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News Maryland Harford County Abingdon / Edgewood

Harford's history revisited once again [Editorial]

"A people without history is like the wind on the buffalo grass" is a saying attributed to the Sioux tribe of Native American Indians.

What The Aegis has done throughout its existence that began in 1856 is make sure the people of Harford County are not "like the wind on the buffalo grass" by recording local history each week until Aug. 21, 1998, when this newspaper proclaimed "Welcome to Friday" across its front page as it began twice a week publication.

From time to time, others have joined the effort, as often as not quoting Aegis coverage, to recite and preserve our county's past. There are two relatively new books shining new light on parts of Harford County's past.

"Harford County Place Names – Past and Present' by Henry Peden and Jack Shagena is one and "Bata Belcamp" by Larry Carmichael is the other. Aegis News Editor Allan Vought wrote excellent reports about each that were published Wednesday.

"Bata Belcamp" presents an important era of Harford County's past that was sparked by one of most sickening periods in world history. Bata was a Czechoslovakian shoe company, whose owners – Tomas Bata Sr.; his son, Tomas Bata Jr.; and half-brother, Jan – were smart enough in 1932 to know that Adolph Hitler's Nazi takeover of Germany was bad news for European companies. Instead of waiting around for the Nazis, the father sent the sons to the United States to find a new home. Harford County, in part because of its location in the Mid-Atlantic, was chosen. The Bata family bought 2,000 acres, built a shoe factory, added a "company store" type village and became Harford County's largest private employer.

Carmichael, who lives in a townhouse where part of the Bata operation stood, chronicles that rise and the eventual fall in the 1970s into the '80s that included moving part of the shoe company's operation to Latin America and its headquarters to Canada. It's a fascinating tale that gave Harford County, for better or for worse, global exposure. Whether it was the combat boots made for troops in Vietnam in the 1960s or 1970s or the ubiquitous Bata Bullets athletic shoes that were popular for generations, the Bata story is a significant part of Harford's history.

The other book, essentially a list of places and names and how each was matched with the other, is more of a casual history, trading on the well known names such as Cardiff and Joppa to funkier, nearly forgotten ones such as Frogtown and Helltown.

What's in a name? That's generally an important question for historians, who serve an important role, most often in the face of overwhelming apathy. A giant yawn or an emphatic "Who cares?" are typical responses to the many among us without curiosity about history. History, perhaps because of bad (or boring) experiences as young students, is a word as often as not associated with mental torture. That's too bad because history as told through the lives and times of those who have gone before us is anything but boring.

In Belcamp - which to many Harford County residents between the start of World War II and the end of the Vietnam War - meant Bata, there's a new community flourishing. The neighborhoods of Water's Edge and Riverside, though doing so in far different ways, are thriving where Bata and its people once did.

Harry Truman is credited with saying "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know." Amen to that. It doesn't have to be that way, but it is, despite the many great efforts, including in the pages of these two newest books of tales of Harford County past.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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