Jerry Driver cleaned out the last sirloin from the freezer, emptied the ice from the seafood case and flipped over the black and white sign to say "Closed" for the last time yesterday.
After 32 years, Driver turned out the lights at Calvert Meats Inc., a Calvert County institution that began as a slaughterhouse and became a beloved butcher shop for generations of residents. Its demise, many say, is another signal of this community's fast shift from country to suburbia.
"The local farmers used to come here to slaughter and process their animals -- beef, hogs, lambs, goats and veal," said Driver, a friendly man in a white apron stained brown from his life's work. "Then they stopped raising animals and started raising houses down here."
At 67, Driver said he was ready to retire and happy to find a buyer for his shop, a one-level green metal building tucked among rolling farms on Mount Harmony Road in Owings. The new owner plans an auto repair business.
But Driver's decision to close his store wasn't based just on his advancing age. His specialty shop was being strangled by fierce competition from supermarkets sprouting up throughout Calvert County.
"We were quite successful up to four years ago, when we had new Safeway and Giant Foods open in Prince Frederick and a Food Lion in Prince Frederick," said Driver, who lives in Harford County. "Most of the women are working now and they need one-stop shopping. If they're getting their groceries at Safeway, they end up getting their meat there, too. It really hit my business."
It didn't help that Calvert Meats was tucked away on a country road, at least five minutes off the county's main highway. And with its 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. business hours, the shop made no concessions to workaholic commuters who have been buying homes in Calvert County at such a clip in the last few years to make it the fastest-growing county in Maryland.
But for decades, the location and hours worked just fine.
Driver, who became a meat apprentice under the GI bill after the Korean War, eventually took a job in a Prince Frederick slaughterhouse in 1965. He bought the business two years later and ran it until 1976, when the state closed the outdated shop because it couldn't meet inspection requirements. Driver built a new shop on the Owings site and opened a slaughterhouse in 1977.
In 1988, he stopped slaughtering after that business began to sag. Instead, he concentrated on the wholesale and retail meat business, specializing in USDA choice meats and top-end seafood. New York strip steaks were his most popular retail product, while boneless, skinless chicken breasts were his big wholesale seller. At one point, Driver was selling 3,600 pounds of chicken breasts each day. He carried specialty items -- like Southern Maryland dressed ham, corn ham and his own cured bacon -- for which customers would line up at Christmastime.
"We waited on every person," Driver said. "If you didn't like the look of a steak, we'd cut you one until you did like the look of it."
But in the past four years, as the county's population exploded and the supermarkets invaded, Driver's annual gross revenue dropped from $3.5 million to about $1.5 million. With none of his nine adult children interested in his business, the lifelong butcher said it was time to hang up his apron.
For his longtime customers, the decision was hard to swallow.
"I was very saddened -- I could barely sleep the night I found out," said Anita Guit, an Owings resident whose husband, Bill, has been buying meats from Driver for 20 years. "I feel like we're losing touch with what makes Calvert country. You see farms converting over to houses and then this. They call this progress, but it's not exactly welcomed."
Joan McDowell of Owings called the event "devastating. It's a little bit like losing a family member," she said, as she stopped in to load up on chops, ribs and steaks. McDowell had been a loyal customer for 14 years, stopping in once or twice a week. "The quality here is always good," she said. "Good, choice meat, cut fresh. No darkness to it, so you know it's cut fresh."
As word of the closing spread last week, business grew brisk.
"He should have said he was going out of business once a month," quipped Dottie Chaney, 78, who has worked for Driver since he opened his business.
One man bought all the scrapple Driver had, $40 worth, and said he would freeze it.
Guit gave Driver a small card to thank him for "all the wonderful meals" her family had enjoyed over the years. Then she bought $98 worth of strip steak as well as scallops and shrimp.
"I'm calling it the last supper," she said.
CAPTION: Dwindling revenues and competition from the big supermarkets are forcing Jerry Driver, left, to close his popular Calvert Meats butcher shop in Owings. Below, just days from his shop's final closing, Driver adds a chicken sale to his outdoor advertising board.
CAPTION: Jerry Driver, left, is reflected in a store mirror as he talks on the phone to a customer during his last week of operating Calvert Meats in Owings. Below, Driver and 19-year employee Rick Canter hang hogs on the loading dock.