Did beer save Fell’s Point?

Stop The Road Blog

Figure 1. Picture of one of the early Fell’s Point Fun Festivals (undated). Source: The Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point

The inception of the Fell’s Point Fun Festival

Background. In February 1967 the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell’s Point (the Preservation Society) was organized to fight against the plan to build the East-West Expressway. The elevated highway would have wiped out all of the blocks between Lancaster, Thames, Caroline, and the water (east of Wolfe Street), permanently separating the community from the waterfront.

Road Wars’ unsung heroes, Bob Eney and Jack Gleason, did the spade work to have the community placed on the National Register of Historic Places – they succeeded in getting that designation on March 27, 1969. Just two weeks later, the Preservation Society filed the lawsuit that, although never reaching a final decision, tied the city’s hands and forced the city to adopt an alternate (and much more expensive) route. It took 11 more tumultuous years (1969-1980) before Mayor William Donald Schaefer folded his cards and dropped the destructive highway.

Did beer save Fell’s Point? The Preservation Society financed a large portion of their legal expenses from revenues derived from beer licensing and sales at the Fell’s Point Fun Festival. For example, in 1973, Preservation Society minutes record that the festival netted $4,500 ($30,000 today). Only three years later, in 1976, the profit from the festival had almost doubled, generating $8,000 ($43,000 today).

In 1979 the Preservation Society decided to take over the lucrative beer concession and run it themselves (instead of the previous licensing agreements), resulting in a several-fold increase in revenues, gaining tens of thousands. David Gleason, the current President of the Preservation Society and the Chairman of the Fun Fest Committee back in 1979, is the guy who championed this profitable innovation. 

It would not be inaccurate to say that every attendee who had a beer at the Fun Fest in the late 1960s through the late 1970s (and I count myself and many friends in this distinguished group) can proudly proclaim that they lent a hand (or, at least, bent an elbow) in the cause of saving Fell’s Point.

But this is the CliffsNotes version of events. My book, Stop the Road, Stories from the Trenches of Baltimore’s Road Wars, captures all these momentous events with an eye toward capturing the human dimension. Here is one short excerpt—recounting the inception of the Fell’s Point Fun Festival—as an example of how we portray the story behind the story:

… A bigger step toward winning hearts and minds occurred a few months later, in October [1967]. The Preservation Society had been characterized as the “silk stockings” people, the stuffed shirts that were only interested only in the esoteric principles of historic preservation. As if to give evidence to the contrary, the group decided to put Fell’s Point on the map by using the Point’s reputation as a place for uninhibited fun (not to mention drunkenness and debauchery) to bring attention to their cause. The first Fell’s Point Fun Festival was held on October 8, 1967, only eight months after the Preservation Society was formed. Multiple sources credit Roland Read as the mastermind. [Ex-councilman and founding member of the Preservation Society] Tom Ward described it this way:

Roland [said]… “We’re going to have Jumpin’ Judy Shows, and plays, and poetry readings, and beer stands. We’re going to have a train that…winds around the historic neighborhood.” In other words, an electric train and…cars that people could sit in. We all thought he was nuts, but he did it…. The first Fun Festival had one beer truck that I worked on, and we had the train and we had a fantastic number of people, people came from everywhere. I’d say twenty to forty thousand people showed up. It was so successful. So the next year we had about ten beer trucks and we had a couple trains…

Both [Board President Lucretia] Fisher and [Bob] Eney later admitted that they were initially opposed. Eney said, “I didn’t want it, but Roland did. He was determined.”

Stop the Road chronicles Baltimore’s epic 40-year battle over Interstate Highways, leading to an improbable conclusion: the powerless and the outsiders were the victors over the insiders and the powerful. Enlivened by fifty-five interviews of those involved, Stop the Road reveals all:

Upheaval: how did these no-name activists and outsiders overthrow the city’s economic and political establishment?

Irony: Did former Governor and Vice President Agnew (a highway supporter) unwittingly aid the fight to save Fell’s Point because of graft-related IOU’s?

Untold story: why was the Highway to Nowhere built?

Intrigue: did Barbara Mikulski really stop the highway through Fells Point?

Mystery: why were the engineers hellbent on the highway plan that would have destroyed the waterfront?

Equity and justice: was Baltimore guilty of using highways for “Negro removal?”

Unsung heroes: who were these ordinary folks who saved Baltimore from its own leadership?

Fun facts you want to know: how did the “hippie village” save Fell’s Point from destruction by decay?

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