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A museum tour of Western Maryland

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“There are museums in Western Maryland?”

That was an incredulous colleague speaking, after I vaguely mentioned taking a trip to the mountain side of the Old Line State to check out the area’s museums.

Yes, I said museums. I’m neither a skier nor much of a hiker, at least in the cold. But I hankered for a small-town getaway on a wintry January weekend, and small-town museums just seemed like a funky idea. Obviously.

But hah. I am vindicated. The answer is not only, yes, Andrea, there are museums in Western Maryland, but also, boy, are there ever.

Escapes: Details, Western Maryland

I’m thinking this in the Thrasher Carriage Museum in Frostburg, where I’m staring at a lovely green park trap with red wheels and wood trim. The park trap was the sports car of the horse-and-buggy era, curator Gary Bartik is telling me, and I’m nodding mm-hmm, it’s definitely flashy. But what I’m fixated on is the informational sign in front of me, which tells me that this lovely piece, acquired from relatives of President Theodore Roosevelt, was manufactured by C.N. Dennet of Amesbury, Mass.

Amesbury! That’s so exciting — I feel as if I know that carriage-maker! I’ve driven past the house he once lived in a thousand times when visiting my old New England home and haunts. We always remark on it — “There’s the carriage-maker’s house.” But who was that carriage-maker? What kind of carriages did he make? No idea. And now here, an actual product of his manufacture. I love it when one small piece of your life connects with another so unexpectedly this way.

The Amesbury carriage is my personal highlight, but it’s just one of dozens at this amazing little museum — in Frostburg, of all places. There’s Roosevelt’s inaugural coach — a green five-glass landau with a convertible top (well, sort of convertible; you had to actually lift it off). And the stunning sleighs. The pretty ladies’ basket phaeton from 1912, once owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, the wicker still in perfect condition. And the gleaming black Brewster bachelor’s carriage, with its backstory of sibling rivalry: a falling-out; one brother keeps the family company, wins major prizes in Paris and eventually sells the business to Rolls-Royce. The other brother’s breakaway company? It falters and fails. So sad.

When it comes to backstories, though, there’s hardly any better than Jim Thrasher’s. The carriages’ original owner was an eighth-grade dropout with a love of horse-drawn vehicles who began collecting them in the 1950s, after making good in coal and construction. Eventually, he amassed 100, for what’s considered to be the third-best collection on the East Coast. But he didn’t just let the buggies sit there. He drove them. All around town. Can you picture it? That is so cool.

“That was a great museum,” says my husband when we finally leave. Totally unprompted, he says this. Which makes it high praise, believe me, because this is not a man given to effusiveness. But here he’s sounding almost as enthusiastic as Gary Bartik, who’s about the most enthusiastic museum curator I’ve ever encountered.

Gary’s tour of the Thrasher is primo, but his passion for what he does is on fullest display when he shows us around the Allegany Museum in Cumberland. This showhouse of Western Maryland history and heritage, which recently moved into the old post office and courthouse building downtown, is his real baby (he’s president of the board here; acting director at the Thrasher). And is he ever proud of it.

He takes us through the exhibits, providing copious and loving commentary on Cumberland’s glory days in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Queen City, the western terminus of the C&O Canal, was the second-largest city in Maryland. (Baltimore was king, Cumberland was queen, see? The town doesn’t even make the top 20 these days, but that can be a good thing.)

There was all kinds of industry: There was coal, for one thing. And thanks to the quality of the region’s sand and water, glassworks abounded until the 1930s, Gary tells us as I drool over the etched- and colored-glass wine goblets. Kelly-Springfield Tire — maker of the first rubber tire to actually stay on a rim — opened a major plant in Cumberland in 1921 and stuck around until 1987. German and Scottish immigrants brought their beer-making skills and turned out suds here until the 1970s, when the big brewers muscled into the market. For years, the town was a retail hub: When it opened in 1899, Rosenbaum’s was supposedly the grandest department store between Baltimore and Pittsburgh. “Those were the days when Hagerstown and Morgantown [W.Va.] came here to shop,” says Gary, sounding only slightly wistful at the way things have flipped.

If it all sounds a bit like a story of decline, well, it is, I guess. But that gives it a certain nostalgically fascinating appeal. And no worries, there are some leaveners — the woodcarvings of Amish folk artist Claude Yoder tickle my fancy. Also the moonshining still that Gary and colleagues salvaged from a local farm. And the fantatstic Saks Fifth Avenue Sleeping Beauty window displays donated by a collector from nearby Meyersdale, Pa. (You have to love these rural collectors!)

But still, there was that decline. Inevitable, I suppose. You know what happened to the C&O Canal. Kaput — after the railroad beat it to town by eight years. We wander through the C&O Canal visitors center at Canal Place, down near the Potomac, learning about Cumberland’s role as the center of canal barge-building, and I think, melancholically, how it all seems to have been for naught.

Ah, but — even after the death of the canal, the town still prospered, courtesy of that very railroad, which brought revelers from Washington and Baltimore to the mountains for weekends at the Queen City Hotel (gone) and its fabulous adjacent gardens (also gone) well into the mid-20th century. But then, don’t you know, the railroad faded, too.

Still, a lot of Cumberland’s former grandeur remains. Like at the Gordon-Roberts House, a Second Empire mansion on Washington Street, the city’s millionaire’s row. Mickey Miller, assistant director of the Allegany County Historical Society, which runs the museum, greets us with tea provided in a lovely porcelain service. We sit in the airy, high-ceilinged (13 feet!) entrance hall and nibble on cookies, waiting to see if anyone else will show up before the scheduled 1 o’clock tour. Nope.

So we have a private peek at the lifestyles of the rich and not necessarily famous (Mr. Gordon, the first owner, was an attorney; his successor, Mr. Roberts, a civil engineer) of Western Maryland circa 1890. It was quite a life: We go from room to room (there are more than 20), admiring the china and the restored wallpaper and the portraits and — oh! What’s that?

“That’s Eleanor, the oldest Roberts daughter,” says Mickey, introducing the mannequin seated in the guest bedroom, which has given me quite the start. There are mannequins in period dress all through the house, representing various family members and servants. A little creepy at first, so beware. Definitely a different touch, but I bet the schoolkid groups love them.

Afterward, we drive up Washington Street to ogle the other grand mansions — there are Victorians, Queen Annes, Italianates, you name it. Whoa, there was a lot of money around, once upon a time.

Then we head to Baltimore Street, the main downtown artery, now a lovely pedestrian mall, and take a quick walking tour of some of the truly stunning architecture. We’re just about finished when I spy my favorite kind of museum — an antiques shop. And inside it, practically the first thing I see, a cut-glass bowl, exactly the kind I’ve been searching for since, well, forever. And here it is in Cumberland.

I love it when one part of your life connects with another like that.

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