Chronicling Western Maryland's history


January 05, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For Al Feldstein, an award-winning historian who has written and self-published 26 books and videotapes on the Western Maryland counties of Allegany, Garrett and Washington, there is nothing more exciting than an abandoned mining town, a crumbling building foundation, rusty, weed-grown rail line or a monument-choked graveyard.

Feldstein's perambulations have taken him throughout Maryland's westernmost counties in search of historic photographs, prints, newspaper clippings, maps, old postcards and other ephemera which have filled a former bedroom and spilled over into the living room of his LaVale home.

In addition to his Western Maryland collection, Feldstein, who earned a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Maryland in 1971, and for the last 25 years has been a planner with the Maryland Office of Planning, collects political buttons. The subject of a future book, he says.

"I guess I have about 7,000 Western Maryland postcards and a thousand photos, the earliest dating to the early 1860s showing a Union encampment in Cumberland during the Civil War," Feldstein said the other day.

He puts all of this original source material to good use as he sits pounding away in the basement study of his home on a 10-year-old MacIntosh computer writing books and telling stories of a Western Maryland now long gone.

An assiduous and indefatigable researcher, Feldstein has trained himself not to jump too quickly to conclusions or take a story on face value.

"I try and get at least two or three other sources to back up dates and events. I'm careful and don't want to repeat mistakes. I feel like I'm on a mission when writing a book," he said.

The grandson of Jewish immigrants who arrived from Russia and Lithuania and settled in Cumberland in the early 1890s, as a youth Feldstein enjoyed listening to family stories of life and events in Western Maryland.

His first book, Feldstein's Historic Postcard Album of Allegany County, Including Garrett and Washington Counties Nearby Keyser and Piedmont, West Virginia,published in 1983, was an instant sellout. In fact, his subsequent 25 titles have become instant collectors' items or gone into additional printings.

They have chronicled the St. Patrick's Day flood that swept through Cumberland in 1936, and served as guides to historic sites in Allegany County. The titles are often as comprehensive as the research: Feldstein's Historic Banner Front Pages of the Cumberland Daily News, Cumberland News and Cumberland Evening Times, Volume I: The Twentieth Century or Cumberland, The Way It Was Circa 1910, and Feldstein's Gone But Not Forgotten: A Biographical Graveside Tribute To Historic Allegany County Figures and Notable Personages From The Past.

"I grew up in Cumberland between two graveyards where we played on warm summer nights," he said.

When he was researching the graveyard books, he drove more than 4,000 miles visiting cemeteries and family plots in Allegany County. He took more than 2,000 photographs for the book and filled notebooks with epitaphs and grave locations.

The books, in a way, are much like Edgar Lee Masters' classic Spoon River Anthology, which documented the lives of townspeople in a the fictional Midwestern town of Spoon River.

Like Masters, Feldstein has filled his book with mini-obits of bankers, doctors, artists, merchants, common folk, the successful, the broken-hearted and those whose dreams failed them.

"To me it [a cemetery] was a place of history, and I thought I was doing a good, respectable thing of these people," he told a reporter in a 1989 interview.

"I enjoy walking in cemeteries and like being surprised by what I may find there," he said. "I write down epitaphs because I think they're neat. It's like a mystery and it eventually all fits together," said Feldstein.

One discovery was John Van Lear McMahon, who was born in 1800 and died in 1871. McMahon had drafted the charter in 1827 for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the nation's first common carrier railroad, and as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, helped to pass the bill that in 1826 extended equality to Maryland's Jewish citizens and allowed them to hold public office.

To give dimension to his stories gleaned from worn and forgotten tombstones meant further visits and additional research.

"I check newspaper clippings, courthouse and church records as well as other histories," he said.

His most recent book, Coal Mining and Railroads of Allegany County, Maryland, published in 1999, chronicles the boom days of Western Maryland coal mining and the railroads and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal scows that hauled black diamonds from the coal fields to Baltimore or Pittsburgh.

With his wife for company, Feldstein -- along with his ever-present camera and notepad -- set out to find the ruins of Vindex, a once-thriving mining town that had a school, church, post office, 75 homes and a population of 500. When the last coal mine closed in 1950, the town went into decline and eventually faded away.

"We had to hike down a two-mile rutted road that was nearly impassable. Once we got there, we were in another place and another time," he said. There, Feldstein photographed the ruins of the post office; trees grew through the foundation of the building where residents gathered to claim mail and swap gossip.

"Al is a character. He has a large following in Western Maryland and everyone is always calling him when they need information or a picture," said Fred Powell, owner of Main Street Books in Frostburg. "His books are always of interest and in demand," he said.

Feldstein's work has been recognized with awards from the American Association for State and Local History, Maryland Historic Trust, Henrietta Schwarzenbach Memorial Award, Allegany County Tourism Award and a Governor's Citation.

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