In Towson, anniversary will pass without party

150 years ago today, town was chosen county seat

February 13, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

The item on the county executive's schedule was small but tantalizing. Without fanfare or flourish, it said that James T. Smith Jr. would commemorate Towson's 150th anniversary today.

Who knew?

There were no banners on Allegheny Avenue foreshadowing a party, no vendors setting up on the courthouse plaza. The various Towson community Web sites gave no mention of a birthday, much less a bash. And while Baltimore County's Web site listed today's belly dance lessons at the Bykota Senior Center, it had nothing about the big one-five-oh.

"This is the first I've heard of it, really," said Tony Orndoff, the librarian at the Baltimore County Historical Society.

"It's the hundred and what anniversary?" asked the receptionist at the Towson Business Association.

It might seem odd that Towson, an unincorporated area with indistinct geographical boundaries, could have any anniversary at all.

But a read of the plaque outside the Baltimore County courthouse - one of the few buildings in sight that seems older than 100 years - confirmed that today is the sesquicentennial. On Feb. 13, 1854, it says, voters picked "Towsontown" as the county seat.

This momentous event appears to have been properly celebrated in the past. In 1954, a citizens' group held a three-week festival of events, capped by a parade and the crowning of Towson's Miss Centennial.

"Streamers of small pennants were stretched from street pole to street pole," The Sun reported. "Banks, a department store and several business houses had facades decorated with bunting, but conservative Towson refrained from a lavish display of flags."

Towson's rise to county dominance was no sure thing. Towsontown was chosen over its chief competitor, Alms House, an area of what is now West Baltimore, after three countywide votes. The Sun, in 1854, described it as a "warmly contested" campaign.

Orndoff, of the historical society, did some quick research yesterday, and found that the county's political elite had written a series of pieces debating Towson's merits in the Baltimore County Advocate newspaper.

In the end, Orndoff said, Towsontown - being seven miles from the city -seemed to benefit from county residents' anti-urban inclination, which made them suspicious of spots closer to Baltimore.

"There were a number of people who said that elected officials would be tempted by the corruption that was inherent in city government," he said.

It would be more than a century before Spiro T. Agnew became county executive.

In victory, Towsontown locals rejoiced that they would soon get such community landmarks as a courthouse and - as much as future generations would begrudge it - a jail.

The Sun seemed pleased with the choice as well.

"It's location is high and healthy," it reported, "with plenty of pure water, and when `finished' with a court house and other necessary public building, will no doubt prove the selection on the part of the people to have been an admirable one."

But in Towson yesterday, few seemed to be fully aware of today's significance.

John McGrain, the Baltimore County historian, said he had forgotten about the date's importance until he got a call from the county executive's office.

A landscaping crew working on the historic courthouse grounds, a few hundred feet from the plaque, had no idea that such an anniversary was hours away.

"For real?" asked Michael G. Wesley of Edmondson Village.

"I'm not from here," said James Ellenburge with a shrug.

But they said they would be happy to celebrate.

"Tell them they need to have a rock 'n' roll band," Ellenburge said.

"Good food," Wesley suggested.

A call to Renee Samuels, the county executive's spokeswoman, brought this response: "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but we're not doing anything."

What about the item on the executive's official schedule?

"We were going to go out there and just do a little talk," she said. "And we wanted to do a plaque, but in order do a plaque, it has to be bid out and the council has to approve it."

Smith, she continued, wants to do more. A Towson restaurant week perhaps. Something to go along with the Towsontown Spring Festival.

The official "event postponed" notice came at 5 p.m.

"Baltimore County's commemoration of Towson's 150th Anniversary as County Seat, scheduled to occur tomorrow, February 13 at 12 noon has been postponed until spring."

The three-week anniversary gala in 1954 took place in June.

Sun researchers Paul McCardell and Elizabeth Lukes contributed to this article.

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