Portraits of disappearing crafts and dying trades

VANISHING LIVES --

March 13, 1994|By JOHN SHERWOOD

On Page 13 of today's Sun Magazine, the person pictured is not "Miss Annie" Bellinger but "Miss Minnie" Piper, a bridge tender in Oldtown, Allegany County. Above is a photo of "Miss Annie" Bellinger.

L On Page 8 of the Magazine, Leon Summers' name is misspelled.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Inspired by Charles Kuralt's "On the Road" series for CBS News, a young newspaper reporter found his niche in the late 1960s. John Sherwood decided he'd champion ways of life that have been forgotten or overlooked. He'd make the old-fashioned and the eccentric his beat. He'd keep track as families passed down folkways and trades and while changing technologies threatened to make their livelihoods and pastimes obsolete.

By 1990, two of the many newspapers he had worked for had ceased publication. In the third decade of his career, the writer began to wonder whether his own way of life -- and that of others -- might be vanishing. And whether it might soon be too late to find the last laborers at work in disappearing crafts and dying trades.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

His focus sharpened, he began traveling down Maryland back roads and alleys. He found more than 60 people who fit the profile of "stubborn survivors -- living time capsules, anachronisms, twilight zones."

"I was not interested in Colonial Williamsburg-style re-creations and restorations," he tells us in the preface to "Maryland's Vanishing Lives," his newly published book, excerpts of which begin on this page. Rather, the book profiles families and individuals who resolutely have hung on to the past. "Often, the traits I found most admirable in these persons were their blunt honesty; their stubborn independence and resistance to change; devotion to work, duty, family and tradition; and a complete disregard of public opinion," he says.

Their passing will mark the end of a way of life, he adds.

"Slow down and look around before it all goes away."

John Smith's Barbershop

John Smith's Barbershop opened in Lonaconing in 1870 and has been at its current location for 106 years, in a little shoe box of a building set on stilts over George's Creek.

It is the only barbershop left in this economically depressed Allegany County town. And Burton Smith, 69, is the last Smith to be barbering in a family that goes back five generations to Scotland.

"I received my master barber's license when I was 10 years old," he says, "but I started working here as a lather and sweep-up boy when I was 4, when my grandfather, John Smith, and my father, John 'Judd' Smith and three barbering uncles were all here. Remember, this was a busy town with a population of 10,000. There were seven other barbershops! Now there's just me."

Some customers have been coming here for 75 years for the same style haircuts: short on top, short on the sides, short around the back.

"I don't do razor cuts or blow-dry styling," he says. For the sideburns, Mr. Smith hones his straight edge with a stone, then takes off the edge by stropping it on a leather and canvas strap.

"Used to be that when you got a haircut you got a shave, too, and even a shoeshine," he adds. "I still use hot lather and a straight razor for trim, but I haven't had a request for a shave in years and just don't do it anymore. We had 300 individual shaving mugs here at one time!" Although it's quiet now, in its day John Smith's Barbershop must have been quite a lively place.

"I like to keep the place as original looking as possible and I never throw away anything," Mr. Smith says. His handsomely ornate, solid oak counter frame -- purchased from the J. J. Ryan Barbershop Supply Co. in Baltimore in the late 1870s -- has three round, built-in, beveled mirrors and a marble counter. Within easy reach is a small sprinkling jug of Witch Hazel brand hair tonic, and a snubby, worn horsehair brush for talcum dusting.

Mr. Smith has an early commercial hair dryer, but he just shows it as part of his "working barbershop museum." Ask him to blow-dry your hair and, likely as not, he'll pretend to clobber you with it, explaining: "I don't go for that weird stuff."

Finding a caboose in Maryland is easy, even though they have all but vanished from the tail ends of freight trains. Just check out a railroad museum or ask a rail fan for the locations of these outmoded cars that have been converted to shops and getaway vacation cabins. Finding a working caboose, however, is something else again, especially a cupola caboose (as opposed to the more modern bay-window caboose).

"You're looking for a working cupola caboose?" asked Robert J. Comer, Curtis Bay terminal trainmaster. "They're long gone, but we might have one bay-window caboose still working. We've replaced cabooses with computerized 'end-of-train,' EOT, devices. Nah, we don't have any more cupola cabo . . . "

Mr. Comer stopped in midsentence.

"Wait a minute! I don't believe it! A cupola caboose is going by my window right now. I didn't even know we had one working."

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