Women key to history tour

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In Ellicott City, where the past is regularly documented with exhibits, events and "living history" participants in period dress, a new walking tour reveals some overlooked workers, property owners and entrepreneurs - all of them women.

"I'm a little more interested in the ladies," said Adele Air, historic sites programs coordinator for the county Department of Recreation and Parks and leader of the tour. "They don't get recognition off the bat."

Air has offered the Women of Ellicott Mills tour - which uses the town's former name - since March.

Dressed in the style of the late 1700s, with a long skirt and a vest over a cotton shift and a simple white bonnet, she starts at the Thomas Isaac Log Cabin on Main Street, which was built about 1780 and now houses demonstrations and historical artifacts. She seeks shady spots along the sidewalk - and waits occasionally for large trucks to roar down Main Street - as she points out the locations of previous taverns, offices and businesses, and tells of residents from past centuries.

Molly Walsh, a milkmaid who came from England to Maryland to serve her punishment for a crime in the early 1700s, married a slave she freed and taught her family basic reading and writing. Her daughter also married a freed slave, and her grandson, Benjamin Banneker, became a well-known scientist.

Deborah Disney ran a hotel and tavern in the mid-1800s. Despite strict divorce laws of that time, Ann Hunt retained her property and ran a millinery business. Elizabeth Feelmyer taught school to support four children while her husband went west in search of gold.

The information in the tour was gleaned over years of research at the Howard County Historical Society and the Maryland Archives, as well as through family records and networking with other historians.

Air said plenty of history remains to be discovered with more funding and time. "We'll never ... run out of information," she said, adding, "We find women's history in odd places." Insane asylums, she said, are one example.

The tour is one stop on the Maryland Women's Heritage Trail, outlined by the State Department of Education and the Maryland Commission for Women. The trail is part of the groups' annual efforts to provide women's history materials to schools, libraries and communities.

In addition to Ellicott City, the trail contains about 250 other sites across all of Maryland's counties and in Baltimore, said Linda Shevitz, coordinator of the Women's History Project. And it includes many fascinating women.

Some were in unusual roles for their times, such as business owners, coal miners and waterwomen, Shevitz said. Others illustrate the daily roles women played in the lives of their families and communities.

"Women traditionally have been the conveyers of culture from one generation to the next and have been in the forefront of social reform," Shevitz said. Women in Maryland started the first bookmobile, ran adult education classes for immigrants and pushed for the first laws in the country allowing women to have lines of credit, she said.

In Ellicott City, the women's tour is one piece in a larger series of activities to promote local history. The Historic Ellicott City Consortium, an initiative of the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, coordinates efforts at locations throughout the town. Members include the B&O; Railroad Station Museum, the Fire House Museum, the restored Ellicott City Colored School and others.

In addition to serving as a starting point for the women's tour, the Isaac cabin periodically features volunteers portraying women from Ellicott City's past. Demonstrations of spinning, making lace and other crafts are held, and Air leads a Civil War on Main Street tour most days at 12:15 p.m.

Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of the Howard County Tourism Council, praised efforts to bring local history alive.

"Living history is part of a trend away from exhibits toward a multimedia approach so the visitor can see, touch, hear, smell and even taste the way life once was," Bonacci said in an e-mail.

She said such interaction is especially important in appealing to younger visitors.

Those efforts can complement other historical activities in the area, said Jacquelyn Galke, executive director of Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, which is part of the historic consortium.

Staff members there focus on the history of Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, a leader in women's education. Phelps educated some of the women in Air's stories.

"I think its really important to share the stories of the women of that time because clearly the women we do know about ... had a tremendous vision for women," she said, "even though they did it very quietly."

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