1912. It had everybody that had checked in and out and how much they paid and how many nights they had a room. It seemed to me I remember a room for two nights was a dollar and a quarter.
Everything was up there because all the civic clubs used to meet there. Up in this attic, it was all the flags that they had from each different club stood on the flagpole and then the American flag that all the clubs used for their meetings. Then the bell that they rung their meeting with and adjourned again. That was all still in the attic. And this was, I'm going to say, the early 90s.
You know, and then it's just like one day it vanished. You know, one day you're eating the best cardboard crust pizza you've ever had, and the next day it's apartments, kind of went into a fast fade. Not a slow thing.
Lora Cooper: By the time I was 20 years old, the Rigbie, the bar and everything was pretty much gone. I mean, I think you could still maybe go, I think the bar was still there. But by then, Laurel had Pizza King, and there were a few places you could eat where you could get your pizza from. To the people in the Laurel that was, it was just a staple. The Rigbie was always there. So, you know, with it burned down, that's kind of sad for the town.
Before too long the debris piled where the Rigbie Hotel stood will be hauled away. There’s been no announcement on what’s next for the property, but Reimagine Laurel keeps working to revive the downtown. After all the good feelings people expressed for the Rigbie, and as the downtown revival movement gains momentum, it’s not so outrageous today to imagine a Laurel looking inward rather than out to the highway.