Thursday, May 22, 2008

Saying So Long to the Mayor of Main Street

Wednesday evening, as gusty spring winds swept Elkton, I attended Tony Trotta’s viewing at Hicks Funeral Home. Born four years before young men from Cecil County marched off to fight in World War I, the popular 95-year-old passed away Monday. Later that night as I drove past his place on Main Street, the shop was dark except for two light bulbs softly illuminating a mirror, the chair in the big window where he sat waving at passersby was empty, the red and white barber pole wasn't revolving, and the closed sign informed everyone that the barber would not be in again. As I gazed out my car window on this unseasonably cool late May evening a few sprinkles feel on the quiet street that had bustled with activity for much of Tony’s life, and my mind wondered over nearly a century’s worth of town history.

Tony started cutting hair at this location during the dark days of the Great Depression, when he first came to work for his future father-in-law, Anthony Williams. In time, the 23-year old married the owner’s daughter, Jessie, and took over the business. It was the place to get your hair cut in the county seat and the Elkton shop owner had a regular clientele of judges, lawyers, courthouse regulars, businessmen and everyday people. As the decades passed quickly by in this old-fashioned shop, his customers grew old with him and retirees beginning spending hours hanging out, swapping stories, and playing the banjo. Often strangers walking down the street back in the 1970s and '80s were startled as they looked into the window of the shop to see two or three people playing guitars or plucking a banjo.

At age 90 he was still working six days a week, but as he grew older he gradually cut back, while the retirees started slowly disappearing as many of them passed away. But you would still see him sitting in his window waving to passers-by while people stopped in for a quick chat. Even in his ninth decade you would see him around town, out for a stroll with his dog, enjoying a meal at a restaurant, or sitting on one of the park benches. The last time we talked, probably a month or so ago, his mind was as sharp as ever, never forgetting a name or elements of events from a long time ago.

I always enjoyed my chance meetings with the 95-year-old and his daughter, Patty, for those visits were filled with decades of local history. His stories were about Elkton’s heyday, the marriage racket, World War II, big fires on Main Street, lively small town personalities, a bustling downtown, and much more. In fact anytime someone wanted information on Elkton’s 20th century history, we’d send them down to see Tony. Afer all he was born when Howard Taft was in the White House. If they were early enough (he opened at 5:00 a.m.), they would find him in his window. They always came back pleased with the keen insights, as well as the hospitality he provided. Through that very same window since 1935, in a quaint shop that didn't change, Tony watched Main Street change and history march along, as young men went off to war, couples came here for quick marriages, and the era of shopping centers and Internet retailing fueled the decline of main streets across the nation.

They laid Tony to rest today and as I pass by those three empty old-time chairs and the shop with the sign saying closed, I know the barber will never be in again at 118 E. Main Street. Although I’ll miss the chance to pop in for a few minutes to talk with him or to simply wave as I rush by, my knowledge of the 20th century is much greater for having had the privilege to hear so many of Tony's wonderful recollections.

The Mayor of Main Street has passed away. His friendly greetings, conversation and keen memories provided us with connections to the town's past. He will be missed.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Make Online Contributions and Purchases at Society

No longer do you need a stamp and an envelope to forward money to the Society for we are now offering patrons the option of making payments online. This is done safely and securely through PayPal and even if you don't have an account with that company, you may use a credit card. We've started off with a donate button on the homepage, but over the next several weeks we'll add additional buttons for membership, photo-services, and our store.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

County Once Again Proposes Entire Elimination of Budget for Society

The Historical Society of Cecil County was disappointed to hear that the Board of County Commissioners has recommended complete elimination of the Society’s small funding line item of $5,000 in the proposed budget. While this is a minuscule allocation for the county, it is an important one for our organization, a group that provides economical services to the commissioners.

Our volunteers work hard for that small amount. In fact, the value of the services we provide to government is far greater than the amount the county provides for support. Since last year when the commissioners first proposed eliminating our funding, we have maintained a tabulation of the work we do at the request of local government. Our records show that we have provided over $16,000 in direct work for governmental bodies.

A few examples illustrate this value proposition and demonstrate how we save the county money.

  • When the commissioners needed photographs to decorate their new office building, they turned to us. Our volunteers attended meetings, met with county officials to plan the work, scanned and printed the images, and delivered them to the new facility. Most likely we were the only volunteers attending the meetings.
  • When the commissioners decided they wanted to change the county seal, they turned to us for a research report providing insight on this aspect of their legislated and cultural history. Our volunteers provided an in-depth, professional report at no cost to county government.
  • While the commissioners prepared to move their offices out of downtown Elkton, they turned to us for information on the history of their facilities. Our volunteers were pleased to spend many hours researching this request and preparing a professional report for all stakeholders.
  • When the Board of Education needed insight on integration in Cecil, we responded to the request.
  • When the Board of Education needed information on the George Washington Carver School for the rededication of that facility, we researched the subject.
  • When the county released an interactive emergency preparedness DVD, they turned to us to aid in the production of a 10-minute segment examining the history of major emergencies and the development of disaster management in Cecil. We were pleased to aid this important project by preparing a script and making our photographs and research resources available.
  • As the archives for county government records, we carefully preserve tax records, road books, minutes, poor house documents, marriage certificates, and much more from the colonial period until early in the 20th century. (We received that appointment after we rescued neglected colonial-era county road books that were dumped in the basement of an old 1950s fallout shelter building and were in danger of being lost or damaged.)

    These are but a few examples of our value proposition for Cecil County Government for we frequently provide services to county departments, providing them with insights that would cost much more if the government hired consultants or had staff use our resources to accomplish the tasks. Too, we help developers, realtors, homeowners, businesses and non-profits with research related to their interactions with local government. Our volunteers, working at no cost to the government or anyone else, constantly seek to make a positive contribution to Cecil, its image, and its history.

    This comes at a time when we are working to strengthen the 76-year-old institution. As a result of our renewed commitment we have been busy transforming the organization from a well-resourced research library and museum into an institution offering a broader array of history related programming. To deliver and expand these services, we raised over $45,000 from sources other than the county budget. Our membership of nearly 1,000 is growing, making us the largest membership organization in Cecil and we are the only county-wide heritage group.

    We hope the Board of Commissioners appreciate our role as Cecil’s heritage keepers but in particular we trust the Board values the savings that occur as a result of the professional work done by our volunteers at the request of local government. The Society asks the county to recommit to the nominal allocation, which was has been fixed at the same level for over 10-years, when it was cut in half. In a budget that exceeds $271-million, isn’t our effort worth the allocation?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

History of County Seal Researched for Board of Commissioners

Recently the county asked that we prepare a history of the county seal so we got busy examining commissioners minutes, searching newspapers, and checking state legislation. Click here to see the full report. As the archives for the county, our volunteers are pleased to support local government with these research services.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

National Air Mail Stamp Released at Elkton in 1938

While preparing for the first day release Friday, we recalled that Elkton had at least one other commemorative first-day ceremony here. In celebration of National Air Mail Week in 1938, Postmaster J. Mercer Terrell arranged for an airmail plane piloted by Dr. A. L. Trussell to make the first stop to pick-up mail from the local station. The plane landed at Elk Landing to collect a sack of mail containing a special cancellation just for the county seat. The cachet showed an old stage coach carrying mail over the old post road, and an airplane, "the fastest method of fast mail service."

Society Participates in First Day Sale Ceremony

The U.S. Post Office held a first-day ceremony on May 2 in front of Elkton's old town hall in honor of a new stamped envelope showing an Elk. Local officials, stamp collectors, and citizens were on hand to purchase hand-canceled envelopes, which showed that it was postmarked on its first day in circulation at the official ceremony. On a first-day sale only one station in the nation is authorized to hold the event. Chris Lazaroff, an Elkton resident and president of the First-Day Cover Collector's Association, came up with the idea for the event and the dedicating officer was Postmaster Andrew Denney. The Society was invited to make remarks about how Elkton got its name. We see that this local collectible is already on Ebay.