From movie fame to racial inequity, exhibit looks at warts, glory and tenacity of Ellicott City's Main Street

The Baltimore Sun

A permanent exhibit of photographs and artifacts that will open May 6 features the kinds of items one might expect to see in an installation titled “Ellicott City’s Main Street: A Visual History.”

But elements of the unexpected — such as video clips from a Hollywood movie partly filmed on Main Street and a magazine article blasting slum conditions in a black neighborhood — are also included in the mix.

The tribute to the historic mill town through the ages will be unveiled to the public at an open house from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. next Sunday at the Museum of Howard County History. No RSVP is required.

“This exhibit is basically a timeline of Ellicott City from the 1880s to the present,” said Shawn Gladden, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society, which operates the museum on Court Avenue.

“I also wanted this to be a surprise for the people of Main Street, who will get to see images they’ve never seen before,” said Gladden.

He suggested the exhibit is a tribute to the spirit of Ellicott City’s residents.

“All of them could go somewhere else and not have to worry about flooding and parking issues,” he said, “but instead they remain committed to the town and I think that’s amazing.”

The new exhibit — which will consist of a few dozen photos pulled from an archive of 6,000 as well as area maps and about a dozen artifacts — is equally aimed at filling in the blanks for the many curious visitors who come to the museum armed with questions about the town’s history.

“The amount of what I call ‘disaster tourism,’ which occurred in the first few months after Main Street reopened following the July 2016 flash flood, has subsided,” Gladden said of the influx of visitors.

“But 5,000 to 6,000 people still visit Howard County every year and many of them stop in to the museum,” he said. “This exhibit will provide some context for them.”

It will likely come as a revelation to many people, for instance, that a 1958 Oscar-nominated movie was shot on location on Main Street.

A movie poster and video from the “The Goddess” — loosely based on a Marilyn Monroe’s life as a small-town girl who becomes a movie star — are unusual footnotes to the town’s history.

The movie stars Kim Stanley, who was snapped chatting with Ellicott City resident Lloyd Taylor on Main Street in a photo that appears in the exhibit. Lloyd Bridges, who played the lead in TV’s “Sea Hunt” at the time and is the father of actors Jeff and Beau Bridges, also starred in the film.

According to Amazon’s Internet Movie Database website, the film was a nominee for best original screenplay and was also shot in the Bronx, Beverly Hills and Los Angeles.

At the other end of the spectrum, county ownership of a slum-like neighborhood off Main Street is attacked in an issue of a national magazine.

A 1967 edition of Jet, which is aimed at African-American readers and now published in digital format, proclaims on its cover that the Fels Lane community could be “America’s smallest black ghetto.”

The article’s lead paragraph states, “A two-block stretch of county-owned shacks in Ellicott City (population 20,000) has become a dead-end for the estimated 300 Negroes who call it home.”

The story, which also reports on a rent strike by residents of the community, goes on to state that “none of 22 crumbling, century-old structures has a bathtub or shower; few have toilets” and that residents were forced to dump waste into the Tiber River.

Gladden, who grew up in Columbia, characterized the article as an exposé that will prove an eye-opener of a different sort, especially since it was published the year that Columbia opened as a planned city built on racial equality.

On the lighter side, there are cake molds from Leidig’s Bakery, which operated on Main Street from 1947 to 1993 in the building where EC Pops is now located, Gladden said.

Deposit bags and letter openers are on display from Patapsco National Bank, which in 1905 became the first bank to operate on Main Street in a building that is now home to the Millworks Business Resource Center.

“The Patapsco National Bank is historically significant as the first bank to open its doors in Ellicott City,” reads a document on the Maryland Historical Trust website.

“Its founders included the most influential men in the community from the Carroll, Dorsey and other founding families,” the entry states.

There are also streetscape photos of the town, including one when Main Street was a dirt road with trolley tracks.

Maureen Sweeney Smith, executive director of the nonprofit EC Partnership, said she will hold a June 21 networking social for Main Street merchants at the museum.

“We’re really excited to let business owners enjoy this exhibit, and we hope they’ll all tell their customers to go see it,” she said.

Sweeney Smith also noted that the EC Partnership continues to print and distribute maps of Main Street that it began producing in January with a $5,000 grant from the Maryland Heritage Area Authority and matching funds from the partnership.

Gladden said visitors can also get a walking tour app for their smartphones that provides historical information on Main Street’s buildings.

But, he believes you can’t beat a museum for its particular brand of teaching history.

“This exhibit will give people a really good feel for the town,” Gladden said.

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If You Go

An opening reception for “Ellicott City’s Main Street: A Visual History,” will be held 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, May 6, at the Museum of Howard County History, 8328 Court Ave. No RSVP is required. Information: 410-461-1050.

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