- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The cars, trucks and motorcycles passing by on a curve of Route 5 sometimes drowned out the words and music, and if their drivers blinked, they missed more than just a glimpse of Helen’s country store, a couple other shops and its closed-up post office building.
On a piece of donated farmland along the highway, this community held Sunday afternoon its 27th annual Veterans Day observance. Those gathered heard remarks from the commanding officer of Patuxent River Naval Air Station, listened to a singer, choir and a bugler blowing taps, and later walked over to a tent by the store for scalded oysters, stuffed ham and live bluegrass music.
Helen took on its own identity at the beginning of the 20th century with a post office and a postmaster who named it after one of his daughters. Area residents became concerned during the mid-1980s that their post office might close and take with it the community’s name, and their brainstorming produced a memorial monument. More than two dozen years later, the issue clearly hasn’t gone away.
“They set up a postal truck as a temporary post office,” Larry Hill, the event’s coordinator, told the more than 100 people who gathered at the memorial site, where they sat in folding chairs or stood near the country store’s horseshoe pits and backstops.
The most recent postmaster’s retirement earlier this year prompted an emergency suspension of the post office. A communications programs specialist for the U.S. Postal Service confirmed earlier this month that its functions were being conducted out of a mobile van parked outside a neighborhood automotive shop.
Hill, whose family owned the country store for decades, said last week that the post office building’s equipment was being trucked out, and that the recent developments confirmed the Helen residents’ long-running fears.
“It looks like that reality is here,” Hill, a U.S. Army veteran, said. “That was the basis behind [creating the veterans monument] to begin with. We didn’t want the name of the community of Helen to be lost.”
The land for the monument was donated, he said, by his mother, Marie A. Hill, and Cora Morgan, who owned the farmland behind the store.
Jim Weber, a retired U.S. Marine Corps captain who worked as St. Mary’s chief of permits and inspections, lived on the farm behind the store. The fruits of the discussions at the Hill family’s store were at first quite simple.
“We went out and put a flag pole up [for] Veterans Day,” Weber said, and the attendees suited up for the occasion. “I still have my dress blues,” he said last week from his home in Florida. “They still fit.”
From the onset, the Veterans Day gatherings have included music by Spoon Creek, a bluegrass band fronted by banjoist Frank Anderson, an Army veteran who lives close to the store and also remembers the event’s origins.
“It started over a drink at the bar,” he said.
The group needed the services of a lawyer, and went to J. Ernest Bell II, who also had served as a captain in the Marine Corps and at that time was a state legislator.
“They would shove papers in front of me and say ‘sign here.’ We did what we had to do,” Bell said last week. Almost every year, Bell has been the observance’s master of ceremonies.
“We’ve had snow, we’ve had rain [and] we’ve had wind,” Bell said of the weather conditions that sometimes coincide with the event.
Anderson well remembers the early years, before the idea of holding the post-program oyster scald in a tent took hold.
“We played under the cedar trees at the corner of the building,” Anderson said. “It’s a nightmare when it’s cold. You’re using your fingers a lot. You just can’t move as fast.”
Last Friday, as the weekend drew near, Dallis Hill was making sure six bushels of oysters would be on hand from the Wicomico River. He was stuffing hams, cutting grass and enlisting help where he could get it — “anybody we can find to put them to work.”
Local elected officials have gotten accustomed to migrating from Leonardtown’s midday Veterans Day parade to Helen in the afternoon.
“We get all the politicians, all the big shots. Most of the local boys, they’ll come up here. The crowd starts getting a little bigger each year [as] the word gets around,” Dallis Hill said. “We have to sell food to pay for the tent. As long as we break even, that’s all we ask.”
Each year, the event’s program adds the word “deceased” by the name of more charter members of the group and other veterans of Helen.
“The guys who were instrumental in getting this thing started are no longer with us,” Larry Hill said.
On Sunday, the sunny skies and crisp breeze reminded some of the attendees of the weather that greeted the first year’s Veterans Day observance program, when Richard “Dick” Arnold, an Army veteran serving as a county commissioner, was the main speaker. Bell told this year’s audience that Arnold was part of the “first wave” of the D-Day invasion on the beaches of Normandy, France, to liberate Europe during World War II.
During the years since the first Veterans Day observance in Helen, commanders from Pax River routinely have been spotlighted as the guest speaker. Capt. Ted Mills noted during his remarks on Sunday the role of Weber in the “great tradition of having us out here.”
The tradition and permanence of Helen’s tribute to its veterans, and thus the community’s name, now have outlived the continuous use of the nearby post office building, just as the event’s founders foresaw.
“The glass is still half full, and half empty,” Bell told the crowd.
Staff writer Jason Babcock contributed to this report.