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End of an era: Thurmont Co-op closing

(1/18)  After nearly 80 years and having survived three fires, the Thurmont Cooperative, at 36 Walnut Street, will be closing its doors for good.

“Between the farming economic conditions and considerable financial problems, we are closing down definitely,” said co-op board president Jack Heflin.

With ever-improving technologies and a society dominated by big business, local farms continue to fall by the wayside.

“It’s a tight market out there, especially with the agricultural economy,” said Heflin. “A lot of our business lately I call ‘hobby farmers.’”

Catoctin Mountain Orchard owner and former board president Robert Black recognizes the pressure that has been put on small operations. “There have been a lot of changes in the farming structure of Frederick County,” said Black, “because there are so many large farms and not as many small farms.”

The co-op first opened in 1928. In the mid-thirties area farmers sold stock to town residents to raise money for the co-op. Around 1944 the co-op caught on fire and farmers had to solicit residents once more to gain the money to rebuild. The primary source of income of the co-op came from dairy farmers, which has since declined and is practically non-existent.

In the first half of the century the co-op flourished. At one point there was a facility in Rocky Ridge as well as in Union Bridge. “As the years went by it wasn’t feasible to operate one in Rocky Ridge and one in Union Bridge at the same time.” The Rocky Ridge co-op closed down in the ‘50s and the Union Bridge co-op had the same fate in the ‘60s.

Both Heflin and Black identify the New Year’s Eve fire last year as another catalyst for the closing.

On New Year’s Day of 2006 a disgruntled employee, William L. Coats, set fire to the co-op in retaliation for not receiving workman’s compensation. “That guy has absolutely no idea what he has done to this community,” said Black.

“We were getting things turned around,” said Heflin. “It was the fire that really put the crunch on it.”

“I thought the special niche that the co-op had was the grinding facilities that could make custom mixes for the local farmers and patrons. It was all of that area and facilities that was badly damaged.”

As far as whether or not there may be another co-op in the future for Thurmont, Heflin says things look bleak. “It will probably not open as the co-op as it was in the past,” said Heflin.

“If somebody thought that they could come into the market, I would say that everybody has an opportunity to start a business. At present I don’t see anyone doing that. I’m almost positive that the Thurmont co-op will not come back into existence,” Heflin concluded.

Rodman Myers, a local farmer and former co-op director for 42 years stands behind the decision to close shop. “I think this is the right move at this time,” said Myers, “I’d rather see it go out with a good image rather than a tarnished image.”

Heflin hopes that the co-op and farmers will be able to break even after the close. “We’re hoping to settle all of our debt,” said Heflin. “It’s a possibility, not definite, but a possibility. The farmers may share in some of the sale of the assets, but we have to get through all of our debt.”

No specific date for the final closing of the cooperative has been set, but the board expects it will be sometime in March or April. In the next two months the co-op will stop ordering supplies.

“It was a locally owned co-op that was one thing about it,” said Black, “You hate to see something like that close down.”

“It’s not a happy day.”

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