Volume XI, Issue 39 ~ September 25 - October 1, 2003

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Fall into Autum | Women’s Achievements

Searching out Women’s Achievements
at the Calvert County Fair

The lure and lore of local history exert a mighty pull on Grace Mary Brady. At the Calvert County Fair this week, she’s hoping to pull you, too, into the fair’s first exhibit dedicated to women’s achievements.

In one 1954 photo, 17 members of a local woman’s club ride proudly on a parade float. Dressed in three-century old styles, they are re-enacting the sensational 1656 trial of Judith Catchpole, a servant accused of murder. They are portraying the all-woman jury who acquitted Catchpole.

The half-century old photo is as shrouded in the dust of history as the three-and-a-half-century-old accusation and trial. Both have become blocks in the quilt of history. Calvert County Fair this week showcases them both, right along with quilts of more traditional stitchwork.

Who are these women?

Learning the identities and achievements of Calvert County women has become Brady’s mission. To bring women into the history books, she is adapting the model of Maryland Women of Achievement [Mothers, Heroes and First Ladies, Vol. XI, No 19: May 8] to produce a local edition, Calvert County Women of Achievement.

The Roots of a Mission
Brady’s search for women of achievement springs from her roots in a North Beach political family. Growing up in a resort community whose population rose and fell like the tide from 90 year-round to 20,000 each summer, she had a front-row seat on Southern Maryland’s changing times.

Grandmother Grace Mead held a seat on the Democratic Centennial Commission way back in 1936. Grandfather Robert Mead was mayor of North Beach from 1950 1960. Mother Gracie Rymer worked behind the scenes in Calvert County politics through the League of Women Voters and the Calvert County Democratic Club. Stepfather Thomas Rymer was a delegate, Calvert states attorney and Circuit Court judge.

Surrounded by such powerful influences, it’s no wonder Brady feels the pull of the past. Its urged her to make her own mark on history. Brady is chair of the county Democratic Party, a member of the county’s citizen Planning Commission and made an unsuccessful bid for Calvert County Council last year.

This year, her passion led her to Crisfield where she refined her skills as a collector of the past as one of 15 people nationwide invited to The Smithsonian Institution’s 2003 Folklife Field School. Brady was one of to join the 2003 Folklife Field School.

She was selected because of her work as a community preservationist with the Town of North Beach Historic Commission and as the archivist of 38 years of letters, documents and political memorabilia relating to Del. Pauline Menes.

Brady says she has another asset, as well: “I’ll ask anybody anything. People say, ‘Grace Mary, you could talk to a lamp post.’”

Capturing History
This year’s field school took Brady and 14 more local historians to Maryland’s Eastern Shore in pursuit of a project ponderously titled The Passing of Tradition and the Passing of Time: Exploring a Maritime Community’s Response to Cultural, Economic and Environmental Change. Her team’s mission was to interview Crisfielders and Smith Islanders about how people adapt to changing economic times. They investigated tourism, the fisheries industry, schools, celebratory public events and “food ways.”

From the start of the Folklife project, Brady’s skill at talking and her familiarity with the Bay and its people were her greatest assets. “Some on the team were good with the technology, but they were unsuccessful in getting people to talk to them,” she says. “Most of the others didn’t even know what a waterman is. They didn’t know what a crab is. They didn’t know how to get a suspicious waterman to sign a release and talk on tape to some ‘foreigner.’

“I’d just say, ‘Aren’t you related to so-and-so? I knew his brothers so-and-so when they came over to the Western Shore to earn some money.”

Being willing and able to talk to people and ask questions is the first skill in documenting living history. But there’s more to it, Brady learned.

How to record tapes of archival quality was one lesson. Researchers use the highest quality recording equipment and beware of background noises. A refrigerator or water conditioner running in the next room or a diesel engine in the boatyard can ruin a tape.

How to ask questions that will draw out your subject was another lesson. What brought you (or your family) to the area? she’d ask. Or Tell me about your business. How long have you been at it? What is the busiest time of year? What do you see for the future?

Listen and learn was a third lesson.

Whether interviews were at dining room tables or out in the boatyards, religion was a common theme. “Over and over people said, ‘God will provide. Nobody’s ever gone hungry,’ Brady recounts.

On the Western Shore, she’s found values to be different. “I’ve always found the attitude that if there’s something wrong, what can I do? Here it’s man against nature,” she says.

The Eastern Shore water community is also resilient, Brady found. “They adapt to the times. They’ve faced many economic challenges — like the loss of the seafood processing plant — by turning old Victorian homes into bed and breakfast, ice cream shop or antiques stores. Or they’ll convert the crab boat into a passenger ferry and charter boat. They are masters at turning things to another use.”

On the technical side, the Smithsonian taught its folklife historians to put their trust in proven technology. Brady learned to Digital cameras and photos saved on CDs are not acceptable for they have not yet stood the test of time. Brady learned to use black and white film with a 35mm camera.

As they posed, the old-timers told Brady “It’s not like it used to be. New people are changing everything.” The men, that is. “ It’s not the women who miss the past,” she says.

Interviews and photography inevitably turn to the pleasurable topic of “food ways.” Crisfielders serve crabs and pork barbecue, but they’re also famous for seven-layer cake. Or maybe it’s nine-layer or 11-layer. The Folklife team tracked down and sampled all three sizes but were unable to authenticate a single official number. No matter how tall, the cake had some consistencies: many short layers of chocolate, banana or some other cake each with its slather of icing. Each piece, up to 12-inches tall, served flat on its own platter. All delicious. Especially the banana, according to Brady.

But those are stories for next year. The team’s findings will be part of the 2004 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C., with the theme of Mid-Atlantic Maritime Communities in Transition. Over a million people typically visit the indoor and outdoor exhibits set up as a living community.

See for Yourself
Right now, you can join Brady in the search for Calvert’s women of history at Calvert County Fair. Among other exhibits, you’ll see a life-sized mannequin depicting Judith Catchpole, photos of the Brown sisters who fought for equal pay for colored teachers in the 1930s and other historic photos you might help identify:

Find Fair particulars among the daily listings of 8 Days a Week.

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Last updated September 25, 2003 @ 12:57am