Driven to get state history on road again

Markers: The state and a trust are replacing and restoring signs that point out significant locales to motorists.

August 23, 1999|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Zipping down the highway, many motorists probably miss the gray and black historic markers pointing out places where Civil War soldiers camped, early settlers built, brutal battles were fought, and George Washington's horse died.

At one time, more than 700 of the 4-foot signs were planted near the state's significant or odd historic sites.

But traffic accidents, road widening, construction and vandalism have wiped out more than 100 of the markers, and budget cuts starting in 1992 ended a program of researching and awarding markers for sites.

Nudged by historically minded residents, and as part of a new emphasis on heritage tourism in the state, the State Highway Administration and the Maryland Historical Trust, the agencies that administer the marker program, are sprucing up the remaining markers, replacing missing ones and reviving the program.

"What we're trying to do is keep people from zooming 70 mph and [help them] see all the great little towns that are off the road," said Liz Fitzsimmons, advertising and communications manager at the state Office of Tourism Development.

"The markers help do that," she said.

"There's always that traveler who wants to do the more meandering route. Those are the folks who stop off and say: `This is really amazing. This is part of America's history.' "

The historic marker program began in 1933, when the Daughters of the American Revolution proposed using cast-iron signs to map the routes taken by George Washington.

The markers are a throwback to when Americans began using automobiles recreationally and drove slowly.

The old State Roads Commission and Maryland Historical Society put up markers until 1958, when the society took over exclusively. The trust has been in charge since 1985, said Peter Kurtze, who oversees the program.

The program has been funded this year for the first time since 1992, and Kurtze hopes to begin accepting applications for new sites this fall.

The State Highway Administration, charged with maintaining the markers, conducted two recent statewide inventories, checking roadside spots against the society's records.

Between 1980 and 1997, those inventories showed, more than 100 markers had disappeared, said Paul Stout, the SHA's assistant chief of traffic operations.

"A marker gets hit and it was made of cast iron -- it shatters into six or seven pieces. It just gets thrown away," Stout said.

"Road construction -- a road gets widened, the contractor takes it down, doesn't replace it. They get stolen."

Stout began searching for the lost markers, prodded in part by Cecil Boblitz, 70, of Dundalk, who started a campaign in 1994 to repaint and refurbish aging markers.

Stout sought missing markers in SHA workshops and from people near where the markers were supposed to be placed.

About 40 of the lost markers were discovered broken in state highway repair shops, and many had to be reminted, Stout said. Others were found in unlikely spots.

Searching for signs

"I've found a marker in a stream down on the Eastern Shore, a place called the Wilderness," Stout said.

"We had been looking for it and had made a couple calls. Then we got a call from a citizen saying, `There's a marker in my back yard.'

"We've been looking for one marker -- the birthplace of Johns Hopkins," he said. The SHA got it last week from a fraternity house at the Baltimore university that bears his name.

The SHA has replaced about 70 markers with cast-aluminum signs and is bringing other markers into its Glen Burnie warehouse to be sandblasted and repainted.

It will take two more years to replace the most damaged signs -- at a cost of about $1,100 each -- and another five years to repaint all the markers, Stout says.

But in Anne Arundel and Allegany counties, where the cleanup program began about three months ago, work will be completed by the end of this month.

Labor of love

Boblitz painted two markers on U.S. 301 in Upper Marlboro in 1994. He volunteers two to three days a week in the SHA warehouse.

The retired painter carefully brushes on yellow, red, white and black paint over the state seal at the top of each marker, referring to a picture of the seal to make sure he doesn't reverse the colors of the flag.

Rows of the 45-by-45-inch grave-marker-style signs are in a storage room.

The Cliffs of Calvert, says one. Chesapeake College, Rockville, Point Lookout, say others, and Spurrier's Tavern in Howard County, where George Washington noted in his diary he "dined and lodged" and his "sick horse died."

Boblitz beams over the markers. Many of them bear his handiwork.

"All these are going to be taken out. They're gonna look great," he said.

"The way I see it, we're bringing history out to the people."

Pub Date: 8/23/99

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