Although Laurel might not exist if not for him, Horace Capron is better known in Japan than in Prince George's County. As one of the partners who established the town's cotton mills under his Patuxent Manufacturing Co., Capron is regarded as an important founder of Laurel, also helping to build historic mill houses, Main Street and St. Philips and St. Mary of the Mills churches.
And though his role in constructing Laurel was prominent, he's still virtually unknown in most places -- except Sapporo, Japan, where there is a statue of him in the central plaza.
"We remember big heroes, but we don't remember other people who were toiling in the community to build it," said Karen Lubieniecki, co-curator of the new exhibit at the Laurel Museum, "Horace Capron at 200: A Laurel Founder's Life."
"Horace Capron had an amazing life, even though you probably don't know who he is," she said.
Lubieniecki and her husband, Kenneth Skrivseth, are history buffs and developed the exhibition, which marks the 200th anniversary of Capron's birth. They researched and are curators of a show that focuses on different periods in Capron's life, complete with text, photos from the Library of Congress and from a descendant's collection, excerpts from his autobiography and objects from his life, including a chair and a ledger from the Laurel Mill during his tenure.
Lubieniecki believes that the Laurel Museum's new show is the only U.S. celebration of Capron's career, which began in Laurel. He was born in Attleboro, Mass., to a Revolutionary War hero involved in early cotton manufacturing. Capron entered the family businesses, serving at successive mills, including Savage Mill in Howard County. Once he married Louisa Snowden, daughter of the owner of Montpelier, he collaborated with members of his wife's family to start the Laurel Mill. He became interested in agriculture and helped establish the Prince George's Agricultural Society.
Within two years of his wife's sudden death in 1849, however, he was bankrupt and lost all of his possessions, including his manufacturing and his agricultural properties. He moved to Texas to resettle American Indians to new lands, then moved to Illinois, where he became a Civil War cavalry officer. Later, he was also the U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture and a leader of the American delegation that began the development of Japan's province of Hokkaido.
"Though his time in Laurel was short and he lost everything here, he stayed in touch with the Laurel community over the years," Lubieniecki said.
Because of his meticulous documentation of his life -- the bulk of which are his autobiography and newspaper articles written about him -- a lot of details are known about Capron, a conflicted person who was sometimes at odds with conventional practices and at other times a product of traditional thought. He lamented what was happening to the American Indians he resettled in Texas, but he couldn't comprehend the Japanese culture and regarded the people there as barbarians who needed to adopt Western customs and religion.
While many of his complexities are explored in the exhibit, Lubieniecki continues to research Capron's life because she says a lot remains undiscovered about him.
"History is a great opportunity to uncover mysteries and tell stories. How can you judge American history if you don't have the context?" she asked. "Horace Capron would make a great movie -- Horace Capron in Laurel might not be as compelling as his whole life. It's an amazing and complex story."
"Horace Capron at 200: A Laurel Founder's Life" runs through December at the Laurel Museum, 817 Main St. Museum hours are 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays and 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free. 301-725-7975; www.laurelhistory.org.