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.