On a visit to Baltimore when I was eleven, we drove past my mother’s childhood home on Brightside Avenue on the way to my aunt’s house on the same street. I remember it being yellow then, with four large trees lining the sidewalk in front of it, although I could be mixing memories. I imagined her growing up there, being a small child there the same way my siblings and I had grown up in our house. It was only much later, in my adult years, that I learned that my mother’s mother had also grown up there before her. Before it was the Dowell household it had been the Rohde household. In the wonderful photo below, taken around the time my great grandparents moved there, it sits among open fields, one of the very first houses on the street. In fact, Brightside Avenue is merely a dirt road in this photo running in front of the house; you can’t even see it.
Neither my grandmother nor my mother lived here from birth. Wilma was about five or six years old when her parents William Carl and Edna Rohde moved the family from Ohio, where there had been Rohdes farming since before 1879, to Hamilton, Maryland, a town that at that time lay a mile northeast of Baltimore’s city limits on Harford Road and is now one of its neighborhoods. This would have been in 1919 or 1920. It’s unclear how long they lived in Hamilton, but at some point they pulled up stakes again and came to Pikesville, where their peregrinations ended at 133 Brightside.
At that time, the house sat with no near neighbors on the dirt road running south from Reisterstown Road, the main drag from Baltimore through Pikesville. Here are two maps from 1898 and 1915; in the first, Brightside and the other streets in the Ralston division are already gridded, but it is unclear whether or not any houses are built there. In any case 133 was not built then. The second map shows the house just east of the intersection with Purvis Place (click ’em to enlarge ’em).
Hawthorne Avenue is also visible as part of the Ralston division on both maps; apart from a year or two at the house in Charleston, my mother spent her early years at #10 Hawthorne. I imagine they moved into 133 after William Carl died in 1949, so my mother would have been at least twelve years old, though I’m sure also that she was very familiar with her grandparents’ house just two blocks away around the corner.
When I asked my mother when the house was built she said “Nineteen oh six” so quickly it sounded like she was competing on a quiz show. The Zillow online real estate application says it was built in 1901, but the Internet is full of unvetted information (like this whole blog), and anyway who’s counting?
Here’s something interesting. My mother says that her grandfather William Carl was something of a whiz, a brainiac who might identify as a “nerd” were he living today. It was said that he could simultaneously carry on three different chess matches with three different opponents in three different rooms, alternating among them in turns. William Carl had been a high school teacher back in Ohio, and my father’s father, James Ezra Fleagle, was also a teacher, and in this connection the two men were somehow acquainted, even though at some point after moving to Maryland W.C. became some kind of “assessor” for Davison Chemical Company and, I assume, was no longer teaching. Apparently it happened on several occasions that James Ezra, a person from my father’s side of my family tree, came to 133 to play chess with William Carl, a person from my mother’s side of the family tree, long before my father and mother met. As you might guess, this blows my mind.
My mother says she might have taken this second photo of the house, but I don’t see how unless she held on to the undeveloped film roll for quite a while or else shot it just as she was saddling up with my dad to ride west. The photo declares itself to have been developed in May 1960; it’s printed right on the front. Mom and Dad were married in 1957, just down the street at Sudbrook Methodist Church (visible on Reisterstown Road in both maps above) but they wasted no time in gettin’ out of Dodge, and by May 1960 they were well ensconced in Bellevue, Washington, where their first child, my sister Jeni, was born later that year. But who knows? Another consideration: my grandparents around this time moved to a house built for them not far away in Randallstown (26 Millstone Road), which I have on some authority was built in 1961. Perhaps this was J.L. or Wilma Dowell taking a photo of the house they knew they would leave soon? In any case, this photo shows the shade trees that I saw years later as we drove by.
My mother’s younger brother, my Uncle Jack, remembers the night a delivery boy named Junior fell in a hole in front of the Brightside house, and he tells the tale wry and dry as only he can. “He came to the house with a box of groceries”, Jack recalls. “Workmen had left a deep hole in the driveway with lights around it for a warning. Junior thought they were Christmas lights and stepped right in. When he came to the door there was one orange rolling around in the box and the rest of the groceries were down in the hole. The Great One fished them out with a rake.”1
If I took a photo of the house on my visit Back East in 1992, I don’t remember and I don’t have a negative or print of it. But I was visiting my Aunt Miriam again last October (2014), and I pulled over the rental car at 133 and took a photo. The big trees have been gone for years, and here you can see evidence that a dense neighborhood full of homes2, which were there even when the 1960 photo was taken, has grown up and surrounded the house that stood alone among green fields when my great grandparents first laid eyes upon it. – mdf
1Update: apparently this event did not take place at 133.; see comments below. The Great One is a term of endearment that Uncle Jack and my mother use in reference to their father.
2For a lark, compare the top photo above to this recent aerial photo taken from roughly the same direction.
Image archive IDs:
Top image: 20150801_001_brightside_house
Middle image: 20150316_002_133_brightside
About the physical photographs:
Written on back:
Pencil: “Our old House in Pikesville.”
Ink: “133 Brightside Ave.
133 Brightside Ave.