Century-old publishing house goes to auction
By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun
The West Baltimore home of a defunct century-old book publisher that once commanded offices in Chicago and San Francisco will go on the auction block Wednesday — a casualty of Hurricane Katrina, technological change and even the "For Dummies" instructional book series.
What remains of the H.M. Rowe Co. — named for a man who was killed by his son in 1926 — straddles two addresses on North Gilmor Street in Harlem Park. Two three-story buildings joined together contain offices that were active with final orders only weeks ago, and a warehouse with a conveyor belt running from the basement to the third floor.
In July, the owner put the business up for sale, but there were no takers.
"Unfortunately for us, it was just dying," said Gail Willie, who inherited the business when her father, William E Steigleman Jr., died in 1999. The original owner, H.M. Rowe, was married to her great aunt, the former Jeannette Steigleman, who was in the room of the house when her husband was attacked on that May evening 88 years ago.
Willie, 60, who lives on a farm in Howard County, has been a nurse her entire professional life and now works at a school in Montgomery County. She left the publisher's day-to-day operation to a company manager who has been there for decades, but said she feels the loss of the business that's been in her family for about 90 years.
"It's been a grieving process to let go of a business that you've had so long," she said.
Three employees remained at the end, from a high of 15 during Willie's time as owner. As business declined, Willie said, new people were not brought in to replace older employees who left.
The company specialized in books sold to business and community colleges and vocational high schools to teach skills such as typing, shorthand, filing and business math. When computers arrived, the company tried to keep pace with instructional books on Windows and Mac applications.
The company suffered a serious blow in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, forcing many of the schools that were customers to shut down. Many never reopened. The company did business across the country, but Willie estimated that about 60 percent of their customers were in the South.
"We've been struggling ever since '05," she said.
The damage was compounded by technology, which made much of Rowe's material more easily available by download. Meanwhile, a series of instructional books with a catchy title covering everything from banjo playing to beekeeping grew more and more popular.
"When the 'Dummies' books came out — you can just learn everything from them," Willie said. "In hindsight, we should have diversified."
An only child, she was kept distant from the business as a young person, never groomed to take on a management role. She was also kept in the dark about how H.M. Rowe died.
"As a child, I always heard about 'the accident,'" she said. "It wasn't until I was a young woman in my 20s that I heard about the murder. I had no idea."
Harry M. Rowe, who once served as president of a young American Automobile Association, had co-founded the Sadler-Rowe Co. in 1898 to publish accounting textbooks. In 1907, Warren Sadler decided to withdraw from the business, selling his share to Rowe, who gave the enterprise his name a few years later when Sadler died.
On the evening of May 3, 1926, Rowe was in the library of the family home on Johnnycake Road near Catonsville with his wife, Willie's great aunt Jeannette, and his teenage daughter from a previous marriage. According to a Baltimore Sun account, based on Jeannette Rowe's description, Rowe's 38-year-old son burst into the room and "began beating his father in the head with a club."
Harry M. Rowe Jr. was Rowe's son from the first of his three marriages. The girl was from his second marriage. Willie's great aunt was his third wife, with whom he had no children.
Rowe, who was in his mid 60s, died six days later at St. Agnes Hospital. His wife and daughter also were injured in the attack but recovered. The police pursuit of the son ended May 15, when his body was found in the Severn River in Annapolis. According to a Sun account, police said he had apparently committed suicide.
Articles from the time said that about two years earlier, Rowe had fired his son from his job as secretary-treasurer of Carozza-Rowe Construction Co. when he was president.
The publishing business passed to Willie's great aunt, then to her grandfather, to her father, then to her. Willie said her son, the older of her two children, might have taken over, "but there's nothing to take over."
There are the two connected buildings near Harlem Park Middle School, a neighborhood of many boarded-up rowhouses. The place served as the company's home after its building on West German Street was destroyed during the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. Property records date the buildings to 1910.
Auctioneer Charles Billig of A.J. Billig & Co. said two bidders have registered so far. He was asked if he thought the building — in fine shape on the outside, but which needs updates and water damage repairs inside — would be a tough sell.
"Not sure. I think we've got it attractively priced," he said.
Willie said she'll attend the auction to see how it goes.
"I'll be there crying," she said. "I never wanted this to happen on my watch, but it's happened."