By now, the Larney family is used to getting unexpected knocks at their door. Since 1992, they’ve lived in a historic building in Old Ellicott City that used to be an Episcopal boys school, and they occasionally have folks stop by, thinking it’s a Howard County government building.
But when Evan Woodard showed up on their porch in late November, he wasn’t lost. Instead, he was hoping — with their permission — to search their property for hidden pieces of history.
While some crocheted miles of yarn or worried over nurturing sourdough starters during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, Woodard delved into a new hobby: tracking down relics of Baltimore’s and Maryland’s past in centuries-old dumps and long-surviving homesteads.
A self-described “history nerd” who was raised on The History Channel (when Cartoon Network wasn’t playing), Woodard spent the past few months poring over maps and old newspaper clippings to pinpoint the location of potential artifacts. Before stopping by historic properties, he contacts their owners — and he said you’d be surprised how many are open to letting him dig around in their backyards.
“I think that’s really neat, because otherwise, this stuff would have just sat there, polluting the environment,” he said. “It’s cool to still find these pieces that are just out there, sitting on top of leaves, baking in the sunlight.”
At the Old Ellicott City property, for instance, Woodard found old insulators and pieces of broken pottery, as well as aged bottles from Baltimore breweries, Elizabeth Larney said. Considering the property’s long history, she wasn’t surprised. Her family has found some relics over the years, from bottles and coins to bits of machinery. Her son once found an old gear that looked to be cast iron.
“We knew the items were there to be found if you really looked for them,” said her mother, also named Elizabeth Larney. She said she enjoyed chatting with Woodard.
Woodard, 33, grew up in Laurel. Though he spent some years in Asia, including Tokyo and Hong Kong, he moved to Baltimore in 2012 and now lives in Patterson Park. He manages cybersecurity for the Ravens — when he’s not hunting for relics.
In a matter of months, he has unearthed intricately embossed glassware, religious medallions caked in dirt and a beautifully ornate kerosene finger lamp that he initially mistook for a mug. He takes his Instagram followers along for the ride, feeding them a steady stream of photos of his finds, along with an occasional look at how he returned them to their former glory.
Some artifacts stand out to Woodard because of their beauty — like the Baltimore Glass Works flask he found embossed with a phoenix emerging from the ashes and the Latin word “Resurgam,” or “I Shall Rise Again.” Others stick with him because of the impossibility of their survival. Once, he found a two-part malt extract bottle buried 6 or 7 feet below the surface of an abandoned dump.
“When I pulled that out, it was like, this is still intact?” he recalled. “That’s incredible.”
Woodard doesn’t just excavate relics; he also combs through archives from The Baltimore Sun, the University of Maryland, College Park, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library to unearth little-known stories that explain how the items fit within Baltimore and Maryland history. On his Instagram page, he’s shared tales of centuries-old scandals, lawsuits and tragedies — like the death of a 5-year-old boy whose leg was crushed by a wagon carrying malt, and the 1901 execution of a Black man for murder who Woodard said maintained his innocence.
Jane Woltereck, the Baltimore Museum of Industry’s director of collections and exhibitions, is a big fan of Woodard’s Instagram page. She described him as a Renaissance man.
Since the pandemic started, Woltereck said, Woodard has donated a series of bottles to the museum’s collection, including a Coca-Cola bottle stamped with the city’s name, a glass quart bottle from Cloverland Farms Dairy and a Royal Crown RC Cola bottle.
“We have a massive bottle collection and I always hesitate when people offer bottles because nine times out of 10, we already have them. But he found some bottles that were different,” she said.
Woodard, who describes the Museum of Industry as his “favorite museum ever,” said he’s psyched to have been able to contribute to its collection. It takes him back to watching the “Indiana Jones” movies as a kid and hearing the titular character’s familiar refrain: “It belongs in a museum!”
“It’s always stuck with me,” he said, laughing. “To be able to do that, like, in real life? It’s super neat.”
His habit of wandering also dates back to his childhood. He’s always been into urban exploring — something he describes as “going where you’re not supposed to go.” When he was younger, he and his friends used to hop the fence of a wildlife refuge and go exploring. There was a collection of old homes back there, Woodard remembers, and he had his mom drive him to the library so he could learn more about them.
Woodard doesn’t have a background in archaeology. If he’d stayed in college, he said, he probably would have majored in history or political science, but it took him only one semester to figure out college wasn’t for him.
Molly Ricks, community engagement and communications manager for Baltimore Heritage, said you don’t need a degree to contribute to the effort of preserving and understanding history. She said the nonprofit is indebted to its volunteers, who have mapped Baltimore’s trade of enslaved people and helped honor the city’s LGBTQ community, among other initiatives.
“We just think you need to have a passion for Baltimore and for history,” she said.
Woodard certainly checks both of those boxes. And after months of studying Baltimore’s history, he feels an even deeper connection to the city.
“Just knowing what’s going on that’s below the surface or behind these buildings that a lot of people just don’t know — it’s bizarre, but it’s a really neat thing to have in the back of your head at all times,” he said. “We’re a cool city. I love this place.”