We are launching a new series called Five Minute Histories. Each day, we’ll record a short video about a different historic place in Baltimore. My on-site production crew consists of my 14 year old daughter and 15 year old son, and we are honoring Governor Hogan’s request and are doing this from home.
In the days ahead, we’ll explore Civil Rights history, mercantile history, immigration history, religious history, and a whole lot more. Although we sorely wish we could be out and about with you in person, please stay safe and check us out online each day as we try to bring a new historic site to you.
All of our core programs at Baltimore Heritage rely on volunteers to plan them, organize them, and run them. We’d like you to meet some of these great people, and so we’ve started a series called Volunteer Spotlight to share a little about those who are helping us make a difference.
Our second Volunteer Spotlight features Willy Sydnor, one of Baltimore Heritage’s longest serving volunteers. We are so grateful for her continued support and friendship!
Read the below Q&A session to get to know a little more about Willy.
Q: How did you get involved with Baltimore Heritage and how long have you volunteered with the organization?
A: I had known Johns through a friend of mine. If memory serves me correctly, I went on a 2008 tour of Silo Point, which is down in Locust Point. It was the tour that let Johns know that he needed help. Johns always says there will be about 40 people showing up, and there are usually about 80. In this case there were hundreds, literally hundreds of people. So anybody who knew Johns was helping corral people and organize things. And [after that] I got in touch with him and offered to help. And I believe I was the first volunteer. I might be wrong.
I don’t even remember what I was doing for Baltimore Heritage. Basically, at the time, we were just coming up with ideas like, “Gee, this would be fun to go see,” which is what I still do. I like to snoop and so it’s, “Where do I want to go?”
Q: How long have you lived in Baltimore?
A: I moved to Baltimore in 1968 right after the riots. I worked in Richmond (Virginia) for an advertising agency and I got offered a job in Baltimore that paid me more than I was making in Richmond. I thought I was in Fat City! I did not know anything about Baltimore, but I fell in love with it. Obviously, I have lived here longer than I lived in Richmond. I have lived in Bolton Hill, Mt. Vernon, Roland Park and Hampden.
I got a job as a temp at the company I ended up retiring from 35 years later–Samuel Shapiro and Company, Custom house broker and freight forwarder. We were the liaison between Customs, steamship companies, longshoremen, and internal freight forwarders. This was in the days just when container ships were beginning and so we were dealing with longshoremen, who were a rowdy group. It was great fun. I would go down on occasion and have lunch on ships.
One of my favorite stories: Once I was on the phone with one of the longshoremen. There were some noisy people in the background. He said, “Hang on Willy. [to the men] Shut the bleep up, I’ve got a lady on the phone!”
I fell in with wonderful people, as one does. I have yet to run into anybody who lives in Baltimore who doesn’t love it. And they love it because it is scruffy. I was so delighted to move to Baltimore and be myself. And live to talk about it.
Q: Where would you recommend new Baltimoreans go to learn about the city?
A: I have lived here for so long, I am probably a bad person to ask about that. R House [where our interview was held] is such a wonderful mix of people. I just ran into a neighbor of mine who is having a meeting a couple of booths down.
Baltimore has so much going for it. Culturally, it is amazing. I just heard that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is going to be playing for free at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Here is an institution that is nearly going out of business trying to figure out ways of getting new audiences.
Q: Favorite Baltimore Heritage tour?
A: I loved when we went to the Pratt Central Library before the renovations because we got to go into the stacks and into the room with the rare books. That was terrific. I think two of my favorites were First & Franklin Church while it was under reconstruction and we were able climb up the scaffolding and see the work done by the original artists – and their graffiti. And of course Wayne Schaumburg’s tours of Greenmount Cemetery – he could probably do this every day and be sold out.
One of my favorite tours is the one that I am going to be lining up for us again — the Ashburton Water Treatment plant. That was fabulous. [Save the date! Baltimore Heritage will be doing a tour here on June 17 at 2 pm]
A: It has been here since 2013. It is on the Hopkins campus. It is in a new building next to the Eisenhower Library. It is called “Archaeology of Knowledge.” It is a permanent exhibit. It’s part of a large student study area, so everyone is quiet. An installation artist was given free-range of Hopkins Campus. They could go through closets, shelves, labs, attics, basements. And they collected stuff. There are three large glass display cases and then pull out shelves at the bottom. They have got things like a ladies fan made out of a parrot. Gorgeous colors from this dead bird. I cannot describe to you how bizarre. There is a collection of microscopes. There are baseball hats from Hopkins. You don’t know what’s next.
One of my favorite things is Stoop Stories. [The Stoop Storytelling Series is a Baltimore-based live show and podcast that features “ordinary” people sharing the extraordinary, true tales of their lives]. They have a series, they choose a theme — parents, relationships, workplace, whatever. They have 7 people talk for 7 minutes. They are wonderful. I’ve heard Elijah Cummings talking about desegregating the Riverside Park pool when he was a kid and white people throwing rocks. Another one, a woman went to a dirty bookstore to buy a Valentine and happened to look over to see her son! You never know what you are going to get.
Q: In one word, describe Baltimore:
A: Fabulous. Home. I am shocked that soon I will be moving to Baltimore County, but my heart is in Baltimore City.
We at Baltimore Heritage are pleased to be helping neighbors in the Woodberry community protect this wonderful 19th century mill town and we are asking for your help. The neighborhood is on the cusp of being designated an official local historic district and one of its signature historic buildings, the Tractor Building of the former Pool and Hunt Foundry and Machine Works, is in line to become a designated city landmark.
Both efforts need public support to get the green light from the Mayor and City Council. Please help us by sending an email to the local councilman, Leon Pinkett, thanking him for his past support for Woodberry and urging him to do all he can in the weeks ahead. The historic mills, workers houses, general store, and other buildings are a treasure for all of Baltimore (we believe for all of Maryland and beyond), and even if you are not in Councilman Pinkett’s district (Council District 7), contacting him will help.
Spring is right around the corner and with it comes a host of new heritage tours. On March 7, we hope you can join us to explore the catacombs underneath Baltimore’s First Presbyterian Church, now called Westminster Hall, and the graves that surround it, including the final resting place of Edgar Allan Poe. March 7 is the first of four tours we’re doing at Westminster: we are offering them again on April 4, May 2, and June 6 and hope you can make it to one of them.
In April, our annual Baltimore by Foot neighborhood walking tour series begins! Please join us and our local guides this year on one or all of the following tours:
At our annual preservation micro-grant event in October, Baltimore Heritage gave archaeologist Adam Fracchia $250 to help with his archaeological exploration of the lives of enslaved people and convict labor at the ruins of the former Northampton furnace iron foundry (near Hampton Mansion). The project has already yielded many fascinating results! Please enjoy our guest blog post by Dr. Fracchia (firstname.lastname@example.org) below.
In December of 2019, the first season of the Northampton Furnace Archaeology Project came to a successful conclusion. The Project’s goals were to better understand and document the lives of the convicts, indentured servants, and the enslaved peoples forced to work at the iron furnace operated by the Ridgley family from 1762 to the late 1820s. The iron furnace, which produced pig iron and cast iron including cannons and shot used in the Revolutionary War, generated the Ridgley’s great wealth and supported their lavish lifestyle.
The archaeological field school operated through the University of Delaware, Newark, sought to find material evidence of their lives that would add these workers to the history and narrative of the Hampton plantation. Starting in August, the students and I began a field survey of the furnace landscape. They documented and mapped different features on this industrial landscape such as the earthen dam, quarries, the furnace, outbuildings, and structures.
Through the excavation of shovel test pits, the students surveyed a large area where workers were believed to have lived. Five test units were also excavated around the remains of a structure that may have dated to the period of the furnace. The students were able to document these structures below the surface and map and describe the different soil strata that detail the history of the site. Some artifacts were found dating to the furnace period. Evidence was also found of the farm that post-dated the furnace and was in operation until the flooding and creation of the Loch Raven Reservoir in the early twentieth century.
The students presented their preliminary findings to the public at Hampton NHS in December and the analysis of the archaeological data is currently ongoing. Much of the landscape of the furnace is buried or hidden under the later farm or is more ephemeral. The Project seeks an external contractor to conduct a higher resolution LIDAR scan of the core furnace area. This detailed scan of the elevation would allow us to better locate structures, such as the log houses, where the workers may have been living. This project is just the beginning of an effort to detail the lives of the workers at the furnace. We sincerely thank Baltimore Heritage for their support and encouragement with this project.
For more information, check out the project’s blog!