Towson's cinema headstone

The headstone of one of Towson's original residents, Catherine Schmuck (1767-1834) still stands, now alone in the shadow of a cinema complex. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / July 24, 2014)

Towson's brand-new movie palace comes with all the accouterments of modern filmgoing: 15 tiered auditoriums, floor-to-ceiling screens, leather seats, even a choice of wines.

But the Cinemark theater, which opened July 10, also offers guests an unexpected sight from another age: a single, grizzled headstone from 1834.

As construction crews built Towson Square, a four-acre, $85 million entertainment complex anchored by the multiplex on East Joppa Road, they worked around a tiny cemetery that holds the remains of about 18 of the town's earliest settlers.

The headstone, the last one standing in a small, weed-covered parcel, is pretty much all that can be seen of Shealey Cemetery, a burial ground historians say holds the remains of members of the Shealey, Schmuck and Towson clans that helped establish Towson in 1750 as a stopping point for farmers on their way to Baltimore.

It marks the resting place of Catharine Schmuck (1767-1834), granddaughter to Thomas Towson, one of the two brothers who settled the town.

For now, visitors must go out of their way to see the gray, weather-worn stone, which stands in the center of an overgrown parcel blocked from view by a 10-foot construction fence.

"I had no idea a burial site was back there," said Jeanne Carroll of Towson, who was trying to decide whether to catch a flick or just enjoy one of the development's new restaurants one recent afternoon. "That's creepy. But you know, it's really interesting."

Local residents who follow such things say that at a moment when investors and civic leaders are pouring millions into turning Towson into a regional shopping and entertainment destination — the Towson Town Center mall already draws 16 million visitors a year, and Towson Square is just the most complete of $500 million worth of development projects in the works nearby — this patch of ground the size of a putting green is a rare, tangible link to the area's founding.

As the sun set, moviegoers came in, chatting excitedly, handed their keys to uniformed parking valets, and vanished inside to catch "Lucy," "Hercules 3D" or "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."

If they'd stepped through a gap in the fence, they'd could see Schmuck's headstone — a three-foot gray slab flanked by a small angel — and read the words etched there: "I waited for the Lord my God and patiently did bear / At length to me he did incline my voice and cry to hear."

Above it flashed a red-and-white neon sign: "Cinemark XD Extreme Digital Cinema."

"Weird to have these things in the same place," said Towson resident Scott Helmick as he relaxed on the patio of Nando's Peri-Peri, a Portuguese restaurant near the theater entrance.

Helmick's hometown dates from the early 1750s, when brothers William and Thomas Towson moved to the area from Pennsylvania and settled within a few hundred yards of the complex.

Their homestead was at what is now the traffic circle at Joppa, York and Dulaney Valley roads. They began farming on Sater's Hill just to the northeast.

As the town took root and grew, its heart beat at that crossroads.

Thomas' son Ezekiel built a log tavern where the modern-day Towson Tavern and Recher Theatre stand. It was crucial to the town's growth.

"It is felt by many that the tavern which Ezekiel Towson was running … may have been the business which began the long history of Towson as a commercial center," according to a Maryland Historical Trust document.

A couple of football fields' length to the north, at what is now 617 York Road, stood the wood-frame home of Salomon Schmuck (local historians say the building, now a bridal boutique, is Towson's oldest house).

He married Catherine Towson, one of Ezekiel's 12 children, uniting the Schmuck and Towson clans — a fact etched into her headstone: "[Here lies] CATHARINE SCHMUCK, wife of Salomon Schmuck, who was born November 30th, 1767, and died on the 20th of December 1834."

No one knows exactly who's buried around her — the only other surviving marker is the worn stub of another headstone — but local historians like John McGrain guess it would be members of those two families (including Ezekiel) as well as several Shealeys — another family crucial to early Towson.