Volunteer, 83, Keeps History Moving At Society Library


February 09, 1992|By Dolly Merritt

Anita Cushing might not be able to tell you if George Washington slept anywhere in the county, but she can show you how to find out for yourself.

The 83-year-old Ellicott City resident, who has lived in the historic town since 1946, has cataloged thousands of books, newspapers, marriage licenses and other materials that have entered the Howard County Historical Society Library since its beginning in 1963, when a friend roped her into the volunteer job.

The library began modestly with a collection of books stashed in a corner of the Historical Society museum, housed in the former FirstPresbyterian Church on Court Avenue.

"In the early days, the society was kind of a club and I would go down in the evenings, after work, to sort through the books," Cushing said.

"The county doesn't maintain any archives, so we feel we have a responsibility to make certain records available."

The collection, and Cushing's enthusiasm,grew as contributions were made and the society began to make its own purchases. Three years ago, the library moved to a 152-year-old building of its own next door.

"We are the best-kept secret in HowardCounty," Cushing now boasts.

Visitors who enter the library will find the rooms rather plain, with bland paneled walls and fluorescentlighting mounted on the ceilings. A few tables and chairs accommodate up to 10 researchers at a time.

It is an environment much less charming than the distinctive granite Historical Society museum next door.

Nonetheless, the main attractions are the card files and the contents of the bookshelves that line each of the four rooms, where 922 visitors browsed last year. More than 1,000 books are part of the collection.

Also there for perusal are local newspapers from the 18th century, old record and account books

containing handwritten notations that go back to 1753, public record books dating to 1898, voter registrations, maps, and Cushing's "constantly growing monster" -- a vertical file containing correspondence and clippings on some 200subjects from agriculture to zoning.

The library also contains more than 1,000 photographs, each preserved in an acid-proof envelope. A photocopy is made of each picture and is filed into a growing number of thick albums at the library.

The library, which lends none ofits collection, attracts many types of researchers: students preparing doctoral dissertations, families researching genealogy, newspaper reporters checking facts, and, of course, history buffs.

And the county genealogical society uses the library as its headquarters, Cushing said.

Ask her where to find anything in the library, and Cushing will quickly point the way . . . and usually throw in a historicaltidbit or two.

Gesturing to the shelves of Civil War volumes, sheoffered:

"Howard County was full of Southern sympathizers. Companies were formed here and went down to serve in the Virginia troops. Iremember when a Civil War Confederate monument was finally erected in 1947 or '48 in front of what was the courthouse at the time. It hadtaken a while to raise the money for the monument," she laughed.

On a wall of the library is a framed marriage license -- that of baseball great Babe Ruth and his wife, Helen Woodford, who were married Oct. 17, 1914, at St. Paul's Church in Ellicott City.

"During that time, there was no waiting period in order to acquire a marriage license, and Ellicott City became a place for quick marriages," notes Cushing. "People who got married here often stayed at the Howard House, a fashionable hostelry in Ellicott City at the time."

Hundreds of marriage licenses, dating back as far as 1872, have been cataloged and indexed and are part of the library's collection. Another 30 years'worth of licenses from the 1800s lie in the library's climate-controlled vault room yet to be processed.

Through the years, all of this information has been cataloged by Cushing and other volunteers. Currently about 10 people -- in

cluding a 14-year-old student, a fireman, a retired pilot and a physician -- each work four hours a week. Library hours are from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

The only paid staff person is Mary Mannix, the library's director since 1989.

Cushing estimates she has been working at the library 10 hours each week since she retired in 1976 from her job as an English teacher at the Glenelg Country School.

Though she is pleased with the library's progress, Cushing has a long wish list.

"We don't have very much about the quarries in Howard County," she said. "There are various types of stone used on so many buildings here."

And she would like to see a book about the inns in the county.

"We have the information, but nothing that is a complete study."

Then there is the need to expand the black history collection.

"I would like material on Elkridge, and also the older parts of the county such as Lisbon, West Friendship and Marriottsville. The reason there is so much on Ellicott City is because that is where the action was."

She also would like the library to have more money, more hoursand more volunteers. The Historical Society depends on memberships, fund-raisers, contributions, bequests and an occasional grant to keepthe library going.

"It is important to preserve these things and make them accessible to the public," Cushing said. "I learn somethingevery time I go down there."

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