On local lumber history, he's chairman of the board

JACQUES KELLY

April 28, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Leonard Fruman knows every limb, splinter and knothole on Baltimore's lumber family tree.

At 75, this well-seasoned merchant can cite the origin of an oak-grained door in Highlandtown or what type of stevedore's hook was used to unload pine on Pier 6.

"Every neighborhood had its own lumberyard and mill once," he says in his National Lumber office on Pulaski Highway. "You had Storck and Arundel in Waverly. You had John Geis in Brooklyn. George Sack was on Harford Road. Today, so much of that business has gone to the national chains and the super stores."

He seems to miss the informality and personal ways of the old-time lumberyards, where neighborhood children sought free scraps to make a kite, go-cart or treehouse.

As a young man, he used to sell bags of sawdust to the engineers of the Chesapeake Bay steamboats that docked along Pratt and Light streets. The sawdust was scattered on the engine room floors to soak up any oil or grease.

"Baltimore was a big lumber town," he says. "The yellow pine from Virginia and North Carolina came in on barges -- there were even a few sailing ships when I was a child -- and docked all along the harbor."

Millwork has been in his blood for generations. His grandfather, Alexander Fruman, was a Russian immigrant who carried a handsaw (it's preserved in his office) across the Atlantic. In 1919, he and his son Isadore founded the National Lumber Co. at Central Avenue and Gough Street in Little Italy.

"My grandfather was the man who made the window sashes, the doors, whatever people wanted," he says. "My father was the hot-shot salesman. My uncle was the shipping clerk.

"It was a family business. I loved the old neighborhood. I still own property there -- an apartment house and a parking lot."

It doesn't take much prodding for Fruman to give a quick tour of his old neighborhood. He points out the original home of the Roma Restaurant, or the spot on Albemarle Street where Maria's traded. Or Kelly and Poggi's store, where the neighborhood prize fighters bought leeches to draw the blood out of black eyes. He is particularly reverent when speaking of the MacLea Lumber Co.'s old headquarters at 506 S. Central Ave., whose sheds once held forests of fine oak, walnut, cedar, maple and mahogany.

He recites old Baltimore lumber firms -- John Dittmar, Fairmount, Robert Fisher, Forman-Blades, Goddard, Helfrich, Hofmeister, Horstmeir, League, Appel, F. Bowie Smith, Mattingly and Mottu -- while showing visitors a small lumber museum he's built in one area of the busy operation that primarily is run today by Fruman's son Arnold.

"We grew so much we were exploding," he says. "I bought the old Womble lumber mill on Elliott Street in Canton. The Pennsylvania Railroad tracks came right to our door. One of our yards was right by the Clarence Du Burns Soccer Arena."

Fruman might be in Canton today if the city hadn't condemned his property for a leg of an interstate highway that was never completed. He then moved to the old Harry Weiskittel Real Host stove plant site in the 4900 block of Pulaski Highway, where his sprawling lumber and hardware business remains.

He thumbs through a 1949 millwork catalog and points out a particular style of front door with an inset glass panel.

"That door was known as the Polish door. It was very popular in East Baltimore when Polish families renovated their houses and had Formstone installed. We sold a lot of those doors. You can still see them on Foster Avenue."

Some years later, he supplied the rough-cut lumber to make the wood pattern etched in the concrete walls of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

In a few minutes, Fruman is off on another subject, that of the former city vice squad chief who sought to protect Baltimore's morals some 40-odd years ago:

"We put the mauls and the wooden handles together for Capt. Alexander Emerson so he could bang down the doors on illegal gambling places. But we also made doors with steel plates on the inside for the gambling joint owners. Emerson would be using our mauls on our doors. We had them coming and going."

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