A visiting politician once called Frostburg "the most interesting and diverse town in Maryland." With apologies to the old saying, let us count the ways.
Frostburg is quaint.
No street address has more than three digits. No phone number fails to begin with 689. Try to leave a 7 a.m. wake-up call at Al's Motel, the only one in town, and you will be told they'll have to lend you an alarm clock. No one's on duty that early.
Frostburg is a college town.
It is the site of 78-year-old Frostburg State College, and the home of many graduates and retired professors. Literacy and scholarly precision are in the air. An obviously lost visitor was recently charmed to be asked by a passerby: "For whom are you looking?"
Frostburg is an elderly town.
More than 3,000 of its 7,634 permanent residents are 65 or older. According to Mayor David Linn, 42, who is also assistant cashier at the Frostburg National Bank, Social Security is the sole means of support for many of his town's residents.
"Some people come in here, and your heart bleeds, their checks are so small," Linn said.
Frostburg is a snowbelt town.
Because it sits 2,500 feet up in the Appalachians, Frostburg and the rest of Allegany County average more than 100 inches of snow a year. Among Maryland counties, only Garrett, immediately to the west, receives more.
Snow is so much a part of Frostburg life that the first thing a visitor sees along Main Street are signs forbidding overnight parking from Nov. 1 through April 1. The plows need room.
The one thing the winter weather is not part of is Frostburg's name. It is Frost as in the Welsh coal-mining family who settled the town in 1812, not Frost as in Jack.
Frostburg is a coal town.
Quite a booming coal town around the turn of the century, in fact. But many of the deep mines were played out by the 1920s.
Now, however, Frostburg's business and political leaders hope coal will again reign supreme as a result of the nation's current oil woes. Frostburg coal would have to be strip-mined -- an expensive and ecologically controversial process. "But the coal is here," says Linn.
Curiously, so is environmental consciousness.
Along Main Street, elderly ladies stand watch at the windows of their 100-year-old frame houses, writing down the license numbers of passing coal trucks that are not fitted out with dust-preventing tarpaulins.
And a few years ago, when 35 Frostburg State College professors got up a fund to fight strip-mining near the campus, several local attorneys bid for the job.
"Can you imagine a lawyer in Ocean City agreeing to fight the tourist business?" asks Howard Parnes, head of FSC's communication media department.
But strip-mining is not the only hurdle Frostburg coal entrepreneurs must leap. There is trouble, too, in Annapolis.
State law provides that no coal with more than 2 percent sulfur content may be sold or burned in the state. All the coal around Frostburg is 3 percent sulfur or more. Frostburg coal is sold outside Maryland, but shipping costs add to its price and thus decrease its popularity.
"If the law was modified, we could become one of the major sources of coal on the East Coast," said Mayor Linn. But one effort to modify the sulfur content law died in an Annapolis committee during the present legislative session. A subsequent effort was promised by a group of Western Maryland legislators, but not delivered.
Meanwhile, Frostburg is trying to outlive a reputation as one of Maryland's more unusual towns.
For example, eight years ago, the editor and publisher of the People's Guardian, a locally renowned muckraking newspaper, shot and wounded his wife and his German printer during an argument.
He had long campaigned for gun-congrol legislation.
Then, three years ago, a local minister began to rebuild Noah's Ark on his church's grounds at the south end of town.
"He said he had a vision one day. He said God told him to do it," says a fellow clergyman.
Two years ago, Frostburg State College asked the Maryland legislature for an emergency appropriation of $2 million.
The money was earmarked for concrete.
Apparently, when the new campus was built in the mid-1970s, the land on which the buildings were placed was honeycombed with abandoned coal shafts. Unless the shafts were filled with concrete, the college was literally in danger of collapsing into a heap.
Not so the local economy, however. The reason is Frostburg State.
The college's enrollment has nearly doubled in the last decade, to about 3,800. Meanwhile, more than 540 people are on the college's $8.3 million-a-year payroll, which makes it the third largest employer in Allegany County and by far the largest in Frostburg.
Frostburg has only one shopping mall, and it contains only a handful of stores. Larger malls beckon in LaVale (six miles away) and Cumberland (11 miles). But because Frostburg State provides a cushion, downtown Frostburg has not begun to suffer.
Business tax revenues in the downtown area have increased every year for the last eight, according to city government figures. According to Mayor Linn, no storefront along Main Street has gone unrented for more than three months. Frostburg is the only community in the county to have shown any growth during the 1970s, according to Linn.
Longtime college faculty and staff members think dollars are staying around Frostburg because they are, too.
"It's very hard to find academic jobs elsewhere, so a lot of our faculty are beginning to stay here now, where they used to leave after a few years," said David Sanford, dean of admissions.
"I don't miss shopping in the cities at all, or going to them for any reason, for that matter," added Paul Trichel, associate dean of the college." "It's the way of life here. It's not the fast, rapid, killer pace you have in D.C.
"I'd rather be locked in Prichard's Hardware than go to Nassau, much to my wife's chagrin."
Many Frostburg State students don't immediately agree, however.
Since more than 70 percent of them come from the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan areas, "the quiet can be a big adjustment," according to admissions director M. Edgerton Deuel.
"Most of our students don't have a good picture of what they're going to find before they come here. What do they do on Saturday night? They just kind of make it happen."
But according to Deuel, after four years, many students want to stay.
"We hear all the time that our graduating seniors would like to live here, or in a town this size, if they could," Deuel said. "But the economy just won't let them."
According to state figures for December, the most recent available, Frostburg's unemployment rate is 14 percent. It dipped below 10 percent only once in the 1970s. According to a report submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor, the trouble is a "static economy" that was heavily dependent on manufacturing jobs in Cumberland, and which had trouble readjusting when manufacturing jobs began to dry up there in the early '70s.
But according to both sides, the mutual respect between Frostburg's college people and town people has never been greater.
"People have accepted the college," said Parnes, who has been on the college faculty for 13 of his 34 years. "We're much more a part of the community. They used to look at us as outsiders."
"When the water rates go up," added Deuel, "we'll call up Dave Linn and complain the same as anybody else."
"I can sense that there's less depression in this community than other areas where I've lived," said R. Olin Herndon, pastor of the Frostburg United Methodist Church. "I think the spirit of cooperation between the college and the town is most of the reason."
"People in this community have always been interested in education; they've always respected it," said Betty Van Newkirk, president of the Frostburg Museum Association.
"This is not an area of rednecks. The college has been welcome here, even though some faculty from the outside had the attitude that they were bringing education to a dark corner of Maryland."
Indeed, Frostburg's ties to the rest of Maryland are somewhat tenuous. "Most Marylanders think the state ends at Frederick," complains a Main Street merchant. One measure of Frostburg's loyalty is that most sports fans root for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers, not the Baltimore Orioles and Colts.
Mayor Linn acknowledges that Frostburg's chances of surging economically are "small" without a renewed coal boom. "The best we can hope for, realistically, is some light industry," Linn said. Even that may lie far in the future, since Frostburg's present water production rate of 900,000 gallons a day is as much as its ancient water plant can supply.
"But we have a great potential," said Linn. "We need some hard and fast decisions. But I'm enthused.And everyone I know here is, too."