Monty Phair, a librarian at the Catonsville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, has been interested in local history since visiting Civil War battlefields and barn sales with his uncle as a child.
“I learned about this from walking the ground,” Phair, a Catonsville resident in his early 60s, said. Phair has worked in the library system since 1975, he said.
His passion for history later led him to work as a tour guide from 1997-2014 at Fort McHenry in Baltimore where he regaled visitors with stories from the War of 1812.
More recently, he’s been able to take his interests and vast knowledge of local history and turn it into a free program through the library by leading walking tours of historic houses in Catonsville four times a year.
The oldest house on the tour predates the Civil War, Phair said, and the youngest homes were built in the 1970s. Many of the homes on the tour were built in the Second Empire, Queen Anne or the American arts and crafts style.
The path of the tour is bounded by Edmondson Avenue to the north, Beechwood Avenue to the west, Melvin Avenue to the east and Frederick Road to the south — though there are a couple homes Phair likes to show that are just south of Frederick Road, he said.
The next walking tour of the Old Catonsville Historic District is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 29 at 10 a.m., starting at the Catonsville Branch Library at 1100 Frederick Road.
Phair said the tour takes about two hours to complete. As in the past, the group will meet at the library and head two blocks east or west, take a break at the library and then head in the opposite direction.
“That’s usually what works out to a two-hour walking tour [of about 2 miles],” Phair said.
Phair leads tour-goers to historic houses that were built when Catonsville served as an important pitstop between the port of Baltimore and the mills in Ellicott City in the 18th century.The tour is limited to the outside of the houses and does not go inside the houses.
Phair conducts the tours twice in fall and spring, which allows for “totally different” experiences, he said. Spring tours include lush gardens. Fall tours, when there’s less foliage obscuring the view, focuses on the architecture of the old buildings.
Due to a historic storm on May 27 during which more than 10 inches of rain fell in two hours, the Catonsville Historical Society got hit with about 18 inches of water in its museum and its basement was completely submerged — ruining over 150 years worth of archives of Catonsville Times.
“People can ask me questions all along the way [and] if I don’t have the answer, I try to find it for them before the next history walk,” Phair said. “Even [for] people who have lived here all their lives, there’s so many hidden gems in the history materials that almost everybody finds something new that they didn’t know before.”
A week before the tour, those interested in participating will have to register online. Space is limited to about 25 participants. There will not be a rain date, but Phair said that if the weather is particularly bad, the tour moves inside the library to the history room where Phair will give a lecture and take questions.