The Sycamore Store

by Sherry Pettie

Sycamore Islander, October 1999

The Sycamore Store as we know it today.
Have you ever wondered about the Sycamore Store? I used to pass it by without taking any notice at all. Then about ten years ago, on a drive out MacArthur Boulevard to deliver my son to a violin lesson he was anxious to delay, he noticed the store and insisted on stopping. We bought a coke and some chips and looked at the many empty shelves. “There must be a history behind this place!” we told each other back in the car. We found the store a bit mysterious but very charming, and made sure to stop in each week on our way to the violin lesson -- a short-lived routine, as these things often turn out.

I’ve been curious about the Sycamore Store ever since, and thus was delighted when editor Dave Winer asked me to write this article for The Islander. It gave an excuse to poke around, ask questions, and discover what connection might exist between the store and our club.

Before supermarkets, stores like this served
the community for groceries. The Sycamore Store
delivery truck is at left.
—Early photo, courtesy of the Rogers family.
At first, I imagined that researching this article would simply mean driving up to the store, going in, and interviewing someone inside for a few minutes. So the first thing I discovered is that the store is actually closed -- not just for the afternoon as the signs and seasonal window displays suggest, but closed for good! The next thing I learned, when I appealed to Doc for ideas on what to do next, is that the owners of the Sycamore Store, George H. and Louise Rogers, are the parents of our own club member George W. Rogers!

George W. told me that he grew up in the house alongside the store and spent every summer of his childhood on the river. He first went to Sycamore Island as the guest of legendary caretaker Frank Davis, who had befriended him on regular visits to the store for supplies. Later George worked for a couple of years as one of the teenage Saturday caretakers that the club used to hire in those days. Weekend responsibilities back then entailed more than simply running the ferry. Mr. Davis would have a list of additional chores to keep you busy, like mopping floors and cutting grass. George also worked in the family store, and he saved up his money to buy a motor boat -- the only one at the island. It came in handy when Betty Burchell discovered ancient artifacts of nomadic river Indians on Rupperts Island in 1968. An American University anthropology class set up a dig and hired George to ferry their equipment back and forth from the landing steps.

An earlier practice continues:
decorating the front window by season.
George H. Rogers also kindly told me a little about the store and his own history. He grew up in the neighborhood, too, in Glen Echo Heights, and first started working in the Sycamore Store as a teenager. With the exception of a few years away in World War II, Mr. Rogers worked at the store starting in 1935, and has owned it since 1953.

He bought the store from Hugh “Boots” Johnston, who had first opened it in 1919. Boots’ son Mickey Johnston, who owns Surburban Florist in Bethesda, reports that his father was a member of the Sycamore Island club for many, many years. When I looked through our club records for some mention of the store’s inception, I found only an indication in meeting minutes of June 9, 1919, that Johnston’s energies had turned that year to a new endeavor. The record states “the chair accepted with deep regret the resignation of Mr. H. B. Johnston only that a new captain of the island be appointed.”

Mr. Rogers also told me that, before buying the store, he lived in a house just on the other side of the trolley car tracks -- one of a row of ten or twelve houses strung along at that time between the tracks and the canal. (The tracks of course are gone now, but you can spot their location from the old wooden bridge just down the path from our parking lot on MacArthur.)

I became curious about the rather heavy settlement right at this intersection of MacArthur and Walhonding, and learned that it most likely first started in the late 1880s when the Glen Echo Electric Railroad was built to run trolley cars down from a station at Wisconsin and Willard Avenues. The tracks came down the hill along Walhonding, and the stop was called Glen Echo Junction then. Everyone would climb into horse-drawn wagons and ride the rest of the way to Glen Echo park for the Chautauqua. By the turn of the century, the Washington and Great Falls Electric Railway company had built a line out from Georgetown along the Potomac palisades to Cabin John creek. When a new Glen Echo station opened down the line where the amusement park had replaced the Chautauqua, the name of our stop was changed to Sycamore Station.

From the 1920s, the Sycamore Store was one of several thriving groceries up and down MacArthur Boulevard, called Conduit Road at that time. There were several stores in the District, and also in Glen Echo and Cabin John. (The one in Cabin John is still open and now called Captain’s Market.) The real heyday for these stores was 1935-1955, when there were no supermarkets and everyone really depended on their neighborhood grocery. The Sycamore Store sold fresh fruits and vegetables, and custom-butchered meats, provided a delivery service, and had two or three employees.

It remained a full grocery store up into the early 1970s. From then on into the 1980s, making sandwiches at lunchtime became the biggest part of the business. Mr. Rogers gradually reduced the store’s operations over the years, until finally hanging up the “closed” sign for good sometime in 1995. He has no future plans, and believes that anyone wanting to open another store there would run into a zoning problem with the neighbors.

At the end of our conversation, I couldn’t help asking Mr. Rogers why he didn’t remove the signs. The store looks like it might be open. Doesn’t it confuse people? He replied that everyone in the neighborhood knew it was closed, and he hoped that others weren’t greatly inconvenienced. Then what he said revealed that the reason was simply nostalgia. “We have no desire to take the sign down. We like it there. It’s part of our memories.”

Thanks to the Rogers family, Mickey Johnston, local historian William Offutt, the staff of the Washingtoniana collection at Martin Luther King Jr. Library, and the Historical Society of Washington, which keeps the archives of the Montgomery Sycamore Island Club.

Sherry Pettie is an active Wait-Lister. Among her volunteer efforts for the club, she graciously responded to our request for this article.