Sunday, November 3, 2019

Purveyors of Baltimore History: William B. Marye (1886-1979)



And Pioneer Environmentalist


by John McGrain

source: The Evening Sun, Baltimore, Maryland, 13 Nov 1950, Mon • Page 20

William B. Marye was 84 years old when I first met him at his residence in the Preston Apartments in October 1969. I had gone down to talk about revising the "Literary Map of Baltimore," a chart that the Baltimore County Historical Society had paid for printing, and, which, thanks to me, contained a number of disgraceful errors and misspellings of the names of those the map sought to honor. Mr. Marye had known some of the people who pursued literature in Baltimore, and he suggested a number of additional names for the map. He had not been a close friend of Mencken, and in fact thought that Jesse Lee Bennett of the Baltimore Sun was as good a writer, in his own style. Baltimore had produced an extraordinary number of "poetasters," thought Mr. Marye; it was almost an aberration of the climate, as he put it. He had suffered a number of literary affairs in his time, and at some of them he said it was difficult not to laugh at the sincere readings of drivel. He was once lucky enough to hide his mirth behind a lady with an enormous flowered hat. Literary ladies had given him the notion that there were no intelligent women in Baltimore, in spite of all the colleges and businesses so full of them in the 20th century.

The Maryes were Virginians who happened to have a French name. The Battle of Fredericksburg took place, in part, on the lawn of the Marye clan's mansion, Brompton. Marye's Mill on the banks of the Rappahannock next to the railroad bridge appeared in all the Civil War artists' sketches and photographs of the town. After the war, some of the Marye brothers came to Baltimore and at one time owned the Pearl Hominy Mill. That mill was the ruination of the family, said WBM one time. Located on a Pratt Street pier, the mill burned and was never rebuilt. WMB's father, Nelson Marye, had to take up a clerical job in the city, although they were by no means ruined. "I have never enjoyed the Battle Hymn of the Republic," he once said, "because it was my people who were being trampled out with the vintage."

For the remainder of his life, WBM and I had a great many conversations by telephone and a number of visits to his apartment and encounters at the Maryland Historical Society. We didn't talk much about literature. WBM, as we will call him for short, liked to recall rural life in the Upper Falls area of Baltimore County. He was interested in old families, old land grants, hiking, fishing, Indian artifacts, and all forms of local history. He was interested in the ownership of mills and furnaces, but was not much concerned about their technology, which is now becoming more respectable to pursue under the heading of Industrial Archaeology. Even the mill technology of 1795 was more advanced than WBM's sphere of interest. A lot of Marye data went into the History of Agriculture in Baltimore County and into various booklets written by Matilda C. Lacey and by the history group at Perry Hall that published Villages in the 1990s.

In his youth, WBM had explored all the mill sites and all the trout streams in several counties, and he had almost total recall of all the facts he had gathered. His published articles were and continue to be the basis for almost everything written today about colonial history in Baltimore and Harford Counties. It as almost impossible to find any record he had not consulted and wrung dry. Even in his eighties, he was finding new items, still revising some of his earlier findings instead of merely defending them as writ.

WBM had never retired, because he had never exactly worked; he was never regularly employed, except as consultant archaeologist or genealogist, and he was the corresponding secretary of the Maryland Historical Society, which, if salaried at all would have been minimal. He lived somewhat modestly on money at interest. He used to say that he was not properly trained to do anything in particular--in spite of a degree from Johns Hopkins and further study of geology. WBM was a survival of a period when people of even modest means never did any type of manual work; the family had household servants, gardeners, a coachman, and farm managers. He once said that he always had to remind himself that in the 1970s, the person raking leaves in front of a Guilford house was probably the owner rather than the garden man. The landed gentry of the 1890s used to dress formally all day, even during the summer on the farm.

WBM's perpetual retirement was one of the most productive careers of any of Baltimore's "idle rich," as his vast accumulation of notebooks and published materials will attest. The extensive footnotes in his articles about the "Indian Roads" certainly meet the criteria of Germanic thoroughness aimed for in the earliest days at Johns Hopkins. The style of these articles is elegant in the 19th century manner, not without touches of irony and well disguised wit. During his time at Hopkins, some of the founding professors were still on hand--notably Gildersleve, although WBM had Kirby Flower Smith for classics and William Bennett Matthews for geology.

The Marye articles are a public monument and will endure. The man himself is a more fleeting image. In his ninth decade, WBM was quite talkative, almost exhausting to listen to at times. He was probably desperately lonely with all his immediate family long gone, and no descendants to watch over him. He had a horror of ending his days in a "home," and was luckily spared that degradation, dying of sheer old age in 1979. The constant recitation of stories and incidents about his parents helped keep them alive--I almost feel I know them myself.

WBM was essentially a gentleman. He rigorously observed the code of never giving offense, always suffering fools gladly, not writing abusive comments, trying not to insist on his own way, not exploding the reputations of fellow historians, especially the well meaning patriots who strayed into error and quoted old fantasies. WBM had served in the Navy during the first World War; his ship was sail-powered, and foul weather prevented it from reaching even Bermuda. He was a life long member of the Maryland Naval Militia and probably would have turned out, even in his eighties to fight another Battle of North Point. His patriotism was not indiscriminate, and in 1969 he was appalled by the U. S. conduct of the war in Viet Nam. This was the first adult that I respected who had turned against the war; it forced me to think, and, of course, thought could only lead to disgust with the entire incompetent and disastrous operation.

Mr. Marye was quite a tall man, heavy set even in his youth, slow and deliberate in his motion, somewhat stooped. Some of the amiable Baltimoreans were stooped, as if looking down on their visitor with amused interest. He was partially bald but benign in countenance. Like most elder statesmen of the Maryland Historical Society, he tried not to wear his spectacles unless he wanted to read something. He was one of the last of the "great walkers" about Baltimore, a town noted for persons who liked to stroll its length and breadth for sheer pleasure of ticking off the blocks or squares of row houses, passing the wharves, warehouses, and foundries. He liked to visit some of the underground storm sewers that were once natural streams, now trapped in pipes beneath the paving. There was a grating where one could see the natural flow of Jenkins Run, and WBM used to observe the waxing and waning of the volume after rains and during droughts. He had occasionally seen highly paid civil engineers sinking foundations where he knew they would shortly strike the water of some stream he had known about from deed research. No use to tell people like that, he felt; they wouldn't believe him. He at length admitted that a cab driver was likely to consider their passenger a mad man if the destination was the outflow of some storm sewer.

WBM had also walked extensively in the Orkney Islands--a bleak and elemental terrain he preferred to the architectural marvels of the Cathedral towns his parents went to see. Even in his last years, WBM liked to walk. He walked almost daily from his apartment at Preston Street and Guilford Avenue to the Maryland Historical Society. On the Tuesday in May, 1970, when hippies and unwashed ruffians terrorized the visitors to the Flower Mart in Mount Vernon Place, WBM wended his way through the throng on his usual route unaware of the subhuman disturbance. He was a familiar sight, shuffling along, sometimes wearing an ancient Panama hat in summer, fully bundled up in winter. Before I met him, I accidentally photographed him on his daily transit of Monument Street. If a satirical novel was going to be written about inside Baltimore, its acidic author would certainly utilize WBM, but anyone who actually knew him or any other true Baltimorean of his age and era could never treat so splendid a human type with levity.

WBM had in his memory the makings of his own "unprintable social history of Baltimore." Most of his social memoirs concerned prominent people who became tipsy or visited the sort of houses where Eubie Blake had played the piano. He had a stock of stories about people who were mean to the servants, or achieved marvels in stinginess and penury. He was well aware that some Baltimore socialites flaunted imaginary genealogies that connected them to various "lords and ladies." He knew who was not related to the Duke of Norfolk. He also had a stock of earthy stories, including numerous instances of plantation owners who forced their attentions on their slave women--one such lord of the manor was beset by his own dogs when he returned from the slave quarter in his night shirt--to the amazement of a house full of overnight guests who were brought to the windows by the barking. WBM also had a story of a hostess--whose family had launched clipper ships--in row house Baltimore--in one of the extra large row houses--the McK__'s were having a dinner party. No sooner was the first course served than the OEA workers arrived to pump out the servants' privy in the back yard; the dinner continued with all the windows closed, hot weather or not.

WBM was almost older than college football, but he liked canoeing and swimming. He had canoed in northern Ontario where the campers could hear wolves yelping. He had canoed most of the tidal rivers around Baltimore and Harford Counties. Some trips were veritable expeditions with a hired boatman for Marye and a few archaeologists. His early swimming took him to most of the deep holes in the same region--and of course boys of the 1890s didn't use swimming suits, which annoyed some people; once the owner of the Dieter Mill on Little Gunpowder Falls on the Harford County bank shouted out the window for the bathers to go away. WBM had also fished for trout in most of the rocky streams, many of which in 2004 are lifeless conduits of runoff.

Just about age 70, WBM turned to poetry and wrote A Farewell to Life, a gloomy assessment of how the inhabitants of this continent had all but ruined the land and water. It was written in a 19th century blank verse style, and it sold very few copies. Mr. _____ of the Sun told him that perhaps only 5 percent of the population could understand it. The author did receive a complimentary letter from John Masefield, Poet Laureate of England, and Josephine Jacobson of Baltimore apparently liked it. James Bready of the Sun literary page interviewed WBM about the time the book came out and noted that almost no copies were sold. Bready's column was however a tribute to WBM's archaeology explorations and gave him perhaps the only recognition he had ever received in his chosen city.

The last large plat drawn by WBM was for Matilda C. Lacey's 1970 booklet Perry Hall: An Invitation to Memory. This plat showed the boundaries of numerous colonial land surveys south of the Great Gunpowder Falls and east of U.S. 1-- all worked out from the verbal list of angles and distances copied from the old Patent Records. Colonial Land Surveys were chaotic, the boundaries rarely running east to west, rarely conforming to shore lines or hills or water courses either. The plat was covered with tiny lettering with useful historical data, but WBM was no longer steady enough to get his lines of text straight or the boundary lines sharp. The data is all there however, and some years later, I drew the lines again and had the text retyped on an electric typewriter.

WBM genuinely liked black people although his attitude might be called patronizing today. His grandparents owned slaves, and his parents had African American servants. One of his Virginia stories was about his grandfather's trying to beat one of the slaves; the ancestor picked up a stick from the ground , but it turned out to be rotten and broke apart and bumped the plantation owner on the nose--at that point both master and subject broke out laughing. Willie Marye's mother used to read to the black children of the domestics at Upper Falls, and WBM kept up with old employees, and even accepted an invitation to Christmas dinner. In those times, servants were called by their first names, but the coachman was called by his last name in the English style, "to confer dignity" on him, WBM stated. Mr. Marye had told another Baltimorean that Enoch Pratt had not really lived on a grand scale, because, like the Maryes, that businessman had only a coachman, but no footman, which would have marked total class. In fact, WBM, deep in the age of the automobile, was almost apologetic about never having enjoyed the services of a footman.

Many of the things that WBM wrote were used by the local papers, but he never got paid for his efforts and hidden expenses. Some of his genealogy work involved weeks of effort in libraries and his home study, yet his patrons often paid him less than he could have earned as a bean-picker. He always made his contribution to good causes out of a sense of civic responsibility, and as we stated before, he was ready to turn out for the last ditch defense of the city if another foreign invasion came to be.

[Subject to Revision, December 17,2004.]

Editor’s note:

The William B. Marye Award was created by the Archaeological Society of Maryland, Inc, in 1983 to honor individuals who have made outstanding contributions to Maryland archeology. Award winners receive a plaque at the Society's Annual Meeting in October, and their achievements are published in the Society's newsletter, ASM Ink. More than one award or no award may be given each year. Nominations should detail specific accomplishments of the nominee and should be submitted to the William B. Marye Award Committee either in a letter or on the nomination form published each year in ASM Ink. Neither Maryland residency nor membership in ASM is a prerequisite for receiving the award. Click here for a nomination form. For other information, please contact Maureen Kavanagh. (

1 comment:

  1. I first discovered WBM as you call him some 5 years ago in my trawls through the digitized MDHS magazine on (god bless ‘em). I became a devoted fan and hunted down everything I could find from him. I’m interested in historical mapping and the layers of history in place and Marye is a goldmine for that sort of thing; fairly readable too. I knew next to nothing about the man except that he’d uncovered the petroglyphs on the Susquehanna (which were later ignominiously dumped near the zoo, for some reason). This account was a lovely rounding out of a person I admire from the distance of time. Oh, and imagine my surprise to learn he lived in the same building where, many years later, I lived as a very young married person. Thank you.