Etting Street is the first block that we’ve done on the west side of town, so we’ll be dealing with different housing typologies from older eras, different builders, and a different set of folks who lived in these houses.
We’ve been working on the 1800 block of Etting Street, which appears to have been built around 1890. Before we get into the folks who lived there, it’s worth remembering the man whom the street is named after (many thanks to this Baltimore Heritage profile for info!)
Solomon Etting was a Jewish merchant and politician who moved to Baltimore from York, PA in 1791. Etting was a prominent citizen of Baltimore, a successful businessman who eventually joined as one of the founders of the B&O Railroad. Even with his successes and high standing, Etting was banned from holding office because of his faith. He thrice petitioned to be placed upon the same footing as other citizens, and was thrice denied. When the Jew Bill (yes, it was actually called that) was passed in 1826, it enabled Jews to hold public office, making Maryland the last state to grant these rights. Etting, thirty-five years after he arrived in Baltimore, won a City Council seat and was one of the first Jews to hold elected office in Maryland.
Etting created the Etting Family Cemetery when his daughter, Rebecca, died in 1799. This plot is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Baltimore. Among the burials is that of Zalman Rehine, who is reputed to be the first rabbi to come to America.
Now let’s discuss some of the folks who lived on the 1800 block. In 1910, it appears that all of the families living on this block were either listed as being Black or “mulatto.” Thus far, all of the blocks we’ve worked on have been in East Baltimore, and were originally built to house arriving European immigrants. The 1800 block of Etting is the first block that we’ve worked on that was built to house African-American Baltimoreans.
The 1800 block of Etting lies within the Upton neighborhood, which was one of the most affluent African-American neighborhoods in the country at the turn of the century. While many of the city’s prominent African-American citizens owned property in Upton, it was by no means exclusively wealthy. “The Bottom” referred to the southern and western portions of Upton, and it was here that many in the black working class lived. The 1800 block of Etting was within this region. A quick look at the jobs of inhabitants of that block confirms this: waiter, cook, laundress, seamstress pop up again and again.
Priscilla Burnette was a cook who lived at 1807 Etting Street in 1900. Ms. Burnette was 40 years old, widowed, and lived with her daughters Minnie and Berthe and her son William. Ms. Burnette’s neighbors were also cooks, as was her daughter Minnie.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. The 1900 census lists another Priscilla Burnett (no final ‘e’ in this surname), 44 yrs old, also widowed, who is listed as being a live-in “servant” and a cook for Israel Rosenfield and family. The Rosenfields lived at 2221 Eutaw Place, a large three-story brownstone in Reservoir Hill, just half a mile from 1803 Etting. This Priscilla Burnett, however, is listed as being white.
The two Priscilla Burnett(e)s have nearly identical names, similar ages, identical jobs, are both widowed, and live within a half mile radius of one another. We’re left with a couple options here: either there really were two people with insanely parallel lives, or it’s the same Priscilla Burnette listed as living in both places.
I think the second option is far more likely. But if that’s the case, why would her race be listed as “black” for one address and “white” for the other? This could be a simple clerical error, it could be that Ms. Burnette could “pass” for white, or it could be that the Rosenfields’, for some reason, declared to the census-taker that their servant was white. The 1910 census does not show a Ms. Burnette at either address, and it reveals that a new family had moved into 1807 Etting Street.
Over a year ago, we spotlighted the man who built the houses we deconstructed on Eager Street, Frank Novak. Legend has it that Novak built 7,000 rowhouses in East Baltimore, beginning in 1899 with the 700 block of Patterson Park, and moving north and east to help construct Baltimore’s rapidly developing suburbs.
Several months ago, we got an email from Elizabeth Day, Novak’s great-grand-niece (Novak was her father’s great uncle), who shared some family history with us. She told us that her father, James Scroggs, had come across the blog and had enjoyed reading about his great uncle’s role in shaping Baltimore. We sent James a brick from one of Novak’s houses, and he more than repaid us with the wonderful history that follows:
Frank wasn’t the only entrepreneurial Novak: in 1907 (the same year the houses on Eager Street were built), Frank’s older brother Joseph opened a saloon at 2308 E Madison Street. Joseph ran the saloon until Rudolph, a younger brother, took it over in 1913. Rudolph ran the joint until 1920, when Prohibition forced him to convert it into a soda/fountain. James recounts that, “my mother’s recollections of the place were of a friendly neighborhood gathering place, a kind of ethnic pub where her mother and aunt cooked up Czech delicacies.”
James’ mother was named Florence, and in the photo below you can see her with her cousin Mildred Raborg in front of Novak’s Saloon. The photo was taken in 1918.
James also sent along a photo of the same address nearly 80 years later:
Here’s what the intersection looks like today:
You can see that some of the original details remain: the ornamental brackets supporting the entryway are still there under several coats of paint, as are the marble slabs framing the entry landing.
James ended his email by noting that “Frank Novak seems to have been a very modest man. He deserves more credit.”
James also sent along Frank Novak’s obituary, which we’ll discuss in more detail in a later post.
In the last Ghosts of Port Street, we featured Stephen Bohdal, a humble wireworker whose experience ultimately paid off when he created a patent for a “Combined Coat and Skirt Hanger.”
Bohdal lived at 900 N Port Street, and just next door, in 902, lived the Widra family. In 1910, the Widra family consisted of Peter, his wife Rose, and their three children, Rudolph, Charles, and Helen. Like his neighbor Bohdal, Peter was a wireworker. In fact, the two neighbors owned a wire works together at 717 E Fayette Street, appropriately named Widra and Bohdal.
It seems the neighbors eventually went their separate ways, as both Widra and Bohdal opened their own businesses. Peter Widra & Company Ornamental Wire Works specialized in elevator cars, lawn settees, and bank railings, among other things. They operated out of a factory at 516 Ensor Street.
By the time the 1920 Census was taken, Peter had died, and Rose was running the business. The family still lived at 902 N Port, though Rose’s mother, brother, and niece had moved in. Charles, who at 15 was the oldest Widra son, did not enter the family trade, and instead worked as a clerk at an insurance agent. In 1930, Charles had moved out to the suburbs where he worked as a press operator at an aircraft factory. By 1940, he had moved back home to East Baltimore, though he kept his work as an aircraft mechanic.
One imagines that the work of an aircraft mechanic must have been somewhat of a natural extension to the work of a wire worker. Maybe it was in Charles Widra’s blood? In looking at the earliest listing for the Widra family, the “d” in the name seems cut short, almost to the point that it looks like an “a”. The name seems to be written as “Wiara”. This could be the case, of course; perhaps the immigration official or census taker or whoever first wrote down the name “Wiara” wrote it in such a way that it looked like “Widra” and the new name just stuck. It is quite possible that the family’s original name was “Wiara”: in old German, it means “wire”.
The house at 900 N Port Street was only a year or two old when the 1910 census was taken. In that house lived the Bohdal family: Stephen, the 26 year-old head of the household (at least as listed on the census) lived with his wife, Eva, who was 28. The two of them had emigrated from Austria several years before, and lived with their three daughters, Annie, Antonie, and Mary. Filling out the household were Stephen’s mother, Dora, his brother, Michael, and a boarder named Jack Kardos. Oh wait, there’s more- Charles and Rose Nence, another Austrian couple, lived in the house, as well.
That makes 10 folks sharing the 900 square feet or so of 900 N Port Street.
Stephen Bohdal was a wireworker, as was his brother, Michael, and their boarder Jack. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what sort of wire factory these fellows worked at- turns out that there was once a television show that had something to do with Baltimore and wire, so a Google search for “Baltimore + wire” isn’t too helpful.
But wireworking was once a popular trade here in Baltimore; window screens, steel cables, telegraph lines all relied on folks like the Bohdal brothers toiling away in wire factories.
But Stephen Bohdal would not toil forever: by 1913, Stephen Bohdal owned a wire factory at 701 Ensor Street, and by 1930 he owned a bigger factory and was living down in Curtis Bay.
To what do we attribute his success? All those years messing with wire seemed to have paid off for Mr. Bohdal, as his familiarity with the material resulted in him being awarded a patent for a “Combined Coat and Skirt Hanger” in 1925. See his fantastical contraption below:
The five Lochmiller brothers were born in Maryland and raised by Amelia, a German widow, in a rowhouse on Abbott Street. William, the eldest, was the first and only brother to fly the coop when he got married, but the other brothers stayed with their mother until they were well into their late thirties.
By 1930, after Amelia had passed away, all five Lochmiller brothers had moved into 2402 Eager Street.
William was listed as the head of the household. He was divorced, and he was employed as a suitcase maker at a leather factory. William’s brother, Louis, was also a suitcase maker at the factory. In fact, William and Louis had always been in the same profession, dating back to 1900 when they were both young harness makers.
Henry, the next oldest brother, was a guard at the penitentiary (a great job for someone with “loch” in their last name), while Samuel was a cook. It’s likely that Henry worked at the Maryland Penitentiary, a mile or so west on Eager Street. The imposing stone structure, with its iconic pyramidal roof, remains a haunting fixture in Baltimore’s roster of architecturally significant buildings.
The youngest Lochmiller brother, Herman, was employed as a sponger at the textile factory. I don’t know what sort of work a “sponger” does, but I do know that the word is used to describe a person who lives at another’s expense, which might well describe the situation for Herman, the baby bro.
The five brothers were still living together in the house when the 1940 census was taken, but there had been a slight shift in the power dynamic. Henry, who was still working as a prison guard, was now listed as the head of the household, while older brother William had dropped a rung. William and Louis were still in the leather business, but Samuel was unemployed and Herman “The Sponger” Lochmiller was now working as a construction laborer.
We came across four different spellings for the brothers’ surname, with Lochmiller being the most commonly used. “Loch” means “hole” in German, which corresponds nicely with the current state of the brothers’ house at 2402 Eager Street:
The life of Frank Vanik, who lived much of his life at 2438 Eager Street, provides a glimpse at the progression of industry and technology during turn-of-the-century Baltimore.
By the time Frank emigrated from Austria in 1891, he was 21 years old and had learned a trade: blacksmithing. The 1900 census lists him as a blacksmith, and R.L. Polk and Co’s Baltimore City Directory from 1899 shows that he worked out of his home at 1012 N Durham Street. It’s likely that he was a neighborhood blacksmith, serving the Bohemian community that was settling in the neighborhood just to the north of the newly opened Johns Hopkins Hospital.
In 1910, Vanik was still working as a blacksmith, but he had moved out of his home shop to a larger machine shop. Without romanticizing and speculating too much, we can read Vanik’s transition from a small home-based blacksmith shop to an industrial machine shop as representative of the times, as industry, thirsty for skilled labor, sucked up capable hands.
By 1920, Vanik had moved into 2438 Eager Street. He was still working as a blacksmith, but he had moved on to work at a shipyard. Frank’s sons, Rudolph and George, also worked at a shipyard. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that the Vaniks worked at the Bethlehem Sparrows Point Shipyard. There’d been steel production on Sparrows Point since 1899, but Bethlehem bought the plant in 1916, eventually turning it into the biggest steel mill in the world- at it’s height, in the 1950s, the plant employed nearly 31,000 people. The shipyard went on hiring sprees to churn out ships during both World Wars, so it’s possible that Vanik came aboard when Bethlehem bought the plant and stayed on through the 1920s.
By 1930, however, Vanik was no longer working at the shipyard. He was 60 years old, still blacksmithing, but his career path mirrored the steady rise of another 20th century phenomenon: the car. Frank is listed as a “blacksmith” at an auto repair shop- this may sound strange to our modern ears, but blacksmiths found a natural extension for their craft with the rapid rise of the automobile. Blacksmiths were urged to adapt in order to remain relevant. Blacksmith and Wheelwright, a trade publication, took the lead in suggesting an evolution of the trade, cribbing from Longfellow’s famous poem, “Village Blacksmith”:
Under a spreading blacksmith sign, the village blacksmith sat,
He heard the chuf-chuf-chuf and said: where is my business at?
The road is full of horseless things, and bikes and such as that…
All must at times get different tools, the world will never wait,
If we would live the strenuous life we must keep up to date.
The 1910 census is generally short on specifics when it comes to employers- though specific occupations are given (buttonhole maker, sheet-iron worker), the employer is usually listed as something generic like “can factory” or “shipyard”.
Not so with William Knabe’s Piano Forte Factory. William Knabe emigrated from Germany in 1831. He repaired and sold pianos at the corner of Lexington and Liberty Streets, before ultimately moving west to Eutaw Street where he opened the more substantial operation you see above (and below). Long story short, Knabe produced some of the best pianos in the world, in factories that were hailed as being among the most technologically advanced in the world.
An 1890 monograph about the piano forte confirmed the renown enjoyed by Knabe: “In the industrial and art history of the ‘Monumental City’, Knabe and Company occupy a pre-eminent place, and all Baltimoreans recognize this fact.” By 1906, the company had over 300,000 sq ft of factory space and was employing 765 people. Because of its size, importance, and likely familiarity with census takers, “Knabe’s Factory” is name-checked again and again in the 1910 census.
Which brings us back to Eager Street. Frederick Tober, who in 1910 lived at 2420 Eager Street, the house you see above, emigrated from Germany in 1905. Along with hundreds of other skilled tradesmen who arrived at the turn of the century, Tober settled in East Baltimore but schlepped across town to work at established outfits like Knabe’s. Tober’s occupation is listed as a “cabinetmaker” at Knabe’s, but this may be misleading.
Knabe himself was a cabinetmaker before he became a pianomaker, and there’s ample reason to believe that the skills of the former profession lent themselves to the latter. Furthermore, city directories from 1907 and 1912, list Tober as a pianomaker and a woodworker, respectively. Tober, then, was likely a skilled artisan. In the photo below of prominent Knabe’s employees, Tober is the one standing in the top right.
Tober did not stay on Eager Street for too long. It appears as though his skills ultimately earned him a gorgeous house in Hamilton, where he worked into his late sixties crafting church furniture.
By 1920, 2420 Eager Street was the home of Frank Giddy, the perfect name for someone who made his living mixing acid at a glass factory. Below is 2420 after we had manually removed the rear wall. We’d hoped to find some traces of Frederick Tober’s career as a woodworker, but so far the only unusual “wood” we’re found is 1970s paneling.
And what ever happened to Knabe’s beautiful old factory? The site it occupied is now the home of our Super Bowl-bound Ravens. In a particularly awesome nod to the past (and further confirming the importance of Knabe’s in Baltimore lore), a patch of landscaping at the stadium was arranged into the piano shape you see below.