Vinegar factory remains worthy to be sniffed at

June 20, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Drivers roaring up and down the Jones Falls Expressway often find themselves smelling pickles or sniffing fresh potato salad.

Most people just think it's their imagination or blame it on the pungent odors that envelop Baltimore on sultry nights or humid days.

A few people identify a group of old industrial buildings at Cold Spring Lane as "the pickle works." This identification is nearly correct. But you won't find any cucumbers here.

Those who call it the vinegar works get the A-plus.

A few more might even recognize the fieldstone and frame buildings alongside the Central Light Rail Line and not far from the expressway as the Melvale Distillery, once the largest liquor distillery in the state.

"My father bought the old Melvale works in the 1930s. He hired Gus [August] Mencken, the brother of the writer who was an engineer, to change some of the truss work in the warehouse used for storing the barrels," says Bernard C. Boykin, a Ruxton resident who oversaw the production of vinegar here for many years.

The little Melvale neighborhood's most famous industry was then known as the American Cider and Vinegar Co. Its letterhead carried the tag line "Ye Olde Vinegar Works." The firm made two styles of vinegar, Melvale apple vinegar and Crystal distilled vinegar. The Boykin family sold the business in the 1950s.

Mr. Boykin explains that vinegar is made from some source of sugar:

"We used Cuban blackstrap molasses, which is fermented to alcohol and from alcohol it is made into vinegar. We pumped the alcohol into wooden tanks, added water, oxygen and beech wood shavings. The temperature is critical. In three or four days, you get vinegar," he says.

Mr. Boykin is a member of the third generation of his family who were in the business of distilled vinegar or another locally famous liquid -- rye whiskey.

In 1910, Melvale was the largest distillery in Maryland of whiskey, primarily a brand bottled as Melvale Pure Rye. It was then owned by William B. Cummings.

The labels on his bottles were printed in a green tone the shade of a worn dollar bill. They also depicted the distillery buildings alongside the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad's Northern Central division.

Mr. Boykin's ancestors were also involved in the liquor business but not at the Melvale site. His grandfather, William A. Boykin, was in partnership with a man named Ulman. Their Ulman and Boykin firm sold a brand of Maryland rye called Oriole. They owned the Canton Distillery in Southeast Baltimore. Earlier it had been owned by the Walters family of art collectors.

"Prohibition changed the Maryland rye industry. My father became involved with vinegar about the time of World War I. Vinegar is used in the production of acetone, which was being made in Baltimore for a smokeless gunpowder being supplied to the British. After the war, there was a great quantity of vinegar left as surplus. My father went into the business of selling it off," Mr. Boykin recalls.

Some years later the Boykins bought the Melvale property, which had its own stop, Melvale Station, on the railroad. In the 1970s, when plans for what became the Coldspring New Town development were being made, the late Wilbur Hunter, director of the Peale Museum, suggested calling the new neighborhood Melvale. Coldspring won out. Only a few old-timers still connected the name with the old stone buildings alongside the railroad and falls.

The distillery was constructed sometime after the Civil War. During that conflict, this location, then spelled Melville, was home to an encampment of the Ellsworth Zouaves from York, Pa. They set up a semi-circle of tents and guarded the Northern Central tracks and bridges along the important rail link from Baltimore to York and Harrisburg.

A pictorial lithograph of that period shows a primitive Cold Spring Lane, a spring house and the volunteer group's blue flag.

Today the vinegar works makes white distilled vinegar from corn alcohol produced at another location. The old distillery still uses some wood tanks along with others of fiberglass and stainless steel. The place retains its rail siding for tank car bulk deliveries. It is operated by Integrated Ingredients and its vinegar sold wholesale under the name of Fleischmann's.

Who knows, your next spoonful of salad dressing, mustard, ketchup or pickle relish may have come from a vat off Cold Spring Lane. And who's to say your steamed shrimp or crabs weren't bathed in the vapors of old Melvale?

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