Celebrating Middle River Anniversary: The history of the 50-year-old eastern Baltimore County community is tied to the Glenn L. Martin Co. and the dreams its thousands of jobs fulfilled.

June 04, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

A half-century ago, people like Alverta Mordan and Jack Lee migrated to Middle River from America's cities, small towns and farms looking for the promised land.

Jobs that rippled from the giant Glenn L. Martin airplane factory there during World War II shaped the dream. Jack Lee was an art designer and drillmaster of the company band; Alverta Mordan did the hair of the women defense workers.

On Sunday, they will celebrate the community's 50th anniversary and recall when they helped form the mosaic that exploded into one of the nation's first planned suburbs. There will be tours of the nine wartime neighborhoods, reunions of the Bomberettes women's basketball and baseball teams and other events.

But while the community prepares to pay tribute to itself, many of its residents are casting a nervous eye toward the area's uncertain future.

This slice of Baltimore County finds itself at an uncertain crossroads, along with neighbors in Essex and Dundalk. The area's industrial base has lost tens of thousands of jobs since the 1960s, and poverty and crime have become major concerns. County officials are trying to revive the Eastside with development and concentrated attacks on blight.

"Just as industry is in a state of evolution, blue-collar communities are in transition to service [jobs], and we are experiencing some growing pains," said Joseph A. DiCara, president of Essex Development Corp.

"We had lots of recreation before the area was forced into heavy industry during the war," DiCara said, "H. L. Mencken drank beer at Hollywood Park on the Back River. With 173 miles of shoreline, that is our future."

One of the organizers of Sunday's celebration is Loyola College history professor Jack Breihan.

He is working on a book, "Aero Acres: World War II and the Transformation of the American Metropolis," and has developed a genuine affection for Middle River and its people.

"There is really a tremendous amount of community spirit there today," Breihan said. "Middle River spawned cul-de-sacs to slow down traffic, the state's first highway cloverleaf, houses facing away from the street, garden apartments. In the 1940s, it was all brand new."

And back then, Mordan, now 73, saw it all unfold from her vantage point -- her beauty shop on Kitty Hawk Road.

"This never was a gossipy shop," she said last week, working in the same one she opened in 1944 after moving to Middle River from Bedford, Pa. "But those days were marked by tremendous sadness and isolation. All of our men were overseas, and I would find out early when one of my customers lost a husband to the war."

Long hair was out

Because of Martin factory safety rules, women could not wear the long "peekaboo" look popularized in Hollywood. So, Mordan said, long hair went up in "snoods" -- hairnets popular in the 40s -- or women wore bandannas on their heads.

Many favored functional short cuts, she said. Styles like "candy pomp," "mother's delight" and "page boy" were stylish for Rosie the Riveter; beehives came along the next decade.

The war and rationing also necessitated improvisation and, occasionally, breaking of the rules.

"I met the needs of my customers who worked all three shifts, and I booked three weeks in advance," the hairdresser said. "If they had a blackout or air raid drill at night, I couldn't always unplug my girl's hair that was hooked up to the permanent wave machine."

Bobby pins and hairpins were hard to come by, so most of Mordan's customers had their perms set with toothpicks.

"It was a great time back then because, even enduring those hardships, people were civil toward one another," Mordan said. "Even after the war I had customers from Bel Air [and from] cross-town. But ever since I broke my arm two winters ago, I have had to slow down just a bit."

Arrived from Iowa

Phillis Ricketts is one who has not slowed down since arriving in Middle River in 1942 from Humboldt, Iowa.

Today, she still plays in at least a half-dozen concert and dance bands with her top-of-the-line trumpet, teaches a fitness class and studies tai chi. And a highlight of her life was performing in the old Martin Marching Band.

"It's wonderful to have this celebration," said Ricketts, who declined to give her age.

A resident of White Marsh, she worked at the Martin plant during the war and was a USO hostess.

"A few other members of the original Martin's band will perform next Sunday with the Middle River Concert Band," she said. "And it will bring back so many pleasant memories."

Lee, 91, is bedridden at his home on Endsleigh Avenue in the Victory Villa neighborhood.

But there was a time when he kept the Martin Marching Band in shape as the organization's drillmaster after his regular work as an art designer.

In off-duty hours, Lee taught band members the proper formations, how to wear their uniforms and how to step out smartly during appearances around Baltimore. He also banged the cymbals.

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