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Jacques Kelly: A history trail for the Jones Falls Valley reveals a gritty past with pride, pain

Jacques Kelly: A history trail for the Jones Falls Valley reveals a gritty past with pride, pain
From left: Paula Bogert, designer, Jennifer Nolley of Terra Nova Ventures and researcher and writer Nathan Dennies show off one of the signs they developed. This sign, outside Whitehall Mill on Clipper Mill Road, shares the history of the building, which began as a grist mill. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

The workers at the stone mills along the Jones Falls Valley once labored at clattering looms to weave canvas for the sails of ships that filled the Baltimore harbor. But what about all that “cotton duck,” as the canvas was called, that the mills kept turning out long after the steamship arrived and there was no need for sails?

Nathan Dennies, a Hampden resident from 37th Street, has spent five years researching and writing a narrative for this fascinating, 19th-century corridor into a history trail for valley visitors.

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“The canvas went in making bags for mail carriers and for military use. Military tents created a big use too,” he said as he stood by the Whitehall Mill on Clipper Mill Road near the Birroteca restaurant. “During World War II, which kept the mills going, some of the canvas was lined with asbestos and marketed as Fire Chief. It was was sold as a fire retardant for circus tents.”

Dennies credits Baltimore Museum of Industry archives for his discoveries. He is also indebted to veteran mill historian John McGrain, who lives in Towson and began writing the mill story more than 30 years ago. The company newsletter of the Mount Vernon Mills revealed details of workers’ lives, albeit in an upbeat tone. The mill owners opposed unions and wanted to maintain a happy valley.

“After the First World War, the mills began to decline,” said Dennies. “The last mill [for] traditional textile operation ended in the early 1970s.”

By the middle 1980s, the Mill Center, an adaptive reuse for artists’ studios, opened. Last year, the old Noxzema skin care products plant (renamed the Fox Building) joined the steady progression of apartment conversion efforts in the valley over the past 20 years.

Dennies distilled his research into dozens of paragraphs and photographs that became the basis of eight detailed signs. He worked closely with another Hampden resident, Paula Bogert, a graphic designer. Their collaboration has produced a secret sauce that spices up historic interpretation.

Jennifer Tufaro Nolley, an owner of a pair of the restored mills, joined the pair recently to inspect these newly installed panels, which offer a crash course in how people earned a paycheck in this neighborhood. The signs will be dedicated at ceremony at 5:30 p.m. Monday at her Mill No. 1, 3000 Falls Road.

The signs also show how the mills helped create the residential communities of Hampden and Woodberry.

The interpretive signs are a group effort. The Baltimore National Heritage Area, Preservation Maryland, Baltimore Heritage, the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, the Greater Hampden Heritage Alliance and the mill owners contributed $28,000 to create this series of markers strategically placed along the Clipper Mill and Falls road corridors.

The signs tell the story of the decades here, from early flour mills, through the era of canvas into the 1960s and synthetic polyester. The ever-changing mills housed production for London Fog raincoats, plastic models for Baltimore toy train Christmas gardens, sugar cones for ice cream, commercial envelopes, delicatessen takeout containers, aircraft tires, locomotive parts and men’s shaving brushes. In one case, a pornography warehouse replaced an earlier warehouse — for the classics of British literature printed by the Penguin Press.

The signs are a model project to show how historic neighborhoods can be linked to their industrial past. The signs are also fitted with a code linked to an online source of even more explanation.

On a casual walk today along Falls Road and a cleaner Jones Falls, it might be easy to think that was always an architectural destination marked by picturesque Victorian towers atop nicely proportioned masonry structures housing $1,600-a-month rental apartments with a gym in the basement. The signs reveal the nitty-gritty of smokestacks and coal-fired boilers and, yes, terrible industrial accidents.

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