Baltimore glimpses: Mencken's Turkey Day

November 21, 1995|By Gilbert Sandler

FOR MOST OF 51 years (1912-1963) Miller Brothers on Fayette Street, where the Omni hotel is today, was one of Baltimore's premiere institutions, rivaled in its day only by Haussner's in East Baltimore.

Miller Brothers dominated the Baltimore restaurant scene as no restaurant does today. Elk, bear and buffalo steak all found their way onto its menu.

At Thanksgiving, according to Bud Klunk, maitre de for 21 years, Miller Brothers would serve more than 1,000 turkey dinners. The help, he said, took bets on how many dinners would actually be served. ''We made a lottery out of it,'' Mr. Klunk said. ''I bet a number around 1,000 every year for 20 years, but I never won.''

H.L. Mencken, by the way, according to Maria (Allori), owner and cook at Maria's, at one time the most famous of Little Italy's restaurants, never dined in Miller Brothers on Thanksgiving. ''He came here, to Maria's, every Thanksgiving,'' she once told us. And what did the Sage order for his Thanksgiving dinner? ''Spaghetti, of course.''

* * *

The Bay Bridges now figure so large in the life of both shores, and seem to have been there so long, that many Baltimoreans, perhaps most, cannot even remember when the bridges were not there, and the largely separate worlds, Eastern Shore and Western Shore, that existed without them.

From about 1920 into the 1950s there were at least four ways to get to the Eastern Shore: the Love Point Ferry from Baltimore Harbor to Love Point on the northern end of Kent Island; the Claiborne-Annapolis ferry from 1919 to 1926, which became the Annapolis-Matapeake ferry and ran from Sandy Point until the end of bay ferry service in 1952; Baltimore to Tolchester via the Tolchester excursion boats; and the ''up and around'' drive to Elkton and down.

After a quarter-century's wrangling and dire predictions (''It will kill all the marine life;'' ''It will fall over;'' ''It will snap in the ice like a blade of grass.'') on July 30, 1952, a ribbon-cutting ceremony formally opened the bridge. Back-ups were quick in coming, and so was a public outcry for a second bridge. But there was resistance to the idea; the matter was petitioned to referendum -- and lost. There was to be no second Bay Bridge.

Where there's a will . . .

Or was there? Gov. Spiro T. Agnew, with some interesting legislative legerdemain, managed to get enabling legislation to build a second bay bridge, parallel to the first. On June 28, 1972, Gov. Marvin Mandel cut the ribbon at the toll plaza at the western end of the new bridge. Secretary of Transportation Harry Hughes became the first to cross it.

On the Eastern Shore, in those long-ago, isolated pre-bridge days, Shoremen took delight in singing (to ''The Old Grey Mare''):

We don't give a damn

For the whole state of Maryland,

The whole state of Maryland . . .

We're from the Eastern Shore.

They sing that song no more. Save for that dwindling remnant of die-hard Shore provincials, the bridges have brought the Eastern Shore into the 20th century. Booms in real estate, tourism, retailing and land development have forever changed the Shore's physical and psychic landscape.

For Baltimoreans and Washingtonians, thousands of whom now own condominiums in the sprawling developments that crowd the shorelines from Ocean City to Rehoboth, the bridges have made ''going downy acean'' a way of life.

People who forget this history, or who never knew it, should make a short visit to Matapeake on the Eastern Shore. There they can see a lichen-covered cement bulkhead, about 30 feet long, ancient and incongruous.

Of those days before the bridges; of the ferry boats and the steam railroads that took vacationers to the Shore and back; of NTC the sleepy towns, quiet resorts and lonely beaches; of the unhurried pace that was the Eastern Shore; of the raging controversies that surrounded the project; of all those things and all of those years, these few feet of cement, washed into a thousand colors by the restless tides, are all that remain.

Gilbert Sandler writes from, and about, Baltimore.

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