James B. Cooper

Popular arabber was one of Baltimore's dwindling band of wagon builders and restorers

  • James Cooper
James Cooper (Courtesy of Edwin Remsberg,…)
April 09, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

James B. Cooper, a lifelong arabber turned stable manager and wagon builder, died April 1 of lung cancer at his West Baltimore home. He was 76.

"He is a wonderful and colorful character and is among the last of the arraber wagon builders and restorers," said Elaine Eff, veteran state folklorist, who is co-director of the Maryland State Arts Council's Maryland Traditions.

"Mr. Cooper lived and loved the streets of Baltimore. He would show up unannounced at the Arts Council — his eyes sparkling, an impish smile — just to tell us that he had discovered a lumber supplier on Pulaski Highway plastered with historic arraber photographs," said Dr. Eff, who is also folklorist-in-residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"Could we drop everything and head over there right now? Any time he walked in that door, or any other, for that matter, we all knew we were in for a treat. Everyone loved Cooper," said Dr. Eff.

Mr. Cooper, who was known as Cooper by his fellow arabbers, was born in Baltimore and raised on South Hanover Street. His life as an arabber began in the late 1940s, when he completed Harvey Johnson Junior High School.

He later apprenticed himself to a master builder who was a carpenter, electrician and handyman who taught him the skills necessary to build, restore and repair arabber wagons.

According to family members, Mr. Cooper had worked the streets of Baltimore as an arabber before becoming a stable manager, renting and building arabber wagons in 1979.

"He worked right up until three months ago when his health began failing," said Esther Steptoe, a friend. "He had worked at alley stables on Hughes Street and Ashburton Street."

Cliff Murphy, who is co-director of Maryland Traditions, described Mr. Cooper as being a "gentle spirit and a living tradition. He was wonderful to be around and was happy to have you talk to him."

Mr. Cooper was well-known in the arabber community for his work in helping keep their wagons rolling and in good repair.

"He went to Pennsylvania to the Amish community to get parts that they made for the wagons such as the wheels and tack. Generations of arabbers have gone to the Amish," said Mr. Murphy. "He interacted well with the Amish, which was an extraordinary meeting of urban Baltimore and rural Pennsylvania."

Once back in his alley shop, Mr. Cooper went about building and repairing wagons.

"He had blacksmithing and metalworking skills and brought a high level of craftsmanship to his work. He was able to make many parts and also followed a painting style that was developed in Baltimore for arabbers," he said.

Edwin Remsberg, a former Baltimore Sun photographer, has spent years documenting vanishing ways of life in Maryland, such as the arabbing community.

In an online slide show and interview, Mr. Cooper told Mr. Remsberg that those "wagons had to be shined up like a silver dollar."

He also told Mr. Remsberg that no matter if he was dressed up in a suit and came upon an arabber whose wagon had broken down, he was obligated to stop and help fix it.

Mr. Cooper was a master in the Maryland Traditions Apprenticeship Program, part of the Maryland State Arts Council.

"He was a unique man who worked in an alley garage in West Baltimore inspiring youngsters and his peers," Dr. Eff said. "He spoke to my students at UMBC this fall, and it was the highlight of the class. All evaluations sang his praise."

Mr. Cooper also was a participant in annual gatherings at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, where he shared his stories, "selling or giving away his produce, and bursting into an arabber holler on a moment's notice," Dr. Eff said.

"He brought a message that there was something humanizing about being in a city and working with animals. He was such an asset at those events and he really was an effective diplomat for the arabbing community," Mr. Murphy said.

He was a member of Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Services were Friday.

Surviving are three sons, James Cooper Jr., Gerald Cooper and Gabriel Cooper, all of Baltimore; six daughters, Priscilla Cooper, Jackie Cooper, Adrienne Cooper, Lisa Cooper, India Cooper and Jasmine Cooper, all of Baltimore; four brothers, Daniel Cooper, Joseph Cooper, Jerome Berry and Larry Cooper, all of Baltimore; three sisters, Sylvia Darrell of Glen Burnie, Beverly McKenny and Ida Berry, both of Baltimore; 13 grandchildren; 16 great-grandchildren; and three great-great grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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