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McCord: The Man and the Business

By Bill Thompson
Historical Photos courtesy of the Historical Society of Talbot County.

Editor’s note: Eastern Shore Land Conservancy hopes to purchase and renovate the McCord building to become the main portion of the Eastern Shore Conservation Center.

When Walter Sharples McCord died at his home outside Oxford on Dec. 7, 1981, at age 78, there was no question that the news would break on the front page of the next day’s newspaper. McCord, better known as “Duke” to his many friends, was a respected pillar of the Talbot County business and civic communities. His influence was so in demand that he served as a director of three different banks, board president of Memorial Hospital in Easton, a trustee at Washington College in Chestertown, and in the vestries of two churches.

washingMcCord founded and presided over the local Rotary Club. He was a member of the Talbot Country Club, the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Club, and the Tred Avon Yacht Club. He belonged to Easton’s Elks Lodge and was a past master of Coates Lodge and a 32nd Degree Mason. He was named in the early 1940s to the board of Easton Publishing Company, which put out the then weekly Star-Democrat newspaper, and served as president from 1947 to 1963.

But more than three decades after his death, McCord’s legacy is tied most directly to a decision he made in 1925 when he was 22 years old and hardly a candidate for any board or prized office. He started a laundry business.

McCord, whose family moved from Radnor, Pa., to Talbot County when he was six, dropped out of high school in the ninth grade to take a job vacated by a brother bookkeeping for the Talbot Packing and Preserving Company, which canned fruits and vegetables under the Le Grande label. In the midst of his stint crunching numbers at the cannery, he married Harriett Valliant, an Oxford girl a few months younger than he and a member of one of the county’s oldest families.

Whether from an abundance of ambition or weary of working for someone else, McCord announced that he was starting his own business. No one remembers exactly why McCord threw his lot in with suds and starch, but the eponymous company he launched in 1926 in a red brick building—erected on property McCord bought from Harry and Leona Hollis in 1925 and which for a while was occupied by a cobbler’s shop—on Easton’s South Washington Street eventually grew to become an Eastern Shore cleaning empire. During the subsequent decades, branch offices were opened in St. Michaels, Denton, Chester, and Cambridge. Centreville had a McCord agent, while farther up the road in Kent County, Chestertown was selected as the site for a second McCord plant.

shirtsGenerations of customers relied upon a McCord (or McCord’s, as locals preferred) delivery man to arrive at their houses in a white panel truck to pick up or drop off bundles of clothes. Generations, too, found work in McCord’s expanding plant, which at one time was regarded as the county’s largest year-round employer.

The McCord building itself, which was expanded into neighboring lots over the years to accommodate a booming trade, remains a local landmark despite the company’s closing. Walter McCord’s laundry and dry cleaning operation, once a model of Twentieth Century business practices, customer service, and technology, had fallen victim to changing times.

To celebrate his company’s silver anniversary in 1951, McCord stood before his fellow Easton Rotarians at the one of the group’s regular Wednesday luncheons and described his firm’s arc to success. The first week did not start on a promising note.

“We took in $87 and paid out $226 in wages,” McCord told the gathering. “Laundry equipment salesmen had told us everything about the business—except how to show a profit.”

McCord got a handle on the revenue stream and six years later purchased a half interest in the Crystal Dry Cleaning plant. He then sold his share and added a dry cleaning department to his South Washington Street plant.

By the 1950s, McCord’s 78 employees processed mountains of laundry and dry cleaning annually. The business purchased soap by the ton and wrapping paper by the truckload. McCord said the plant pumped a million gallons of water through an overhead system of pipes and ducts and burned 10,000 gallons of fuel oil each month to produce steam in a boiler set up in a separate building. Ninety percent of the plant’s electricity, he noted, was produced in house.

signIn addition to the oversized washing machines, ironing tables, and dry cleaning apparatus, McCord’s had a room where a crew of women spent the days repairing clothes. The company went through 15,000 buttons annually “to replace those that come off shirts while you are wearing them,” McCord told his audience in a well-received jest.

But missing and damaged buttons weren’t McCord’s biggest problem. “Our greatest headache is concerned with an item which represents about one fifth of one percent of the firm’s operating cost—and that is starch,” McCord said. “It’s not only injurious to material, but we have to contend with as many different desires concerning its use as we have customers.”

McCord added a garment storage division to the Easton facility in 1939. Within a decade, customers had dropped off a half million dollars in clothing—ranging from $5 sweaters to $5,000 Russian sable coats—for seasonal safekeeping.

The McCord sales department, a team of 15 salesmen and women, met biweekly to discuss sales techniques. Tips included the proper way to ring door bells.

As the boss, McCord realized the value of incentives and awarded plant workers extra pay if they exceeded production goals. They also earned more if the number of mistakes fell below his monthly “accuracy standard.” McCord’s management style earned an impressive measure of employee loyalty. During the 25 years that the plant had been open, more than half the work force had received commendations for service ranging from five to 20 years.

McCord served as president of the Tri-State Laundry and Dry Cleaners Association and remained a force in the regional industry until 1961, when he stepped away from the business he founded.

Retirement did not mean McCord faded from the Talbot scene. For a while, he stayed particularly active on the board of Easton Publishing, where years before as president he oversaw the relocation of the newspaper headquarters from Dover Street to a Hanson Street site more suitable for the company’s growing print shop. In 1962, he announced a $100,000 expansion that included installing a state-of-the-art Goss Suburban web offset printer to reduce the press time required for the newspaper. The modernization efforts and enhanced profitability of the plant soon attracted outside attention. When word circulated that the publisher of The Sun had entered into negotiations to buy Easton Publishing, a Cecil County newspaper publisher—after talking privately with McCord—outbid the Baltimore paper and kept the Star-Democrat Shore-owned.

Ten years after McCord died at his home on World Farm Road outside Oxford, the laundry and dry cleaning business was purchased by the Talbot County-based, whimsically-dubbed Lincoln County Land and Cattle Company, a real estate holding company focused on commercial and residential properties.

Lincoln County president Buck Horsey was no stranger to the clothes-cleaning world. Fresh out of college, the Easton native began his business career in 1978 as manager of McCord’s. It remained a viable operation and continued to be an economic mainstay on the Mid- and Upper Shore into the new century.

As many as 40 employees kept the plant humming. The laundry room rumbled with noise as two 400-pound and two 200-pound washers churned through seven different cycles. (Throughout the years, the hospitals in Easton and Chestertown were McCord’s biggest customers.) Passersby could see plumes of steam escaping into the outside air. The front office, repainted in bright spring-like shades, was staffed by personable greeters who often retrieved a customer’s dry cleaning without having to inspect a claim ticket.

machinesBut times had changed since Walter McCord first opened his door to the public. For one thing, very few homeowners in McCord’s days owned washing machines. And the cost of fuel oil, which was pennies a gallon when McCord was building his laundry empire, soared so high that the plant’s crucial steam-generating system became a financial liability. Technology and economics antiquated the once modern plant. When Horsey turned off the power one last time on December 31, 2009, the silence of the machinery ushered out an end to an era on South Washington Street.

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