The quest for Bawlamer's treasures


Dean Krimmel is looking for a sign that says "Steamed Males."

Mr. Krimmel does not belong to an encounter group for frustrated men, he is a City Life Museums curator building an exhibit of objects unique to this town, the stuff "that makes Baltimore Bawlamer."

Near the top of the list, with the harbor waters where they once spawned by the millions, are crabs.

It doesn't take an anthropologist to come up with a few mallets and a vintage can of Old Bay seasoning to put on display for folks who've been using these things all their lives. But Mr. Krimmel is convinced that rarer treasures -- like a crab house sign advertising "Steamed Males" -- surely are collecting dust in a garage somewhere between Essex and Baltimore Highlands.

And he'd love to have them.

"We have until the end of May to [collect] and we're lacking things," said Mr. Krimmel. "We need some more crab material, a great visual from something that's really known like Connelly's [restaurant] or a picnic table where families ate crabs together. We have a Colts football but not any Orioles stuff from the fans' point of view. We'd like a piece of Memorial Stadium."

For almost a year, area residents have been asked to donate everyday items for the "Collecting Baltimore" project, with special days set aside for people to drop off icons at the Peale Museum on Holliday Street.

The curators cried: Bring us your Baltimore!

Precious little surfaced: a scrub brush with bristles worn down by repeated workouts on white marble steps; a bucket to go with the brush; municipal knickknacks and such curiosities as a certificate from the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. congratulating a Highlandtown family for insulating its house with Formstone.

"We want more brushes and pails, but we want more than that," said Mr. Krimmel. "This exhibit is supposed to be about the heart and soul of Baltimore. How do we see ourselves?"

How Baltimoreans see themselves may have hindered donations.

"A lot of lifelong Baltimoreans didn't get the point," he said. "They may have wondered what they had to offer. . . . The last thing we want is for people to be intimidated. This is about everyday Baltimore."

An unscientific survey conducted for the exhibit asked 500 locals what immediately came to mind when they thought about their hometown. The most frequent answer was the harbor and crabs. Orioles' baseball was third, followed by rowhouses, neighborhoods and city markets.

"The lowest symbol on the totem pole was The Block," Mr. Krimmel said.

When asked what made Baltimore different from other U.S. cities, those polled cited down-to-earth, friendly people -- living examples of the city's small-town warmth.

The one consistent negative was crime and violence along with a general feeling of decline and a lack of care between neighbors.

More than a few residents regretted not only that many of the things that made Baltimore are gone, but also that Baltimore has been lost along with them. A big part of that loss was the beloved Baltimore Colts, taken from the city a dozen years ago by team owner Robert Irsay. Mr. Irsay will be represented in the exhibit by a door from the Golden Arm, the restaurant once owned by the fabled quarterback Johnny Unitas.

It is the door to the men's room.

"Unitas put a handwritten sign on the door that said 'the Bob Irsay room' the night the team moved," said Bill Grauel, the current owner. "The sign has been stolen 25 or 30 times, so we keep a good supply on hand."

Much of what's already been gathered is on display at the Peale: painted window screens, flower planters made from old tires, a pony cart used by hucksters known as "a-rabbers," a Styrofoam grave decoration that says "HON" and scenes of city life painted by Tom Miller.

Next year, the project will move into the city's new, 30,000 square foot Morton K. Blaustein Exhibition Center at Lombard and Front streets, and it's going to take a lot more stuff to fill out the exhibit.

There's a lot of Baltimore right under your nose. That round, maroon teapot at the back of the china closet may only represent an heirloom your grandmother used to entertain her lady friends. But turn the pot over, and chances are that the name of local spice king McCormick will be written across the bottom.

That was everyday Baltimore.

Carolyn A. Anderson has lived every day of her 49 years in the same city rowhouse, up on Cornwall Street near the city line on the eastside. Her contribution to the exhibit is the hard shell of a single steamed male.

"I get the shells from Don's Crabs on Joppa Road," said Ms. Anderson, whose name was Jendrusiak until her father changed it to appear more American. "I clean out the shells, boil them in bleach water and spray-paint them gold with sparkles and holiday scenes on the inside."

One sad day, such contrivances may be the only vestige of crabs in Baltimore, a memory along with the Esskay slaughterhouse and the Schaefer Brewery. Ms. Anderson thinks the city may have already waited too long to start collecting.

"Each generation loses a little bit; each generation a little more gets lost," she said. "My grandmother and mother made their own kielbasa, I don't. My mother did a lot of crocheting, they could have some of that in the exhibit. I love the old Baltimore, but some people might be thinking: 'Ah, what do they want to see that for?' "

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