'Typical American girls' Club: Members of the Milburnettes of East Baltimore roam memory lane, reminiscing over the jitterbug, beaus and war-time weddings.

November 19, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Helen Costantini looks around the restaurant table and sees six decades of wienie roasts and skating parties and hayrides, memories of Christmas dinners and summer dances shared with women she has known from social studies through Social Security.

Costantini sees the faces of her beloved Milburnettes, an East Baltimore girls club celebrating its 60th anniversary this fall.

And after all those years -- more than 1,000 meetings spanning the Great Depression to the discovery of life on Mars -- the girls are still learning things about each other.

"I didn't know your grandmother was a bootlegger," says founding member Costantini to Ginnie Krepp, a junior Milburnette with only 55 years in the club.

"She delivered babies, too. And then she'd make sure they had whiskey at the christening," says Krepp as the ladies klatch over fried oysters, all kinds of crab dishes and half-sized bottles of red and white wine.

Monthly luncheons long ago replaced more adventurous "escapades," and when the ladies are asked how long it's been since they took a hike through the woods, 78-year-old Cass Kafer pipes up: "Since our feet got bad."

When their feet were young, the Milburnettes and their beaus jitterbugged in the Johns Hopkins University's Levering Hall at their annual May dance. Admission in 1940 was 55 cents, back in the days when their Highlandtown neighborhood across from the old City Hospitals was known as Milburn Heights.

Today, although eight members still meet regularly, only one remains in the neighborhood that gave the group its name.

The Milburnettes were organized in October 1936 with a dozen teen-age girls as original members. "Typical American girls," according to the club's charter, which declares: "There is no ulterior motive except to promote clean and safe recreational activities for members and their friends to enjoy."

Without the club, the members say, these childhood friends would not have stayed so close for so long.

The group was made up of nine Roman Catholics and three Methodists representing families that arrived in the United States from Poland, Germany, Croatia, France and England. But through and through they are East Baltimore girls, with memories that go back before the Eastern Avenue underpass was built, when poor families sent their kids to the railroad tracks to pick up coal that fell from passing trains.

"Highlandtown produced good, sound people and women who were good wives and good housekeepers," says Maryanna Strohl. "We were all of the same character. Our husbands knew that every two weeks they'd be watching the children when we had a meeting, but before we left we made sure we had dinner ready."

Of the originals, two are dead, one left Baltimore years ago and a handful dropped out. Most everybody got married in the hectic war years of 1941 and 1942, and two are now widows. Elvira Croucher lost her first husband, Earl, 29 days after their marriage when he was reported missing in combat in Italy.

"There's been some sadness, but we've all had great lives," says Croucher, grateful to have come of age in a time when young Americans could go just about anywhere they wanted -- like the time in 1941 when a gang of Milburnettes hitchhiked to Patapsco State Park -- without fear of being hurt.

"It went by so fast," says Costantini. "You feel like you're still young but you look around and know you're not."

Pub Date: 11/19/96

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