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Laurel’s 150-year history unpacked and on display

As the city of Laurel embarks on a year-long celebration of its sesquicentennial anniversary, the Laurel Museum’s 2020 exhibit — “Unpacking Laurel’s Past: 150 Years on Display” — invites residents to discover their personal connections to Laurel’s past, present and future.

Laurel Historical Society Executive Director Ann Bennett said the opening reception for the exhibit Feb. 2 drew nearly 150 visitors to the restored brick millworkers’ house in Old Town.

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Community curated and comprised of never-before-seen items from the museum collections, the exhibit “really stretches the definition of the anniversary year,” she said; it even nods to the days predating the mill, when Laurel was Indian land.

As visitors entered the West Gallery on Sunday, most picked up the city’s Passport To Rewards book and received their first stamp from members of the city’s 150th anniversary planning committee.

Wearing the bright yellow vest that participants of the program should look for at celebratory events planned throughout the year (see 150.cityoflaurel.org for information), Beth Varnau said she stamped at least 30 passport books less than 20 minutes into the opening reception.

Upon entering the gallery, visitors will find a bilingual introduction panel, a listing of Laurel commissioners and mayors to date, a central display case of items commemorating the city’s 100th and 125th anniversary celebrations, an antique dress worn by Jean Wilson at the Centennial Cotillion and a fuchsia silk gown worn by Mamie Eisenhower.

Museum volunteer Corine Williams said she could never imagine wearing the Jean Wilson dress with the requisite hoops that are too large to display.

“It’s great that the museum got hold of this well-preserved piece," Williams said. "It is absolutely beautiful."

Laurel resident Betsy Welsh said the understated fuchsia silk is just what she’d imagine seeing Mamie Eisenhower, wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, wearing and that the “jewelry is really unique.”

A copy of a 1972 Life Magazine, autographed by George Wallace and featuring “The Wallace Shooting” cover story, and a photo album of Bert Sadler’s images of Laurel from 1903-1915 also stand out, as does an iron Old Dog Tray nutcracker manufactured sometime in the 19th century.

Docent Denise Redmond encouraged visitors entering the East Gallery to pin the location of their homes on an interactive map, hoping “to encourage people to come back and do research here, especially relating to descendant searches.”

Displays entitled “That’s Entertainment,” “Business,” “Laurel High School Years,” “Laurel Transportation,” “Community,” “Home — The Heart of Laurel” and “Building Faith” fill the East Gallery with eclectic items and text panels.

The “Entertainment” display highlights an assortment of theater, concert and racing programs, including a 1953 Laurel Lions Club Minstrel Show program. An antique ruby glass pitcher hails from a 1910 four-county fair on the grounds of what would become the Laurel Race Track.

Current Mayor Craig Moe recently donated a pair of AMF bowling shoes commemorating Laurel’s bowling alley, which closed last August.

The “Business” display features 20th-century hand-drawn lace patterns, a wooden candy box from 1906, a glove stretcher and gloves from 1897 and many photos and images. The most recent items include canvas bags from the Laurel Meat Market and a pair of A.M. Kroop riding boots, both from landmark businesses closed in 2018.

“Laurel High School Years” surveys the public school that opened in 1899 at 7th and Montgomery streets and moved to a new building in 1965 on what was once part of the grounds of the Laurel Sanitarium.

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Sports letters, a prom invitation, photos, a 1910 commencement program and even a prom ring worn by Virginia Stanton, a popular English teacher in the 1960s,are also on display.

Trolley conductor supplies, a racetrack bridge sign and a variety of images of the Laurel Train Station, streetcars, trolleys, a B&O train wreck and a 1900 car can be found in the “Laurel Transportation” section.

“Community of Laurel” features photos of boys’ baseball teams (one dating back to 1906), a World War II plane spotter armband, a variety of posters and programs and a 1987 Trivia Game of Laurel.

“Home — The Heart of Laurel” in the back of the East Gallery contains everyday household items, such as World War II ration books and stamps, antique teapots, cookbooks, clothing, linens and a 1987 computer and floppy disks.

Visitors are encouraged to try out the 1897 stereoscope predating kids’ viewfinders, a manual typewriter and a rotary phone.

A 1923 pump organ is in the “Building Faith” section, along with hymn books, bibles, sheet music, a Knights of Columbus sword and scabbard and other items from Laurel’s numerous churches.

The exhibit extends downstairs for the first time, where a pop-up display on loan from the National Archives and Records Administration summarizes its “Rightfully Hers” exhibit documenting the women’s suffrage movement; 20th-century Laurel poll books and ballots also are on display.

Laurel sesquicentennial coins are available for purchase in the gift shop there.

The exhibit also represents dark moments in Laurel’s history. Segregation and racial tensions are represented by items such as a pool token and newspaper article about the city’s plans to buy and desegregate the Laurel Pool, and references to the Lions Club’s minstrel shows which were acceptable then and unacceptable today.

“There are artifacts that are associated with parts of Laurel’s history that are bad. Yet all of these items — the best, the everyday, the nice, and the uncomfortable — help tell the story of Laurel over the last 150 years," Bennett wrote in the docent book.

Visitors appeared thrilled to find their personal connections in the exhibit.

Laurel native Barbara Hughes said she was one of the museum’s first docents in 1996 and caregiver to Grace Quince, whose estate donated a 20th-century marriage certificate.

Fifty-year Laurel resident Tracy Scagliarini said her mother, Virginia Chapman Scagliarini, lived on Main Street (where the Post Office resides today) from 1924-1963 before she had her house lifted and moved to Carroll Street.

“It’s so much fun to visit familiar places as they were in the past,” she said.

Lindsey Baker, who served as executive director at the museum from 2008–2018, said she is “very excited to see the connection between the past and today, to see the city work on incorporating people who are here ... and to get them excited about Laurel’s history and how they connect.”

Baker’s husband, Danny Cruz, translated the text panels into a Spanish language guide that Bennett said will be available for visitors to carry through the exhibit.

“The exhibit is the best we’ve done in terms of research and working with the collections we have; we’re able to tell a great story based on the strength of what we already have here,” she said.

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“Unpacking Laurel’s Past: 150 Years on Display” is the one 150th city event where participants in the rewards program can get a stamp (one time) at any visit.

Museum co-founder Betty Compton said it is “really a highlight at the beginning of a very exciting year.”

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