Updated: Nov 6, 2022
Big turnouts for Calvert Historical Society's gatherings to honor one of the Chesapeake region’s great authors.
Ask a Marylander in Calvert County who’s the greatest local author and many would say Tom Clancy — who died in 2013 but whose fictional heroes still populate bookstores and TV screens.
“If you lived in the 1920s and 1930s and asked that question, they would have said Hulbert Footner,” said Ralph Eshelman, speaking on Saturday evening, Sept. 24, from the porch of the Calvert County Historical Society in Prince Frederick.
Eshelman, historian and former director of the Calvert Marine Museum, led an evening ceremony capping an auspicious day for the historical society — the opening of the William Hulbert Footner Room in the society’s stately edifice on Church Street. About 60 people turned out both for morning and evening events.
Playing the famous Maryland authors' game is tricky business given a prodigious list of writers. Footner friend H.L. Mencken operated in the same era; when Footner passed in 1944, Mencken wrote to the widow, Gladys March: “You were married for 30 years to one of the most charming men who was ever on earth.”
There’s also: abolitionist writer and author Frederick Douglass; poet and storyteller Edgar Allen Poe; Baltimore-born muckraker Upton Sinclair; F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose short life played out elsewhere, buried in Rockville, along with wife Zelda; Baltimore native, hard-boiled detective writer Dashiell Hammitt; humorist poet Ogden Nash (“Dog is man’s best friend") on an arm’s-length list of notable writers that continues to grow.
Lost Generation novelist John Dos Passos, who died in Baltimore a half-century ago, wrote more than 30 books. Mencken produced entire volumes on language. But it would be a rare talent anywhere who could match the prolific Footner, with more than 60 books — mostly detective fiction and adventure sagas, often two a year — while writing serially for magazines and newspapers.
In a departure from books in his era, Footner's principal characters often were women, prompting a critic of his day to remark that the writing was "unusually female-oriented.” His most celebrated character bequeathed to a genre is Madame Rosika Storey, a private detective with uncommon intuitive powers operating out of sumptuous New York digs.
The newly dedicated William Hulbert Footner Room (he went by Bill, or Billy) features some of those books, and others can be purchased at the Historical Society. They include Rivers of the Eastern Shore, one of the well-received, historical nonfiction books late in Footner’s career that served as a contribution to a land he came to love.
Footner artifacts include his typewriter with a letter to his son shortly before his death, a long note giving the sense that the author knew he needed to keep writing to see to his family’s needs. Four days later, while proofreading yet another novel — Orchids for Murder — Footner died after a heart attack. He was 65.
Footner grandchildren, who donated the books, antiques and memorabilia, traveled from distant points — Washington state, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland’s Eastern Shore — for the dedication.
“He must have been driven to produce the number of books he did to support his family,” granddaughter Karen Footner, who lives near St Michaels, said at the event.
The Canadian-born Footner’s hearty embrace of Maryland’s Western Shore is part of the author’s allure. He’d been an intrepid adventurer as a young journalist, canoeing some 3,000 miles in the far north of Canada that non-natives rarely, if ever, had seen. The maps he drew — one on display in the Footner Room — were adopted for use by Canadian authorities of the era.
It was an unlikely canoe journey he planned in 1908, as a young writer in New York, after reading a magazine article trumpeting the allure of the tidewaters of Maryland and Virginia. His discovery of Solomons Island, where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Patuxent River, was an accident.
After 200 miles of paddling, storms waylaid Footner, and his canoe, in Baltimore. The 29-year-old Footner, itching to get on with his journey, prowled the wharves of Light street looking to hop a working vessel headed south.
The purser of one such steamboat asked Footner where he wished to go, Footner recalled in his 1939 book, Charles' Gift: Salute to a Maryland House of 1650.
"I said I don't exactly know," whereupon he gave me the stare of one unexpectedly confronted with a lunatic."
"Give me a ticket to Pearson's, please," I said, looking at a map.
The purser looked at me in scorn.
"We haven't called at Pearson's in 17 years."
Upon telling him that I wanted a place to board near the bay, he suggested Solomon's Island.
I was put off on a mysterious wharf by lantern light and obtained a temporary lodging. In the morning, to a city man, it was like waking in Paradise.
In Solomon's, Footner found love, a historic home and lifelong writing mojo.
"For the first time in his life, he felt a home, he felt a community,” Karen Footner said, “and he stopped here for the rest of his life,”
Footner’s fame may have been fleeting, but his devotees are many. For retired Calvert Library branch head Joanie Kilmon, the author has been a fascination since she pestered her parents and siblings as a girl.
“Whenever there was a lull at the dining room table, I would ask my family, ‘Who wants to hear about Hulbert Footner?’,” Kilmon, who was a driving force in the Hulbert Footner Society, recalled to a standing room-only gathering during the morning session of the dedication.
John Johnson, Calvert Historical Society director, said the room dedicated to Footner will serve as a foundation for ongoing study of the author with presentations and, perhaps, book clubs gatherings. Calvert Library likely will play a role in bringing Footner to life.
With books published in New York and London, Footner was a star in demand a century ago. “But he would return here to rejuvenate his writing, and his soul,” Johnson said. “It’s like they say, ‘I wasn’t born in Calvert County but I got here as soon as I could’."