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Charmed Life

Buried Treasure

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 6/6/2001

In a dark abandoned bar, John Patton Mende opens an oak box and wraps his hands around Capt. Henry Dashiell's compass. "This is the pride of Fells Point," Mende says, cradling the instrument which he claims was made in the waterfront neighborhood, and which accompanied the 18th-century seafarer on countless voyages.

Like the compass, Mende is a rare link to Fells Point's distant clipper-ship past, a descendent of the wealthy captain who built a home on the southwest corner of Broadway and Aliceanna Street back when the Point was just coming into its own as a feisty seaport. But the rich family legacy carries a huge burden. A security guard by trade and an artist by avocation, Mende is also, by necessity, the steward of the compasses, portraits, and captain's logs passed down by previous generations--and of the family dream of establishing a Fells Point Museum.

For all its rich historic trappings--Colonial-era buildings, a harbor that was once the maritime center of Baltimore--Fells Point has no true monument to itself and its past. Mende has the makings: a huge collection of the possessions of one of the neighborhood's founding families, handed down over generations and preserved through much of the last century by Capt. Henry's last direct descendants: Mende's late cousins, sisters Eleanor Marine and Mary Leeke Dashiell. A 1983 article in The Sun described the assortment of items as "a staggering collection of artifacts . . . a social document that exists nowhere else."

At the moment, the staggering collection is exhibited--stored, more like it--in this erstwhile bar that doubles as dank museum, at least on those rare occasions when it's open to the public. On one of those occasions recently, a portrait of the captain was propped up on some paneling. In the painting he holds a spyglass, the actual version of which sits on the bar's rail.

"There is no place in Fells Point where you can see this kind of thing," says Ellen von Karajan, director of the Fells Point Preservation Society, who has not seen the artifacts but has heard the accounts of those who have. The society is headquartered next to the Robert Long House, which is reputedly the oldest residence in the city and is furnished with appropriate period pieces--but nothing belonging to the original owners. "When we wanted to bring [the Long House] back to life for people, it took enormous amounts of research," von Karajan says. "The Dashiells have the real things. That to me is what's so rare about it."

The condition of the Dashiell collection is a matter of some worry to local historians, who fear that items could be stolen or damaged if not properly preserved. "There have been a lot of people who have been concerned about this collection for a number of years," says David Beard, curator of the Maryland Historical Society's Maritime Collections, who saw the Dashiell hoard for the first time less than a month ago.

Several established groups have made inquiries about housing the collection, but Mende shares a longstanding family distrust of professional historians and preservationists. Citing the closing in recent years of the City Life Museums, the Peale Museum, and the Cloisters, he says turning over the family history to an outside institution is too much of a risk. "Museums are constantly on the threshold of going broke, being sold off, and disappearing," he says. Inevitably, he believes, pieces of the collection would be sold off, and someone else would end up with the captain's spyglass or the receipt signed by Johns Hopkins--a prospect that horrified the sisters who struggled to keep the Dashiell legacy intact. They envisioned a family-owned museum that would tell the story of Fells Point and their clan's evolution from high-seas merchants to prosperous landlubbing citizens.

The family outlasted the prosperity. When the Dashiell sisters died in the 1990s, they were living in this Formstone-covered former bar (the family prefers not to publicize the location), which at one time fronted a 24-room seamen's hotel. Locally, both the place and its occupants were legendary, a sprawling labyrinth of antiquity and rubbish housing two of the Point's most noted eccentrics. Once, a neighborhood story has it, the sisters spotted a would-be thief on the premises and yelled, "Get out!" Lost amid the piles of stuff, the burglar replied, "I can't."

Sensing decades back that Fells Point's seafaring past would one day disappear, the sisters started planning their museum in the 1950s. But their dream was derailed amid the 1960s-'70s battle over a proposed highway through Fells Point. With property values in the neighborhood plummeting in anticipation of the freeway, the Dashiells bought up several houses at fire-sale prices, using family estates in Roland Park, Baltimore County, and the Eastern Shore as collateral. Believing that fierce local opposition would stop the highway and preserve Fells Point, they planned to restore and resell the homes and pump the profits into the museum project. The highway was indeed stopped, but the sisters were never able to get their rehab project off the ground. The houses withered, their debts mounted, and eventually they lost everything, including the outlying properties.

Since their cousins' passing, Mende, his brother and sister-in-law, and family friends have been cataloging the massive cache. The task took five years; only now can they start thinking about converting the sisters' old home into a museum. Mende's got ideas--a tearoom in the bar, perhaps, and space in some of the former hotel's rooms for other families' collections. But right now it's all a wish list, and Mende is just another do-gooder hunting for funding. "Basically," he says, "we're starting over."

He has been talking with the Fells Point Preservation Society, which has offered to help find storage space for much of the collection while he hunts up a benefactor or grant. But that's as far as he'll part with the family jewels. Until the right help comes along, he'll take his chances stockpiling history on his own.

"It's like someone thirsty in the desert," Mende says of the family's labors. "You keep on going one more day, one more day, until you get that drink, until you meet someone we can trust."

To make an appointment to see Capt. Dashiell's collection, call John Patton Mende at (410) 228-7786.

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