At B&O museum, new focus on WWII

October 28, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

During a visit to the B&O Railroad Station Museum in Ellicott City, Meg Nicholl found herself equipped with a metal helmet, standing next to a vintage 1940s military truck and holding a World War II bazooka.

Nicholl, a freshman at Glenelg High School, saw the museum's first World War II-themed event Saturday as a great opportunity to earn extra credit for her history class.

For her mother, Terry, the display evoked appreciation for a bygone era.

"I think World War II is nostalgic, sentimental," Terry Nicholl said. And the details, from the weapons to the big-band music playing, "makes that period come so alive."

For a decade, the museum has complemented its train displays and historic building with exhibits, artifacts and re-enactments examining life in Howard County during the Civil War.

But starting Feb. 12, it will try to attract more patrons like the Nicholls by taking a similar approach to World War II. Saturday's event was a preview of the new theme.

"We've been doing, for at least 10 years, the Civil War program, and it's starting to get stagnant," said Travis Harry, museum director. "It's time to switch things up a little bit."

Organizers plan to have exhibits explaining what was happening in Howard County during the war, including what a typical home looked like and how prisoners of war, who were housed at Fort Meade, worked in local farmers' fields.

Events planned

Re-enactors with clothing and items from the time will be on hand regularly to talk to visitors. And Harris plans to hold living-history events, such as a 1940s-themed dance or a scrap-metal drive.

Richard D'Ambrisi, a museum volunteer from Cockeysville, has put together a display that includes acting the part of an air raid warden and laying out civilian artifacts - baseball cards, pins and steel pennies (made while copper was needed for the war effort).

D'Ambrisi does living-history demonstrations on Civil War-era medicine and 19th-century pastimes at the station every other week. But he said he was happy to research a new era.

"World War II is a great venue for home-front demonstrations," he said. The sacrifices U.S. residents made to send equipment to the soldiers overseas "was one of the deciding factors in the war," he said.

At Saturday's event, living historians dressed in World War II uniforms laid out guns, radios and equipment, as well as more personal items such as soap, postcards, magazines and photo albums.

John Heckman, a re-enactor from Hanover, Pa., said World War II artifacts were pretty common 10 years ago but now are more scarce and more expensive.

"It's a treasure hunt, really," he said.

Items bought, donated

Some items can be found in antiques stores or auctions, while others are given to re-enactors by veterans or family members who want to see the pieces put to use.

Heckman, an accounting clerk for the Gettysburg Times newspaper, has been participating in re-enactments since he was 11 and is a member of the 2nd Squad Authentic Living History Group, which includes people from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Today, "World War II is the fastest-growing area of re-enacting," he said.

Now he and other participants are happy to have a new venue for their passion. The museum is "a great asset to the hobby," he said.

The museum is collecting information from people who lived through Word War II, through interviews and a request for stories on its Web site. But re-enactors said many people start talking informally about their memories when they see a slice of the past brought to life.

When Tim Allen of Eldersburg brings his 1944 Dodge weapons carrier - a grandfather of the modern Humvee - to history events, parades and air shows, veterans have a tendency to start reminiscing.

`Unlocks the memories'

"That's what really thrills me," Allen said. "They get in, start telling stories. It just unlocks the memories."

His wife, Terry Allen, often hears tales - and gets the occasional request for a dance or a kiss - from veterans when she dresses up as a Red Cross volunteer in her knit Red Cross cap, military green pants and sweater, and vintage 1940s hairdo.

While Tim shows off weapons and vehicles, she displays photos and books about the Red Cross and shows examples of the candy and cigarettes the "doughnut dollies" gave to the men in the field.

The museum staff still intends to have a few events related to the Civil War throughout the year, such as the Irish Laborers weekend, scheduled for Nov. 6 and 7. It is also part of the state's Civil War Trails program, which maps out trips to Civil War sites.

But organizers hope the new focus will attract first-time visitors to historic Ellicott City.

With the opening of the World War II memorial in Washington, "this is definitely an area of interest and something Howard County attractions could capitalize on," said Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of Howard County Tourism Inc.

"We're losing so many persons daily from the greatest generation," she said. "We need to celebrate them."

Information or to share World War II stories: contact the museum at 410-461-1945, or

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