'Home, nothing else' Staying: Erma Smith Reechel and her sisters Harriett and Ellen Smith see nothing particularly unusual about living in the industrial part of Canton, and they have no intention of moving.

September 22, 1998|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Just up the street from the heaping stacks of salt stored at Rukert Terminals, a block past the Port Truck Stop restaurant, right across from the offices of Apex Oil, sandwiched between two rundown, boarded-up houses, sits one of the few remaining residences along Southeast Baltimore's Canton industrial strip.

It seems an odd place to live, the three-story, seven-room home in the 1600 block of S. Clinton St., where the intermittent rumble of 18-wheel trucks can be heard all day and the view from the back yard is of a 195-foot cellular communications tower.

But for the Smith sisters -- who have lived there without interruption for more than 65 years -- it's just as natural as the canned jam they make from a fig tree out back. Explains Erma Smith Reechel, "It's our home, and nothing else."

That, in short, is what Erma and her two sisters said about 20 years ago when Apex Oil tried to buy them out and move them to another part of Canton -- where waterfront condominiums and yuppified shopping plazas are the norm. Apex, which owns the two buildings on either side, had a mind to tear down all three for future expansion, said Joe Wienecke, terminal manager.

But the Smiths weren't interested in moving. Nobody sells unless we have to, the sisters decided in an unofficial pact.

"This was our grandmother's house," says Harriett Smith, pointing toward a framed charcoal drawing of her mother's mother, which hangs above the sofa in the family room.

The house -- where the microwave oven and videocassette recorder seem at odds with the cans of AquaNet and the mix-and-match rugs on the floor -- has been in the family since the early 1900s, at which time, Erma says, the address was 304 S. Clinton St.

Erma, Harriett, Ellen and their eldest sister, who now lives elsewhere in Baltimore, moved there with their mother, Mary E. Smith, during the Great Depression after their father died.

The girls' four uncles -- one of whom worked as a watchman at the defunct American Smelting Co. which had been down the street -- and an aunt, who inherited the house after their parents died, were in residence. The number of tenants at the house in the 1600 block of S. Clinton St. grew to 10.

About 70 years ago, before the other brick houses along "Copper Row" were boarded up or torn down, the neighborhood was a neighborhood. The area around what is Pier 1 -- home to the Maryland Port Administration's Clinton Street Marine Terminal -- was known as "Goose Hill" because many of the residents had geese, the sisters recall. The area around Pier 5 was called "I Wonder" park.

In its last incarnation more than two decades ago, the building abutting the Smiths to the south was an automobile repair shop. On the other side was Strassner's bar -- now a burned-out shell with a bathtub falling through the first-floor ceiling and torn business receipts dating to 1919 left on the floor.

In the next block was Hoffman's -- "Beer, Liquors, Lunches" -- once owned and operated by another of the Smith sisters' late aunts, and, until recently, by their cousin, "Girlie," who lives there with family.

For the first half of the century, the neighborhood in Lower Canton was a place where people lived and worked; often, the man of the family would get out of bed on one side of South Clinton and walk across the street to work. Gradually, though, through the first World War and then the next, residents were bought out by local industry, and the rowhouses were torn down. The strip of three homes, including the Smiths', survived.

It's rare that anyone other than a relative or the mailman comes to the front door at the old Smith place. (No trick-or-treaters appear on Halloween, but Erma puts up decorations and buys lollipops just in case.) The people who do know they're there -- in a house which has a market value of less than $40,000 -- wonder -- well -- why.

" I'd move in a second," says Bea Long, controller for the Donato Marrone shoe company across the street.

Wienecke, whose company, Apex, owns the property, says on a recent tour of what's left of Strassner's, "Can you imagine living next to this?"

If someone does stop by the house in the 1600 block of S. Clinton St., they can see even from the outside what makes it home: the screen paintings of lighthouses and sailboats on all seven west-facing windows, the sunflowers (albeit artificial) and tulips (albeit painted wood) in the first-floor windowsill. The Smiths' mother used to keep real flowers in that window. "I keep that tradition for my mother," says Erma, whose husband of 34 years, Charlie, also lives at the house. Harriett and Ellen Smith never married.

The noise from the trucks driving by and the ships coming in to port doesn't bother Erma or Ellen or Harriett. Neither does the smell of diesel, or the sight of the two 200,000-barrel oil tanks less than 100 yards from the front door.

Erma plans to be there forever. Or, at least, she adds, "until they take us out in a box or a bag."

Pub Date: 9/22/98

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