Editor’s Note: Jack Burkert is a local historian studying and writing about all things Baltimore. In this series, he explores the life and times of the people, the places and the history of Sparrows Point steel mill and shipyard. Jack is a Dundalk resident and has a series of seminars available for presentation. He can be contacted at Burkert.firstname.lastname@example.org.
In an era when dreams of “utopia” – idyllic, seemingly perfect communities – seemed within grasp, a modest experiment began in southeast Baltimore County. A steel mill was growing on the Sparrows Point Peninsula, and beside it a modest town for workers at the mill. This “mill-and-town” arrangement was not a new one, as many company towns had arisen throughout industrial America.
But the town of Sparrows Point was special, not because the “parent” Pennsylvania Steel Company had built it, but because of the local managers, Frederick and Rufus Wood. These brothers took steps to improve the lives of future generations. Frederick was an MIT-trained engineer, while his brother Rufus was a social reformer. Sparrows Point would become the center of their working lives, each pursuing his own special interest.
Rufus Wood knew that education was the key that unlocked doors to the future, so advancement o the children of Sparrows Point was part of the plant. He knew that supplying the company town with houses and fire trucks, policemen and parkland was not enough. Many of the workers were recent immigrants who had crossed an ocean to seek new lives in America and others only recently freed from the bonds of slavery. With parents who were largely illiterate, Wood was determined to lift up the next generation.
On of his dreams was soon realized. At Sparrows Point in 1892, Wood originated the very first kindergarten south of the Mason-Dixon Line. While kindergarten classes had arrived in America from European models by 1860, Maryland, with its southern roots, had not yet adopted the concept of pre-school programs. He envisioned an education system that best served the interests of the children, their parents, and the company. It included kindergartens, manual training schools and Maryland’s first “Home Economics” classes for girls. The separation of race kept the children apart. Not every child benefitted, but Wood’s work, for its time, was groundbreaking in creating a progressive educational system.