According to Maryland and Delaware Off the Beaten Path, 8th (Off the Beaten Path Series) by Judy Colbert (2007), the Cozy Restaurant in Thurmont is the oldest established restaurant in the state of Maryland still operated by the founding family. “Wilbur R. Freeze, along with his wife Mary L. Freeze, founded the Cozy in 1929,” she tells us.
Depending on how you define ‘restaurant,’ however, you could make a very strong case that Geatz’s Restaurant in Cumberland, MD is in fact the oldest in this category.
In 1860, Johannes Götz (yes, the spelling got changed; details in a minute!) and his fiancée, Anna Catherine, moved to Cumberland, MD from Bavaria, Germany. Ten days after their arrival they were married at Saints Peter & Paul Church in Cumberland.
Johannes worked in a lumberyard until he started in the saloon/lunchroom business, around 1880, on Baltimore Street in the downtown district. A full 49 years before the Cozy got its start.
“Back in Rottweill, the Götz’s were brewmeisters and executioners,” according to JP Geatz, the current, 5th generation owner of the family business. With Johanne’s brewmeister heritage, it is not hard to understand his passion to own multiple saloons. After his death, it is believed that his sons, George P., John J. and William operated several saloons.
Hanging on the walls of the modern day Geatz’s Restaurant are two photos, one from 1889 and one from 1904, of the family proprietors standing in front of their establishment. On his saloon’s sign (in both photos), Johannes Götz has changed the spelling of his name to ‘John Geatz.’ “The story was told to me that the family changed the spelling for easier pronunciation,” explains JP Geatz, “which I don’t think has helped too much anyway because everybody pronounces it GEETZ or GOATS.” He chuckles, then pauses to consider. “I like Geatz, where EAT is in the name – where EAT is in the center of the spelling.”
The City of Cumberland and Allegany County, 1895-96 directory does list John Geatz as having a saloon at 40 N. Mechanic Street, but makes no mention of a lunch room, even though in the two family photos the words “Saloon and Lunch Room” can be clearly seen painted on the building’s window.
George P. took over in 1896, when he married Emma Ritter, daughter of Paul and Emma (Kate Fobel) Ritter, who owned Paul Ritter & Son Brewery Co. at 34 Paca Street, where the Queen City Towers now stand.
GEATZ 27 Feb 1900 Mr John Geatz died last night at the home on Cumberland Street, aged 67 years. He had been ill for one week and son Joseph had been summoned from Baltimore but arrived too late for his father to know him. He was born in Germany in 1832 and came to Cumberland about 40 years ago. He married Miss Kate Bernard 37 years ago and the following children resulted: Joseph B; Katie B; George P; and Mary Goatz; all living except Katie. George is married to Miss Ritter and Mary to Mr Theo Wallace. After the death of his first wife, Mr Geatz married Katie Eileat and these children resulted: Johnnie, Maggie and Willie. He was a member of SS Peter & Paul and services will be Wednesday with interment in the SSPP Cemetery. 01 Mar 1900 The funeral of Mr John Geatz was at St Peter’s & Paul, Father Matthew officiating with interment in the cemetery associated with the church. Wife Catherine Geatz was appointed to administrate the estate. —-Cumberland Evening Times
After 1900, the Geatz saloons and lunchrooms gradually migrated to one location. The business was then known as John Geatz’s Saloon/lunchroom, where you could get a Cumberland made Lager beer for 5 cents. Its location on Mechanic Street downtown is believed to be where the Times News Building is located today.
In 1905 George P. moved the business to its present location at 206 Paca Street. In 1918 his wife passed away of influenza during that year’s great epidemic, leaving son Norman Franklin, Sr., age 14, and daughter Anna Catherine (Cassie Parsons), age 1.
On March 28, 1936, George P. was involved in a car accident, which left him with a broken hip and pelvis, never to walk again, dying the following year in November.
His son Norman (known to all as ‘Cotton’) took over ownership of Geatz’s. Cotton developed a high enough profile in Cumberland that a 1946 article in the Cumberland Evening Times could casually refer to his restaurant as ‘Cotton Geatz’s Place.’
“I think Cotton was called that ever since he was a child, and I think it was hair color,” says his grandson JP. “He was bleach blond when he was small. I was called Cotton when I was little because my hair was snow white also, and it’s just stuck. It was always ‘Cotton.’ Today it [the restaurant] is still known by that by people who are in their 70s & 80s, who still remember my grandfather.” (The current menu cover states explicitly: ‘Known to Western MD as Cotton’s.’)
Cotton continued to run his bar/restaurant until his retirement in 1978 when two of his sons, George E. and John P. “Phil” Geatz, purchased the business. After graduating from LaSalle High School in 1953, George E. had attended Potomac State College and the University of Maryland. He served in the United States Army during the Korean War and was a member of the Disabled Veterans of America.
Upon returning home, George entered the family’s restaurant business with his father. Soon after, his brother Phil joined the restaurant, and the business grew. They began the corporation now known as Geatz’s Restaurant, Inc. George and Phil ran the family business together for over 20 years until Phil and his son JP bought George’s shares in the company in 1999.
In 2003 Phil Geatz passed away, leaving his wife Sis, son JP and wife Brenda (Wolf) to carry on the family heritage. JP and Brenda’s 3 sons Richard, Anthony and Adam McDonald have stepped up as the current generation to run the family business. They have been working in the business since 1988, and now oversee the running of the restaurant.
Several final thoughts from JP Geatz:
On why he hasn’t sold the place: “I’ve held onto it as long as I can just because of the heritage. I’ve been here almost 30 years myself. The economy’s changed…like I said, the thought has crossed my mind many, many times recently.”
Has the economy changed your menu items? “Yeah. Sure. Pizza, wings are kind of what’s hip right now.”
You’ve stopped carrying traditional German food? “Yes, unfortunately yes. We were traditionally known 30 years ago for turtle soup. We’ve made our little niche with crab, and it’s stuck around for a long time. Hard shell crabs are tougher to get — good hard shell crabs — so we’ve quieted that up a little bit, but we’ve always kept our crab cakes, our steamed shrimp, a lot of seafood. It’s a tough niche to keep going.”
Any one food Cumberland is known for that you’re in the forefront with? “I’d say our crab cakes. They are and have been our number one seller for years. And I think it’s because of where we are: we’re western Maryland, we’re right on the cusp [of being able to claim 'Maryland is for Crabs'], so I think that’s what’s made us go for a long time.”
No more turtle soup? “No, that’s a tough one to sell anymore.”
Sources: “Paul Hugo Ritter and Related Families: Rottweil, Germany to Cumberland, Maryland” by Ruth Ritter Runner, Germany, 1995
Cumberland Times-News obituary for George E Geatz
Cumberland Evening Times article that mentions Cotton Geatz’s Place