Vessel's namesake revealed

Way Back When

Entrepreneur: John M. Dennis founded a ferry line and served as Md. treasurer.

May 20, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

In a column several weeks ago concerning the proposed resumption of Chesapeake Bay ferry service, I mentioned the names of several well-known ferries that used to ply the route between Annapolis and the Eastern Shore.

Several readers called inquiring as to the identity of John M. Dennis, for whom one of the ferries was named. "We recognize the names of Gov. Albert C. Ritchie and Gov. Emerson C. Harrington, but who was John M. Dennis?" a caller asked.

John McPherson Dennis Sr. (1866-1936) was Maryland state treasurer, a power in state Democratic politics for many years, and the longtime president of Union Trust Co.

He was state treasurer from 1916 to 1918 and from 1920 until 1935, and at the time, had held the office longer than anyone in the history of Maryland.

He was also treasurer and a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Maryland and treasurer and chairman of the State Teachers Retirement System.

Prominent both in business and socially, Mr. Dennis had also been vice president of Belvedere Hotel Co. and a founder of the Claiborne-Annapolis Ferry Co., whose ferries departed from the foot of King George Street in Annapolis.

He was also a director of the Pennsylvania Railroad Co., Western Maryland Railway, Davis Coal and Coke Co., United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co., Baltimore Tube Co., Porcelain Enameling and Manufacturing Co., Eastern Rolling Mills and the Metropolitan Savings Bank of Philadelphia.

As state treasurer, he was a member of the Board of Public Works throughout Ritchie's terms. While the two men were friends, they were "not comfortable in their political relations," reported The Sun at the time of Dennis' death in 1936.

"Mr. Dennis was aware of the fact that Governor Ritchie would have much preferred someone of his own selection as treasurer and member of the Board of Public Works; and Governor Ritchie was aware that Mr. Dennis did not approve of the Governor's long continued tenure in office," observed the newspaper.

"Everybody who knows him likes him. Work, interest in the other fellow's viewpoint and self-control form his recipe for success," said The Sun in a 1916 profile of Dennis.

Born in Frederick County in 1866, the son of a farmer, Mr. Dennis was descended from Dannock Dennis, who emigrated from Virginia to Somerset County in 1664, and from Littleton Dennis, a judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, 1801-1806.

On his maternal side, he was descended from Thomas Johnson, the first governor of the state of Maryland, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and confidant of George Washington.

He was educated in Frederick County public schools and at the Milton Academy in Baltimore County. Rather than attend college, he went to work for the C.W. & B. Railroad in Cincinnati, and later the B & O Railroad, where he was a traveling freight agent until returning to Maryland in 1890.

He joined the firm of Tate, Muller & Co., grain merchants, which was later taken over by Louis Muller & Co. Dennis later was president of the company until 1914.

In 1899, he married Mary Carr Chiles of Independence, Mo., and in the early 1900s, settled at Essex, the Riderwood farm he named in honor of his ancestral home in Somerset County.

He raised a herd of prize-winning Holstein-Friesian cattle that took many ribbons at the annual Timonium State Fair.

"I milked cows as a youngster and have never forgotten how," he told The Sun in 1916.

Dennis had two children, John M. Dennis Jr., who became a banker and farmer and named his Eastern Shore home and farm Essex, and a daughter, Mary Frances Dennis Gould, who lived in Cockeysville.

All traces of the Dennis farm in Riderwood -- except his stately farmhouse mansion, today part of the Valley Country Club -- have vanished. The farmland that once surrounded the mansion now lies beneath the interchange of the Baltimore Beltway and Interstate 83.

As a young man, Dennis delighted in riding to hounds. In his later years, he found a much safer substitute for the sport: a mechanical horse that never left the stable, so to speak.

Set up in the sun room of his home, Dennis' horse, Pegasus, was a copy of Old Ironside, the mechanical pony that President Calvin Coolidge spent hours riding in the White House.

Dennis would open the windows to bring in fresh air, climb into the saddle, place his feet in the stirrups and throw a switch that allowed the ersatz beast to start vibrating. It had had three speeds: trot, pace or gallop, which, according to Dennis, could set his coattails flying.

Praising the mechanical horse for never having thrown him or balking, Dennis told The Sun in 1926, "I got it because it's the best possible form of exercise. I ride whenever I want to."

In 1928, the double-end ferry John M. Dennis, which could accommodate 100 autos and for a time was the world's largest ferry, was launched at a Portsmouth, Va., shipyard.

"I used to ride it all the time when I was a student at the University of Maryland during the 1940s going back and forth to the Eastern Shore. I guess I rode it about 20 times a year," Dr. John M. Dennis, a cousin and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said yesterday.

When former state Treasurer Dennis died at his home in 1936, Baltimore News-Post observed, "Mr. Dennis was not so much a gentleman farmer as he was a gentleman and a farmer."

Dennis is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick.

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