Historian John McGrain


January 20, 2007|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN

John W. McGrain Jr., 75, former secretary of the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission -- who was named official county historian in 1998 -- recently retired.

"I retired a month or two short of 30 years when I was 74 3/4 years old. I thought I better do it while I was at the top of my game," said McGrain, who has a reputation as a walking database of county history.

"When I began my career in 1976 with the preservation commission that's housed in Department of Planning, I was the sole worker. I had no desk, chair or file cabinet," he said with a laugh. "I had to stand and work at a Dickensian-like drafting table and didn't have business cards for 20 years."

Today, the commission has grown to 15 volunteer members, and McGrain eventually got a desk, chair, file cabinet, telephone and business cards.

The longtime Towson resident is an exacting scholar of the county's historic sites and its vanished past, while at the same time continuing to be an outspoken advocate for preservation.

The challenges are many and he stresses continued vigilance in the face of the pressure exerted by developers.

McGrain, whose first book, Grist Mills of Baltimore County in 1980, was followed by From Pig Iron to Cotton Duck and The History of Agriculture in Baltimore County, is winding up a statewide survey and listing of mills throughout the state.

"It'll soon be available online on the Maryland State Archives Web site," he said.

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