A Fine Line

(Photos By Barbara L. Johnston For The Washington Post)

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By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A few years ago, Brad Edmondson and I decided to found the Institute for Northern Studies. Edmondson, former editor of American Demographics magazine, lives in Ithaca, N.Y. I'm from Memphis.

Our think tank would treat the North in the same anthropological way that many people treat the South. We would explore Northern folkways -- such as food, language and music -- and we would talk knowingly of Yankee yells, speaking Northern and "the New North."

Recently I had an opportunity to spend a weekend doing fieldwork along the Mason-Dixon Line. For non-historians, the Line, surveyed in Colonial days, runs along part of the borders of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. The boundary has served as a shorthand for referring to the North-South cultural divide.

The Line -- between Maryland and Pennsylvania -- is less than an hour from Washington. To get there, I drove up Interstate 270 until it became Route 15 north, past the Walkersville Southern Railroad and the "Get US Out of the U.N." signs. In Emmitsburg, which is a few miles south of the famous line, I stopped by Chubby's Southern Style Barbeque. It sure enough felt Southern.

In the guest book, a customer from Greenville, N.C., had written, "Just like home cooking from southern North Carolina." It smelled like the South in there. People talked like Southerners.

Lori A. Smith, 33, took a break while serving tasty beef brisket and coleslaw. "Frederick County has an identity crisis," Smith said. "It's torn between the North and the South."

A sweet-smiling woman at Feud House Treasures in downtown Emmitsburg thinks pretty much the same thing. I asked her if she thinks of the town as being Northern or Southern. Standing amid the dried-flower crafts and collectibles, she drawled, "I never thought about it." Sounds Southern to me.

"A lot of people around here seem to think this is the South," Linda Carpenter, 48, said at Mountain Liquors, a package store on Old Emmitsburg Road near the Blue-Gray Highway bridge, a stone's throw south of the Line. You can get a fifth of Southern Comfort there for $14.

Just over the Line, you get your first sense of a different world when you stop at Keystone Fireworks' 10,000-square-foot superstore . Yee-ha, firecrackers! There's even a display called the Boss Hog. But hold your hosses, boss. If you live north of the Line -- in Pennsylvania -- you're not allowed to buy fireworks that fly. If you're a card-carrying Southerner from Maryland, however, you have the run of the place. Pennsylvanians need a special permit to buy Roman candles and other aerial pyrotechnics.

Wonder why that is. Maybe Northerners like looking down on things.

"This doesn't feel Southern to me at all," said Judy Graves, whose partner, Florence Tarbox, runs the Battlefield Bed & Breakfast Inn in Gettysburg, Pa. "They drink root beer here, not Dr Pepper." Graves has spent some time in the South, where she said people get all up in your business. In Gettysburg, she said, folks keep to themselves.

Makes perfect sense that Gettysburg should feel like a Northern town to Graves and others. After all, it was here that the Union's Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. George Meade defeated Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the goriest battle of the Civil War.

But there has been some residual Southern influence. In Gettysburg proper, for instance, the South seems to be winning the war -- of memorabilia. At Gettysburg Souvenirs & Gifts on Steinwehr Road, Todd Mickley, 34, said Confederate T-shirts outsell Union tees 4 to 1.

The area around Emmitsburg and Gettysburg, Mickley said, "is right in the middle" of North and South. "A lot of people wanted to remain neutral." The Avenue Restaurant on the main drag serves both grits (a Southern staple made from corn) and scrapple (a Northern food made from -- well, let's just say that Northerners know how to use their brains).

But at karaoke night at the Pike, a beer hall on Baltimore Pike in Gettysburg, Southern music ruled. Amid lots of high-decibel urban tunes, the only two songs that somebody actually sang to were Southern: "I Walk the Line" by Johnny Cash and "Suspicious Minds" by Elvis Presley.

After experiencing a difference in attitudes, breakfast foods and musical moods, I am ready to file my report to the Institute. Edmondson -- who runs the demographic Web site ePodunk.com -- and I meet every once in a while to discuss our findings. Our next meeting may be at the new welcome station near Emmitsburg. The Mason-Dixon Discovery Center on Route 15 will eventually include an exhibition wing that explores the history of the demarcation. It opened to the world last spring, but, for some curious reason, is accessible only to folks in the southbound lane.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company


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