John W. McGrain Jr., who held the title of Baltimore County historian and spent a lifetime researching and writing about ancient mills and their workers, died of septic shock Sunday at Stella Maris hospice. The Towson resident was 89.
A 1986 Evening Sun article compared Mr. McGrain to a character in a John le Carré espionage novel.
It called Mr. McGrain a “counterspy of history.”
“He’s got that dry, bland, unobtrusive style of one of those indefatigable back office scholars,” the article said. “He prowls through Baltimore County’s shopping malls and housing developments and trunk route highways, peeling away the surface of the present for clues to the past.
“McGrain uncovers homes, factories, villages and towns and reconstructs buried ways of life from the fragments of a wall, a forgotten letter, an obscure newspaper clipping, a piece of slag near an ore bank.”
Born in Baltimore and initially raised in Ashburton, he moved to a Willow Avenue home in Towson his great-grandfather built in 1880. He remained a constant observer of a changing Towson and Baltimore County at large.
His father was John W. McGrain II, a customs official, and his mother was Teresa Dolan, a homemaker.
Friends said that while he watched mansions be razed and old farms becoming parking lots, he retained his insatiable curiosity and unstoppable energy for more research.
After graduating from Loyola High School at Blakefield in 1949, he earned a degree at what is now Loyola University Maryland.
He served in the Army Signal Corps in West Germany and became a technical writer for the Bendix Corp. He edited for a McGraw-Hill subsidiary and did contract writing for the U.S. Department of Commerce and historical reports for Baltimore County, the State Archaeologist and the General Services Administration.
“My uncle would only drive a car with a manual transmission,” said his nephew, Robert E. McGrain of Forest Hill. “He owned a series of VW Beetles and then a Nissan and finally a Hyundai Elantra. All stick shift.”
He joined the Baltimore County Office of Planning and Zoning as executive secretary of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1976. He was designated Baltimore County historian in 1998 and retired in 2006.
His major work, “From Pig Iron to Cotton Duck,” was published by the Baltimore County Public Library in 1985. Although subtitled “a history of manufacturing villages in Baltimore County,” the work told the story of what became the Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrows Point as well as the iron foundries of Woodberry.
He recorded the gruesome industrial accidents, the labor strikes as well as the stories of 19th century manufacturing barons and their Eutaw Place homes.
A review in The Sun said the book was “charged with facts, anecdotes, maps pictures, diagrams and McGrain’s often tart commentary. The book is as compelling to dip into as a bag of popcorn.”
Mr. McGrain was also an enthusiastic, self-taught photographer. His first camera, a used Brownie, cost $1. He also developed an interest in local architects and their creations.
“I’ve been documenting buildings and events with this vague sense of gloom about the ongoing destruction of what was so interesting, and so familiar,” he said in 2016. “I hope I’m leaving something useful behind.”
Said architect Walter Schamu: “I was out in the Western Run Valley one day and up pops this man. My wife Nancy said, ‘That’s John McGrain.’ He was measuring the span on an old barrel vault bridge. Years later, I help get boxes of his photographs placed at the University of Baltimore.”
Over the years he published a series of small-press books. They included histories of Oella, Charles Street and Ellicott City, as well as a collection of his photography.
“He was the best researcher, the best digger, I have ever known,” said Charles Duff, the former president of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation. “He was a good historian and more than that, he made it possible for others to be good historians. He was 100 percent unselfish about sharing his research. It was amazing.”
He roamed Baltimore City in the 1940s and 1950s recording railroads and rowhouses, old churches and cemeteries, and a department store about to close — O’Neill’s.
Teri Rising, who succeeded Mr. McGrain as county historian, said she often consulted his notebooks filled with voluminous accounts painstakingly culled from old newspapers and court records.
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“John had a way of compiling his information. It was interesting and complicated. He was also good at correcting his own research. He’d write, ‘balderdash,’ ‘inaccurate’ or ‘nonsense,’” she said.
Mr. McGrain detailed what he called the “great assault on Towson” to 1950, when the early 19th century Epsom Chapel, the town’s first house of worship, fell to become a Hutzler’s branch department store.
In a memoir, he recalled digging through old court records and legal documents stashed away on the top shelves of courthouse basements.
Ann Giroux, a local historian of North Baltimore neighborhoods, said: “John was quiet and soft-spoken. He had interests that were narrow but deep. He was generous and was quick to engage with you if you shared his passions. He kept a lot of his knowledge in his brain.”
She also said: “John was an intrepid explorer. Now we can no longer say, ‘Somebody go and ask John.’”
A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. May 11 at Immaculate Conception Church at 100 Ware Ave. in Towson.
In addition to his nephew, survivors include another nephew, John B. McGrain of Nashua, New Hampshire, and a niece, Maureen Melanson of Tewksbury, Massachusetts.