GRANTSVILLE – It’s early May, and the tulips are out, but spring has yet to arrive in full bloom in Garrett County. Bare branches and swaths of ashen gray still mark the rolling hills and mountains.
Folks in Maryland’s western highlands are used to change coming more slowly here than elsewhere. And that fact is evident in the 2000 Census.
Maryland, like the nation, is becoming more diverse, more multilingual, fueled by an influx of people of Hispanic and Asian origin. But Grantsville and the rest of Garrett County remain overwhelmingly white, at nearly 99 percent.
It’s even higher in the county’s Census Tract 2, where 3,846 of the 3,877 residents — 99.2 percent — are white. That makes it the highest concentration of whites anywhere in Maryland.
The lack of racial diversity is not an everyday topic here, says Gerry Beachy, a Grantsville pharmacist who doubles as mayor. But Beachy said change is coming that will likely attract more people with different ethnic backgrounds.
Florida-based ClosetMaid plans to open a local plant that could bring as many as 800 jobs over the next five years, a big deal for a county with nearly 12 percent unemployment. Beachy said workers have also installed fiber-optic lines as part of an effort by community leaders to bring in new businesses that will offer a future for the area’s young people.
“We’re holding on to the tail of the horse and we better hold on, because it’s taking off,” Beachy said of the coming change.
Beachy’s wife, Sue, said she looks forward to the change, but she hopes it doesn’t spoil the slower, neighborly pace of life.
“It would be nice to keep it the same,” she said. “But we have to think of the future. Really right now there is no future for our kids.”
She said the potential exposure to different people will be healthy for an area that is mostly white and isolated.
To that end, the Beachys have been involved in an exchange program with towns in Estonia, in which Garrett County schoolchildren have become penpals with children in that Baltic country. The children quickly learned that they were more alike than different, especially when it comes to universal things such as Pokemon.
“There’s a big, wide, wonderful world out there and I think that the children need to know about it,” Sue Beachy said.
Today, Garrett County remains a rural outpost in westernmost Maryland. Much of the county is covered in trees, including the 53,000-acre Savage River State Forest, which makes up a large portion of tract 2.
Interstate 68, the four-lane National Freeway, dips and curves its way across the top of the county. But signs on many other county roads caution drivers to watch for deer and bears. Drivers may have to hit the brakes to avoid a wild turkey lingering on a side road.
Garrett County’s population grew by about 6 percent in the past 10 years, to 29,846 in 2000, well under Maryland’s growth rate of almost 11 percent.
Much of the growth has been around Oakland, the county seat. A new Wal- Mart sits on a hill just outside town. Upscale summer vacation houses are replacing the modest A-frames on the shores of Deep Creek Lake.
But in the northern part of the county, Grantsville, population 600, is a rare sign of town life along I-68.
Main Street is a mile-long stretch of Alternate U.S. 40, lined with wood- framed houses with sagging porches and a handful of businesses, including Betty Jo’s Fashion Beauty Lounge, the Grantsville Market and Beachy’s Pharmacy, which also offers Western Union and United Parcel Service and is a Greyhound Bus stop.
A few miles south of the Mason-Dixon line, Grantsville has a long history of Amish influences. Road signs warn motorists to watch for horse-drawn buggies and businesses have hitching posts out front.
On the outskirts of town, near Yonders Meat Packers, is a former brick church now home to “He’s Alive Radio.” WAIJ-FM — which stands for “We’re Alive in Jesus” — beams 10,000 watts of gospel singing, praying and preaching from 5:30 a.m. to midnight, and is accessible around the clock on the Internet.
The listener-supported station is affiliated with World Lighthouse Worship church, which draws 150 worshipers — including whites, African- Americans and Mexicans, mostly from outside of the county, said WAIJ program director Scott Reppert.
“We will welcome everyone,” said Reppert of the Pentecostal church, which has a red-and-white lighthouse overlooking I-68.
Reppert concedes that not everyone in the area is so accepting — just like many other parts of the country, both rural and urban, he said. He said that people think of Garrett County, with its almost all-white population, and they might be left with an image of intolerance that keeps some people away.
The area’s lack of diversity is not lost on Morris Johnson, one of only 128 African Americans living in the county.
Johnson, a retired Air Force colonel, did a tour in Italy at the end of World War II and later served in Korea and Vietnam. Six years ago he and his wife moved to Oakland to escape the crime and bustle of Pittsburgh.
While most people in Garrett County are friendly, Johnson said he and his wife were confronted with intolerance when they first went to worship at a local church and a woman in the congregation loudly protested their presence. Now, the Johnsons attend church in Frederick, more than 100 miles away from their home in Oakland.
“I haven’t had any incidents as far as moving into the neighborhood. Nobody was burning crosses,” Johnson said. “But it’s still a tough town to live in.”
Johnson had just gotten off the Greyhound bus at Beachy’s Pharmacy on Sunday, carrying a red tote and walking stiffly after enduring a 12-hour ride from Philadelphia, where a granddaughter ran in the Penn Relays track meet.
He said he spends much of his time out of the area, traveling to sporting events. Still, he chooses to live in Garrett County because he likes to hunt and fish and he enjoys the area’s natural beauty and easier lifestyle.
“This is good country,” said Johnson, whose trim, athletic frame belies his 76 years. “If you like a nice, quiet life to get away from the fast and furious, why this is a good place to be.”