Rick Campbell's twins came home from their first week of kindergarten having learned that, after attending school Monday through Friday, they would be free for the weekend. "Guess what?" they said, full of wide-eyed wonder. "We get laid off Saturday!"
Their father, a welder laid off almost a year from the Chessie System freight car repair yard here, can still laugh at his youngsters' view of their weekend freedom. But in this fiercely blue-collar town on the Potomac about 50 miles upriver from Washington, things are beginning to get serious.
Since the 1890s, the railroad has been Brunswick's economic mainstay, what one local merchant calls "our blessed curse." But as the recession reaches into the weathered houses lining the steep hills above the train yard, the town's railroad economy is becoming less blessing and more curse.
All but eight of the 251 car repair workers are currently unemployed. Additional employes, including clerks and train crews, have been laid off as well. The story is much the same up and down the line from Grafton, W.Va., to Baltimore's Curtis Bay, but nowhere is it more concentrated than here in Brunswick, a town of 4,572 persons by the 1980 census.
On the Chessie System, freight traffic is down 18 percent compared with last year, close to the industrywide average. The coal cars that regularly rumbled through here from the West Virginia mountains to the port of Baltimore have almost disappeared as the demand from foreign countries declined drastically. Factors cited by industry analysts include stabilization of world crude oil prices, the return of cheaper Polish coal, high inventories stockpiled in Europe and the depressed state of the steel industry worldwide.
Whatever the causes, the effects are apparent. Coal freighters no longer anchor off Annapolis for weeks waiting to get into the port of Baltimore. In Brunswick, once crowded with full coal cars seaport-bound, the scene has also shifted. "Now, all I got is empty hoppers," said terminal master Paul D. Brohawn, who can't remember a slower time in his railroad career.
Workers such as Rick Campbell had staked their futures on the coal coming through. In 1981, he sold his grocery business to go to work for the railroad. "The coal miners had settled on a three-year contract," he said. "We were all told it looked pretty good for three years. It hasn't been the end of the world, but I've set up nights worrying myself sick about it, too."
If this one-industry town were, say, 50 miles farther west, times would be tougher. In addition to the railroad layoffs, the work week at the nearby Eastalco aluminum plant has been cut back from 40 to 32 hours for hourly wage earners. Overall unemployment in Frederick County inched upward to 9.9 percent in October, under the national average but still higher than the statewide figure.
Proximity to the federal employment centers of the Interstate 270 corridor and the Washington metropolitan area has shielded the county and this town from the severest effects of the recession evident elsewhere.
Thus, wives of laid off railroad workers commute to jobs with the government, their pay supplemented by husbands' unemployment checks. Campbell's wife, for example, returned to work the other week for the first time in five years. A Department of Energy secretary earning $12,000 a year, she commutes by car to Germantown. Even so, things are beginning to pinch.
"It's been tough," her husband said, recalling the times his parents and in-laws bought them groceries. "Now, we're concerned about the lack of money to buy Christmas presents for the children."
"Most guys just don't have the money to hang out in taverns, except for the first couple of weeks after they're unemployed," said Charles Smith, a friend of Campbell's who represents the region in the Maryland House of Delegates. Instead, he noted, they hang out at the red brick fire hall on Potomac Street.
"I appreciate having a job, whether it's 32 or 40 hours," an Eastalco worker said at the fire company one morning. His brother-in-law, he said, spent four years in the Navy learning hydraulics and couldn't find a job. "The biggest thing that worries me is just the uncertainty of what the hell is going on, you know?" the Eastalco worker said.
Underscoring that uncertainty, the fire company chaplain opened a meeting the other night with a prayer that said, in part, "Thank you for a good day's work, if we can work . . . "
Friday night bingo is the fire company's bread and butter and, until recently, had also been a major social event in Brunswick. This year, however, the crowd and the take are both down. Whereas bingo used to draw upwards of 200 participants, "Now you're lucky to get 100 or 125," said Bill Sauser, a local lawyer and volunteer firefighter. Fund raising from bingo is down by roughly half, to about $500 a week, he said.
"Local businesses I represent have fallen on hard times," Sauser added. "There is noticeably less money being spent. Savings -- what they set aside for a rainy day -- have been used up. It's still raining and there's nothing left. A lot of people can't pay creditors and want to know what they can do about it . . .
"I have a lot of friends furloughed or flat out of work. What it's like is it's lousy. It's noticeable and it hurts. I have guys coming in here once or twice a week asking if I need any work done or know anybody who does."
Other distressing signs are starting to appear. The Chessie credit union has issued a lay-off advisory to its customers, urging them to work out loan payment plans if necessary. City clerks have begun receiving requests to defer payments on water bills.
"It's sort of just starting now," said Ernestine Phillips, the assistant city clerk. "They're calling and saying their husband's laid off. One man said he just didn't have the money. He's never been delinquent before."
Businesses in town have been suffering, too, although a small number of new ones have opened recently. One of the new firms, Country Motors, is a used-car dealership opened by a former employe of the new-car sales place that closed in October. Keith Welty says his business thrives because the economy is bad.
"I've had a good number laid off from the railroad, their wife's pregnant and they've got doctor's bills," Welty said. "They're selling their newer cars and buying used cars just for basic transportation."
At Brunswick Hardware, frills are out, necessities are in this year, according to owner Leroy Strewsburg. Nearby, at Potomac Furnishings, "It's just hanging in there, that's about it," said Pete Frye, in business for 32 years. "There's not a whole lot stirring, I'll tell you. It doesn't look good for Christmas, as far as I'm concerned."
Charles Smith's heating and air-conditioning firm is also hurting. A year ago, he laid off his entire work force of eight employes and hasn't had enough business since to recall any of them. A second-term member of the Maryland House of Delegates, his own financial outlook was dimmed further by his defeat in the Democratic primary this year. Delegates make $18,500 a year.
At least one voice in the community is steadfastly upbeat. J. Pete Maynard, a former foreign service officer who owns the weekly Brunswick Citizen, led his newspaper recently with a story headlined, "Good economic news takes stage in Brunswick."
The "best news," he wrote, was in the paper's second biggest story, disclosing that two Frederick businessmen were trying to reopen the just-closed Chevy dealership. Their task would be to convince General Motors a market existed in the Brunswick area for new cars. In an interview, Maynard acknowledged the railroad layoffs would "make it harder for a new-car dealer to survive here." But, he insisted, "I think we're still optimistic."
Railroad employment peaked here in 1929 with 1,325 employes. It plummeted to a Depression low of 583 four years later. Old timers remember bread lines at the American Legion, the fire company and the churches. Richard P. Mullen, who runs the repair yard, recalls when he was a youngster seeing 50 or 60 citizens surreptitiously shoveling coal from loaded cars for use in their own home furnaces. Although World War II boosted the work force a bit, the change from steam to diesel and the loss of locomotive repair work in the 1950s were further blows to Brunswick's prosperity.
In 1967, when more than 43 percent of Brunswick's workers were with the railroad and local unemployment was substantially down, a planning consultant observed, "The painful economic recessions experienced locally reflected conditions of the railroad industry . . .
"In regard to the future, Brunswick should continue its efforts to attract other industries; for a recession . . . could inflict the same economic pain so often experienced in the past."
Mayor Jess D. Orndorff, a retired railroad cop who worked for years at Washington's Union Station, is loathe to acknowledge that the recession and the pain have arrived. "Right now, it's just a little standstill in the coal business," he said.
"There is no reason to be alarmed. We could be doing worse. We've been doing very well with the commuter traffic. We've got five or six trains a day out of here."
Indeed, coal cars aside, the crowded commuter parking lot seems to belie the railroad recession. Newcomers who inhabit the tract homes on the hills above the town commute to relatively secure federal jobs on the trains that take them from Brunswick to Union Station.
The merchants complain that the newcomers don't spend much money in local shops, but at least one establishment, My Sister's Place, does a booming coffee-and-donuts trade a block from the train station every weekday morning. "The commuters are what save me," said owner Melvin (Fritz) Powers.
The commuters may be helping indirectly in another way. Offerings at the Grace Episcopal Church, which has more newcomers than natives, are holding their own this year. At least some of the money is being used for a food bank being opened this month for the financially strapped. Serious consideration is also being given to starting a weekly soup kitchen inside the church.
"The idea is to just try it," said the Rev. Thomas Staup, "to put an ad in the paper, offer free bread, a bowl of soup and a beverage with no questions asked, and see what happens."