R.I.P., Marian McKew (1995)

By Jackie Nickel (The Essex Times, January 4th, 1996)

As many of you know, my mom, Marian McKew, died of lung cancer two days before Christmas, 1995. First, I want to thank everyone who visited the funeral home, sent flowers, cards, food, Mass cards and called to express sympathy. It’s such a tribute to her character to have so many express their love for her. My sons and I were deeply touched by your kindness as we were by her love. Special thanks to my pal at The Sun, Joe Nawrozki, for the beautifully written obituary. For those of you who missed it, I’d like to tell you a little bit about my mom.

Marian Sophia Nickel (she hated that middle name) was born on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, 81 years ago. She was named appropriately after the Blessed Mother Mary. Although her mother modernized the name to Marian, her dad always called her Mary.

After losing her mom to pneumonia at the early age of 14, Marian became somewhat of a mother herself, caring for her younger brother Buddy and looking after her beloved dad, “Hon” Nickel, who owned the Gayety Theatre in the heyday of burlesque. She assumed so much responsibility early on that carried over throughout her life.

Marian, the daughter, took business courses at the Institute of Notre Dame so she could help run her father’s business. Marian, the sister, looked after Buddy until his death 25 years ago. Marian, the wife, was loving in her care in sickness and in health. Marian, the niece, cared for the aunt and uncle who helped raise her in their senior years.

But it wasn’t until she became a mother and grandmother herself that she got the chance to put all her nurturing spirit into action.

She gave birth to me, her only child, in 1942 and devoted herself to motherhood, with that unconditional love only a mother can know. Deprived so young of her own mother’s presence, Mom devoted herself to providing me with everything she missed out on after her own mother died, both physically and emotionally.

Education was the key to all success, she believed, and Mom made sure I got the best even when times were tough — sending me to prep school at Notre Dame of Maryland and to campus life at College Park.

Although she was a devoted mom, she surely outdid herself as a grandmother. With three grandsons presented to her in a five-and-a-half-year period, Mom truly got to practice her maternal expertise, becoming a substitute father in many instances as well. Scott, John and Mike stayed out of trouble, they say, only because they were afraid “Mom Mom” would find out. Once again, she stepped in to ensure her boys would be well educated, through parochial school, private high school and college. In later years, Mom began to reap the rewards of her efforts, seeing not only me, but also her grandsons develop successful careers. She was especially encouraging and proud when I made the move, in the midst of her illness, to The Essex Times.

With mom’s responsibility came strength. She carried her family and friends through many crises. Sustained by her faith, Marian lived by the words of the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

She has imparted her strength on her family and friends, along with the courage and wisdom of that prayer. But more importantly Mom has at last reaped the reward of true serenity in the heavenly home she surely earned. She continues to look over all of us with a mother’s love, not only her daughter, grandsons, daughter-in-law, godchild and cousins, but her friends as well.

Her Women’s Club who affectionately called her “mother,” her closest friends, Jennie and Angela, her neighbors, who looked on her as the matriarch of the community, and her many other friends feel her loss but have gained her strength.

Mom promised me a year and a half ago when we learned she had cancer that she would not die until she knew I was strong enough to go on without her. But I and my children, our family and friends are not without her — Mom’s presence is more powerful than ever as she continues to watch over us, as alive and loving in our hearts as she was in our lives.

Posted in Marian Nickel McKew, Obituaries, Tributes | Leave a comment

Christmas 1969

“We didn’t go to the mall to visit Santa in 1969. We went to the volunteer firehouse. Rockaway Beach VFD held a yearly Christmas party for local kids. That’s me in my bubble head wig, my three boys, and Santa Steve Woomer.” — Jackie Nickel

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When the smallest voice speaks the loudest, be thankful

By Jackie Nickel (11/20/2006)

Sometimes you have to look pretty hard for something to be thankful
for and then the simplest thing comes along and you realize how lucky
you are. Such was the case last week when I was called for emergency
babysitting duties with my little grandson Thomas.

Tom is a rambunctious three and-a-half year old now and attends
preschool/daycare with other kids his age. Early last week he took a
tumble into the corner of the sandbox and wound up getting three
stitches above his right eye. Tom was very brave during the emergency
room visit, according to Daddy, and Mommy stayed home with him the
next day to be sure he was OK. The following day though, Mommy and
Daddy thought Tom needed an extra day at home and asked me to come to
their house to watch him. So I headed out in the dark at 6 a.m. the
next morning, exhausted from days of research and running around with
lots more work to do on my Essex history book revisions. Work can
wait, however, when it comes to my only grandchild. They’re little for
such a short while you know.

I arrived at the door and there was Thomas in his Spiderman pajamas
with a bruised and swollen eye, accented all the more by a slanted
line of black stitches that looked just like those drawn on cartoon
characters. “Hi, Tom,” I said. No answer; the little patient was
engrossed in an old Spiderman episode on TV. “No bandage?” I asked.
No, replied Mommy, the doctor said to leave it off today. “Hi, Tom,” I
said again. Still no response from the kid rolling around on the sofa.
“You’re supposed to be taking it easy today,” I reminded him.

With his budding shiner, Tom looked like the caricature of a burglar
as seen in old-time cartoons. All he needed was one of those black
“crook” caps and a sack slung over his shoulder, I thought. Still no
hug or greeting for Mom Mom though. Oh well, he was still feeling a
little under the weather.

Tom played with his trucks and dinosaurs as he insisted on playing the
same Spiderman DVD over and over. Nothing I said could convince him to
watch CNN, Home and Garden or the Food Network. But then, at least he
was being quiet and not rough-housing and my job was to make sure he
wouldn’t reinjure his eye.

We had peanut butter sandwiches and split a banana for lunch as
Spiderman played for the 20th time. Tom made sure I knew the
difference between Lizard Man and the Green “Gobbelin” as he
pronounced it. “Is he like a turkey gobbling?” I asked. “No, Mom Mom;
you’re silly,” said Tom. “It’s only pretend.”

I vegged out on the couch wishing for C-Span or the Weather Channel as
rain beat against the sliding glass doors and I visualized how high
the tide must be back home. Tom decided to dump a huge box of Legos on
the floor in front of me as Spiderman shot more goopy webs from his
wrist on the television screen. “This is a car,” Tom said of a
three-foot tower of Legos with four small wheels at the bottom.
“That’s a very tall car,” I observed. “This is the dangerous part,”
Tom replied pointing to a hollow spot at the bottom. “Oh, OK.”

I was almost dozing off when I heard the small voice. “I love you, Mom
Mom.” Huh? Tom was working intently on the top-heavy Lego car and not
even looking at me. “I love you,” he repeated. I wanted to hear it
again, this spontaneous expression of affection. “How come?” I asked.
“Because I just love you,” answered Tom so matter-of-factly.

It took me two hours to get home that evening because of the big rain
storm. Traffic crawled along the beltway and the glare from headlights
on the wet roadway strained my tired eyes. But I had a smile on my
face the entire ride home just replaying in my mind those precious
words of unconditional love.

So despite hard luck and health problems of the past six months, you
see how much I have to be thankful for? May everyone be so lucky – to
have such a small voice speak to your heart when you least expect it.
Happy Thanksgiving!

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Shaking hands with a lucky leprechaun

By Jackie Nickel (3/13/2005)

“Mo-oo-om!” my son sighed rolling his eyes at me Saturday evening at
Pizza John’s. I’d embarrassed one of my kids again.

“What?” I asked giving him a sharp stare.

“You might have insulted that man!”

“Insulted him?” I retorted. “He probably felt complimented!”

“But you don’t kno-o-ow…”

“I don’t know?” asked I, sarcasm dripping from my tongue. “If I don’t
know the people in this community and how they’ll react then nobody

“OK,” my son admitted. “Maybe we’ll find the pot o’ gold.”

I had been enjoying pizza and root beer with my son, daughter-in-law,
21-month-old grandbaby Thomas and one of his aunts. We were
challenging Thomas’s St. Patrick’s Day vocabulary with words like
“leprechaun, rainbow and pot o’ gold” and our little genius in a
highchair was promptly repeating. “Happy Day!” he says for
Valentine’s, birthdays and St. Pat’s ‹ one phrase fits all.

When Tom got bored he started shaking his head in a vigorous “NO”
until he made himself dizzy, which he sometimes likes to do. He
finally hit his chin on the table and let out a wail. Mommy picked Tom
up to soothe him as Daddy got the portable DVD player out and popped
in “Nemo,” Tom’s favorite.

Finally we resumed eating, discussing the prospects of finding good
corned beef for St. Paddy’s Day. I was facing the restrooms when
glancing up from my pizza I saw a splash of Kelly green. “Look, it’s a
big leprechaun!” I announced, nodding to the rear of the dining room.
“OK, Mom,” my son dismissed as the girls glanced back. Tom was still
immersed in Nemo.

The leprechaun was a middle-aged man in a bright green Natty Boh
shirt, lots of shiny green beads around his neck and a tiny green
derby hat perched atop his balding head. As he walked toward the exit
he had to pass by our table and I was not about to let a leprechaun
pass by without at least shaking his hand for good luck. And to show
appreciation to him for walking through Pizza John’s in that outfit as

I reached out and touched the man’s arm and told him I loved his
outfit, adding, “Look, Tom, it’s a big leprechaun!” Tom was mesmerized
by Nemo so I pushed the DVD player aside and forced him to meet the
leprechaun who by then had removed his jacket so we could get a better
look at his shirt. I told Tom to “Shake hands with the big leprechaun”
and he put his little hand out on cue. The man happily shook Tom’s
hand as well as mine, and revealed “Now you’ll find the pot o’ gold”
as he left smiling.

Then came the “Mo-oo-om!”

So what was embarrassing about the incident?

“He could’ve been offended that you called him a BIG leprechaun,”
offered my son.

“Well, he WAS big!” I stated emphatically.

There’s a certain confidence that comes with age and that includes
being comfortable with stopping a leprechaun, big or little, and
asking him to shake your hand. I just wish I’d had my camera. Happy

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Rockaway Beach Grand Fish Fry, 1958

Rockaway Beach Volunteer Fire Department
Grand Fish Fry
Decker’s Garden
(Hoffman’s Lounge, Bobby B’s)
Sunday, August 31, 1958

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1958 Rockaway Beach Crab Feast

Rockaway Beach Volunteer Fire Department Crab Feast
Sunday, June 29th, 1958
Decker’s Garden (Hoffman’s Lounge, Bobby B’s)

Posted in Nickel Family History, Summer | Leave a comment

Like Bluefins from the Bay, Nobles of the Hardshells Survive

By Jackie Nickel (10/28/1982)

The day was hot, the beer was cold, and the steamed crabs were large and well-seasoned on an August afternoon in 1935 when the first gathering of the Ancient and Honorable Nobles of the Hardshells took place at a shorefront home in Rockaway Beach at the end of Turkey Point peninsula.

Now, almost 50 years later, despite the passing of most original members, the group survives as one of Baltimore’s oldest independent social clubs. Composed today almost entirely of tavern owners, and beer and liquor salesmen, the organization was born from an idea originating in a bar in the Waverly section of Baltimore City, according to Richard K. Coggins, one of the oldest members.

“Gus Rauh had his tavern at 29th and Greenmount. On that hot day in August, Gus took a small group of his customers down to his home on Rockaway Beach in Middle River. He prepared crab cakes, crab soup, jumbo hard crabs, corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes, and cold beer. When the group arrived at Rockaway Beach, they proceeded to enjoy the food and beer in a nice breeze on his front lawn. Gus had a beautiful home on the beach right across from the Baltimore Yacht Club,” Coggins relates in a short history of the group.

The group of guests was so pleased with the excellent food, cold beer, and lovely scenery that they could not express their appreciation enough. However, one of the guests, Million B. Crandall, was a top public relations man who had handled promotional work for many of Hollywood’s film stars and studios. With his promotional experience and trigger mind, he quickly organized the group into an organization. He called it “The Hardshells,” named after the big jumbo crab Gus had served. He started out by having the president called “The Imperial Jumbo” and Gus Rauh was elected to that office. The group elected someone to the office of “Back Fin” and someone else to the office of “Claw”. They then formed a line, took a live crab, and paraded down Gus’ pier and threw the crab overboard, announcing that they hoped it would produce bigger and better crabs for a future party.

“Gus was so enthused over the crab party and Milt Crandall’s loose-knit organization called “The Hardshells” that he planned all winter to have another gathering in 1936. On that occasion, he invited about 20 customers and friends to the feast. The second party was equal to or better than the first and Gus was again elected “Imperial Jumbo,” adds Coggins to the tale, which he documented a few years ago at the request of newer members who were unfamiliar with the club’s illustrious beginnings.

Older residents of the beach community still remember the colorful processions as each summer’s festivities seemed to surpass the preceding one.

Marian McKew, daughter of deceased Imperial Jumbo Hon Nickel, owner of Baltimore’s Gayety Theatre, reminisced about the Hardshell Crab Feasts of years past.

“My father would get all dressed up, usually in white, and come out to get my approval before leaving for the party. By the time the men paraded out on Gus’ pier decked out in Uncle Sam hats and red, white, and blue crepe paper, they were all feeling pretty good. Quite a few of them would wind up in the river along with the crabs and I can still remember dad coming home in his white suit damp and streaked with red and blue dye.”

In the early years of the group, some members were from walks of life other than tavern-related ones. A few were Gus Rauh’s Rockaway Beach neighbors, such as Fred Kraus, a Lexington Market butcher, now deceased. Many worked in government jobs. Richard Coggins, 72, now the historian of the group, is a commissioner on the board of the State Accident Fund. Edward Starkloff, a past secretary, is a retired employee of the state and president of Md. Classified Employees’ Retirement Chapter.

Continuing the story of the formalization of the Hardshell organization, Coggins explained, “In 1937, Frank Breiting, one of the first Hardshells, produced the Cup that is still given to each new Imperial Jumbo to place in his tavern for the year he serves. It was decided that only tavern or restaurant owners be named to the office of Imperial Jumbo. That would keep it out of politics or from someone trying to use the club for personal gain.” But the Hardshells counted many politicians among their friends and were joined in their festivities by such notables as Congressman George Fallon.

After Gus Rauh’s death some years ago, the group held their crab feasts at Baltimore Yacht Club for a time before moving the affair out of the Essex area. This year’s event was held at Jerry D’s Saloon on Harford Road. Although monthly meetings are not part of the club’s agenda, two other social affairs besides the crab feast are held each year, Ladies Night in November (which sees the installation of the new officers) and an oyster roast in March along with the Summer feast are paid for by the annual membership fee of $50.

“Strangely enough, not many members In recent years have been from Essex.” quoted Bart Byrnes. The new secretary the organization, Byrnes has been Hardshell for almost 25 years. He is employee of Carling National Brewery.

Gordon L. Dorer, president of the group, lives in Rossville but operates his tavern Angle Inn, on O’Donnell Street. Incoming president, James Dimitri, who will be installed next month, owns an establishment on Falls Road. The only local innkeeper who has been a member in recent years is Will Faber, owner of Yacht Club Inn on Holly Neck Road. The August crab feast was held at his place for three years before moving to a city tavern last summer.

“Membership was agreed at origin to be limited to 99″ Coggins recalled. “It was really plus one counting Milt Crandall,” he added. It is now around 90 and new people are brought in through invitation of present members only.

James (Bart) Byrnes, secretary, is encouraging new recruitment in his correspondence to the membership. But as in the ecology of the bay, not everyone can become a Hardshell, and even fewer an Imperial Jumbo.

Nevertheless, just as the blue-finned crustaceans have survived and preserved their species in the area of the bay, so has the gala group that bears the name Hardshells.

Click to enlarge:

Posted in Essex / Middle River, Holidays, July 4th, Rockaway Beach | Leave a comment

RIP Gayety Theatre’s John H. “Bud” Nickel, Jr. (1971)

Rites Set For J. H. Nickel, Former Operator Of Gayety
(The Baltimore Sun, 4/8/1971)

John H. "Bud" Nickel, Jr.

Funeral services for John H. Nickel, Jr., who with his sister owned and operated one of the city’s landmarks, the Gayety Theater and Nightclub on The Block, will be held at 10 A.M. tomorrow at the Connelly funeral establishment, 300 Mace Avenue, Essex.

A requiem mass is being delayed until 8.30 A.M. Monday at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Essex, because of Holy Week.

Bud Nickel, as he was known on The Block, died Tuesday at the Veterans Administration Hospital on Loch Raven Boulevard. He was 53.

Leading Burlesque House

“I don’t have much heart to go down to The Block anymore. The flavor of it has been gone for me since the Gayety Theater burned on the first day of Christmas week,” he wrote in an article for The Sunday Sun in May, 1970.

The Gayety was not founded by his father but it became one of the nation’s leading burlesque houses under his management. Ann Corio, Margie Hart, Blaze Starr and the Carroll Sisters were some of the strippers that appeared there. Some of the comedians that appeared on its stage were Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton.

The theater was bought by the elder Nickel in 1910. Eight years later the son was born and he helped there as a youngster. After graduating from Calvert Hall, be began selling tickets and soon was helping to book acts.

Sister, 2 Sons Survive

“A thousand people filled the Gayety—orchestra seats, balcony and boxes—and we sold out quite often. The place was open seven days a week…” the almost six-foot, 235-pound operator wrote.

He and his sister, Mrs. Marian Nickel McKew, took over the building in 1951.

Born in Baltimore, he served in the Navy during World War II.

Besides his sister, he is survived by two sons, Robert G. and John H. Nickel 3d, both of Baltimore.


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Marian S. McKew, 81, owner of Gayety Theater on The Block

By Joe Nawrozki (Baltimore Sun, 12/27/1995)

Marian S. McKew, who owned the Gayety Theater on Baltimore’s Block as strip tease and burlesque shows faded into the twilight, died Saturday (12/23/1995) of cancer at Franklin Square Hospital Center. She was 81.

The Block landmark at 405 E. Baltimore St. — which opened two years after the Great Baltimore Fire in 1904 — was owned by her father, John H. “Hon” Nickel, a German immigrant who operated the theater from 1914 until his death in 1951.

Her father managed the burlesque house in its salad days when featured performers included Phil Silvers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Jackie Gleason and Ann Corio and a young Marian Nickel learned to keep the books while attending the Institute of Notre Dame in downtown Baltimore.

“My mother was very insulated from everything that went on,” said Mrs. McKew’s daughter, Jacqueline Nickel of Rockaway Beach in eastern Baltimore County.

“She often told me her father wouldn’t let her out of the office to sort of protect her.”

When Mr. Nickel died in 1951, he turned over ownership to his daughter and his son, John H. Nickel Jr. Mrs. McKew bought out her brother in the late 1960s and sold the theater outright in 1976.

The building now houses an adult film and magazine store.

“When you mention the Gayety, it brings all sorts of memories forth,” Ms. Nickel said.

“But even when she was most heavily involved, she went to the theater’s office three times a week to keep the books and write out checks to the workers. That was it.

“While she had this business, she did the Hutzler tea room every Wednesday, bowled, had a life that was totally out of the realm of The Block.”

Still, some private embarrassment was shared within the family over her mother’s job.

At St. Bernard’s parochial school in Waverly, Jacqueline Nickel remembered, a nun asked students what their parents did for a living.

“I told the sister and my classmates that my parents owned a theater,” she said. “Later, at Notre Dame Prep, I wove around the truth by telling everyone my mother and father were in real estate, which they were.”

She remembers that her parents took her to Mass at St. Vincent DePaul Roman Catholic Church on Front Street every Sunday, then to Baltimore Street where her mother looked over the previous night’s receipts.

Mrs. McKew was born in the Nachmann Hotel near Baltimore Street and Market Place, a stopover for baggy pants comedians and dancers who traveled the country’s burlesque circuit. The hotel was owned by her father, who parlayed his business savvy into ownership of several other properties, which eventually became known as The Block.

“My grandmother died when my mom was 13 so she really became the lady of the house with all the responsibilities to my grandfather and her brother,” Ms. Nickel said.

Mrs. McKew married John F. Moore in 1941 and he managed the nightclub downstairs from the Gayety. Mr. Moore died in 1962 and she married Francis J. McKew in 1964. Mr. McKew died in the early 1970s.

By the time Mrs. McKew came into sole ownership of the Gayety, the flavor of the old house was disappearing. Strip tease and racy one-liners became valentines from another day.

Her managers booked Irma The Body, Tempest Storm and Chili Pepper in the 1960s and although those dancers attempted to keep bump and grind alive but, suddenly they were almost too tame for that era’s sexual revolution.

Mrs. McKew was one of the founders of the Rockaway Beach Improvement Association and enjoyed ceramics at Essex Senior Center. Before she became ill, she enjoyed cooking sour beef and dumplings from scratch.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 9 a.m. tomorrow at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church, 1704 Eastern Ave. in Essex.

Other survivors include three grandchildren.


Posted in Burlesque / The Gayety, Marian Nickel McKew, Nickel Family History, Obituaries | Leave a comment

Matriarch of Back River Neck peninsula looks back on 100 years

By Jackie Nickel (Avenue News, 11/26/2006)

On Sunday, Nov. 26, 2006, Mrs. Mae Beck greeted over 100 guests at her 100th birthday party wearing a gold locket well over 100 years old. “My father gave it to my mother on their wedding day,” related the lovely lady of honor as she caressed the gold heart pendant worn on a gold chain around her neck.

Mae Beck blew out all 100 candles on her birthday cake at a celebration with family and friends on Nov. 26, 2006. (Photo by Jackie Nickel)

The heart was a fitting symbol for the centenary celebration which saw long-time friends and colleagues greet Mae at the pastel decorated hall of Back River United Methodist Church. Mae’s thick silver hair framed her smiling face as son Danny and daughter-in-law Joyce, who organized the party, stood by her side. Mae was a vision in rose wearing a two-piece lace suit tailored by her friend Marie Rogers.

A few days after the 100 candles were blown out and all the cards and gifts put away, Mae Beck took time to look back on her remarkable life.

Mae Velte’s father Charles was a farmer raising crops on 150- acres known as White House Farm at the head of Browns Cove as well as transporting the produce to market in Baltimore City. Trips up the oyster shell-paved Back River Neck Road were tiresome but exciting, by horse and buggy and later by Model T, traversing “land that was nothing but woods,” recalls Mae. You’d go past the Page property, which later became the maintenance area of Rocky Point Golf Club; next came Wildwood Beach where Mae’s father often delivered strawberries to a large home at the end of the road.  Waiting on the veranda, which surrounded the home, was a petite woman whose home, Mae later found out, was a brothel – one with a very famous and frequent visitor.

A little farther up the Neck was Evergreen Lane with a home and land owned by Edward Nicholson, a gentleman farmer. Next were several large tracts surrounding what is now known as Diffendal or Airport Road owned by General George Brown, the son of Alexander Brown of the Baltimore financial firm Alex. Brown & Sons. The Browns spent summers at the house which in the winter served as a hunting (or “ducking”) lodge.

Traveling up the Back River peninsula, Mae and her brothers often visited blacksmith Frank Ruff who lived behind his shop at the corner of Back River Neck and Holly Neck roads. Pounding on a huge anvil, the “smithy” crafted horseshoes and wagon wheel rims. “We used to watch the iron glow red hot and the sparks would fly,” recalled Mae.

A big gum tree at the same location served as the mounting post for all the mailboxes of the neighborhood. Roy Norris was a deliveryman for what then was called the Rossville Post Office. The mailman traveled by horse and buggy to drop off letters at Back River Neck’s makeshift collection site.

The farmland surrounding what is now called Somogyi Lane was owned by the Schluderburg-Kurdles who owned Baltimore’s successful Esskay Meat Co. Mae remembers cows with bells around their necks feeding in the pasture there, while getting fattened up presumably for slaughter.

Several “colored” families lived in the area of the old schoolhouse, now known as Cheery Day Nursery, recalls Mae. The Smith brothers had a log cabin near the first Back River School and Uncle Cal Miles and his family lived close by the old Dvorak egg house. The Kirby family lived at the Holly Neck intersection while the Brown clan owned several parcels farther up the peninsula.

Aunt Levy Brown was a midwife who helped deliver many local babies.  Since Ebersberger’s store at the intersection of Turkey Point and Back River Neck Rds. was the closest telephone, Mae’s brother Charles went there to call Dr. Mace when his brother Edward was about to be born.  As Dr. Mace prepared to travel from Rossville (now theFranklin Square area) by horse and wagon, Charles went on to get Aunt Levy who got there in time to help with the delivery.

Mae’s mother, Mathilda, was a sickly woman despite bearing six children. And Mae, being the only daughter, held much of the responsibility of the day-to-day operations of the farm household. But throughout her six years of schooling and many years of cooking, cleaning and other chores, Mae took great delight in roaming the wilderness that was Back River Neck, one of the earliest developed peninsulas in BaltimoreCounty.

Past the Mattheu and Schenning farms, and next to Back River Church was a two-story house that once was owned by a fisherman named Hughes, recalls Mrs. Beck.  Still standing and renovated, it is one of the oldest houses in the area. Then came Cape May with a picnic grove owned by the Shivers family and a little farther on, a swimming club for African Americans called Twin Pines.

While the Velte children traveled three miles each way to school from the lower end of the peninsula, their two teachers rode by electric rail one hour each way on a car line that originated at Baltimore and Holliday Sts. At Josenhans Corner they disembarked and were transported by horse and buggy to the school. A crowd often waited to board the car heading back into the city where they then would transfer to other locations.

Josenhans Corner housed a bar and general store as well as a hall where May sometimes attended dances and “socials” on Saturday evenings. One of her brothers would drive them in the family’s horse and buggy, guided by the light of kerosene lanterns mounted on the sides. While the horses were stabled on the lower floor of Academy Hall, which still stands at the site, the wooden dance floor echoed with the dancing feet of young men and ladies.

But back at the farm, there was plenty of work to be done before socializing. Mr. Velte sold produce at the Light St. wholesale market and brought home 200-lb. barrels of flour and sugar to last the winters. Mae remembers a huge snowstorm, which occurred on Feb. 22,
1922, that brought snow up past the farmhouse windows. The family huddled in with kerosene lanterns and woodstoves. Outside was the pump and outhouse, but the family was prepared with an inside commode. They had to thaw frozen water for the household and use planks to plow their way out. In the fall they lined the roads with cut saplings to make “corduroy” paths for better traction.

The Veltes killed, smoked and salted pigs each November to last through the harsh winters. They also had chickens, ducks, and guinea hens in the barn along with potatoes, carrots, turnips and red beets. Mae helped “put up” apples, peaches and strawberries. “It was nothing but hard work.”

Often there was sickness. Some of the home remedies Mae remembers for a bad cough were a swallow of goose grease or juniper tar mixed with sugar.

Winters were long, punctuated by few visitors. But the neighborhood received regular calls from a Jewish man named Mr. Silverman who came by every six weeks or so to purchase fur pelts. He carried a trunk on his back filled with clothing offered for trade. Mr. Silverman sometimes spent the night with neighbors while waiting for the muskrat trappers to return with their goods.

Mae and her brothers often traveled down Holly Neck or Turkey Point where Mae’s friend Mabel Daniels lived. Down Holly Neck Rd., Cedar Beach was one big tract owned by “the flour people,” the Ruhl family; the Shaefers had an apple crusher from which delicious cider flowed; Dan Homberg owned almost all the farmland on Holly Neck; and the Foehrkolbs owned Breezy Point bathing beach at the end of the road.

Summertime on the peninsula was like paradise with clean, clear water to swim and fish in. You could see the soft crabs on bottom and scoop them right out of the water by hand, says Mae. As the young girl grew into a beautiful young woman, she developed an even closer relationship with the river, becoming the wife of waterman and championship trap shooter Franklin Beck.

(Next week, Part Two.)


Posted in Essex / Middle River, Tributes | Leave a comment