What's now chic was once 'pretty abysmal': a look at Jones Falls Valley's manufacturing past

After college, Nathan Dennies worked as a host at Woodberry Kitchen near Hampden. As he seated guests, he'd give them some history of the building, a former ironworks factory.

"100 years ago, there were cauldrons filled with iron" here, he said he would tell diners before they sat down to order a craft cocktail.


Dennies, 28, who now works for a local architectural foundation, has long been fascinated by the history of the Hampden area. His passion led him to help found the Greater Hampden Heritage Alliance and spend years researching the history of the Woodberry area.

On Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, he provided some of his insights into the industrial past of an area that has drawn young entrepreneurs, artists, and trendy restaurants in the past several decades.

What today's Baltimoreans know as the Mount Washington Whole Foods was once home to a large cotton mill, which produced a sturdy canvas material used in the sails of clipper ships. So was Mill No. 1, located farther down the falls, now home to the restaurant Cosima. The elegant pool at Clipper Mill apartments was part of the Poole & Hunt iron foundry, as was Woodberry Kitchen. These factories clustered along the Jones Falls in an area where the stream's current was the strongest.

Nineteenth-century mill owners built housing for their workers, many of them recruited from Appalachia, Dennies said. Anywhere from 10 to 20 workers would live in the factory-owned duplex houses, built of a distinctive dark stone quarried from along the falls.

The homes were designed to look like quaint country cottages, in order to distinguish the area from the dingy mill towns of England, Dennies said. Some of the houses still stand in Woodberry, though others in Mount Washington were demolished to make way for Interstate 83 in the early 1960s.

Factory owners of the 19th century were paternalistic, Dennies said, building mansions on hills where they could watch the workers while they were on the job or off. Victorians believed that poverty was a moral failing, and so it was their duty to instill middle-class values in their workers. Saloons were prohibited.

"Woodberry has always been a dry place," Dennies said. In fact, "Woodberry Kitchen was the first place you could buy alcohol."

In the late 1800s, conditions in the factories were "pretty abysmal," Dennies said. One in four workers was a young child. Twelve-hour days were the norm. A millworker of the 1800s would have to spend several days' pay to afford one of the craft beers now being brewed in a repurposed mill along the falls.

Dennies said most workers by the early 1900s made well below $900, what was then considered minimum wage.

Bonnie Brown grew up in Hampden hearing stories of her grandparents; they worked in the mills from the time they were children, coming home with tufts of cotton in their hair. Looking at the photos that accompanied Dennies' presentation, she said, "Some of those could have been my ancestors."

As a younger generation begins to move into the Woodberry area, Brown said, it's important to her to help preserve the area's manufacturing history. "It built Baltimore."