History buffs' toil is a `labor of love'

Old house gave birth to historical society


May 13, 2007|By Mary Ellen Graybill | Mary Ellen Graybill,Special to The Sun

It's a labor of love," said Mary Calvert, referring to the 1962 founding and development of the Ann Arrundell County Historical Society. Today, the society includes the restored 1820s Benson-Hammond House and museum in Linthicum at the northeast corner of BWI Marshall Airport, the Kuethe Library on Crain Highway and the Browse & Buy Shops, one in Severna Park and the other at the Benson-Hammond House.

The main project of the society has been the once-abandoned old house, which belonged to a family that worked in the truck farming industry, a once-thriving business. About 300 truck farms, using immigrant labor from Baltimore, existed in northern Anne Arundel County between the 1860s and the 1930s. When refrigerated trucks began bringing up crops from the South, the industry faded.

The Benson-Hammond House became the focus of the Ann Arrundell County Historical Society after Mary Calvert, one of the founding secretaries of the society, spotted it on her way to her job at the airport. The house was built by Thomas Benson and sold to Rezin Howard Hammond in 1887. It became part of many acres of farm property purchased by Baltimore to build Friendship International Airport (now BWI).

Up to 500 volunteers make up the society today. They offer tours, tend to an indoor display of a truck farm picker's shanty and care for donated items of period furniture and a doll museum.

"That's the greatest thing about a historical society," said Mary Calvert. "You don't know how it's going to develop. You got a lot of faith, and, of course, those of us that started it put out a lot of expertise, and what extra money we had went into the historical society formation and from that beginning became something that's really outstanding. ... We've gotten a number of awards from the Maryland Preservation Trust, and we feel real good about that."

The group wants to add an outdoor brick walkway around the house and fix up the smokehouse and outhouse. It will sponsor a Strawberry Festival on June 9 at society headquarters, said Mark N. Schatz, who edits the Anne Arundel County History Notes newsletter. The newsletter features everything from the Civil War era in Anne Arundel County to "separate but not equal" education in the county after the Civil War.

Book sales also fund the society, says Schatz. Strawberries, Peas and Beans by Will Munford tells the history of truck farming and is for sale in the gift shop of the house. Also published by the society is Before BWI, by Isabel Shipley Cunningham. Schatz, who works in the monument business by day, has been the heart of the library since 1963 when he began volunteering.

Mary Calvert was the first secretary of the group in 1962, when she and her husband, Jim Calvert, met with other history lovers at the home of Jack and Charlotte Wich. Among the group was publicist and author Marie Angel Durner, and some members who have since died, including Gladys P. Nelker, Marshall Nelker, J. Reaney Kelly and Frances Kelly.

"They were friends and lived in Anne Arundel County, and they were all interested in the history of the county and the area that we lived in," said Mary Calvert. "We felt like we needed to get a historical society started, so our first meetings were held over at Jack Wich's place.

"Jack was a good president and had a construction company. It was through him as president of the society that we were able to take the building that we started in, which is now the Browse and Buy Shop [in Severna Park]. It [had been] a station of the Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad and was extensively remodeled," she said.

Mary Calvert had run a shop called Cracker Barrel in Pasadena in 1978. It wasn't long before she used the same talents and skills in consignment of antiques and gifts at the Browse and Buy Shop, where she and her husband still work a couple of days a week.

Through 68 years of marriage, the Calverts -- Mary, 87, and Jim, 90 -- have shared a love of history. Jim, born James Billingslea Calvert, discovered that he and his father, Charles Hancock Calvert, and his grandfather (all truck farmers on the land opposite the house where the couple lives in today) were direct descendants of Leonard Calvert, brother of Cecil Calvert. Cecil was the second Lord Baltimore. It was from his wife, Lady Baltimore -- or Lady Anne -- that the county got its name. Her portrait hangs in the restored house and is on the letterhead of the newsletter. She died in 1649 at age 34, and the next year, Cecil Calvert requested that the county in Maryland be named in her honor.

The history of the area mingles with family memories for Jim and Mary Calvert. They have enjoyed their home on Bodkin Creek in the Poplar Ridge community of Anne Arundel for more than six decades. The house sits across the water from Jim Calvert's birthplace and 72-acre truck farm where his mother raised him along with his four brothers and two sisters.

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