About The Gazette Search Back Issues Contact Us    
The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 10, 2003 | Vol. 33 No. 11
A Gift From the Past

Peabody archivist Elizabeth Schaaf kneels beside a recent "find," moonshine made by Gustav Strube. He and H.L. Mencken made some of their spirits in JHU labs.

Remnants of Baltimore's cultural history enrich the Peabody Archives

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

When Peabody's Elizabeth Schaaf got wind of the fact that several dusty, aged gallons of home-brewed liquor had been exhumed during the school's ongoing major construction effort, her wheels started turning. No, she wasn't thinking of the party ramifications; rather she turned her attention to the mystery of just who could have left such a cache of spirits.

Schaaf, Peabody's archivist, said she rifled through her history-laden memory banks to solve the riddle, and one name leapt to mind, but she could not be certain.

The bottles, which had been found in an old cupboard that had been exposed when construction workers broke through walls of the institute's East Hall, would later be turned over to the Peabody Archives.

On Oct. 24, when Schaaf examined the artifacts, she said it took her mere seconds to confirm her earlier suspicions.

"When I looked at them and saw the labels, it was immediately apparent: The handwriting was Gustav Strube's," said Schaaf, referring to the conductor and composer who served on the Peabody faculty from 1916 to 1946.

The German-born Strube, who was also the founding conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, was actually fresh in her mind, as an orchestra in Germany had recently asked the Peabody Archives if it could provide a copy of one of the composer's symphony manuscripts.

Strube's stash included bottles branded with his distinctive handwriting.

Beyond the handwriting, other evidence pointed to Strube, she said. With more than 100 years' history of Peabody and Baltimore cultural institutions at her fingertips, Schaaf has an intimate knowledge of some of the area's most illustrious musicians — so much, she said, that they have become like extended family.

Established in 1983, the Peabody Archives resides on the second floor of Friedheim Music Library. It is the official repository for the historic records of the Peabody Institute, it contains an extensive collection of recorded Peabody performances, photographs and personal papers of the institute's trustees, faculty and staff, as well as those of noted musicians and artists. It also maintains the records of many of the performing arts institutions in the Baltimore area, among them the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Civic Opera, the Harford Opera Company and the Lyric Theater.

"Peabody has become the performing arts archive for this area," said Schaaf, Peabody's first archivist. "We collect records of many of the musical organizations and the papers of musicians and ensembles that perform in and around Baltimore. I might be biased, but this is a wonderful and rich collection."

Among the stacks are records of former Peabody trustees such as Samuel Claggett Chew, the renowned Baltimore physician, and John Pendleton Kennedy, who served as U.S. Secretary of the Navy in 1853, when Japan had opened up to the Western world. Not just a repository for papers and photographs, the archives also house personal travel diaries, opera costumes, artwork and now moonshine.

"This pretty much tops the list of oddities," said Schaaf of the dozen various-sized jugs of Strube's liquor. "Although, I must say, we've had some peculiar objects turn up in personal papers that have found their way here, some of which, for want to be discreet, we have to keep out of circulation."

Part of the archives' collection is the Strube Papers. The conductor was a close friend of H.L. Mencken, the prominent journalist who was not only a Baltimore Sun writer and editor but also the founder of the Saturday Night Club, a collection of amateur and professional musicians who met on Saturday nights to drink and play music at club members' homes.

"Together this very talented group would play through a series of works selected by Mencken himself," Schaaf said. "In fact, we have a number of compositions written by Mencken here in the archives. It's quite a wonderful treasure. Not many people know of Mencken as a musician, and that he was a muse to several composers, including Strube."

Schaaf said that when Prohibition came, Strube, Mencken and Hopkins anatomical artist and Saturday Night Club member Max Broedel took to making their own spirits, some of it in Broedel's lab at Johns Hopkins.

Strube, who passed away in 1953, was born in the Harz mountains in Germany, an area with a long tradition of brewing alcoholic beverages from fruits and berries. Further evidence linking him to the bottles uncovered last month were paper labels with handwritten descriptions such as "Small White Grape" and "Wild Cherry."

Unlike Strube's moonshine, however, most of the artifacts in the Peabody Archives are donated, not uncovered. Schaaf said that many Peabody alumni, and children of alumni, see fit to entrust their memorabilia with the archives.

"From this group, we have amassed recital programs for our very first students back in the 1860s, right through the institution's history," she said. "Not too long ago a lady phoned us up and wanted to entrust to us her ballet costume that she wore for a performance here 40 years ago."

Schaaf said that one of her favorite pieces in the archives' collection is a green wood trunk that had belonged to Enoch Pratt, who had served as Peabody's treasurer at one point in his life. Inside, she said, was a "treasure trove" of Enoch Pratt records and papers, including a number of detailed financial records, letters and canceled checks to Peabody that he had kept on file.

As for the bottles, Peabody plans to exhibit a small selection of them during its Grand Reopening Festival, when the construction is completed next spring. The $26.8 million renovation includes a new performance hall and rehearsal spaces, a restored entrance on Mount Vernon Place, a glass-covered grand arcade and a mews side entrance on Charles Street.

Following that event, the bottles will be kept and preserved in the archives.

Recently, Schaaf was contacted by Strube's great-great-granddaughter, Suzanne Brunton, who had learned of the moonshine discovery. She told Schaaf that she had been told by her mother that Papa Strube frequently would hide a batch of his latest brew for others to find later.

Going by the location of the bottles, and the dates they bore that were so near to the time of his retirement, Schaaf said it's a fair assumption that Strube left these bottles as a parting gift to his colleagues.

While that anticipated party obviously never transpired, Schaaf said, the bottles have reappeared "just in time for another big celebration, our grand reopening."

To contact the Peabody Archives, call 410-659-8100, ext. 1160. Its hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, and by appointment.


The Gazette | The Johns Hopkins University | Suite 100 | 3003 N. Charles St. | Baltimore, MD 21218 | 410-516-8514 |