`Patapsco' exhibit puts valley's past on display

Oral histories, storyteller photos now in museum

Howard Live

April 03, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Dorothy Baker remembers opening an Elkridge beauty shop in 1945, when World War II limited her ability to get hair clips, bobby pins or other metal equipment.

Louise Fields Blackstone remembers when she was 17 and earned $6 a week cooking, caring for two children and serving three meals a day for a family at Lawyers Hill and Montgomery Roads in Elkridge.

Russell Moxley remembers being chief of police in Ellicott City in the 1930s and 1940s and providing his own uniform, gun, car and receptionist (his wife).

These and other recollections from life in the Patapsco Valley are on display with photographs of the storytellers at Howard Community College through April 26.

The exhibit, Patapsco: Glimpse of the Past, includes a performance April 10 in which three women will enact tales of earlier times in Howard County based on the same collection of memories.

"We really treasure the valley, the history, the culture, the environment," said Sally Voris, director of outreach for Friends of the Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway, which developed the exhibit.

Voris, a writer in Elkridge, said the history project tries to "find a way to connect the culture that was here with the new residents that are moving in and make connections across boundaries, many of which are hidden."

The exhibit began in 1995 as an oral history project in Ellicott City and Oella, and kept expanding.

"It has taken on a life of its own and grown far beyond what we ever imagined," said Alison Kahn, a free-lance writer and folklorist who was hired to gather the histories.

People kept recommending other sources, she said, and "you start discovering how may amazing people are out there."

Voris encouraged the group to expand the project to Elkridge, where she grew up, and to Relay.

The organization also hired photographer Peggy Fox of Cockeysville to document the speakers in their environments. Kahn said she usually would go first and then let Fox return later and frame the photo as she desired.

"The people were unbelievably wonderful and interesting," said Fox. "Their stories were hilarious; they would go anywhere and do anything."

It was the little project that grew," she said.

The result is 56 photographs, along with tales of bootleggers, volunteer fire companies, politicians, teachers, farmers, store owners and others living in the area in decades past.

"It is so wonderful with oral history that people are speaking for themselves," said Kahn, who lives in Takoma Park. "It shows how place shapes people and people shape place."

Fox has such a good eye and good sense of people, Kahn said, that "she can really elicit something of their character, of their spirit" in the photographs.

As the project developed, Howard County Arts Council encouraged the group to put together an exhibit for the county sesquicentennial.

In addition to the visual presentation, Voris and others also started to think about ways to bring the stories to life for audiences.

They held "narrative stages" in which people got up and told their stories. Then, in 2000 and 2001, a Kentucky drama group called Roadside Theater came to help Friends of the Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway lead story circles, develop scripts and prepare performances. Roadside Theater created its own dramas based on the lives of Appalachian people and helps communities across the country dramatize their local life.

Now Voris, Gail Rosen and Gwen Marable now enact the stories from the project with costumes and props.

Oral history projects are becoming more and more common in the United States, said Rose Diaz, a research historian at the University of New Mexico and vice president of the Oral History Association, a national group.

Diaz said that community-based projects are often even more successful than institutional programs because residents become interested in seeking what they feel is relevant and useful.

Projects range from recording family stories to video projects to a Library of Congress effort to collect stories from war veterans across the country, Diaz said.

She said that local projects often are received warmly by community members, and they find "suddenly history is not out there, but history is in here ... in your house, in your heart."

"This project has been really a labor of love," Kahn said. "It has taken on a life of its own and grown far beyond what we ever imagined."

The next step for the Patapsco project may be a book, using the project material. The artists are seeking a publisher.

Some oral history projects have difficulty continuing after the raw material has been gathered, Kahn said. In this case, "The fact it has been kept alive is really wonderful."

"Patapsco: A Glimpse of the Past" is at the Howard Community College Art Gallery, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, through April 26. A live performance will be presented at 12:30 p.m. April 10 in the Galleria. Information: 410-772-4512.

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