A Diary Of Seven Decades


November 04, 1990|By Carleton Jones

As the 21st century approaches, interest in the 19th century seems destined to fade.

As a result of fast-moving times and disinterest, the 19th century roots of millions of American families tend to remain a mystery. But not always.

Meet Charles Winfield Robb, 77, of Cooksville, Howard County. Until 1977 his family owned the Trusty Friend, a 50-acre Colonial grant that since the 1760s had never been sold but was passed down through families by wills.

Such continuity increases the likelihood of other records being preserved, and in the case of the Robb family -- and its connecting families of McComas, Sheetz and Slicer -- the results are nothing short of phenomenal.

"Win" Robb knows what his great-grandfather Isaac McComas did virtually every week from 1854 until the day of his death at 94 in 1923, with the exception of one missing year. McComas kept a diary during that period, 55 years of which narrate doings in Baltimore and central Maryland.

Win Robb remembers seeing his great-grandfather in old age. "He started his diary on Jan. 1 in 1854, the year he left for California, and he kept it up until he was dying," he says.

The California stay would make Isaac McComas something of a working-man's legend in the town of Marysville. Instead of sticking to the risky gold fields (he left after a week's trial), McComas put his knowledge of bricks and mortar to work. ("Mining for gold is too hard a work for me," he said.) He opened a brick factory and a contracting business and later built the northern California town's first Presbyterian church and its Masonic hall. He also built a hotel, numerous private homes and a local school, and is remembered there in city archives.

In between major jobs, McComas would perform minor work like building bridge foundations, for which he was sometimes paid an astonishing $14 a day -- at least six or seven times what seasoned Baltimore journeymen made.

A few days after the Baltimore riots of 1861, McComas was basking in the approval of the California elect from Sacramento and San Francisco, who had come as far as 50-150 miles to the frontier town to see the dedication of McComas' new Oddfellows Hall. (Apparently McComas was exempted from Civil War service because he was a member of the local volunteer fire department.)

In 1859, McComas and a Baltimore girl named Sally Slicer had succumbed to romance. They married and in 1867 returned to the Baltimore area "because she was homesick," says Win Robb. His business ventures in his native state included operating a grocery store on Argyle Avenue in Baltimore and various mills in Howard, Frederick and Carroll counties.

The McComas diaries are matter-of-fact and invariably include "a report on the local weather," Mr. Robb reports. That fact alone should give them historical value -- they predate organized weather observations for many of the locales where McComas wrote his million-worded report.

The McComas family story seems to be awash in floods, including a massive midwinter freshet that all but washed away Marysville in 1862. Worse was to come. McComas was twice flooded out in Maryland, and his Hoodes Mill in Carroll County was destroyed. A combination general store, saw mill and flour mill, Hoodes produced bags of his Celebrated Vestal Roller Flour. The 1868 flood that wrecked Ellicott City and the 1889 FTC storm that rocked Johnstown, Pa., were the culprits. "The flood has almost ruined us," he wrote of the former, adding that it was "taking away all of the bone plaster and saw mill . . . the tail race and washing out the dam."

The bone plaster, used as fertilizer, was made from horse and human bones left from the great battle of Antietam. Curiously, the only missing volume of the enormous diary is for 1904, the year of the Great Baltimore Fire.

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