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News Maryland Baltimore County Towson

Towson's new theater protects a somber link to town's past

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.

For several decades in the mid- to late 1800s, Mary Ann Shealey owned a 10-acre spread known as Molly's Industry at the crossroads, land that included the cemetery, the tavern, a public school and more. (Shealy Avenue still stretches east from Towson Tavern and connects to Towson Square, including its new 850-space parking garage. No one knows why or when the spelling changed.)

Darlene Dail of Timonium, a Shealey on her father's side, is a living link to that history.

Laid off in 1991, Dail, now 79, said she finally had time to indulge a long-held fascination with her ancestry. She spent years diving into old newspaper accounts and city documents, familiarizing herself with colorful ancestors like Mary Ann, a strong-willed, religious woman who happened to be Catharine Schmuck's granddaughter.

To her shock, Dail learned Mary Ann had her husband declared insane just before taking control of the 10 acres. She built a general store on the site, a "place where the boys bought marbles, candy, cakes, etc., and the older boys bought cigars, two for a cent," an 1885 newspaper account said.

After Mary Ann went bankrupt during the 1880s, she had the property conveyed to her trustees — members of the family who proceeded to sell it all off, piece by piece, over the years, said McGrain, who served for years as executive secretary of the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission.

All of it save the cemetery was sold. McGrain, who researched its deed for years, said that even though "someone was always asking about the property" as Towson grew up around it, the question of ownership was never settled.

"It became the hairiest piece of real estate in town," he said.

Those who coveted the property often contacted the Shealeys, if only out of respect. In 1952, Dail remembered, when Hutzler's department store was preparing to open its Towson store next to the site, her mother got calls about a parking lot that never got built.

Forty-four years later, after that store closed and developers hoped to turn the building into a discount center, planners met with Dail and other Shealeys, county officials and preservationists to plan an archaeological dig to ensure there were no remains beyond the cemetery's borders. (They found no such remains.)

As a Burger King, a Barnes and Noble, a sushi restaurant and a fitness center sprang up around the cemetery in recent decades, Dail, a few distant relatives and even a local Boy Scout troop tried their best to keep it litter-free.

The cleanups never lasted.

"It's been vandalized. It's been cleaned up. It's been vandalized. It's been cleaned up," one neighbor, Adelaide Bentley, complained to The Sun in 1996.

As The Cordish Cos. and Heritage Properties Inc. developed plans for Towson Square, they knew they'd have to decide how to deal with the plot. Maryland law prohibits moving human remains or "funerary objects" such as headstones, though it's possible with permission from the state's attorney.

Robert A. Hoffman, an attorney for the companies, said that option just didn't seem right.

"You really don't want to move remains. Your first choice would be to preserve a site like that and work around it," he said.

Architectural plans always called for incorporating the cemetery, which will be the centerpiece of a permanent court when the project is finished by the end of the year. Enhancements will include fencing and landscaping, said Candice Coolahan, a Cordish spokeswoman, in an email, adding that "improvements will be made during the final phase of construction in a respectful and first-class manner."

That will make a notable spot more visible and better preserved than ever, said County Councilman David Marks, whose district includes downtown Towson.

"It will be a unique experience," he said. "I can't think of any other movie theater so close to a historic site."

McGrain, now 82 and retired, said he'd have tried to get the plot moved, if only to avoid the "absurdity" of a cemetery in front of a movieplex.

Helmick wasn't so sure. Sitting with a drink near the theater entrance, he glanced toward the fence that blocked his view of the parcel.

He was just pleased the developers retained a piece of history as they moved Towson forward.

"Just think of everything that has changed [since the cemetery was built]," he said. "I'm glad they left it where it is."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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