From ketchup to condos, residents remember Canton

Panel of experts details its industrial history

November 29, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Canton's emergence as a hub for Baltimore's young professionals has spurred interest in the neighborhood's history from many of its newer residents.

They've learned that the bars and restaurants that dominate the waterfront neighborhood were turn-of-the-20th-century silent movie houses, furniture shops, pharmacies and shoe stores. And that generations of families lived in the skinny rowhouses that now, more often than not, are occupied by a single person or couple.

A four-person panel of experts discussed the old neighborhood late Tuesday at the Canton Community Association's monthly meeting. Kim Stallwood, president of Canton Community Association, said the 75 people who attended the meeting - including about 35 people in their 20s and 30s - were showing their commitment to the neighborhood.

The panel explained that generations ago, everyone knew someone's mother who canned tomatoes in one of the factories.

"My mother used to skin tomatoes at the packinghouse while I sat on her lap ," said Florence Roberts, 69, who has lived in Canton her whole life and sat in the audience at the meeting. "She was a fast skinner. Used to roll cigars, too."

Though the neighborhood sits on the waterfront, it was not until recently that residents started taking advantage of it, said Elaine Eff, director of the Cultural Conservation Program for the Maryland Historical Trust, who was part of the panel.

"Canton wasn't thought of as the waterfront, it wasn't a happy place," Eff said. "It was grotesque. It smelled like ketchup."

The most famous of Canton's canneries was at Boston Street's American Can Co., which opened in 1901 and operated for 87 years before being turned into offices, shops and restaurants.

Councilman John L. Cain, a Southeast Baltimore Democrat who was also on the panel, brought in a Canton timeline, 1872 to the present, which he assembled mostly from information culled from the book Historic Canton, by Norman G. Ruckert.

It shows that the neighborhood dates to 1786, when Capt. John O'Donnell bought 11 acres and named it Canton. He had bought the city its first load of goods from China, which has a city of the same name, the year before.

Canton, then part of Baltimore County, was home to public school No. 1, known as Kenny School, built in 1872 on Highland Avenue between Toone and Elliott streets. Canton's first telephone was installed in Booz Bros. Shipyard at Boston Street and Kenwood Avenue.

It wasn't until 1918 that the Maryland General assembly moved the city line from East Avenue, which used to mark the beginning of the county, to its present location, about two miles east.

As the decades passed, industry slowly moved away from Canton, leaving many of its residents without jobs. The area became run-down until an economic development plan in the early 1990s revived it.

Canton's real resurgence started in the mid-1990s, when people started buying, gutting and fixing up rowhouses. The average price has risen from $61,718 in 1996 to $143,000 this year.

The Tuesday meeting "was very encouraging," Stallwood said. "Many of us would like to see more done to preserve Canton's rich history. In the future, we need to see a Canton historical society and a museum where a collection can be preserved and displayed."

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