Samuel Kirk Millspaugh, 73, president of silversmith company

April 05, 2004|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Samuel Kirk Millspaugh, the last president of Baltimore's oldest family-owned silversmith company, died Friday of complications from cancer at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. The Ruxton resident was 73.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Mr. Millspaugh was the great-great-grandson of Samuel Kirk, a Philadelphia-trained silversmith who in 1815 opened a shop at 106 Baltimore St. and quickly began hammering out some of the country's most coveted tea urns, pitchers and handcrafted tableware.

Kirk silver was especially admired for its raised decorations, a style known as "repousse" and later as "Baltimore silver." Over the years, Baltimore silver graced the tables of some of America's prominent families, from the Carrolls and Ellicotts of Maryland to the Astors and Roosevelts of New York.

"Kirk was very, very proud of his family's heritage," said Lewis C. Strudwick, a longtime attorney for Samuel Kirk & Son, as Mr. Millspaugh's family enterprise was known for much of its history.

Mr. Strudwick recalls that in the 1970s, when the price of silver skyrocketed and people began lining up to cash in antique candlesticks, wine ewers, flatware and other precious Kirk heirlooms, Mr. Millspaugh tried to prevent any treasures from being lost.

He ordered one of his employees to examine each piece before it was melted, diverting any with potential historic value to the company museum.

"People were turning in these beautiful, beautiful silver sets," Mr. Strudwick said. "Kirk did his best to corral those and save an awful lot of traditional Maryland silver."

Mr. Millspaugh and his family moved from Ohio to Roland Park in 1932, when his father was tapped to take over the family business.

Jack A. Magee, a retired Baltimore lawyer and lifelong friend, said that even at a young age Mr. Millspaugh seemed keenly interested in silver - particularly as a teen-ager.

"He used to carry his [family's] silverware around in the trunk of his car," recalled Mr. Magee. When Mr. Millspaugh spotted a pretty girl he wanted to meet, "he used to pull out the silverware to impress her."

Mr. Millspaugh began working at Samuel Kirk when he was 13, starting part time on the shipping dock while attending St. Paul's School.

He worked his way up the ranks, from the factory floor to the company's retail stores, while taking classes at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Johns Hopkins University.

Family members said Mr. Millspaugh never received a college diploma. Instead, in 1952, he joined the company's national sales and marketing division full time. When his father died in 1964, Mr. Millspaugh succeeded him. He took the company public in 1969.

Mr. Millspaugh oversaw the silver maker through some of the most trying years of its history. "People's tastes were shifting," said his brother, Martin L. Millspaugh of Baltimore.

Brides, who traditionally had been the silver industry's biggest customers, began requesting stainless-steel wares for wedding gifts. Silver's reputation had grown stodgy, and few brides fancied polishing it.

Mr. Millspaugh tried to diversify his firm by buying companies ranging from a Florida mobile-home maker to an Eastern Shore pewter company. The price of raw silver, meanwhile, shot from $1.95 an ounce to nearly $5 an ounce by 1979.

Ultimately, Mr. Millspaugh agreed to sell his company to the Stieff Co., another storied Baltimore silver maker, founded in 1892. (The Kirk Stieff Co., as the merged firm was known, was later sold to Lenox Inc., which moved Baltimore silver to Rhode Island in 1998.)

Mr. Millspaugh served on the board of Kirk Stieff until 1986 and spent his time at his numerous social and sporting clubs, including the Maryland Club, the Gibson Island Yacht Club and the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club.

He also spent his last years dreaming up other start-up ventures. "He never overlooked a business opportunity," Martin Millspaugh said of his brother. "I always thought of him as being irrepressible."

A memorial Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. tomorrow at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5200 N. Charles St.

In addition to his brother, he is survived by his wife of 22 years, the former Eleanor "Cissy" Smith; a son, Samuel Kirk Millspaugh Jr. of Lake Worth, Fla.; three daughters, Mary Josephine Drayton of Baltimore, Nancy Offutt Byxbee of Palm City, Fla., and Ann Margaret Millspaugh of Ruxton; a sister, Martha Millspaugh Webster of Chestertown; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Millspaugh's marriage to Josephine Bentley Offutt ended in divorce.

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