It is cold today, much colder than it has been these past two months. So chilly, it seems strange to think that soon we will be traveling that quarter-turn into spring.
Yet there are more birds now. They flutter and race across the pallid green lawn, scurrying to find what they will. Knocking about desperately in search of what might sustain them. Their colorful plumage is a welcome sight in the midst of all this grayness, and frozen mud.
The scurrying and business of people at Wolff’s is a welcome sight as well.
There’s a lot happening here. Drapes are being washed, ceilings are being painted, shelves are being dusted. Old displays are coming down, even fences. There is much more to do before reopening. But even with everything that must still be accomplished, Fran Wolff has granted me a brief interview. It will be the third chapter of a series I began years ago, back when things were a little…different.
With the loss of Peter last December, it seems all who shop here are holding their breath, waiting to see what will happen next. Now was as good a time as any to pick up my pen and continue the project.
Unlike the two previous chapters, this interview will take place away from Ken and Gennie Wolff’s living room. With the new year, and new season ahead of us, I wanted a new venue also. But sometimes we have to make the best of what we have. Sometimes the best place to start is where we are.
I follow Fran out the back of the store, past the vegetable shed and dry storage, and across a muddy strip of soil that hasn’t seen the light of day for years. We make our way up onto an expansive stone patio and into the hollowed-out residence of 79 Pennell Road. It is a piece of property which has been owned by the family for years. Empty now, it gives one the feeling of new beginnings. Empty like this, it almost has a voice of its own. Fill me with what you bring, it seems to whisper, spread out your hopes and promises on my floors.
Take a seat, and tell me of the future…
Fran, I wonder if you would mind describing where we are?
Oh! Ok. That’s a neat one. [laughs]This is…We have always called this The Farm House. It’s interesting. In getting the property appraised and finding information about this house, I learned that it was built in the 1780’s. The original part was built in 1784. So, this house has been around here for a long, long time. We call it The Farm House because my great-grandparents moved into this house when they moved here from Bermuda in 1908. They moved into this house and bought the land around it for the farm. And so…this is the house that my grandfather grew up in. And my dad grew up in it. It’s been in the family the whole time. My oldest brother Conrad lived here, and then Pete lived here. So, now we are in the process of reclaiming it as part of the business. Hopefully it will be the kitchen. Anyways, that’s one of the things we want to figure out. How much would it cost to build a kitchen here. How to work with the space we have. There is a lot of potential now. This…this house is a historic house in terms of having some sort of historic recognition. I don’t know the particulars of that, but there are little noticeable things. For instance, the outside of the house is made of cement. And in the cement you can actually see, sometimes, these long swirls of hair. And it’s horse hair. [laughs] So, this house is so old, that, I guess, a couple hundred years ago they would add horse hair into the cement to help bind it together. It was like the pre-iron version of re-bar. So this house has been in the family for one-hundred and eight years. And it’s been here for about two-hundred forty.
When we walked around here the other day, it seemed like you had some of your own memories here. What would be a fond or vivid memory of yours from your time spent in and around this house?
Oh, it’s funny. I have lots of memories from over the years. We celebrated Thanksgiving right here where we’re sitting. I remember three or four tables going end to end so our whole family (which was usually around 30 people) could attend. That would include my parents, their kids, their kid’s spouses, and grand-kids. I can picture having Thanksgiving here. We would get together for Eagles games sometimes. When I was a kid, I grew up in this house because at that time my cousins lived up here. So I was here all the time.
Was this back when there was farm land out there?
No. This would have been after that.
So if we would have looked out the window…
If you would have looked out these windows here [motions toward the windows], you would have seen orchard, where the two houses are. Between this house and the other two houses. These houses are part of Sunny Brae. There were apple trees there, early season apples. My Aunt Jean, and my cousins Randy, Mimi, (I don’t know if you’ve met them) and Daniel grew up in that house.
And if you were to look out those window [motioning toward a different set of windows]?
If you looked out those bay windows there, you would have been looking at the barn. There was a driveway going down to a big white barn. I think there are pictures of it in the store. But that would be your absolute field of view out those windows. You would have been looking down the driveway to the barn. And to the left of the barn were chicken houses. We used to sell eggs. So we had a whole bunch of chicken coops there, and a fenced in chicken yard. They were down there.
A rich history…
Yes. And to the right…the store is over here to the right. The barn was straight ahead. The chicken houses were off to the left. That whole section [motioning toward Baltimore pike] was all orchard, and everything out beyond the barn. There were apple trees that came up to the barn, and in and around the barn.
Yeah. That’s funny. I can actually picture it. I can picture looking out those windows. Well, not those windows. They were added later when they built an addition. But there were windows there that looked right down to the barn there.
Now that this house is empty, you mentioned that there’s a lot of potential. And I feel like that’s kind of representative of the store as a whole. There’s a tremendous amount of potential. There are many kinds of transitions and changes happening. I wonder, if it’s not too much to ask, if you could touch on the advent of this transition and Peter’s passing?
Wolff’s is very, very cyclical. My great grandparents bought the house and the land and put in the apple orchard and got the ball rolling. But they didn’t really know where to go with it. Then my grandfather, Frank Wolff, he took the ball and ran with it. So, through the thirties and forties he really grew the business a lot. But as he started getting older, he got set in his ways. He wasn’t interested in doing anything new and different. In the fifties it lost a little momentum. But then my dad took over much of the enterprising aspects of the business. So during the sixties and seventies the business grew up again. Then, in the early eighties, before Pete came back, there was another lull. But in the late eighties and early nineties there was another tremendous amount of growth. But in the early two-thousands, Pete once more found the business to be plateauing. Now, Ashley and I are the fourth revolution of experiencing this cyclical nature of decline yielding new energy, and life, and growth. That’s where we are now, that fourth turning.
And if there was one aspect of this transition that you, Fran, were most excited about, what would it be?
Oh, that’s a hard question…[laughs]
It doesn’t have to be too specific…
Right. There are so many things to be excited about. It’s hard to pick one thing. But for me, it’s probably just appreciating this transition. Maybe that’s not a very exciting answer…maybe it has something to do with closing for two months…I feel like we have this clean pallette to look forward to. A clean slate to begin again on, and reinvent it. There are so many things that have been extremely traditional of Wolff’s, but also there have been so many things that have changed. The earmark of a good business is holding on to what works as core values but changing enough to stay relevant.
So Fran is excited about being a liaison between two different generations.
Yes. It’s really interesting because Pete was exactly fourteen years older than me. And Ashley is exactly fourteen years younger than me. And a generation is usually something like twenty five or thirty years. So, Pete and Ashley could be father and daughter. Age-wise. That’s a generation. And I happen to be right smack in the middle. So I’m neither a generation younger than Pete, nor a generation older than Ashley. So I’m wedged right there in the middle as this transitional liaison. Ashley has a whole lot of ideas. And I’m somewhat of an old guard. I’m here to provide wisdom and experience as to what’s been going on. But Ashley has a great amount of youthful enthusiasm and energy.
Yeah. That works…
Before the two of us know it, some of the Wolff’s team enter the house and begin working in the next room. We find ourselves feeling less welcome than we had moments ago.
Outside, the traffic of Pennell Road hisses loudly across the pavement. The team turns on the radio and starts cleaning. Quickly the mood of the environment changes, and we suddenly feel out of place. It’s as if the world were nudging us along. We’ve been lingering too long in the past.
As we exit, my eyes fall upon the storefront and all that is happening there. It’s exciting for me as well, this transitional period, if you want to know the truth.
It’s exciting the way things are beginning to open up, the way light is touching upon places where it long had not…