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Making a Name in Baltimore, 1904, with Footnotes *

by Matthew-Daniel Stremba

There's something women do that really creates problems for their old boyfriends. And for storytellers. And genealogists, biographers and bill collectors, too. You guessed it. Women when they marry often observe the custom of abandoning their historic family name changing to their husband's. Really throws a wrench in our work.

Old boyfriends, you know, sometimes recollect the Original Passion, and years later would love to look up their old sweethearts. For old time's sake, you know. But how to find Kathleen Daniels when now she's listed as K. Jones?

And that's the reason I didn't know Blanche was still alive. Blanche Rodgers had become Blanche Somebody-else. No, I wasn't Blanche's old boyfriend. Wasn't a bill collector, either. I wanted a story.

It wasn't Blanche's story I wanted. It was Harry I was interested in. By the time Harry had arrived on my storyteller's workbench, he was already long dead and buried. Blanche was Harry's daughter. And Blanche, at the time that my interest in her father was getting stronger day by day — Blanche was still alive!

A widow. 91 years old. A living resource I hadn't known was still around. When I found out about her, well, I couldn't just drop by. So what could a storyteller do? I wrote a letter.

Explained my interest in her father, Harry — and how it would be just wonderful to find out how she saw the man, what she witnessed in his public life — a career in and around City Hall that began before she was born and ended with his death in 1936. A life of government service that brought Harry into the same rooms with an assortment of colorful turn-of-the-century Baltimore City characters. This Harry Rodgers was just a young city-hall staffer when he stood night-watch at the open casket of the fatally shot mayor in the Cathedral Street home of the McLanes. The day of the funeral was also the day Harry was to be best man at his brother's wedding!

I wrote the letter; mailed it; and allowed a decent interval of time. In the meantime I prepared for our meeting — Blanche and me; drew up my topics for discussion.

Topic E: Harry and his hats. What did she remember about her father's hats?

From Mondays to Saturdays in the very first years of the 20th century, Harry W. Rodgers would put on his hat, pop out to the streetcar, and commute to work downtown. Mondays to Saturdays: back then they worked a six-day week. First he worked in the new Courthouse, a massive five-story building sitting to this day between Calvert and St Paul, Lexington and Fayette; then by September 1903 he occupied a new position just a block east, at City Hall. He'd get to his office and hang up his hat and sit down to work. Back then secretarial work was still man's work. Which means — when this Harry started out seeking his fortune in that modern world as a stenographer in downtown Baltimore, then the sixth largest city in the United States, he was a man on the move.

The 1901 Polk City Directory listed Harry, along with everyone else living in Baltimore City — everyone: white, black, Jew or Gentile. Harry was white. You could tell race — "negro" was the word used then — by the asterisk this non-exclusive directory fixed before the names of non-white individuals. Everybody else without asterisks could've been the ruling classes, i.e. descendants of English or Scots or Welsh, even Germans, and in time even Irish; or they could've been recent Slavic immigrants from the Hapsburg Empire — Czechs, Poles, Carpatho-Rusyns, Ukrainians — or Jews from the domains of the Tsar.

About that asterisk one friend of color commented: "Funny how generously they gave us those asterisks when what we were needing wasn't more punctuation to crowd us in but more space to move out into."

Telephone directories of 1900, 1901 and 1902, however, do not list Harry. And the Blue Book? The Social Register? He's not there, either. There were indeed high-society folks named Rogers, but none of this ilk, R-O-D-G-E-R-S.

Harry's 1903 Polk Directory listing shows residence on west Baltimore street, number 1827. A long row of red brick houses, the mortar fixing the brick in place already about 10 years then. You can see it today. Three-stories, the row set back a good bit from the street, making it look almost like a city square. Then it was a new block at the western edge of a growing city; beyond it was rough country. Was Harry an owner? A renter? I planned to ask Blanche. Topic F.

By 1903 Harry was one of three men on the Mayor's private staff, his annual salary $2,300. And then — not long after that appointment — there appears a telephone connection to the west Baltimore street residence!!! Ring up GILMOR 185-K.

I try picturing Harry and that hat, a felt derby for autumn and winter, a straw thing for the warmer months — the dates when you changed from one hat to the other strictly overseen by the guardians of fashion. A different world. And every day, at midday — Harry would pull his hat off the peg and go out the office. Time for lunch with the boys. Where would they be meeting today?

Those days, downtown streets were teeming with lunchrooms and saloons. That was before male-bonding became a self-conscious ritual, before Robert Bly and Iron John, before tobacco became baneful.

I try picturing Harry on a mild autumn day coming out of City Hall to the rattle and clatter of wagons and carriages, the ding-ding-ding and screeching of streetcars. Harry uses the front door today and he takes in the scene. He's arrived. He's got a job at City Hall, for crying out loud! Secretary to the Mayor! He feels good about life and doesn't take it for granted. GILMOR 185-K.

He descends the steps to Holliday Street. Overhead — what's that thick grid? Countless lines of black cable — telegraph, telephone and electric wire strung this way, that way. That black spaghetti doesn't annoy him. This is a city that won't sit still. The odor wafting up from the harbor doesn't bother him, either.

And just then the twenty-three-year-old H.L. Mencken brushes past him. Mencken's the Herald reporter working the City Hall beat. Does Harry ever socialize with Mencken? Another question for Blanche. Topic G.

Harry's on Fayette street now. Looks in Funk's lunchroom on Fayette then walks on past Sauter's and ends up at Durham's saloon on East Baltimore St., glances in, sees his buddies, pushes in, hangs up his hat and joins them. Raucous conversation. Cigar and cigarette smoke. Not one woman in the place.

"How's the Mayor today?"

Harry drops into a chair, begins sharing a few anecdotes about his boss. His buddies want to know any clues about His Honor's romantic life. Still squiring round that pretty widow? How old must she be now? About the Mayor's age, wouldn't you think? What's he? 35?

Lunch over, Harry gets up. "Where's my hat?" Looks back at the guys. Some game at his expense? "C'mon, fellas — I don't wanna keep Hizzoner waiting."

Each one in turn: "Harry, I don't know where your hat is." Harry remains suspicious — no time for practical jokes. "We swear, Harry, we ain't joking with you." What's Harry to do without his hat?

The story that actually ended up in one of the dailies — a filler feature for a slow newsday? — has Harry asking the barkeep to use the phone. Yes, Durham's Saloon was listed along with the other establishments in C&P's business pages. Harry rings the Mayor's Office and talks with McGrath the Messenger. "I'm in a pickle. Can't find my hat. Can you guys help me out?" Sure, Harry. And they do.

There in City Hall they scour office closets and drawers and come across a beat-up derby of unknown ownership, which McGrath runs over to Durham's. Harry grabs at the thing, fixes it on his head and both head out the door, back to work.

Electricity already. And telephones too! Why, they even had electric burglar alarming systems on doors and windows. But because he didn't have a hat to wear on the street — Harry was in a pickle! and in need of help!!!

So I'd ask Blanche about hats back then. And more questions we could discuss on the telephone. I'd ask her what stories her father used to tell again and again about that young mayor, Robert M. McLane, not much older than Harry. I almost couldn't wait.

Did you ever get so interested in something that, upon reflection, it scares you?

Time to make the phone call I promised in my letter. I dial Blanche's telephone number.

I identify myself to one person — the phone gets passed around — and then a male voice: "Ah, yes." He recognizes me, the letter I'd written.

If only I had called a year earlier, he says. Up until three years ago she was still driving, living on her own. Now — not well. Just in the past several months, after falling and breaking her hip, Blanche began to fail. But all is not hopeless. Send us your questions, he recommends. Maybe on a good day we can broach them with her.

I write up my questions. Mail them.

What stories did Harry retell years after the Great Fire? Was the family ever able to gauge what Harry's feelings were when almost four months after the Fire he was summoned from holiday to the Mayor's home where he saw his boss, his head bloodied, a bevy of doctors hovering over him, his wife moaning "Why, why, why?" Did Harry believe the suicide story? And how was it for Harry to jump out of his mourning suit into a morning coat for his brother's wedding that day in June, 1904?

Would the aged Blanche remember anything much?

It wasn't long after the phone call that I saw the obituary in The Sun. "Blanche Mowbray, daughter of Harry W. Rodgers . . . . Surviving her are . . ." Nothing to do — but send condolences and rue the fact that I had not located her in 1994 or 1995, when she was still driving. No use bothering the mourning survivors. It was they, Harry's grandchildren, who had said, if anyone can tell you anything, it's Blanche. *

Ah, yes. **


* Drafting a Story.

This comprises parts of drafts, the base text for a story-in-progress, originally presented under the title of "HARRY, HAROLD & BOB : MAKING A NAME IN BALTIMORE, 1904."

** The Other Stories.

If you're curious about some untold-till-now old Baltimore stories that I found through the Great Fire gateway, treat yourself to TOD HALL AT CITY HALL and LADIES IN BLACK, LETTERS IN BLUE and LUNCH WITH EDGAR ALLAN POE.

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