Scrap Wood For Warmth And A Brewery Tree For Christmas


Sam Culotta helped keep his family warm during winter by salvaging firewood from the houses being torn down for an extra tunnel the Pennsylvania Railroad was then constructing under Hoffman Street.

"It was a poor community," said Sam, an attorney who went on to serve in World War II and run for mayor as a Republican. He recalled those Decembers when he pulled a little wagon around the streets of Baltimore's Middle East neighborhood that is now being rebuilt as part of the Johns Hopkins medical campus expansion along Wolfe and Washington streets.

He spoke of the troubled times and how his parents lost the home they were buying. "My mother gave the keys back to the neighborhood savings and loan," he said. When the family's financial fortunes improved, she and his father put $300 together as a down payment on 1306 N. Broadway. The wood scraps he picked up went into the kitchen stove, where a fire provided the main source of heat during a series of unusually cold winters during the Great Depression. His father made his own beer, which Sam helped bottle and cap on Saturday nights.

"The railroad was our playground," he said of the once-mighty Pennsylvania. He and a friend would climb the old Biddle Street Station's steps and shinny under the wooden platforms in search of rocks full of mica.

Sam recalled Christmas, which meant midnight Mass at St. Paul's Catholic Church, which endures today and is called St. Francis Xavier. Its bell tower is a Caroline Street landmark and is visible from the trains that pass over the route where the fuel-source houses stood.

For Christmas, Sam received oranges, chocolates and small toys. Exterior decorations were few, except for those outside the American Brewery, another neighborhood landmark, whose recent restoration after decades of decay has been a 2008 success story.

"The Fitzgeralds [the owner-brewers] picked the best and tallest trees and lighted them brilliantly," he said. "That American Brewery tree represented the real spirit of Christmas to us in the neighborhood. It was the place to gather and look. It gave us hope."

The tree stood in the brewery's front court, a place where horse-drawn wagons once delivered the malt and hops that, thanks to the magic of fermentation, departed Gay Street in bottles and kegs.

Rivaling the tree as an attraction was an oversized metal statue of King Gambrinus, his arm holding a frothy stein, who is often called "the patron saint of beer." (The statue remains on public display at the Maryland Historical Society.)

Years after Sam Culotta was gathering his firewood, Lillian Keefer Donatelli, then 6 or 7 years old, spotted the brewery aboard the No. 15 Gay Street-Belair Road trolley. She often passed it on her way downtown with her mother as they went shopping and enjoyed a lunch. It was also on her route to classes at another towering East Baltimore landmark, the commercial school at St. James the Less Catholic Church.

"We were on the streetcar and as we were passing the American Brewery on the right side I saw Gambrinus. All of a sudden, I yelled out, 'Look Mom! There is Jesus holding a glass of beer!' The whole streetcar starting roaring with laughter."

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