Most Influential Businesses in Havre de Grace History
Havre de Grace historian Mitch Shank outlines what he believes to be the three most influential businesses in the city's history. What are the top three in your mind?
Someone asked me recently, "What three businesses in the history of Havre de Grace have had the greatest impact on our city?"
Local historians, citizens and business leaders might debate this question for hours. There are some of us—like myself—who might find this answer fairly easy to choose. If one were to go back to Captain John Smith exploring the Upper Chesapeake Bay waters in 1608 until present day, the three following businesses are the tops in my mind.
With our town’s location adjacent to the Susquehanna River and the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay, I would first select water fowling and the art of decoy making. With our location near the Susquehanna Flats and along the Atlantic Flyway tens of thousands of wildfowl migrate through these waters on an annual basis. Throughout the history of our community, life on the water has been an integral part of life for many of our citizens in Havre de Grace. Besides the fact that Havre de Grace has been acknowledged as “The Decoy Capitol of The World” and that we have our own Decoy Museum which is open seven days a week year round, no other community has produced more decoy makers than our own Havre de Grace.
Our Decoy Museum is a nationally recognized museum for its fine collection of decoys and hunting accessories. The museum publishes a quarterly magazine of the highest standards, appropriately called “The Canvasback.” The museum sponsors two major festivals each year, our annual Decoy Festival which started in 1982, and the annual one day Duck Fair in mid-September. This year the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum and our city will celebrate the 30th Annual Havre de Grace Decoy & Wildlife Festival on May 6, 7 and 8 at Havre de Grace Middle School and the Activities Center. Both events allow the public to view, purchase and hear first-hand stories about the history of decoy making and water fowling in the Upper Chesapeake Bay region.
To honor the history of water fowling in our area, all the street names in the Grace Harbour development were planed to have a waterfowl origin, such as Canvasback Drive or Pintail Court. Several weeks ago thousands of local citizens and visitors celebrated a very unique celebration on New Year’s night. Our annual “Duck Drop” which was started by former city councilman Richard Tome and now is organized by our own Susquehanna Hose Company. Atlanta, GA, might drop a giant peach and New York City celebrates New Year’s Eve with a crystal ball, but only in "The Decoy Capitol of The World” do we drop a giant duck.
The second most important business to impact the history of our community would be the Graw racetrack from 1912 until 1950. Talk to any of our older citizens and they will relate many stories and events to the legacy of the Graw racetrack. The track, which was located at the current site of the Maryland National Guard on Old Bay Lane, was recognized nationally as a superior track. With our location in the mid-Atlantic region, it was easily accessible to a very large population. Many businesses thrived during the days of each race season. Restaurants, hotels and many of our cathouses all prospered through these times. Harford Memorial Hospital—which is still in operation today and has brought many doctors and related businesses to Havre de Grace was opened because of the Graw racetrack. The most recent housing development in our city, Bulle Rock, was named for the first thoroughbred race horse raised in America. The streets in the Bulle Rock development are named for former race horses: see “Smarty Jones Terrace” or “Whirlaway Lane.” Even today, one of the most successful race horses that ran the tracks last year was named “Havre de Grace.”
Havre de Grace Main Street’s signature event is the annual Graw Days Festival and Ball, held the second Saturday of October. Downtown Havre de Grace comes alive with horse drawn carriage rides, pony rides, an historical tent featuring race track memorabilia, and hundreds of local crafters and exhibits. The highlight of the day is the “Graw Ball” which is held in the old Graw Clubhouse on Old Bay Lane.
The third significant business or industry to impact on our community would be the opening of the U.S. Army‘s Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1917. While no direct facility was physically built in Havre de Grace, thousands who call Havre de Grace home have spent years on APG.
I remember as a child growing up in Havre de Grace in the late 1950s and 1960s being able to walk around town and trying to spot car’s license plates from every state in the union. The big prize was always Alaska and Hawaii. I would walk through the 200 block of Lodge Alley behind the Dennis Apartments and find dozens of out of state license plates—it's how I learned to spell all the states.
Few, if any, families have not had a member work directly on the military base or for a private contractor which supports the military operations. For many years the Ordinance School and Museum drew over 250,000 visitors to Harford County as our largest tourist attraction. Now, with BRAC, thousands more families will be impacted by moving to our region with many calling Havre de Grace home.
If you ask others what business has made a great impact on Havre de Grace, you might hear the Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal (built in 1839 and in operation from 1840 till), the railroads through Havre de Grace, J. M. Huber Corporation, or currently, our arts and entertainment district with many related businesses and special events, or our maritime history. I have heard others say that our City of Havre de Grace as a tourism destination. Last year, our city held over 150 special events, featuring the longest running seafood festival in Maryland—this year featuring the Charlie Daniels Band.
Let me know what business or industry do you think had the greatest impact on the history of our town.