Museum exhibit recalling Laurel son

Capron contributed to Md. and Japan

August 10, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Dear old Horace Capron, he's loved in Sapporo, Japan, but neglected and all but forgotten in Laurel.

He helped build both towns.

The Japanese erected a statue to him in 1996 in Sapporo to honor his many splendid services in the development of the province of Hokkaido. Capron not only helped create Sapporo, now a city of 1.8 million, he more or less selected it as the capital city of Hokkaido. Just two families lived there when he arrived in 1870.

Laurel is just getting around to remembering him with an exhibit at the Laurel Museum. "Laurel Museum" may sound like an oxymoron to motorists whizzing through the Route 1 strip of motels, fast-food joints and auto-parts stores. Two-dollar bettors may think of Laurel only as a racetrack.

But turn on to the old-time Main Street and you're in a handsome town not yet swamped by Washington's urban sprawl. Off U.S. 1, Laurel has lovely old mill houses, fine Victorian mansions and a stone church called St. Mary of the Mills, with a bell that once summoned workers to the cotton mill Horace Capron built in 1834.

"In many ways, the house we're in is actually a major artifact of the exhibit," says Karen Lubieniecki, a freelance public-relations woman who curated the show with her husband, Ken Skrivseth, a radar-systems engineer when he's not researching Laurel. They're both volunteers. The museum is installed in a refurbished house Capron built for his cotton-mill workers.

"Along with about 50 others," says Skrivseth. Plain serviceable brick houses like the museum, each built to house four families, survive all over Laurel. A group of stone houses that Capron built is known in Laurel as The Lovely Old Ladies of Main Street. They're not unlike the mill houses of Stone Hill on the edge of Hampden in Baltimore.

The Patuxent Cotton Manufacturing Co., which Capron started with family and friends, employed 500 to 700 workers, shot the population up to 2,700 and made Laurel Factory - as the town was called until 1870 when it was incorporated as just plain Laurel - an important stop on the newly built Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line between Baltimore and Washington. It was a true factory town, the mill supplying everything from the homes to churches. St. Mary of the Mills was first funded by one of the owners, Dr. Theodore Jenkins, Capron's brother-in-law. The mill proprietors encouraged church-going and temperance.

Horace Capron was a man of reach and consequence in the mid-19th century. He was born in Attleboro, Mass., where a Capron Park still honors his father, Seth Capron, a doctor who served in the Revolutionary War with George Washington. His mother, Eunice Mann Capron, was related to Horace Mann, the educator, which is no doubt where he got his name. Our Horace shook Lafayette's hand when the beloved French Revolutionary War general made his triumphal tour of the United States in 1824.

Capron witnessed the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. He became an Indian agent in Texas, "relocating" Shawnee, Comanche and Kickapoo tribes after the Mexican War. He commanded a Union cavalry brigade in the Civil War and was made an honorary general afterward. President Grant named him the second Commissioner of Agriculture, roughly the equivalent of Secretary of Agriculture. That's why the Japanese selected him to help with improvement of farming when they began colonizing Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. Capron probably loved farming more than anything.

The exhibit illustrates all this hyperactivity with photos, artifacts and documents, including a payroll signed by Capron.

"It's not a big exhibit," Lubieniecki says. "It's a real little museum."

But if visitors stop by this summer, they'll also see a show called Over Here: Life in Laurel during WWII.

Capron came to Laurel because he knew something about textile manufacturing. His father opened the first factory to make finished woolen cloth in the United States, at Oriskany, N.Y.

"Capron came to Maryland about 1829," Lubieniecki says. "He was hired to run the mill that was in Warren, Md."

"He was pretty young to be doing that," Skrivseth says of the 25-year-old. The mill burned down and he went on to become superintendent of the Savage Mill, which still survives, mostly as an antiques mall, in Howard County. The town of Warren is now under the waters of the Loch Raven Reservoir.

Capron was a member of the Maryland Militia when it suppressed striking B&O railroad workers in 1834, which led him to visit the homes of the rich and comfortable, most notably Montpelier, the mansion of the lordly Snowden family. They owned just about everything they could see from their hilltop home, and a lot more they couldn't, including the land that is now Laurel.

"Horace met one of the daughters, Louisa," Lubieniecki says. "We don't know the details of their courtship. We just know that on June 5, he married her at Montpelier."

"Karen thinks there was something gallant about the whole thing," her husband says.

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