Looking Back on Main Street: The Decades Bring Changes

In the heyday of downtown Elkton, Chief William White or one his police officers directed Friday evening traffic at heart of the business district, Main and North streets. Lines of automobiles, hundreds of shoppers, and more than a few strollers, streaming into town from throughout Cecil County, moved through that intersection. This activity, most of it converging on one corner in a few hours, required the attention of the town’s thin blue line to keep things flowing smoothly.

Central Elkton was busy on most days in the mid-twentieth century, but Friday evening it was especially so as the narrow main street – a route built for horses, coaches, and wagons – overflowed with people and vehicles. The draw: downtown’s large assortment of stores, shops, banks, car dealerships and service stations, a movie-house, restaurants, and modern supermarkets.

downtown-elkton

Downtown Elkton is hums with activity as neon signs light up the night, around World War II

Just a few years before Chief White or one of his men stationed himself at that bustling corner, Main Street had served as the main thoroughfare for vehicles traveling between Philadelphia and Baltimore. Those days, luxurious vehicles, cars of lesser pretension, trucks, taxis, and buses rumbled over the tourist road, passing right through downtown.

What were the changes that occurred to the old business district over the decades? Well, 1937 would have passed almost unnoticed except for a declaration from the State Roads Commissions that it was going to rob Main Street of through highway traffic. More accurately, the Commission said it intended to construct a bypass, a “modern dual-lane superhighway” south of town. Increasing traffic had overtaxed the old Post Road where once Revolutionary War Troops marched and stage coaches rumbled past. Abruptly 1937 was unlike any other recent year.

Route 40 Sidetracks Traffic from Town

Sidetracking traffic from Main Street would take profitable commerce away from Elkton establishments. Over morning coffee, at the Chamber of Commerce, and everywhere businesspeople gathered the talk was, could downtown cope with the loss. Proprietors of the five hotels were particularly concerned. Out of sight, out of mind could have been their worry. As for the Chamber, “you could hear the members … scream” wrote Rodney Frazer, in Parts of Elkton As I Remember it in 1918.

While the community agonized over the pending loss of a great deal of traffic, an aspect of business that was full of character felt the crunch in 1938. A “look before you leap” law, as the Associated Press called it, put the breaks on instant marriages. For decades, couples from practically all points came to Elkton’s “busy marriage mart,” by the thousands, and a full-scale industry, including marrying ministers, tourist houses, hotels, taxis, and restaurants developed around the trade.

After the state threw the “48-hour monkey wrench in the machinery,” applying brakes on altar-bound couples, the town’s marrying parsons saw almost two-thirds of their business slip away, the Evening Sun reported. In December 1938, 277 couples visited Elkton for a quick marriage; the business had churned out 1,843 in November and 2,344 in October. This decline was felt by other businesses: “Why the couples brought in about $20,000 a month here and that’s a good deal for a town of this size,” the owner of the New Central Hotel told the AP.

While national newspapers riveted in on the threatened extinction of the marriage mart and some marrying parsons moved to greener pastures, bulldozers and paving equipment worked away south of town, out of the gaze of city reporters. Finally, one June morning in 1941 dignitaries gathered at the state line to dedicate the “Philadelphia Road” (Route 40). Motorists began cruising between Baltimore and the state line on “one of the finest roadways in the country” without going into Elkton. Suddenly, the constant flow of machines on the old Post Road came to an abrupt end. Where once pedestrians stepped lively to cross Main Street, folks ambled now crossed without much difficulty. Accustomed to commerce from a stream of motorcars, trucks, and buses downtown enterprises could not help but suffer. To some businessmen Main Street must have taken on a sad and deserted appearance.
But looming on the horizon were the dark, distressing days of World War II and the economic stimulus that provided to the nation’s economy. Besides, trade was sufficiently healthy to attract a chain store, J. J. Newberry Company. The Company announced it was building an outlet on Main Street in 1940. “Hundreds of shoppers” and thirty clerks were on hand when the doors opened a year later. It was an outstanding addition to the business section, the Chamber proudly remarked.

One numbingly cold December morning in 1947, a fire raged in the heart of Elkton. It broke out in a shoe store and spread, uncontrolled, through the A & P, the Ritz and the New Central Hotels, the New Theater, and into Newberry’s where it was checked. Eleven fire companies from as far away as Wilmington battled the blaze. By the time it was over, nine businesses were wiped out.
Having devastated properties along the south side of Main Street, the fire caused a reconfiguration of the business area. Newberrys wasted no time in announcing it was rebuilding. Besides, the Company required more space so it acquired the property next to the first store, the New Central Hotel. Connelle Brothers, owners of the New Central and New Theater properties, purchased ground at the corner of North Street and Railroad Avenue to build a “modern theater” and a “shopping center.” Construction started in 1948.

Meanwhile, Ralph Aubrey Jeffers wrote The Cecil Democrat that year, presenting ideas for improving trade. North Street should be extended to Howard Street, he advised. Now was the time to do it; fire had destroyed the properties necessary for the right-of-way. Another idea: Take advantage of doing business on two streets (Howard) instead of one. While the Chamber of Commerce examined the ideas, the Connelle’s finished stretching the business area northward; as a Wilmington reporter put it, they built “a second Main Street” on North Street.

Besides a theater, the building included a full block of stores and a large supermarket, the “first in Cecil County.” The A & P opened on the corner of North and Railroad Ave a few weeks before Christmas 1948. Months later (April 1949), Mayor Henry H. Mitchell cut the ribbon, admitting the public to the Elk Theater on opening night to see Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Despite it all – the bypass, economic upturns and downturns, a devastating fire, and wars – Elkton’s business district did just fine.

The Pull of Malls

Still, the powerful pull of malls, megastores, and shopping centers was a few years down the road. Perceptively, The Cecil Whig cautioned merchants about this in 1949: “There is a developing trend toward the establishment of large merchandising establishments in outlying districts . . . . It is not beyond the realm of possibility that one of the large merchandising concerns . . . should locate a large store on the Dual Highway near Elkton. . . . Those who come by highway would seldom if ever find the center of Elkton.”

Starting in the 1960s, the hearts and wallets of consumers were being wooed away from the nation’s main streets by malls, chain discounters, and enormous superstores. It was all a national trend: main street business stagnated; main street Businesses closed; main street buildings stood vacant. Downtown Elkton was not an anomaly to these happening. New stores opened up a short distance away on South Bridge Street and along Route 40. Large shopping malls popped up in nearby Delaware. Shoppers on Elkton’s Main Street, like shoppers most places, gradually migrated to new outlets.

Main Street business slowly dwindled. In Elkton, the principal onset was in the 1970s. The business district lost two of its anchors on Railroad Avenue (the Acme and a chain drug store) and several small businesses. Most of those that survived had gone a short distance, about a mile out along Route 40, just as the paper had predicted decades earlier.

The bulk of this relocation started in the summer of 1975 when town officials joined shopping center developer David Cordish in a field near U.S. 40 and MD 213. Shovels of dirt were thrown in groundbreaking ceremonies for the Big Elk Mall. This phase would contain some 20 stores including two anchors, Developer Cordish said. He had found his anchors nearby.

Now downtown merchants had their first major competition for in county retail dollars. Despite the commotion out on the highway, downtown still had one major anchor, the A & P. Surviving several years after the Acme moved, it fell victim to a wave of closings of unprofitable stores. It was a sad day when the store closed in 1982, shoppers said: A store that had been a mainstay of Elkton shopping for “60 years” was suddenly gone. An independent grocery store filled the void for a while, but a fire eventually destroyed it.

Migration of smaller businesses from downtown persisted. Elkton planning consultants, surveying the central area in 1979, found “only 45 retail or wholesale establishments in the district. . . .” Their count was strict, beauty parlors, barbershops, eating places, banks, and offices were not tallied.

The commercial district was also losing its institutions and its old industrial base. Downtown lost the library when the new headquarters opened on the north edge of town in 1987. The Elkton Elementary School had closed over a decade earlier. State government offices moved out to Route 40. (The state multi-service center eventually brought some of those back). Even the Victorian-era lock-up, the county jail, abandoned downtown for a home in a cornfield outside of town. And factories that had hummed along producing motors, wire, and automobile engine parts shut down, draining workers from the old district’s economy.

elkton-753

As the town center lost retailing establishments and commercial employers, its designation as the county seat helped since hundreds of workers had offices on Main Street.

As the years marched on, the county seat’s new retailing area continued enlarging south of the old business district. Along South Bridge Street, on what was once undeveloped land, commercial real estate sprang up. Out on Route 40, shopping centers and other commercial development expanded.

When planners first studied Elkton’s old business district (1963), it was the County’s dominant retail center. Almost half of the county’s retail dollars changed hands there, the only major competition coming from shops in downtown Newark and Wilmington. Business outlets along Route 40 then consisted mostly of gasoline stations, motels, and roadside restaurants serving the highway traveler. But those planners warned that aggressive steps were needed to preserve the central business district.

Loss of the Courthouse Accelerates Trend

In 2008, Main Street suffered a staggering blow when the county moved most of its employees to new office building on the Delaware State Line. Suddenly overnight, the loss of over 200 workers, and the hundreds of people that conducted business in their offices created a noticeable emptiness on the streets of the town.

Because of commercial expansion along Route 40, the commercial life of the town has shifted south toward that artery and its retailing role has remained strong. The Story of Elkton’s old business hub is like that of many towns throughout the country – towns forced to adapt to changes. And, like other towns, Elkton is working to reverse the downtown slide.

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