Showcasing Carroll's past

Through families' treasured artifacts, exhibit from historical society unlocks county's story


Dishes, crystal, furniture and the earliest of photographs passed down through generations of Carroll County families are giving visitors to a Westminster exhibit insights into 19th-century life.

The Historical Society of Carroll County is showing "Cherished Possessions: Artifacts from Carroll County's Early Families, 1780-1900" to demonstrate how the county evolved, how commerce and agriculture thrived and how residents went about their daily lives.

The society, which includes about 850 households, has chosen 50 pieces - some never before displayed - from the more than 40,000 objects in its collection.

"The challenge was choosing," said Cathy Baty, curator for the society's collection. "At first we thought we would look at urban families versus farmers, but we soon found the lifestyles were not that different."

Well-maintained furniture, artwork, silver and crystal - often imported from Europe - jewelry and other treasured items fill the Sherman-Fisher-Shellman House at the society's center on Main Street in the city's downtown.

"We were delighted to open Shellman House to the public with the exhibit," said Timatha "Timmi" Pierce, who became director of the society Monday. "The exhibit gives people an actual feel for the artifacts that were important to those who lived here in the county."

One room contains photographs that can trace a family through several generations. Frank Snowden Brown, son of Gov. Frank Brown, who was in office from 1892 to 1896, wears an elaborate lace collar in the image from his childhood in the 1880s. A photo of his sister, Mary Ridgely Brown, is also featured, but she is not nearly as elegantly attired as her brother.

"The faces are so wonderfully expressive that the pictures immediately became treasured objects," Baty said. "We are also showing the earliest forms of photography."

Photos of municipal bands, fraternal organizations and family gatherings line the shelves. Area families have donated photographs of war heroes, horse and carriage vacations to Gettysburg, skating parties, even a stolen kiss behind a barn.

"These are the faces of Carroll County, and they tell the story of life in this county," said C. Robert Harrison, who had served as the society's interim director until Pierce took over. "We have put together possessions handed down through families. They tell the story of the kinds of things people owned, what they kept and why, and who were the people who used them."

Visitors may recognize in photos many of the homes that have survived.

"We pulled together photos of rural and urban homes to show the way people lived," Harrison said. "The exhibit reflects different tastes and lifestyles and only includes pieces we could trace to Carroll County families."

The society hopes the exhibit, which will run through the next several months, will draw visitors and spur membership, Harrison said.

"Many people look to the society to understand more about the community they grew up in or just moved to," Harrison said.

In her new job, Pierce will oversee a membership drive, several education initiatives and planned fundraisers, as well as the creation of a business plan.

"My priorities are development, communications and preservation," Pierce said. "The more people we expose to who we are and what we do, the more they will understand historical preservation."

Harrison, who remains on the board of trustees, said, "We are approaching the future from a business outlook."

The idea for the exhibit stemmed from an antiques appraisal in September that drew about 150 visitors and raised $9,000 for the society - the most successful fundraiser in recent years, Harrison said.

At the entry to the exhibit is a quote from Walter Benjamin, an essayist who said people live in the objects they bequeath to society.

"Everyone needed furniture, but many had objects of comfort, like imported porcelain," Harrison said. "Families had silver, but much of it was imported. There was hand-cut crystal and patterned pressed glass or poor man's crystal."

A sword and hat from the War of 1812 and a 1907 photograph showing that sword or a similar one hanging in the hallway of the home fill one display case. The exhibit features five swords, three from the War of 1812 and two from the Civil War. One is a presentation sword, a decorative piece with blueing and elaborate markings on the blade. Another belonged to the grandfather of Mary Shellman, the most noted resident of the home that is now a gallery.

Another case holds a silver salver, circa 1785, that belonged to Revolutionary War Gen. Mordacai Gist, who commanded troops throughout the Mid-Atlantic.

The exhibit also includes hand-stitched samplers, a wedding coverlet and 19th-century clothing and shoes.

Much of the furniture shows the Pennsylvania Dutch influence. A handmade cherry and walnut drop-leaf table, the first piece of furniture donated to the society, sits in the parlor along with a Chippendale desk also made locally and a pair of painted Baltimore dining chairs.

"For the walnut pieces, they may have walked out on the farm and cut down a tree to minimize the use of mahogany," Harrison said.

The exhibit is open from 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday at 206 E. Main St. Visitors can stop next door at 210 E. Main St. and request a guide. Information: 410-848-6494.

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