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Steam whistles, adding machines set museum apart


The end of the line for the old Addressograph machines, cast-iron sausage kettles and brass steam whistles is 1415 Key Highway.

That is the address of the Baltimore Museum of Industry, the city's sprawling repository of workplace artifacts. Here the floors creak, the lines of leather belting circulate through machine shops and the lunch wagon always has a ham sandwich for sale.

Located roughly between Harborplace and Fort McHenry, the museum is housed in a former cannery built in the mid-1860s. A crane from the Bethlehem Steel Fairfield Shipyard -- the place that produced so many Liberty Ships during the Second World War -- stands just inside the front gate. You can't miss it. There will probably be a lot of school buses parked outside as well. This place has become a favorite destination for school field trips.

No wonder. If you want to have hands-on fun while experiencing some real industrial, pre-micro chip history, this is the place. There's a print shop, machine shop and oyster-packing operation. (There are no actual bivalves but there are cookers, conveyor belts and cans).

The telephones are all rotary-dial devices, and there's a 1940s-era, hand-operated, plug-in telephone switchboard on display here.

For nearly 15 years now this institution has quietly established itself as a repository for the artifacts that once helped Baltimoreans earn pay checks.

There are entire sections devoted to clothing manufacturing, public utilities, printing, canning, communication and meat packing.

Outside the museum building, moored at a small pier, is the 1906 steam tug S.S. Baltimore. From the pier, visitors have a view of the city that is guaranteed to please and would look good on a postcard.

And the neighborhood adjacent to the museum is worth a visit, too. Just to the north is the HarborView apartment tower, a visible symbol of the 1990s harbor redevelopment. Yet only a few blocks away is a still functioning ship repair yard, a living link to the ship builders who once flourished in the cove where Locust Point joins the South Baltimore mainland.

As much fun as the working re-creations of the old plants and factories are, the museum's behind-the-scenes storerooms are a fascinating depository of industrial Baltimore. One day, this collection of old printing presses, street lights and stationary steam engines will be on display.

"We can't take any more adding machines," said Dennis Zembala, the museum's director. "We have too many."

But there are categories of industrial artifacts he and his staff are looking for.

"We need work clothes made in Baltimore -- uniforms, work gloves, boots and hats that are identified with Baltimore industry. We are not trying to become a costume collection, but so many of the everyday work clothes either wore out or were thrown away. People didn't save what they wore to work," Zembala said.

Watch for new displays at the museum. The family of George A. Bunting, the North Avenue and Charles Street pharmacist who invented and patented Noxzema skin cream, donated money to build a replica of an old-fashioned drug store.

"We haven't decided if we'll have pill-making equipment, but there will be something in there that will work and operate," Zembala said.

Later this year, the museum will sponsor a tour of the sites of the 26 breweries that existed in Baltimore on the eve of Prohibition.

"People tend to think of the American Brewery on Gay Street, but there were many more. There was a group in West Baltimore on Franklintown Road for example," Zembala said.

Another kind of visitor -- the researcher -- can make an appointment at the museum's research center located on the second floor atop the exhibition section.

Local businesses have donated their paper and photographic archives to this sizable and specialized library.

The records of the Esskay meat packing operation, Horstmeier's lumber mill and the Polan Katz umbrella company wound up here, as did an amazing 26,000 photos and negatives from the Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. Recently, the museum received hundreds of boxes of material from the Canton Co.

If you look closely enough, you'll locate many a punched time card, too.

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