Saturday, November 29, 2014

A cold day in the morning

Sometimes in reading my own blog I can see that I get carried away with details that are simply small bits of bigger stories. Occupational hazard in a pursuit in which no detail is left unexamined. For example, I was just setting out to tell you something about John Combs of Allegany County, Maryland when I stopped to consider maybe you have no earthly idea where and when I'm talking about. That's never good. So let me take a wee bit of time out and just have a good ramble about the area where my ancestors lived, and where my Mom and Aunt Betty, in their 80s and 90s, still live.

This time of year you are likely to get mostly cold days. Tonight it's going to be 27 degrees. Now that's not so bad if you're in Alaska or Minnesota. But this is in Maryland which has a more southerly latitude, and sensibility. We're talking Western Maryland, or as the more tourist-inclined entities like to now call it, the Mountain Side of Maryland. Your house better have the heat on and been winterized, and the car too. Tomorrow, it will be, as the oldsters in previous generations liked to say,  a cold day in the morning.

Maryland is at least three states within a state. There's Eastern Shore which is the old plantation country and situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. The weather is milder there and much of the land enfolds - or rather is enfolded by - water. Farming is and was the traditional pursuit of old time families there since the very first settlers, but fishing is strong too.

Being the old Plantation Maryland there were slaves to do the work. In Western Maryland there were slaves as well but not as many. The slaves in Western Maryland were often owned by men who owned and ran an inn, tavern, and road house. The number of slaves who worked on farms were fewer. It's mountainous here and the farm fields run up and down often steep embankments. In the eastern part of the state the land is flat and fields much larger requiring more farm hands.

The Western Shore describes the land west of the Bay. If you decide to click through to take a look at the Wikipedia listing for it, you'll not see much. It includes the greater Baltimore - Washington D.C. metropolitan area, also called by some Southern Maryland. Southern Maryland is where the Big History is. The nation's capital, first settlements, and a historic marker every couple of feet. It's probably where Strangers from Afar first get acquainted with what they think is Maryland. The historic homes there are just about the best I've ever seen, but then I'll admit bias. If you've been to Annapolis you know what I mean. (And yes, I've seen the beautiful and grand plantation manses of the South.)

My ancestors inhabited what's generally known as Western Maryland. That link right there to a Wikipedia page will tell you quite a bit about the area, how isolated it is and difficult to get to, how cold it gets in the winter with 20 inch snowfalls as noting to be excited about, and how different the population is in temperament. Pioneers had to go through The Narrows pass to proceed west, and some of them stopped right where they were and styed there. I sometimes get the feeling that my ancestors were squeezed into place by the land and the mountain formations, and just couldn't get unstuck.

It's really quite beautiful with hills gently rolling. Here in California where I live, we have proper mountains. The "mountains" in Mountain Maryland are really hills, old rounded hills geologically speaking. Western Maryland is not a gigantic piece of America, measuring just 120 miles from the eastern part of Frederick County in the east, through Allegany County in the middle, to the western most boundary of Garrett County in the west. Running through the middle from east to west is the Old National Road, one of the earliest routes from the young nation's capital to the western territories. I've written about that route west before so I'll not cover it again now, but just know that having this major wagon road west come through the middle of the county brought some ancestors here and took others of their descendants away west.

Above, old photos of the National Road about 1910.

So that's the gist of it. But what I can't possibly convey is what this crazy, neighborly, cozy, snowy, picture-perfect summery place is like to those who live there. How lovely and attractive it is to tourists in the fall, and how it beckons skiers in the winter. How city dweller escape the oppressive heat of summer and take refuge in the hills with cool afternoon and evening breezes. To the outsider it's too charming by half and many leave to return to their dwelling place and think of it as a very attractive place to retire. A university, reasonably priced real estate where you can purchase a lovely home for a little over $100,000, and a newer hospital. Good book stores and plenty of history lovers and hikers. Lots of wildlife too. And plenty of those cozy diners where you can get a real good breakfast for about $4, served with local news and a strong cup of coffee.

I've often wondered why my ancestors chose to come to Allegany County and stay there. The earliest were after land and prosperity that came with it. The Irish and the Welsh came to work on the railroads and in the coal mines. My German ancestors brought the retail trades of confectionary and barbering with them. 
The area is less prosperous now that it was 100 years ago and the coal is all but gone, and only the lower grade stuff being stripped from the land. When you get down to it, it was then and still is now all about the land, one way or another.

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