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Dayhoff: Feminine touch eased Westminster’s growing pains

Oral tradition has it that the good ole’ days in Westminster might have been a bit interesting. After the Civil War, Westminster was still essentially one street wide as Main Street traveled a route just south of a vast hardwood-conifer arboreal swamp that essentially stretched from what we know today as the high ground currently occupied by the Westminster Cemetery, to the other end of town, almost reaching the current intersection of Main Street and Carroll Street.

At the other end of town, the area we know today as the RockSalt Grille sits on approximately 15 to 25 feet of fill. Back in the day it was the location of a large pond known then as “the skating pond,” because it was a popular place to go ice skating.

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Speaking of fill, the municipal parking lot between Main Street and City Hall was a vast area of poorly drained limestone-mineral soils fed by several groundwater discharges — springheads, and an actively flowing stream that traveled from the Ascension Church on Court Street to where the Westminster Fire Department is currently located on John Street. Yes folks that is a Bald Cypress in front of the Ascension Church — as in, a tree that grows in swamps.

The area we know today as the playground is a filled-in ravine called Fisher’s Ravine that was approximately 25 feet deep. This is one of the reasons the area turns into a modern-day “swamp” when it rains during Fallfest. The area of the municipal parking lot was a flatter depressed area that was filled-in by way of its use as the city landfill — trash disposal area.

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In the early days, the city street department was essentially a gentleman whose job it was to sweep, actually rake the streets — especially Main Street, which remained dirt through the 1920s. The “street sweeper” cleaned-up all the accumulated dust, dirt and horse droppings and took the material to the Fisher’s Ravine–Longwell swamp disposal area; and cartful by cartful, filled in the swamp. Trash and yard waste were disposed there and burned. Generations later, it was one of the memories that caused the city to develop such an aggressive trash, bulk trash and yard waste collection service.

So folks, between the open dump fires, the mud, dust, smoke, flies, mosquitoes, horse and mule droppings, roaming cattle, hogs and dogs, perhaps the good ole’ days weren’t so great. Throw in “bar rooms and all that accompanied them,” and it paints quite a picture.

Nancy Warner, my Westminster High School classmate, writes in her book, “Carroll County Maryland, A History 1837-1976;” the major force behind reform and civic improvement were women’s civic leagues, whose main goals were to promote “morality and purity among the people of the community, especially the young and to improve sanitary conditions within the towns.”

By the time, Carroll County went “dry” on May 1, 1915 — almost five years before prohibition took effect in January 1920 for the rest of the United States — Mary Bostwick Shellman was noted as being determined to banish Westminster’s 21 saloons, according to Warner. Bear in mind, during this period, Westminster was not much more than 3,000 citizens.

Summer is approaching so it is no better time to call to your attention the great bug invasion of Westminster in June 1895. No doubt as a result of the community’s close proximity to vast areas of swamp. The June 27, 1895 edition of the American Sentinel noted that Westminster was suffering from “an invasion from myriads of insects of the beetle species. … So annoying were they that some persons were constrained to retire within doors and to remote portions of their dwellings to escape the nuisance …

“The insects … fell into the globes of the arc lights in large quantities. … In several cases they came in contact with the electric current and took fire. Their burning occasioned a most offensive odor. … Bushels of them were emptied from the globes from several mornings in succession.”

Then there was the 1914 “Swat the Fly” campaign. Again, according to Warner’s book; “Westminster had the first Civic League, organized in January 1913 with Mrs. Charles E. Stewart, president; Mrs. Frank Z. Miller, secretary; and Mrs. George K. Mather, treasurer.”

“Some of the concrete accomplishments of the league included the placement of “No Spitting” signs and public garbage cans on the streets, landscaping of school grounds, planting of flowers and trees, and swatting the fly. The Swat the Fly campaign sought to improve sanitation. Children were given 10 cents for every 100 flies killed. The report for 1914 contained the figures of $159 paid and 1,500 movie tickets distributed in return for 35 20-pound candy buckets of flies. Grocers and butchers were encouraged to provide screens for their doors and windows and protective display cases for their meats.”

By the end of the 19th century, there was a concerted effort to bring about public improvements in town, although Westminster did not start constructing a sanitary public sewer until the mid-1930s. In the late 1880s, there was a concerted effort to provide water systems, get the street and sidewalks uniformly graded and paved and in the late 1890s, electric streetlights were on their way. 

Behind every good community, there are women who made it necessary.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. His Time Flies column appears every Sunday. Email him at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.

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