The City of Laurel marks its 150th anniversary this year, with a full year of activities and special events to mark the occasion.
In January, Mayor Craig Moe and the City Council of Laurel announced the celebration’s kickoff with a special presentation by the 150th Anniversary Committee.
“There are so many things to celebrate about Laurel that we couldn’t have just one event,” said Audrey Barnes, the City of Laurel’s communications director. “We have planned events that run through December 2020.”
Some of those events have been put on hold until after the COVID-19 outbreak subsides.
The overall theme is “Laurel is 150: Past, Present, Progress.”
The city’s annual Main Street Festival and 4th of July festivities will be bigger and better than ever, Barnes added, and Laurel will hold an inaugural Multicultural Festival on Sept. 26 to celebrate the City’s diversity.
“We will be holding a parade of nations featuring children in costume from their home countries and big Celebrate Laurel Today events at Emancipation Park and McCullough Field,” she explained.
A souvenir Anniversary Passport is also available at the Laurel Municipal Center, which will allow visitors and celebrants to collect special stamps from the city’s yellow-vested Anniversary Ambassadors who will be providing visitor information at each event.
According to the Laurel Historical Society, the city’s geographic location has been inhabited for centuries, starting with the Native Americans who lived, fished and hunted along the banks of the Patuxent River.
English settlers began arriving in the late 18th century and harnessed the river for waterpower. The Snowden family built their first gristmill along the river in 1811 and added a cotton mill by 1824. The B&O Railroad began serving the community, then known as Laurel Factory, in 1835, and some of the original stone and brick millworker houses still stand, including one that now serves as The Laurel Museum.
Like the nation itself, Laurel was divided by the Civil War and Union troops occupied a camp located at Laurel Station to guard the rail line’s river crossing between Washington, DC, and the northern states.
The Maryland General Assembly approved the town’s incorporation on April 4, 1870, and Laurel Factory became Laurel in 1875.
“We used to be a Commissioner form of government, but we are now a Strong-Mayor form of government with a mayor and city council,” said Mayor Craig Moe, a change that occurred in 1890.
Moe said he would be sharing some of the minutes from the original Board of Commissioners meetings at each month’s Mayor and City Council meeting throughout the year.
Among the firsts that Laurel can claim are the first public library, public high school and bank in Prince George’s County, and it also claims the county’s oldest continuously operating fire department.
Like any community, Laurel has experienced growing pains and its experiences have not all been positive.
In 1972, Alabama Gov. George Wallace was shot and paralyzed in the Laurel Shopping Center parking lot during a campaign event. Several 9/11 hijackers stayed at the nearby Valencia Motel prior to the terrorist attacks in 2001.
And the city’s history as a slaveholding community is remembered each year during the annual Emancipation Day Parade, a well-known event that has celebrated the African American community’s history here for more than 100 years.
Today, Laurel’s population has grown to more than 25,000, with a thriving business community, an award-winning library and an active Historic District.
Celebrating Laurel’s history has become a daily labor of love for three native sons who joined forces as the nonprofit Laurel History Boys in 2019.
“I’ve been writing the ‘History Matters’ column in the Laurel Leader for 13 years,” said Kevin Leonard, president of The Leonard Group that provides historical re-search services to both federal government and private sector clients.
Their group coalesced when Leonard met Rich Friend, a graphic designer and creator of the Lost Laurel historic website, who introduced Leonard to Pete Lewnes, a collector of Laurel memorabilia.
“There’s more history in Laurel than in any other small community in the state because of its location,” Leonard said. “Travelers needed somewhere to stay between Baltimore and Washington, DC, so [commerce] naturally grew around the stage coach stop, eventually spreading to the cotton mill and giving us our historic Main Street in the process.”
What’s more, he said, Laurel residents seem to have a unique respect and hunger for that history. “We had no idea there was so much interest in local history, and we’re lucky to have tapped into that and have been able to help address it,” he said.
Leonard, Friend and Lewnes have published a commemorative book, Laurel at 150, that will be available at official celebration events throughout the year and can also be ordered online via the laurelat150.com website.
For more information on Laurel’s Sesquicentennial Celebration, visit 150.cityoflaurel.org.
By George Berkheimer | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly | April 2020 Issue