Book chronicles history of Essex

Photographs trace progression of town from farmland to an industrial Baltimore suburb

May 28, 2007|By Andrew Schaefer | Andrew Schaefer,sun reporter

Anna Faust, 78, has lived in Essex her entire life, so when she discovered a recently released book chronicling the community's history, memories came rushing back.

Faust's father, Walter Johnson, and her uncle, Lloyd Johnson, were members of the Vigilant Volunteer Fire Company, pictured on the cover of Jackie Nickel's new book, Essex.

"It means the world," Faust said. "It's remarkable how she's captured all our old memories."

The book is part of Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series, which produces photographic histories of communities throughout the country. Nickel, who has worked for local newspapers since 1979, said she had wanted for 25 years to publish a history of Essex and contacted Arcadia when she saw books on Dundalk and Highlandtown in a bookstore.

The publisher requires 180 to 220 pictures for a book. Nickel said many of the photographs came from a collection she built over the years, but she also got some from the Baltimore County Public Library, the Heritage Society of Essex and Middle River, and from family albums Essex residents shared with her.

Photos in the book trace the history of Essex as it developed from farmland and sprawling estates to "The Rising Suburb of the East," as a real estate ad from 1909 proclaimed. Pictures show early businesses, such as Guttenberger's general store, that dotted Essex streets as the area became a popular summer destination for city dwellers seeking relief in the waters of the Back and Middle rivers.

Pictures show the devastation left by a fire that wiped out the business district in the 1950s. Nickel said many businesses never returned to the heart of Essex after the fire because there was too much competition from nearby shopping centers. The loss of industrial jobs on which many residents relied led to a decline in Essex. But the area, which has been targeted for revitalization, has shown signs of recovery.

Nickel, 64, grew up in Essex and worked as an editor for The Avenue and The East County Times. She now writes for The Avenue as a freelancer. She said the arrangement allows her to do more historical research. She said she has always been fascinated by stories of older generations. She said she often talked about the old days with her uncle, when she was growing up.

"It just seemed like such a leisurely, genteel way of life," she said.

She said older people often tell her of laid-back summers spent gathering at the waterfront.

"People went to work from 9 to 5, and that was it," she said. "My children all now commute long distances to work and sometimes don't get home until 7. There's not as much time to relax."

Nickel said at least four people have identified family members in the book's cover photo. And about 100 people showed up for a book signing last month at the Heritage Society of Essex and Middle River, she said.

"I've never in my life felt so appreciated for anything I've ever done," she said. "People standing in line meet each other, and, if they have any connection to Essex, they find a common thread of conversation. It's brought a tremendous sense of family."

Heritage Society Vice President George Weiss said Nickel's book is important because it makes available so many photographs of Essex's history.

"It's going to help make people more aware of their history," he said.

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