By Hanah Cho, The Baltimore Sun
11:34 AM EDT, May 8, 2012
When Augustus Schwatka launched his blacksmithing shop on West Saratoga Street in 1810, the War of 1812 was on the horizon, locomotives were not yet a transportation option and slavery was thriving.
Two centuries have passed since then, but you can still find blacksmiths at G. Krug & Son crafting steel and iron with a hammer and anvil, shaping metal heated inside an 1,800-degree forge.
G. Krug & Son is one of a few remaining Maryland businesses that existed when Arunah S. Abell founded The Sun in 1837. The members of this tiny fraternity has persisted by hewing to their mission while adjusting to changing technology and customers' evolving tastes.
As businesses become more established, the risk of failure decreases, said David Kirsch, an associate professor of capitalism studies at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business.
Still, "No business survives 150 years doing exactly what they were doing" at the start, Kirsch said.
For G. Krug, whose custom ironwork adorns the Washington Monument, some things remain the same: On summer days, the heat in the shop can drive mosquitoes away. The blacksmiths and iron craftsmen, like their forebears, work without air conditioning.
Yet the company has retrofitted antique, steam-engine-powered equipment for electricity and modernized with machinery that provides efficiency but still maintains the handwrought feel and look. Besides crafting intricate custom designs on garden gates and fences, G. Krug & Son now provides less-expensive, basic iron window grates or grilles for exterior doors.
"Being able to adapt to the changing times helps a lot," said Peter Krug, the fifth-generation owner to run the firm, named for German immigrant Gustav Krug, who took over the business in 1871.
Another entity that existed when The Sun first saw the light of day is the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Co., which was chartered in 1827 and helped launch the nation's rail system. Through a series of consolidations, its rail system became part of CSX.
But the origin of the B&O survives as well. A track remains on the original site of the country's first commercial long-distance railroad at the B&O Museum on Pratt Street. The nonprofit preserves the railroad's heritage and history, said spokeswoman Dana Kirn.
"It's the birthplace of the U.S. railroad," Kirn said. "This site was where they built the locomotives."
Another long-standing firm, Loane Bros. in Towson, started out as a sailmaker in 1815. But once the steam engine came around, the company focused on canvas awnings, said Bryan Loane, president and the founder's great-great-great-grandson.
The company later shifted its focus to tent rentals and, 20 years ago, a party rental division.
"We've been fortunate that we had a field to turn to every time," Loane said.
Throwing off tradition hasn't always been conflict-free. Loane tells the story of his father, E. Morgan Loane Jr., defying his father, E. Morgan Loane Sr., to offer white canvas tents — instead of traditional khaki or dark green — for weddings and debutante parties.
"He was at the beginning of a trend. Tent rental is a big industry," Loane said. "It didn't exist back then."
He is proud of the firm's past but keeps the focus ahead.
"They don't call us because we are old but [because of] what we will provide for them," he said. "You have to always look toward the future."
A sampling of Maryland businesses established before 1837
Maryland Gazette, Annapolis, 1727. The state's oldest recorded newspaper is owned by Norfolk, Va.-based Landmark Media Enterprises.
Old South Mountain Inn, Boonsboro, 1732. The Washington County tavern survived the Civil War but became a private residence for years. It reopened as tavern in 1925.
George R. Ruhl & Son Inc., Hanover, 1789. The bakery supply business says it's the oldest of its kind in the country.
G. Krug & Son, Baltimore, 1810. Known as the oldest continuously working iron shop in the country, it stands in its original Saratoga Street location.
Loane Brothers, Towson, 1815. Began as a sail maker but has evolved into a party-tent rental and canvas awning company.
Gas Light of Baltimore, 1816. The country's first gas utility; through consolidations, it became known as Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., now a subsidiary of Chicago-basedExelon Corp.
Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, 1827. B&O built the country's first commercial long-distance track. As the industry consolidated, the B&O became part of Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX.
Source: Baltimore Sun archive, respective websites and interviews.
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