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100 years later, Flowermart still blooming

Weekend event is wonderful rite of spring in Baltimore

By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

5:00 PM EDT, May 5, 2011

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It has been 100 years since Baltimore's ladies of the gentry decided to call attention to their efforts to beautify the city by holding a Flower Mart at the base of the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon, selling crab cakes their cooks prepared and flowers that the hired hands grew on their country estates.

Today is not, however, the 100th event.

The city's springtime tradition began in 1911, but did not occur for two years during World War I and again after the 1968 riots. And it was rained out in 1959.

In 1973, the Women's Civic League actually "buried" the Flower Mart, in the form of a plaque, in the base of the monument, but this stubborn tradition was revived a couple of years later, only to be canceled again in 1996 because of apathy and infighting among the women's clubs who ran it.

By 1999, the Women's Civic League was ready to cancel it for good. The ages of the women were climbing and their energy was flagging.

But Mount Vernon attorney Fred Bierer, who used to cut school to attend as a kid, and former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, then state comptroller, were determined to keep the fair alive.

That year, Schaefer wrote a letter to the editor of The Baltimore Sun that called the event "the grandmother of all Baltimore street festivals," and he bragged that he had been attending for 50 years and that it was a tradition that need to be preserved for future generations.

He urged the city to create a new organization for the Flower Mart and hinted that he'd like to go for the all-time attendance record.

He and Bierer recruited Carol Purcell, who had been a Flower Mart chairwoman, to do the job.

Purcell has been spearheading the Flower Mart (the name has since been rendered into one word, Flowermart) ever since — 12 years now. But this year she will do it without her good friend. Schaefer died last monthl.

"The Flowermart was very dear to his heart," said Purcell, who oversaw its expansion to two days. "He believed that it is a civility that was a necessity for the city of Baltimore.

"Am I going to miss him? Oh, yeah. We will miss his presence, but Flowermmart will have his spirit."

A bagpiper will play in Schaefer's honor and there will be a moment of silence during the opening ceremonies. "He has always been our honorary chairman," said Purcell.

A century ago, the event was described as "a garland around the base of the monument." Pictures show little boys in sailor suits, women in bustles and big hats, men in starched collars and mustaches.

At the time of the first Flower Mart, President Taft was down the street at the Lyric Theater, opening the third annual Peace Conference and sharing the stage with Andrew Carnegie and Cardinal Gibbons.

And the first newspaper article about the Flower Mart described it in language as flowery as the booths. "The brilliant flowers vied in beauty with the exquisite loveliness of fair Baltimore women working hard among the blossoms," The Evening Sun reported.

It moved a couple of times, to War Memorial Plaza at City Hall and to Hopkins Plaza at Charles Center. In 1972, it was not much more than a flower cart. But after an absence of 10 years, it returned to Mount Vernon in 1981, and 25,000 people attended.

With the blessing of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Flowermart now employs the energies of parochial school children, who decorate the booths and sell flowers to raise money for their schools.

And the food preparation (they used to run out of crab cakes almost as soon as the fair opened) is now handled by vendors, although the lemon sticks — introduced at the first fair — are still handmade.

Thanks to the determination of Bierer, Schaefer and Purcell, Flowermart is now a nonprofit with an endowment, a small staff, a board of directors and corporate partners. It is the kind of structure that can survive changing times and fading volunteers.

"I will be in Flowermart until they throw dirt on me," said Purcell. "But Flowermmart is really the city's event, the city's rite of spring. It is the city doing something for the city."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

If you go

Flowermart 2011

Open Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., near the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon. Highlights Friday include opening ceremonies at noon, a maypole dance, hat contest and flamenco and ballroom dancers. Saturday's events include a pet parade, costume contest and performances by the Baltimore Ragtime Band and Baltimore Opera.