Apart from being a successful business owner and charitable figure in 19th century Baltimore – remarkable achievements for anyone let alone a woman back in those days – she is best known for sewing the giant garrison flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore on September 12, 1814.
Her headstone is small and understated, but a plaque that briefly explains her importance was placed on her grave by a few historical preservation groups in 1976. In addition, the old cemetery gatehouse has a large, 15-star Star Spangled Banner draped on its eastern wall at all times – a subtle tribute to Mrs. Pickersgill.
Her grave is located near the Frederick Road entrance (which appears to be permanently closed these days) in Section AA in the northern part of the cemetery:
If you weren’t actually out looking for her grave, you’d never know it was here. With so many other large, ostentatious monuments in Loudon Park, seeing a simple set of markers is actually somewhat refreshing. It certainly speaks to what kind of woman she was.
In the next installment, we’ll see a pair of graves relating to one of the most famously shocking events of the Civil War era.
This is a very long post about a piece of Skillman family history. There’s plenty of general interest history in here as well, but I go very deep in the weeds in some places. If you’ve stumbled onto this post via a web search and think that we may be related, please drop me a line!
For a long time, that was pretty much all we knew about him: he lived in Baltimore, had some type of association with the Maryland Institute, and made a name for himself in cracker-baking. That was it.
In recent years, I’ve done some digging on Ancestry, and was able to locate some Census records and his Civil War draft registration on there, but my mission at the time was to try to get information on the whole family, not to just drill down on one or two members, so I never got that deep on his life story. That all changed with the anniversary of the Great Baltimore Fire. I wanted to find out more about who this guy was.
I collected all the data that I had from the traditional family story, to the Census records I found online, and went down to the main Enoch Pratt library, hoping that they would have some good sources. I’m happy to report that they were tremendously helpful. I was able to find some information about companies he worked for, and even some clues about a few other relatives in Pratt’s collection of books. Searching the city directories and the online archives of The Baltimore Sun (which the library subscribes to) were instrumental in putting some of the pieces together.
There are still plenty of holes – one of the Pratt librarians told me that this is probably always going to look like Swiss cheese – but here’s the story of his life that I have (so far):
George R. Skillman was born January 1, 1837 in Baltimore. His parents were F. Robert J. Skillman and Naomi Sophia (Miller) Skillman.
He was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church. His family attended services at High Street Methodist Episcopal (originally built at 230 S. High St. – now a parking lot) and later in life, at Grace Methodist Episcopal in Baltimore.
The first reference to him that I found was in The Sun on March 8, 1858. He apparently attended a meeting in Temperance Hall in Baltimore, where the attendees were discussing their support for “The President’s Plan” regarding Kansas. This is a reference to the Lecompton Plan for Kansas’ state constitution – a constitution that would have allowed slavery in the Sunflower State. From what I’ve been able to find, George was a life-long Democrat, so it isn’t surprising that he’d be supporting President Buchanan as a young man.
On April 22, 1858 he married Mary Elizabeth Pierce. The couple would go on to have 8 children, but three of them wouldn’t survive past their twenties. My particular branch of the family is descended from his 4th son, Robert G. Skillman.
He registered for the draft in 1863, listing his occupation at the time as “Clerk”. The 1864 Woods’ City Directory has him living at 90 N. Eden Street (a house that no longer exists), and shows that he’s working as a “Bookkeeper”, but on January 1, 1864, James Beatty announced in The Sun that he was entering into a copartnership with his clerk, George R. Skillman.
His name is called in the draft June 23, 1864, but he doesn’t end up going to war. By June 28, he’d found a substitute to serve in his place. You could do that back in those days, especially if you were a partner in a prominent manufacturing business.
The same city directory in 1865-1866 shows the first reference to the company that he made his name working for: James Beatty & Co. Steam Cracker, Cake, and Ship Biscuit Bakers. This firm seems to have been one of the largest commercial / industrial baking operations in Baltimore at the time. James’ grandfather was also named James Beatty (what is it with all these people having the same names?), and was the U.S. Government Naval Agent in Baltimore during the War of 1812. The Beatty’s were a prominent (and rich) family in 19th century Baltimore. Civil War nerds like me will also appreciate that “ship biscuit” is the naval term for hardtack, and from records I’ve found, the company was definitely a hardtack supplier for the Union army. The company’s address is listed as “Nos. 92, 94 & 96 Dugan’s Wharf, near Pratt Street” – what is now known as Pier 4 at the Inner Harbor.
In the 1870 Census, George lists his occupation as “Baker”, and on April 4, 1871, he’s granted U.S. Patent 113,356 for his Cracker Machine. Clearly, he was an innovative force in the industry. In an 1873 advertisement for the James Beatty Co., George is still listed as being James’ partner in the business. My feeling is that George became the brains, or the heart of the operation, and that James was providing the capital and the business side.
Sometime before 1878, George moves the family to a nicer house at what is initially listed as “329 Myrtle Ave.”, but later listings all show the property more accurately as being at 1408 Myrtle Ave (the current house at this address was built in 1920).
George joins the Board of Managers for the Maryland Institute in 1878. He would end up serving on the board for the rest of his life. Of course, it was through this association that my family first learned of him. In his first year as a board member, the institute held an exhibition (in those days, the school had a mechanical, vo-tech element to it as well as being an art school) in which the very latest technology was demonstrated. That year, the arc light, and the telephone were the big showpieces. The Baltimore Sun, describing the event 20 years later, had this to say:
On top of the tower of the building was placed one of these lights, with a reflector – a crude forerunner of the now well-known electric searchlight. An incident of this application was that when the light was thrown towards the home of Mr. George R. Skillman, on Myrtle Ave., and Mr. Skillman using the other unique exhibit, the telephone, read by it a newspaper extract to an auditor at the other end of the line.
Alexander Graham Bell had his successful test with the telephone just 2 years before. George was certainly a man who wanted to be on the cutting edge of technology.
His association with the Maryland Institute didn’t stop at serving on the board, though. An advertisement in The Sun on February 23, 1880 announces that “George R. Skillman, esq.” will be giving a lecture that evening about “Saalbec, Athens, and Pompeii”. So he’s a history buff, too.
In 1886, a book called “Half Century’s Progress of the City of Baltimore” was published. It included a one-page profile of James Beatty & Co., that mentioned how James took over the company from his father in 1858 and “some years later” added George R. Skillman as a partner. The article goes on to say that George “retired” from the firm in 1884. This isn’t entirely accurate, it seems. An announcement in The Sun on January 1, 1885 states that the partnership had been dissolved, and that James was bringing his son onboard in George’s place. It goes on to say that George had purchased another piece of property on Greene St., and would be starting his own bakery there.
On December 22, 1885, The Baltimore Sentinel published an article stating that:
Sunday afternoon, a fire destroyed the three upper floors of George R. Skillman’s cracker bakery, in Baltimore. The damage to the building is estimated at $10,000 and to stock and machinery $10-15,000.
Some “retirement”, huh?
The 1886 Woods’ City Directory lists “Skillman, George R.” under the category “Steam Bakers”, with an address at 51-57 N. Greene St. This was the location that was destroyed by the aforementioned fire. Luckily, George was fully-insured, and he rebuilt the business at a location up the street. By 1887, that new listing has appeared as “George R. Skillman Universal Steam Bakery” at 203-211 N. Greene St. (now a parking lot for the nearby University of Maryland campus).
The Sun has several text ads for the company from this period:
That last one is terrific. I have to wonder how much time was wasted by 19th century Baltimoreans in “scolding their cooks” about the low-quality bread they made. There’s also a collection of smaller ads. These are all great:
I think it’s interesting that his early ads are all about bread. In those days, most people baked their own bread at home. Even as late as 1910, only about 30% of bread was store-bought. His marketing push is based around his bread being an affordable luxury. He can make it better than you can yourself, and you might even save time and money. Rather than relying totally on local grocers carrying his bread, he also opens a full-service retail store at the bakery sometime in the 1890s.
On January 1, 1892, an advertisement in The Sun announces that my great-great-grandfather, Robert G. Skillman, has been made a partner in his father’s business. Only 26 years-old at the time, he is the eldest surviving son.
At the same time, George continues improving on the state of the art in his industry. In 1892, he’s granted U.S. Patent 487,431 for a commercial oven he’s invented.
It’s around this time though, that things look like they start going downhill a bit.
On January 27, 1891, The Sun mentions a court case, Edward A.F. Mears v. George R. Skillman. I don’t have any of the details of the case, but I know that George lost, and had to pay a sum of $45 to Mr. Mears.
Another article, entitled “Business Troubles” appears in The Sun on May 7, 1895. Guess what this is about:
George R. Skillman & Co., proprietors of the bakery at 203-211 N. Greene Street and of the restaurant at 225 N. Eutaw Street, made an assignment for the benefit of creditors yesterday to George D. Iverson, trustee. The bond was for $15,000, double the estimated value of the assets, which are said to consist mainly of special machinery. The liabilities, it is said, will aggregate about $30,000….They said the assignment was due to the low price of crackers and cakes, and to depression in the business.
So by 1895, he’s up to his eyeballs in debt, and he can’t seem to find a way out. This sounds like really bad news, except that another announcement appears in The Sun on June 21, 1895 – less than 2 months later:
George D. Iverson, Trustee of George R. Skillman & Co., bakers, under deed of trust for the benefit of creditors, yesterday reconveyed the trust property to the firm, who have settled with all their creditors. George R. & Robert G. Skillman are the members of the firm.
So it looks like George has found a way to pay-off all the people he owed money to. He must have come into some quick cash….
Fast forward to December 4, 1895 when The Sun ran an ad announcing that the Skillman Universal Steam Bakery had been purchased by the New York Biscuit Co. The ad expressed the hope that their customers would continue to support the business. George R. Skillman is listed at the bottom as the “Manager”.
In 1898, the New York Biscuit Co. (now owners of the Skillman Bakery) merged with the American Biscuit and Manufacturing Co., creating the National Biscuit Co. in the process. This conglomerate would later shorten its name to Nabisco. By 1900, they’ve consolidated their operations in Baltimore to the 203-211 N Greene St. location, and George R. Skillman is still the Manager.
But there’s still more trouble brewing.
The Sun publishes an article on July 25, 1899 entitled “To Fight the Trusts – Wholesale Grocers Declare War on Big Corporations”. In the article, its reported that the local grocers don’t want to deal with the larger suppliers, and several have agreed to only buy from smaller, local providers. One of the companies that is specifically targeted in this protest is the National Biscuit Co. that George sold-out to, and is now managing the Baltimore operations of. But there’s about to be another plot twist.
The Polk’s City Directory for 1901 lists the following under “Bakery, Wholesale”:
Skillman Bakery (National Biscuit Co.), 203-211 N. Greene St., Elmore B. Jeffery, Manager.
So when the big, national baking interests had become the bad guy, George removed himself from that situation and started up another operation of his own. And look at how he’s marketing the new venture: “biscuits” and “crackers” in 1903 are products that are made almost exclusively in large commercial bakeries. “Bread” and “pie” are still primarily products that are made at home by most people. He’s trying to make this new business at least appear to not be a big, scary company.
Other than the damage to the Maryland Institute that I talked about in an earlier post, I don’t think George is personally affected by the Great Fire in 1904. All his properties are outside of the disaster area. He suffers a very personal disaster a few weeks later, though. On February 20 his wife Mary dies.
1905 is the last year that George is listed in the city directories as being the “proprietor” of the Skillman Bread & Pie Co., so it looks like his day-to-day involvement has slowed. Elmore B. Jeffery (who replaced George at National Biscuit Co.) is brought onboard as the Manager of Skillman Bread & Pie in 1906. How about that, huh? George has also left the family home on Myrtle St., and moved to 3617 Forest Park Ave (the current house on this site was built in 1920). I have to imagine that his wife’s death had something to do with both moves.
In 1909, George sued the Skillman Manufacturing Co., claiming that they owed him $115 and that the company was insolvent. He won himself the company receivership in the case, and the managers of the firm were forced to admit that George’s claims were true. At this point, the company address is listed as being 110 S. Charles St. The old Regester St. location was sold in 1910 for $14,000 to a man who built an auto repair shop there.
Skillman Bread & Pie Co. moves again to 104-112 W. Barre St. at least by 1912, and by 1914, it has completely disappeared from the city directories. It seems like the business had run its course.
George is back in The Sun in 1912, though. An article on November 19 states that he had sold the property at 203-211 N. Greene St. (somehow, he must have re-bought the place) to the Lexington Storage and Warehouse Co., and the next year’s city directory lists him as the President of that company.
The gig doesn’t last long, it seems. While he remains involved with the Board of Managers for the Maryland Institute, and as a Board Member for The Boys’ Home on Calvert and Pleasant St., by 1915, he no longer has an occupation listed in the directories. Sometime before 1917, he’s moved in with his daughter and son-in-law, George MacCubbin, at 3803 Clifton Ave (the current house at this address was built in 1910, so this seems to be the only house he lived in that still exists).
He died in that house, October 18, 1918 at the age of 81, having led a very full life.
The best indication of what he did is found in the 1917 edition of “A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents”. This collection of Presidential remarks also includes an “encyclopedic index”, there to give background information on a number of topics that may come up in speeches and letters of the Presidents. The entry in the index for “Baking Industry” explains that it has become at least the 12th largest industry in the country, and that the growth has been incredible in recent years. It specifically states:
Some of the other bakers engaged in interstate trade in the early history of the industry and who contributed to its national importance were…Skillman, of Baltimore….
Husband, father, baker, inventor, technologist, historian, businessman, civic leader, and “contributor of national importance”. George R. Skillman, my great-great-great-grandfather, was all of these things.
UPDATE – 12/27/2014:
I was able to find a display tin from the Skillman Universal Steam Bakery in an antique shop on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. My brother and I bought it to give to my father this Christmas so that it can stay in the family.
I know that it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything – I’ve now let life get in the way of threedifferentseries that I’ve started on here. For now, I can’t fix that, but I trust that I’ll come back to each of those in the near future.
For today, I just wanted to make note of something I’ve noticed dozens of times, but haven’t really processed fully.
I met a few of my wife’s family members down at Fort McHenry today for a tour. While I was waiting for them to arrive, I wandered over to the George Armistead Monument near the parking lot.
It’s a nice, simple monument. There’s a likeness of him, birth and death dates, and a line about why he was important. All the usual stuff you’d expect on a memorial for a man with a great role in history. The issue I want to explore comes in on “the back” of the pedestal:
There is more text on this monument that describes how, when, and by whom it was put in than there is to describe the thing it is actually memorializing. Like I said, I’ve seen this same type of thing on monuments dozens of times, and it always strikes me as being pretty narcissistic. As if the people who decided on the design and placement of the marker deserved equal praise and billing with the memorialized person or event!
The thing is, this is some useful information in some ways. Who and what a people choose to memorialize can tell you something about those people – George Armistead was obviously enough of a hero in Baltimore in 1914 that this commission decided they needed a sculpture of him. And you don’t have to do any further research to discover who the sculptor was. You can further infer that there was a big to-do made of the centennial celebrations of the Battle of Baltimore, what with a monument dedication and all. Maybe one of these commissioners was a relative of yours – a remote possibility to be sure, but something similar happened to my dad years ago at the Maryland Institute.
I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a place or time when this kind of thing stops being the grandstanding of politicians and influential businessmen, and becomes “history” that is worthy of study. Not so much of the event itself, but of how the event is portrayed, and by whom. “Meta-history” if you will, but history nonetheless.
Where is that line? I have a hard time deciding. 50 years? 100? A generation or two? Maybe when the day-to-day decisions of these politicians and notable citizens fade from our memory, and thus cease to have so much controversy associated with them? History is curved, after all. I suppose it’s up to the future viewers of the monuments to make that call for themselves.
There may be some merit to exploring the backs of the monuments, too.
As part of their plan to take Baltimore, several thousand (different sources say anywhere from 4,000-7,000) British troops landed at North Point and began a march toward the city. They were met by militia under the command of Major General Samuel Smith and held for a few hours. Eventually, the Americans were forced to fall back into the defenses of the city, but not before mortally wounding the British commander, Maj. Gen. Robert Ross.
The momentum was beginning to leave the combined British invasion force. The actions to come at Fort McHenry would prove to be the deciding factor.
The Americans under Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British squadron on Lake Erie, opening the way for a land invasion of Canada. It was the first time in history that an entire British Naval squadron surrendered.
The final stop on my tour was also inspired by an entry at the HMDB: St. Michaels, MD. I saw a marker mentioning a series of attacks on the town by the British during the War of 1812, and I just had to see what that was all about.
After finding a parking spot in town, I took a walk around. St. Michaels seems to be a weekend getaway town for the Baltimore / DC Metro area. There are a lot of bed & breakfasts, and a ton of shops and restaurants along the main drag of Maryland Route 33. With beautiful views along the river and harbor, even a scenic boat tour available, I can definitely see the appeal.
As far as history goes, the town is well-stocked. It bills itself as “The Town That Fooled the British”. Legend has it, during a nighttime bombardment by the British navy, the citizens hung lit lanterns up in trees to throw off the range of the British gunnery. This tactic was apparently successful. The militia also managed to halt two attempts by British land forces to advance up the peninsula.
The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is there, too. While I didn’t go through it myself, it did look like it had a good variety of exhibits about life on the bay. There’s a small park along the harbor near the museum where a model of the type of boat that John Smith used to do the initial explorations of the Chesapeake Bay is moored. This particular boat was built for the 400th anniversary of the event 5 years ago, and retraced Smith’s historic route in celebration.
I walked down through town toward the town square – which doesn’t seem to be much of a “square” at all, actually – in search of an artillery piece that was used in the defense of the town back in 1813. Once I got there, I stumbled on to the St. Michaels Museum which was open for the first time this season. There was an assortment of small exhibits – mostly pieces of equipment from everyday life used by people in the area. The lady working as the hostess on Saturday was extremely welcoming and knowledgeable about the area. They expect this year to be a big one for them – with the bicentennial of the battles on the horizon this summer.
Of course the other draw in the town square is the cannon used in the defense of the town back on August 10, 1813. The weapon was placed here in 1913 during the centennial celebration of the battle. It’s a 6-pounder – so by my Civil War artillery standards, it’s a pea-shooter – and in extremely rough shape as you can probably tell by the photo. That being said, it may be the oldest artillery piece I’ve ever seen. The oldest cannon on the field at Gettysburg is a howitzer that was manufactured in 1837, so this piece has my personal record beat by probably at least 30 years. There’s an almost identical one across the street from the Revolution (so presumably even older), and in just as rough a condition.
There is one more point of interest on the square, pointed out by the nice lady at the museum:
Apparently Frederick Douglass spent a little time in St. Michaels before he moved north to escape slavery. The building above, currently used by the Masons, was a church in Douglass’ day, and he attended services in the upstairs room. And with that discovery, the circle was complete on my day of historical tourism.
I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised with the amount I was able to squeeze in. There’s a lot to explore over there, and it has raised my interest in learning more about the history of slavery in Maryland. There’s certainly a rich vein there – especially on the eastern shore.
So get out there and see what you can find in your own back yard. And keep an eye out for those roadside markers – you never know what you’ll discover!