Collecting Patapsco recollections

Folklorist developing profile of community

May 31, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Sam Merson remembers when Baltimore had five newspapers, when 10 cents would buy you a train ride from Elkridge to Dorsey, and when boys were allowed to leave school in the middle of the day to fight fires.

So when folklorist Alison Kahn knocked on his door on a recent morning, wanting to include his recollections in an oral history of the Patapsco Valley, Merson was all too happy to tell her some of his favorite stories.

Kahn, a free-lance writer with a master's degree in folklore from Memorial University of Newfoundland, has conducted nearly 30 interviews in Ellicott City and Oella for the oral history project. Recently, she started collecting data in Elkridge and Relay. She plans to interview 25 to 30 more people from the two towns -- she calls them "informants," or "carriers of the culture" -- this month.

The $45,000 oral history project -- about $15,000 for the first phase, $29,000 for the second -- has been funded mostly by the Maryland Historical Trust. The Patapsco Heritage Greenway Committee, a group working to preserve and market the historical treasures of the valley, wrote the grant proposal for the second phase.

"Since this is an oral history, the point is to document people's memories and find out community stories, community myths, how the community thinks of itself," Kahn said. "So you build an oral portrait of the place."

As part of the project, Cockeysville photographer Peggy Fox is taking "environmental portraits" of the subjects. She and Kahn are planning to publish a book after the histories are compiled.

Merson, 70, who lives in Elkridge, is a born storyteller who needs little prodding to share his tales.

On the day of Kahn's interview, he was wearing jeans, a striped T-shirt and sneakers; he worried that it might be too casual, but Kahn pointed out that she was wearing jeans, too. They sat in his living room with its fireplace and family pictures.

No sooner had Kahn turned on her tape recorder than Merson was off, sharing his memories without a trace of nervousness or self-consciousness.

Merson remembers when a horse-and-buggy would pick up trash, when the town doctor made house calls, when hobos would knock on his family's door during the Depression to ask for food.

His mother, he says, always tried to be generous, even though she had nine children and a husband to feed and times were hard.

"Mum would always give them a cup of coffee and a fried egg sandwich," he says. "My mother never turned one of them down, though we had meager things for ourselves."

While Merson talked, Kahn sat quietly, a set of earphones on her head, taking some notes. She asked only an occasional question, preferring to let the stories flow uninterrupted.

"What I'm after is less facts than narratives," Kahn said before her interview with Merson. As she interviews people from a community, she said, she tends to hear the same stories over and over, a little bit different every time.

"The facts change, but then that's not what I'm after," she said. "I'm after the stories. And the stories together comprise a portrait of the place."

One man's stories

Born in 1928, Merson, the son of a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad ticket man, worked in construction for 45 years, but that's not what he talked about with Kahn. He talked mostly about coming of age in Elkridge in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

"During the Depression, we didn't have any money, and times were tough," he said. "We could have fun without money attached."

One thing boys liked to do, he said, was drop a stick in the Patapsco River and follow it downstream. Once, he said, he and his friends walked by a hobo cooking a can of beans over a campfire.

He remembers the town doctor, Dr. Brumbaugh, who would make house calls and who didn't take appointments; when people wanted to see him, they would line up on his porch. But, like many back then, Merson and his brothers and sisters went to the doctor only in emergencies. Otherwise, as Merson put it, "Daddy was our doctor, really."

Merson remembers when prescriptions cost $2 or $3 and when people would take spoonfuls of kerosene and sugar to cure a cold.

"I don't know if the taste did it or if it would scare us into being better," he said.

He remembers the town policeman back in the days before crime became a big problem, when people would leave their cars unlocked overnight with keys in the ignition: "I don't think he ever arrested anybody that I remember."

And he remembers hucksters coming through town selling their wares.

"There was a fellow who used to come off the Greyhound bus, who used to carry a little basket," he said, remembering the man's "particular smell," which he describes as a mixture of toothpaste and dishrags. Everything in the basket cost 10 or 20 cents.

"My mother would always buy something," he said.

Putting out fires

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