One man's memories

April 11, 2002|BY ANDREA ROWLAND

Maurice Snyder tells his life story through the black and white photographs and hometown memorabilia at the Williamsport Town Museum.

He stops in front of an old photo of a burning schoolhouse and recalls the bravery of the teacher who saved him and his classmates when the school burned to the ground in 1923.

The Hotel Ripple at the corner of Conococheague and Salisbury streets burned that same year, Snyder says, six years before Williamsport had its own water supply or fire company.

Firefighters from Hagerstown ran hoses from a town run during their losing battle to fight the blazes. Snyder remembers watching them.


He is Williamsport's memory, recalling past times like a history book-on-tape set to read chapters at random.

At 88, Snyder admits, he tends to ramble and skip around a bit.

But his memory is sharp and long. And he feels a personal responsibility to preserve his hometown's history, he says, by sharing it with those willing to spend the time to listen.

"The old descendants of Williamsport are dying out. New people can't reflect on the past if we don't leave this history," Snyder says.

The town historian pauses in front of a turn-of-the-century photo of the Isaac Hoffman family at Springfield Farm. The Hoffmans worked the once-productive farm from the late 1800s until 1918 - four years after Snyder was born with the help of a midwife at his family's home on Fenton Avenue.

He was the sixth of seven children born to Maude E. Snyder, who lived 110 years, nine months and 23 days, Snyder says. Before her death in 1986, his mother was honored as the oldest citizen in Maryland.

Pointing to a picture of the C&O Canal, Snyder remembers swimming in the canal when mules still pulled canal boats. The canal closed in 1924.

In those days, Snyder says, kids didn't have televisions to watch or computer games to play. He and his friends played marbles on the town's paved streets and baseball at the riverside park. They rode sleds down Church and Frederick streets. They paid 10 cents each to attend the "picture show" on Conococheague Street, watching silent movies as the in-house piano player added drama to the scenes on the screen, Snyder says.

He remembers shopping at the nine family-owned grocery stores in town as he looks at an old menu from Pryor's Grocery, where steak cost 24 cents per pound in 1930. The photo of barber Joe Grove brings to mind the times young Snyder listened to Grove play the violin and discuss the law between snips, he says.

"By the time he was done, you didn't know what kind of haircut you'd gotten for 15 cents."

Looking at an old photo of Wolfe's store on Town Square, Snyder remembers listening to "Amos and Andy" on the store's radio with his pals at 6 p.m. each day. He recalls riding the trolley to Hagerstown before an older brother bought the family's first car in 1936.

Snyder stops at a table topped with maps and photos of Conomac Park, the town's big gathering place in the 1920s.

Snyder remembers the thousands of people who attended the annual United Retail Merchants Association picnics at the park, the 25-cent fee to swim in the bordering Conococheague Creek, the busy baseball field and carousel.

The flood of '36 wiped out the park, Snyder says.

"We saw straw stacks with chickens on top of them, clubhouses, cottages, refrigerators, freezers and stoves - everything you can imagine came down that river."

The flood followed what Snyder considers Williamsport's "saddest day" the year before.

He was 21 in April 1935 when a train struck a school bus carrying Williamsport High School students. Fourteen students died in the crash at a grade crossing in Rockville, Md.

"It was a shock - a terrible disaster," Snyder says. "We all knew each other so well. In those days, we depended on our neighbors to help each other. We were all one big family."

Most businesses in Williamsport used to be family-run, Snyder says.

"If you and I walked the streets here, I could tell you from store to store who was where and when," he says.

The Red Barron furniture and carpet store on Potomac Street once housed family-owned factories that produced overalls and hosiery, Snyder says. The Downs family ran a drugstore in town. The Bowsers had a bakery. And above Frank Goddard's grocery store, says Snyder, pointing to a photo, town residents enjoyed a dance hall.

The Byron family - members of whom were involved in local, state and national politics - once owned the Williamsport tannery where Snyder worked after graduating from high school in 1932, he says.

He returned to work at the tannery after his military service during World War II and was employed there for 36 more years before retiring in 1981.

That year, Snyder and other Williamsport residents formed the museum committee to help preserve the town's heritage. The Williamsport Town Museum in the historic Springfield Farm barn is filled with photos and memorabilia.

The museum is open Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

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