Rediscovering the forge that lent its name to Rodgers Forge

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

August 31, 2008|By FREDERICK N RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N RASMUSSEN,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Travelers whizzing up and down York Road probably don't realize when they get to Stevenson Lane, they're at the epicenter of Rodgers Forge.

Recently, colleague Laura Vozzella reported in her column that The Times of London, in a profile of Olympian Michael Phelps, said that he hailed from "the blue-collar mill town of Towson" - to be more accurate, it's Rodgers Forge.

We take our neighborhoods seriously around here.

Rodgers Forge has Phelps, and Towson can claim Olympic swimmers Anita Nall (1992) and Katie Hoff (2008) for their own.

Joseph M. Coale III, a historian, author and ardent preservationist who lives in Ruxton, explained to Vozzella that there were never any mills in Towson.

There is a stream, however, and it's Towson Run or Bowen's Run, whose waters run west across the Towson University campus, past Greater Baltimore Medical Center and under Charles Street, until swirling into Lake Roland.

Towson Run's waters were never powerful enough to support a commercial milling operation.

The nearest mill - itself a long-ago memory - was several miles west of Towson, on the shores of Roland Run at what is now the intersection of Joppa and Thornton roads in Riderwood, says Coale, author of Middling Planters of Ruxton, 1694-1850.

The story of Rodgers Forge goes back to 1800 when a 19-year-old Irish immigrant, George Rodgers, purchased four acres of land from Govane Howard's estate and built a house and a blacksmith shop on the southeast corner of York Road - then called the York Turnpike - and Stevenson Lane.

Rodgers had plenty of competition from six other nearby smithies in Govanstown and Towsontown.

The enterprising Rodgers abandoned the cartwright trade and focused exclusively on horseshoeing.

Rodgers had a son, also named George, and that son had a son named James, and all worked as blacksmiths. Four generations of Rodgerses would work in the forge.

"Had there been royalty in this country, they might have stopped therein to have a shoe refitted for their horses, or had there been a Longfellow in Maryland, he might have sung of the Rodgers family," observed The Evening Sun in 1929.

"As it is, the romantic old forge is almost unnoticed by the many who pass by close to its door on the streetcar or automobile," observed the newspaper.

"Little do they realize it's an active survivor of the times when their great-grandfathers, grandfathers and fathers traveled up the York Pike in the stage coach and horse car."

In 1845, a new shop was erected with rough-hewn beams and uprights to replace the original structure while the great old-fashioned bellows wheezed away, keeping coal fires hot and the iron snuggled into it a glowing orange, ready for the blacksmith's sparking handiwork.

Legend has it that Lt. Col. Harry Gilmor, who later became a Confederate raider and whose 1864 foray terrorized Baltimore, was once a valued customer.

In 1895, the South Towson post office, which later became the Rodgers Forge post office, was established and remained there until its closing in 1937.

"The McIntoshes, the Riemans, the Symingtons and other prominent families living in the vicinity preferred to carry on their postal transactions through the office at the old forge rather than by carrier," reported The Sun.

James Rodgers told The Sun in 1931, "I didn't know what it was to shoe a heavy horse until the automobile came. We never shod working horses before, only blood stock, trotter and pacers and hunters of the wealthy people."

The business managed to survive its competitors, the elimination of horse cars on the City and Suburban Electric Railway Co.'s York Road line (which was double-tracked and electrified in 1893) and the invasion of Henry Ford's Model T automobile.

But the old forge was on borrowed time as developers started building homes in Stoneleigh and Anneslie, and the Rodgerses had to content themselves with shoeing horses used by contractors.

In 1924, James Keelty purchased the 86-acre Dumbarton Farm estate that had been owned by Joseph Rieman, and started building the rowhouse community that he named Rodgers Forge, after the blacksmith shop, in 1933.

The blacksmith shop was demolished and replaced by a gas station in 1947.

During its demolition, Bernice Brouwer, an art professor at what was then called the State Teachers College in Towson, rescued its anvil, which was about to be plowed into a ditch by a bulldozer, as well as several horseshoes and other relics.

A decade later, when Brouwer retired from teaching, she donated the items to Rodgers Forge Elementary School, where they were displayed.

A caller to the school the other day was told the items were no longer on display.

Anyone know what's become of them?

CORRECTION: Several e-mails from readers who went ape over my Johnny Weissmuller Back Story column of several weeks ago were right, and I was wrong. The Pennsylvania town he spent his early years in was Windber, not Winber.

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