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History for some, home for others

The Baltimore Sun

Most visitors to the 19th-century Capt. Salem Avery House Museum come to learn about southern Anne Arundel County's maritime history. But for Paul Foer, the significance of the old waterman's home lies in a dilapidated swing set and the faint outline of a filled-in swimming pool.

Those two relatively modern additions are remnants of the summer community that Foer, his parents and several other Jewish families built during the previous century at the Avery house. To them, the house was simply "Our Place."

Now, the nonprofit organization that operates the museum is presenting an exhibit that documents the house's role as a rustic vacation spot for area Jews. For Fishing, Family and Fun: Seven Decades of Communal Living by the Chesapeake Bay opened its yearlong run yesterday.

"It completes the history of that building," said Mavis Daly, spokeswoman for the Shady Side Rural Heritage Society.

Ilana Abramovitch, one of the scholars commissioned by the society to work on the exhibit, said the house was among the vacation retreats that Jews created at a time when many country clubs and hotels would not serve them.

"The fishing club was a tiny island of American Jewish culture on the Chesapeake," Abramovitch wrote in an essay for the exhibit.

Salem Avery, a fisherman from Long Island, built his house on the West River about 1860. Avery's home typified the early development of Shady Side as a working-class maritime community. The house's significance was recognized in 2006 when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

But in 1924, it began a very different second life. That year, members of a Washington Masonic lodge, most of them Jews, bought the house to serve as headquarters for their sport club, the National Masonic Fishing and Country Club.

The Masons, who included the sons of Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, and Foer's great-uncle, were captivated by the idea of boating and fishing in Anne Arundel County, then a pristine and largely empty area completely removed from the congestion of the nation's capital.

As the decades passed, the club's Masonic character faded, and members welcomed to the house friends from other Jewish organizations, particularly the Brandeis Club, a young men's group honoring Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis.

They brought along their wives and children for summer weekends, creating a community that defied easy definition.

"It was Masonic, but it wasn't Masonic; and it was also Jewish, but it wasn't Jewish," said Barry Kessler, the curator responsible for putting together much of the exhibit.

Some members feasted on crabs in the evenings, while others avoided them because they are prohibited by Jewish law.

Foer, an Annapolis resident, remembers a place where family lines blurred after many weekends spent together fishing, boating and relaxing on the water. He thought of every adult in the house as a parent. "If they told you not to run in the house, you didn't run in the house," he said.

The club declined in the 1980s, as original members died out and those in Foer's generation grew up and had other demands on their time. Club members sold the property in 1989 to the heritage society. But they made stipulations, including that the swing out front be preserved and that the society at some point document the house's time as a club.

The exhibit includes 15 panels detailing the history and identity of the club, and features photos and artifacts such as an old tackle box and clothing, donated by club members.

Foer had remained involved with the organization as it restored the house to its appearance in the Avery era. He saw the need for the work, particularly the reversal of some modifications made in the late 1960s. But he says that some of the recent renovations stung, particularly the demolition of the pool and the sale of house items.

"It really, really hurt me," he said.

Ron Marvin Jr., the museum's director, said the society, which published a book detailing some of the club's history in the early 1990s, initially lacked the resources to cover the entire history of the club, and focused on digging up the more distant history of Avery. But as time passed, it began taking another look at the house's second phase.

In 2006, the museum's director at the time, Janet Surrett, hired Kessler to serve as curator and obtained federal and state grants for the project.

Kessler then got in touch with surviving members of the group with Foer's help, holding a reunion and interviewing 27 members. He said he was surprised by how strongly people felt about the club.

"I felt like I had tapped a nerve," he said, "As soon as you ask them about Shady Side, all this emotion and memory bubbled to the surface."

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