Maryland's 366th birthday

Way Back When

Rich history: A Jesuit settler began recording Maryland events, and modern scholars have added wit and human interest to the story.

March 25, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

As dawn's light raced from chilly Atlantic beaches to the rugged mountains of Western Maryland this morning, it warmed a state that was waking up to its birthday.

Today is Maryland Day, and if a cake were baked to celebrate the state's natal day, it would have to be large enough to accommodate 366 candles.

Maryland Day commemorates the landing of a hearty band of settlers "near twenty gentlemen of very good fashion and three hundred laboring men," who were led by Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, to what is today St. Mary's County.

After enduring a three-month sea voyage aboard twin vessels, the Ark and the Dove, the settlers anchored and set foot on St. Clements Island off the north shore of the Potomac River, on March 25, 1634.

Father Andrew White, a Jesuit chaplain who had voyaged with Lord Baltimore, wrote what some consider perhaps the first guidebook to Maryland.

"The ground is heare, as in very many places, covered with pokiberries, (a little wild walnut hard of shell, but with a sweet kernel) with ackhornes, black walnut, cedar, saxafras, vines, salladherbes, and such like," wrote White.

After setting up "a great cross hewn from a tree," White offered Mass to honor Our Blessed Lady.

"In this place on our b. Ladies day in Lent (March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation), we first offered (the sacrifice of the Mass), erected a crosse, and with devotion tooke solemne possession of the Country," he wrote.

In the mid-1930s, three centuries after White's words were written, the research and writing began on "Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State," part of the Federal Writers Project's American Guide Series. After numerous fits and starts, the book was finally published in 1940.

Rare and still highly sought after today by collectors of Marylandia, the guide was updated in 1976, when Johns Hopkins University Press published "Maryland: A New Guide to the Old Line State," edited by Edward C. Papenfuse, Gregory Stiverson, Susan A. Collins and Lois Green Carr.

Now it's been freshened up again, this time featuring the research and writing of Earl Arnett, who spent 14 years on The Sun as a feature writer; Papenfuse, state archivist; and Robert J. Brugger, author, historian and regional editor for Johns Hopkins University Press.

"Maryland: A New Guide to the Old Line State, Second Edition" was published in 1999.

"The newest edition has elements of both books. I tried to keep the scholarship, at the same time humanizing it," Arnett, who spent two years writing the basic manuscript, said yesterday.

Arnett reorganized the book from the previous tour format to a regional one. Local history, including historical personalities, cultural, architectural, industrial or military, for instance, is illuminated by witty and informative sidebars.

"It's more inclusive and discusses African-Americans, women and ethnic groups," said Arnett, who lives in Northwest Baltimore. "The other books reflected the prejudices of their time, and I made a conscious effort to be inclusive."

The 1940 guide asked, "Does a man from Mars want to know what Baltimore is like?" and proceeded to describe the city's character:

"But it is not Baltimore streets, Baltimore architecture, Baltimore monuments, Baltimore factories that eventually charm the newcomer and make him wish to spend here the remainder of his days. Rather it is the essence of lusty, cantankerous life that this sprawling city distills, under the placid surface of its neo-British aristocracy, which causes people from Kalamazoo and Mauch Chunk and Yazoo City and Walla Walla to label themselves, sooner rather than later, Baltimoreans."

Arnett saw fit to balance this view with former New York Times columnist and Baltimore resident Russell Baker's 1973 account.

"Baltimore tolerates sin. The pleasures of the flesh, the table, the bottle and the purse are tolerated with a civilized understanding of the subtleties of moral questions that would have been perfectly comprehensible to Edwardian Londoners."

"Doing a book like this teaches you that you don't know it all. It's a lesson in humility and you arrive at the limit of your knowledge," Arnett said, laughing. "There really is a great depth to our state. We go back to the beginning of America," he said. "I was continually learning new things and seeing old things in a new light."

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