Just over twenty years ago, my significant other repeatedly gave me the gift of local history for Christmas. She knew I loved anything pertaining to Frederick’s past…this coming after I had produced a ten-hour video documentary on the subject back in fall of 1995. She gave me the coveted, original hard copy of J.T. Scharf’s History of Western Maryland in Christmas 1995, followed by T.J.C. Williams History of Frederick County in 1996. Christmas of 1997 came with antique paper memorabilia including several receipts on the letterhead, along with cancelled checks from several Frederick businesses of the 1880’s and 1890’s. I also acquired some old glass bottles, and a few program booklets, one from the City Opera House, and another from a Black Elks Conference held here in town.
One more item was included in the mix, but didn’t seem all that interesting to me at the time. It was an old photo card of a teenage boy, produced by the local commercial photographer Josiah R. Marken, likely taken around 1890. These pictures are more commonly known as cabinet cards, photographic portraits the late 19th century that pop up all the time in antique shops, flea markets and eBay of course. Usually a nearby display sign or placard reads “instant, or lost, relatives” or “anonymous ancestors.”
Considering cabinet cards found today, the people that could recognize these folks are long gone. Attempting to identify subjects against extant photos of possible ancestors is difficult. Sometimes you have to compare an antique photo of a younger person against a “newer” photo of that individual as an old man or woman. In many cases, the existing picture is the only image ever taken of an individual. One can try to attempt narrowing down the era of an image subject by photographer, card stock, clothing worn by subject, and/or hair style displayed.
I find it ironic that most antique photos are either unmarked, or over-marked—written all over on the face side, and in pen…sometimes ruining or distorting a beautiful personal portrait or landscape—but at least you know who they are. I have had several of both varieties given to me to sleuth or archive as a designated family historian.
As for the photo of that young man I received for Christmas in 1997, I was lucky enough to have a name written on the backside. It was that of Mr. W.S. Bennett. Underneath looks to be the writing of a child, all in caps, which reads: “BARBARA FRITCHIE BENNETT, BORN OCTOBER 28, 1897. This latter graffiti was one of the reasons why the card was appealing to my wife, as she knew my keen interest in the Barbara Fritchie incident/non-incident.
A Photographic Archeological Dig
I never really looked into the history of Master Bennett, as I simply stowed the photo card away for safekeeping in an archival box with the other paper items. Recently, I found the need to sift through that old box, as it contained an old advertising card from an early rendition of the Barbara Fritchie Restaurant. I needed this for my “Stories in Stone” piece on Ammon Cramer, founder of the popular Fritchie Candy Stick eatery and Barbara Fritchie chocolate candy, founded around 1915. While doing so, I happened upon the card, and my interest was piqued, especially wondering if he was buried in Mount Olivet.
A little bit of research on the mystery cabinet card gave me the name of William Steiner Bennett, and yes, he was indeed laid to rest here in Frederick’s famed “garden cemetery.” He is buried in Area OO, Lot 2 near the fence that parallels Stadium Drive. Mr. Bennett is in the company of his wife, children and in-laws. More so, I found that William S. Bennett’s life was far from ordinary.
William’s childhood was abruptly over as he was forced into the role as “man of the house,” at the age of 13. He immediately sought employment, and received work from the Great Southern Printing and Manufacturing Company—printers of the Frederick News. William S. Bennett would remain in their ranks as a celebrated employee for the next 60 years, most of which holding the title of pressman. Years later, sister Jennie would also gain a job with the company started by William T. Delaplaine in 1883.
Young Bennett also possessed a lifetime love of baseball. He began as a player with early Frederick teams of the 1890’s, playing the positions of pitcher, first base and catcher. After his playing days, he would remain a staunch local supporter of the sport, helping to organize the Frederick Baseball Club in 1912 along with local baseball legend Carlton Molesworth.
In 1896, William S. Bennett would start a family of his own. He married Lucy Virginia Butcher and would welcome his first of two children on October 29th, 1897. The Bennetts named their first daughter Mary Catherine, however, I venture to say that it was this little girl who took on the “alter-ego” of Barbara Fritchie Bennett—responsible for the doodling on the back of my cabinet card. She must not have liked her name as she was more commonly known as Margaret throughout her lifetime. She married Roy Mumford, the son of a former Orphans Court judge.
William lost his mother in February, 1900, however he would gain another child was born later the same year. Garnett R. was born on December 5th. She would wed a Frederick Baseball Club standout named Clarence Waldo Blethen (1892-1973). Blethen was from Dover-Foxcroft, Maine and would play pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, Brooklyn Robins and numerous minor league clubs around the country well into the 1930’s. He was referred to as the "Christy Mathewson of the Minor Leagues,” and possessed the nickname of "Climax" after the chewing tobacco he used. Fittingly, his burial plot, like that of his father-in-law faces Harry Grove Stadium, home of the Frederick Keys.
In early 1917, William S. Bennett embarked upon his next life adventure. As early as 1913, he had been moonlighting as a doorman at Frederick’s famed City Opera House, today the site of Brewer’s Alley Restaurant. In late 1916, an opportunity arose to take on a greater role at the entertainment venue. Bennett continued to serve as pressroom foreman at the newspaper, but took on the job of managing the theater. An article appearing in the Frederick News on January 28th, 1917 relayed that a new management will take over the operation of the City Opera House the following month, and pledged that it would become the “Greatest theatre in Maryland.”
At 41, Bennett had created the W. S. Bennett Company in partnership with William S. Haller and Samuel H. Rosenstock. They negotiated with the City of Frederick for an annual rental lease of $4,777.77. William S. Bennett would become theatre manager and told the newspaper that he planned “to bring the finest feature films here and will present at least six acts of high class vaudeville at every show.” He also was said to be negotiating for the presentation of legitimate drama by New York City-based stock companies.
The Bennett firm ran the City Opera House through the difficult era of World War I, up through 1919. As for William S. Bennett’s “day job,” he would become the oldest employee and associate of the News-Post, moving with the firm to various locations and ushering in new technologies. In 1938, Bennett was feted by upper management and co-workers in recognition of his 50th year of service. His close friends and associates at the paper referred to him as “Mr. Billy,” and loved hearing him tell tales of “days of old” in the newspaper business of his youth, and the many changes he had witnessed and experienced. He wouldn’t retire until September, 1956 at the age of 81.
Bennett’s News-Post family kept him great company in the years immediately following Lucy Bennett’s death in 1952. She would be buried in the corner lot occupied previously by her parents.
Another interesting item I learned along the way was that Bennett was also a musician. This was thanks to an interesting feature article which appeared in the Frederick News of September 1st, 1961. Ironically, the news piece, like mine here, centered on the discovery of a mystery photograph. It had been recently returned to Frederick from a repository in Hanover, PA and featured an undated, unmarked photo relating to the Frederick chapter of the Knights of Pythia fraternal organization. The photo was dated to the years immediately preceding the First World War as it captured the Knights of Pythia Band. William S. Bennett was called to help identify the image and those within it. He immediately saw a familiar face—his own. William had served as the group’s drum major, and could be seen pictured prominently in the first row in full attire. He couldn’t recall the picture having been taken, but assisted in identifying some of his chums.
William S. Bennett only spent 10 Christmases without his beloved wife. He passed away in his sleep two days before what would have been his eleventh, in the early morning hours of December 23, 1962. Mr. Bennett lived a full life of 87 years, and would be laid to rest by his wife’s side on December 26th, 1962.
I continue to marvel as I learn more about the lives of Mount Olivet’s residents through researching for this blog and experience stories told to me by visiting descendants regarding their relatives. Each day I certainly see that those interred here are much more than “names in stone”—hence, they are Stories in Stone.
Finding an image of an individual buried here in the cemetery is an added bonus. Putting a face to a name is the proverbial “icing on the cake.” I did not put much stock into the photo cabinet card of W. S. Bennett when I received it on Christmas Day, 1997. But as I held the card next to Mr. Bennett’s tombstone on the last day of 2017, I couldn’t help but feel a special sense of appreciation. Here I am, a total stranger to William S. Bennett and his family, but one who possesses a photo that likely passed through his hand in the late 1880’s at the time of its taking. Now I’m here at his gravesite, exactly 55 years after his death. How many hands did it pass before getting to me? Why wasn't it kept?
I, too, received my career start at the Great Southern Printing & Manufacturing Company in late 1989. As opposed to Bennett’s amazing tenure, I only spent 12 years in its employ until 2001 at which time the cable company (Frederick Cablevision/GS Communications) was sold to Adelphia Communications. However, in that period, I was afforded the opportunity to be an “audio-video pressman” of sorts. I got to manage entertainment productions, produce/televise Frederick Keys baseball games and provide a showcase for local bands and entertainers. Best of all, the time spent in the employ of the Delaplaines and Randalls gave me the impetus, experience and training to continue my pursuits of documenting/promoting the history of Frederick and its incredible past residents. We have some similarities after all, Mr. Bennett.
Year after year, the passing of time is as fast as it is amazing. Happy New Year to you and yours and please make a resolution to label and organize those old family photos for not only the benefit of future descendants, but those history investigators like me who may yearn to put a face with a name in the future.