Woman brings Howard County's history up to date

Local researcher revises her book on area's roots

March 01, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

A noted local historian renowned for her knowledge and love of Howard County is publishing an update of her first work.

Joetta M. Cramm has completed a 10th chapter for Howard County: A Pictorial History, which shows ways the county has developed since the book was originally released in 1987.

People still call her for copies of Howard County, which has been reprinted three times. It begins with the first land grants in the early 1700s and chronicles the creation of mills, roads and the new town of Columbia.

Cramm has updated the index and revised the book to include changes in many of the county's corners, such as Montjoy farm in Ellicott City and Howard Community College. She also noted the county's increase in population, its shift away from agriculture and the current focus on preservation of that way of life.

She expects it will be available by the end of this month and is planning several book signings.

The book works by "capsulizing the information in the most accurate way for people who today are in a fast pace of life," said Fred Dorsey. He first got to know Cramm when he began researching his family history in 1999.

Dorsey is a member of Preservation Howard County, a nonprofit advocacy group that honored Cramm as one of its four Preservationists of the Year last fall.

He said he has taken Cramm's class on Howard County's history, offered as a continuing-education course through Howard Community College, every year he's known her.

In addition to the book, Cramm has brought much of Howard's history to interested fans at talks at local restaurants and through the county Department of Recreation and Parks. She also authored a second book, Historic Ellicott City: A Walking Tour, which is in its second printing.

The 71-year-old grandmother and an elder of Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City keeps a bookshelf full of reference books near her telephone to reach materials easily when fielding inquiries at her home.

Daniel Wecker, owner and executive chef of the Elkridge Furnace Inn, benefited from her help when embarking on the restoration of the 260-year-old property.

"She helped us understand the history of the building," he said.

Wecker had received a pile of information from the state and former owners, which Cramm helped interpret.

"She helped give us a little more personality" behind the facts, Wecker said.

Given Cramm's interest, it's surprising that she isn't a Howard County native. She grew up in East Moline, Ill., and moved to Howard County in 1962.

"I think I have a more objective look because I don't have any relatives here - I don't have any axes to grind," she said.

Her first foray into local history was helping to organize a historical fashion show and a walking tour as a member of the local branch of the American Association of University Women during Howard's bicentennial celebration in 1972.

"We collected all these old gowns from people's attics," she said.

Cramm then began giving talks on local history. "I'm from the Midwest where you don't have all this history," she said.

Soon Cramm was asked to teach a continuing-education class on Howard County history at Howard Community College.

She has offered it ever since, although attendance has dwindled in previous years from its peak of 35 students. Columbia founder James W. Rouse and his wife, Patty, are among its graduates.

So is Michael Walczak, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society. Originally from Michigan, Walczak said he yielded to Cramm's prodding a year and a half after he came to the society.

Walczak said Howard County is often his first stop to help answer visitors' questions about properties in the county.

"She's very thorough and passionate," he said.

Passion is what drove her to fill more than a dozen spiral notebooks with notes from countless trips to inspect land records and dusty books in Ellicott City and Annapolis. She also grew fond of the key players in Howard's formation - the Ellicotts, the Carrolls, the Dorseys.

"You got to know them by reading about them," she said.

Cramm also has thousands of slides, as well as two four-drawer filing cabinets jammed with records in her home in the Ellicott City neighborhood of Valley Mede.

"People can tell you lots of interesting stories," Cramm said. "The difficult thing is to prove them."

One pet peeve is the spelling of Fels Lane in Ellicott City, which Cramm is convinced should be spelled with two `L's, like Fells Point.

"She's very determined that the correct history be preserved," Walczak said.

Dorsey agreed about Cramm's commitment to correctness.

"It really makes the hairs stand up on the back of her neck to see the inaccuracies perpetuated," Dorsey said.

"If it's history," Cramm said, "it should be right."

Dorsey said that Cramm's vast institutional memory is invaluable - serving as a time bridge because of all she's witnessed and everyone she's known during her time in Howard.

"She's lived through the changes that's taken place over the past 40 years she's been out here," he said.

In recent years, Cramm has directed her skills toward her family, tracing its roots in Spencer County, Ind. She put together a spiral-bound family history starting with her great-great-grandfather, a German immigrant.

One wall in her kitchen holds family photographs and drawings.

Someday she plans to donate all her Howard County materials to the historical society, but there's always room for more in her collection. "People are always sharing with me, thank heavens," Cramm said.

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