Remembering the boom times

October 11, 1995|By JOE NAWROZKI | JOE NAWROZKI,SUN STAFF

Ruby Jankiewicz, fresh from picking cotton and plucking worms from tobacco leaves down in Cooleemee, N.C., arrived in Middle River in 1942 with her suitcase and a burning desire to fight World War II.

Jack King, a 17-year-old from a rough-and-tumble Virginia town, came in as an assembly line worker at the Glenn L. Martin plant and became one of the defense industry's top test pilots.

And Minerva Gordon. She, too, came from the South and joined the war effort as a teen-ager. But she made her contribution at Martin's factory in East Baltimore because only white workers were allowed to build bombers at the Martin plant in Baltimore County.

Together, they and tens of thousands of others from around the nation converged on Middle River to form one of the first planned communities of World War II America. And now, these Martin veterans are preparing to join others Sunday to celebrate their 50th anniversary of victory in World War II.

The celebration coincides with a new study of Middle River -- an area born in post-Depression boom times but now struggling with pockets of poverty, unemployment and crime.

"Because of the Martin company in Middle River, diverse people from across the U.S.A. came together and formed a community," says Jack Breihan, the Loyola College history professor who is directing the study.

The workers who converged on Middle River before and during the war years created a mini-city of trailer parks, apartment complexes and inexpensive housing developments such as Aero Acres and Victory Villa.

Boarding houses did a booming business -- it wasn't unusual for three Martin workers to rent the same bed. Chicken coops, tents and automobiles also provided shelter in the early war years, Mr. Breihan says.

To Mrs. Jankiewicz, now 74, life in a 22-foot-long olive drab trailer "was pure heaven. I was 20 years old, me and my husband had left the cotton mills down home where we always breathed those little particles. The trailer cost us $6.50 a week to rent," recalls Mrs. Jankiewicz, twice widowed and living in the Middleborough area of Essex.

"There wasn't a person in my plant who was from Maryland but we all got along," she adds. "The trailer was small but it had running water, a tiny stove. Reese and I were real happy, we put a little fence around our trailer."

When her husband was discharged from the military, they moved into Edgewater Apartments on Eastern Boulevard not far from the plant known as Martin's.

That complex, now called Riverdale Village, is mostly vacant and has become a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes -- a problem the county hopes to remedy by razing many of the apartments.

"Life was better back then," says Mrs. Jankiewicz, who worked 27 years at the plant. "Everybody was in the same pot, we all had a common purpose. Even the bosses were like your friends. You didn't mind sacrificing because we all wanted to win the war."

Glenn L. Martin, a brilliant designer and former stunt pilot, saw his company boom after the Munich Conference in 1938, when Adolf Hitler threatened Britain and France. Those countries turned to Martin to design and build new warplanes, and when the U.S. entered World War II, quiet Middle River was transformed.

Martin's work force went from 3,000 in early 1939 to 13,000 by the end of the year. In December 1941, Martin employed more than 30,000; a year later, more than 52,000.

After the war, many stayed on the Martin payroll, settling in Essex, Middle River, Parkville and neighborhoods in Baltimore. The company, now called Lockheed-Martin, employs about 1,000 people in Middle River.

Jack King, 73, worked for the Glenn L. Martin company in its heyday, toiling in the factory for 11 years and flying out of the Martin airfield for more than three decades as a test pilot for a number of companies. During that time, he got to know Mr. Martin well.

"I would go fishing with Mr. Martin's secretary, Bill Ruddig," says Mr. King, who is also the author of two aviation books.

"Mr. Martin would call Bill up at 2, 3 in the morning to come over to his house and play cards," Mr. King recalls. "The boss was a lifelong bachelor, very devoted to his mother. And while slightly eccentric, he was a great man, an inspiration to me."

Mr. King had a house in Stansbury Estates, a development built early in the war.

He says, "We'll never see that type of maximum effort again in this nation. Middle River worked because it was affordable and Mr. Martin, the government and the USO devised ways for people to get along with each other. There was a massive factory culture."

Mrs. Gordon left her 60-cents-an-hour job at the Martin plant where black employees worked on Oldham Street in Canton making bombing systems, gun turrets and other parts for the B-26 bomber. She transferred to the Middle River factory in 1947 and stayed there until she retired in 1987.

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