Globe-trotter focuses on home

Roots: Thomas Y. Canby once traveled the world writing about foreign places. Now he documents the history of Sandy Spring, where he grew up.

November 08, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,Sun Staff

As a reporter and editor for National Geographic magazine, Thomas Y. Canby traveled the world, visiting six of the seven continents and scribbling his observations in narrow reporter's notebooks that he stored in his back pocket.

When he retired from the Geographic eight years ago, Canby cut back his traveling -- but not his penchant for scribbling. Instead of wandering the globe to find stories, he turned his attention to Sandy Spring, a Quaker stronghold in Montgomery County, where he grew up.

Recently, Canby finished a pictorial history of Sandy Spring, "Sandy Spring Legacy," published by the town's historical museum. Its 205 pages tell the story of one of the oldest towns in the Maryland piedmont, settled by Quakers and others in the early 1700s. The Quaker Meeting House, built in 1817, stands at the actual and symbolic center of the community, near the spring that gives the town its name.

"The Quakers established kind of a micro-culture here," Canby said. "They were really the most creative, resourceful people." Instead of just farming, he said, they formed numerous organizations -- farmers' clubs, social clubs, book clubs, even a Women's Mutual Improvement Association -- some of which, including the latter, continue today.

Sandy Spring also has a sizable African-American population, descendants of freed slaves, because Quakers were among the first abolitionists.

Canby's book came out last month, and he has spent the last two Sunday afternoons signing copies of it at the museum.

Canby, 69, earned his living as a writer all of his adult life. After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1952, he worked at the Suburban Record, a weekly newspaper in Silver Spring. Because it paid so little, he enrolled in law school at George Washington University -- an experience he describes as "horrible" -- in hopes of one day being able to support a family. Before he could become a lawyer, however, Canby won a National Geographic writing contest and was offered a job there.

Canby joined the magazine in 1961, when he was 31, and didn't leave until he retired in 1991.

"I did a lot of traveling," he said. "I didn't get to Antarctica but the other continents and a whole bunch of countries. I got to a lot of the worst places on those continents because I did a lot of covering of disasters, earthquakes and famines and hurricanes and floods and things. I saw a lot of hardship."

Last year, Canby published a book about his experiences called "From Botswana to the Bering Sea."

Canby had a rule never to be away from home more than a month. He always returned to Sandy Spring between trips. He grew up on a farm five miles south of the village center and today lives five miles north of it in western Howard County. He says Sandy Spring unofficially radiates from the meeting house for five or six miles in all directions, swallowing more modern towns; it's the distance early Quakers would travel by horse and buggy to worship.

When he retired, Canby said, he naturally gravitated toward the Sandy Spring Museum, which he said his wife, Susan, calls the "rec center" because he socializes so much there. Susan Canby is the library director at National Geographic.

"The museum is a really vital place," he said. "It captures a lot of the energy and enthusiasm of the community." Two permanent exhibits depict a general store and a 19th-century kitchen; a temporary exhibit shows an old-fashioned schoolroom. A farming building focuses on the agricultural legacy of the community.

Seeking more

Nobody quite remembers who came up with the idea for a picture book, said Fran Parker, executive director of the museum. But she said Canby took it to the next level.

"It started out as a way to showcase the museum's photograph collection," Parker said.

She said Canby, instead of using only photographs from in the museum's archives, went to the community to seek more photographs.

"He greatly expanded the scope of the project," she said.

"I would think of people who I thought might have pictures -- white families, black families -- and contact them," Canby said. "You got to know people you would never get to know otherwise."

Although he had a vague sense of the history of Sandy Spring before he wrote the book, Canby said he learned a lot more in the three years he worked on it.

When he drives along the picturesque town roads, he rattles off facts about each historic structure. That farmhouse predates the Civil War; that's the site of the town's earliest hospital; that house was supposedly part of the Underground Railroad.

"Sandy Spring Legacy" has 40 chapters, divided by theme: "Early Churches Take Root," "Of Haunted Houses," "When People Provided Their Own Entertainment," "Fire, Flood, Blizzard, Twister." The pictures span pre-Civil War to the mid-20th century.

Tackling the Annals

Now that he's finished the book, Canby said, he plans to tackle a new history project.

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