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In Memoriam: Remembering Walter Milton “Teeth” Kelly (July 27, 1926 – November 26, 2012)

Arabbers at the Kratz stable, Southwest Baltimore, Maryland, June 1986. From left to right: Caroll “Tomboy” Hughes, Walter “Teeth” Kelly, Walter “Buddy” Kratz, William “Eastern Jim” Fields, Robert “Porky” Warner, and “Mandyman.”  This stable was built by Charlie Boyle around 1899. It is located on Lemmon Street, between Pratt and Lombard Streets off South Carlton Street. Photo © 2012 Roland L. Freeman

Arabbers at the Kratz stable, Southwest Baltimore, Maryland, June 1986. From left to right: Caroll “Tomboy” Hughes, Walter “Teeth” Kelly, Walter “Buddy” Kratz, William “Eastern Jim” Fields, Robert “Porky” Warner, and “Mandyman.” This stable was built by Charlie Boyle around 1899. It is located on Lemmon Street, between Pratt and Lombard Streets off South Carlton Street. Photo © 2012 Roland L. Freeman

I first met “Teeth” in early Fall 1968, the year I began my Baltimore Arabbers Photodocumentary Project. I was at the old Camden Street Produce Center, near the corner of Camden and Light Streets (now a Hyatt Hotel), and I was documenting the lives of “Arabbers,” the vendors who sell their fruits and vegetables through the streets of Baltimore. Teeth was driving a truck, while almost every other Arabber had a horse and wagon. He told me to come by the Buddy Kratz stable if I wanted to get some “good pictures.” It took me a few years to get there to photograph him, as I was then focused more on Baltimore’s East Side. In the meantime, I saw Teeth all over the city–if he wasn’t Arabbing from his own horse and wagon, he was shoeing horses, fixing or making wagons for someone, or heading north to Pennsylvania to an Amish market for their weekly sale of ponies or to get a few loads of hay or special feed. And I learned that in addition to these trips, the truck I’d seen him with was often used by him for bulk purchases that he later resold to other Arabbers.

In the spring of 1972, Ralph Rinzler, one of the founders of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and a neighbor of mine on Capitol Hill, stopped me on the street. That summer Maryland was to be the featured state at the Festival, and he wanted to get me involved in coordinating bringing the Arabbers to the Festival on the Mall—apparently the Smithsonian folklorists doing fieldwork in Baltimore kept being asked by the Arabbers if they were working with me.

Walter “Teeth” Kelly with Anthony “Frog” Savoy, 1979. Photo © 2012 Roland L. Freeman

Walter “Teeth” Kelly with Anthony “Frog” Savoy, 1979. Photo © 2012 Roland L. Freeman

Walter “Teeth” Kelly and Paul “Sonny” Diggs came to that 1972 Festival, along with several other Arabbers. Teeth’s wife, Lillie Ruth Kelly, and their two daughters, Lisa and Denise, also came and worked the Festival on a separate wagon. Ralph was so pleased with their participation that the Arabbers became the only group invited back every year after that initial visit. While working at the 2001 Festival, Lillie had a heart attack and died. Teeth continued to come each year until 2011, when he took ill and never recovered. He passed away on November 26, 2012.

Over the years, Teeth became a close friend. He was a good man, soft spoken, scrupulously honest, and generous with both his time and knowledge. I loved spending time with him as he was always serious about his work, focused on what he was doing, and deeply knowledgeable about Arabbing practices and traditions.

Walter “Teeth” Kelly mending wagons at the Kratz stable. Teeth was a master wagonmaker and made or fixed most of the Arabbers’ wagons. Southwest Baltimore, Maryland, July 1986. Photo © 2012 Roland L. Freeman

Walter “Teeth” Kelly mending wagons at the Kratz stable. Teeth was a master wagonmaker and made or fixed most of the Arabbers’ wagons. Southwest Baltimore, Maryland, July 1986. Photo © 2012 Roland L. Freeman

Like many other Arabbers, he always held other jobs. In World War II, he served honorably and received a Purple Heart. He was later employed at Domino Sugar, drove a cab, and worked for and retired from the Social Security Administration. Throughout his life, no matter what he was doing, he visited the stables daily to care for his horses and help others. I miss him and the Arabbing he so ably represented.

Roland L. Freeman is a photographer, fourth-generation Arabber, and he has been a research associate in the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage since 1972. He has documented the history of Baltimore’s Arabbers in the book The Arabbers of Baltimore (Tidewater Publishers, 1989).

Listen to an audio recording of Walter Kelly made by Marjorie Hunt and Steve Zeitlin in Baltimore in 1978. Here, Kelly shares a shout used to sell watermelon and a “coming in song” that he sings when heading home for the day. Play Audio

Click here for another image of Walter “Teeth” Kelly as well as documentation of his funeral procession.

Comments
  • Denise Kelly

    This is beautiful and well put together. Thanks Mr. Freeman for all you and The Smithsonian has done honoring my DAD, and most importantly THANKS!!! for the “AUDIO” not only can I now keep but I’ll be able to actually hear his song in my heart FOREVER!!!!!! THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!!…’ TEETH’S” Daughter DENISE

  • Terri Diggs-Fulp

    To all the rustlers out there Uncle Walter and my father Sonny Diggs were the true meaning of real Hustlers.Thank you for the well written article.

  • Lisa Kelly

    First and Foremost, I would like to Thank The Smithsonian Folklife Festival Staff andFamily Members , a long with Special Thanks to Mr. Roland Freeman, James C. Early and Eddie for your presence and your heartfelt condolences for my Dad: Walter “TEETH” Kelly. I truly want to thank, Mr. Freeman for this great Honorable Memoriam and Documentary of my Dad. This Honorable Man : Walter ” TEETH” Kelly, my DAD and Memories; ” WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN”!
    Daughter, Lisa Kelly

  • http://www.greathorseteas.com Andy B

    Walter was a real man of the people. T-bone and I used to trade watermelon and cherries for bags of ice and rides. A common thread that runs through folklife. Thanks

  • DESIREE DIGGS

    I TOO AM GREATFUL AND APPRECIATIVE TO THE SMITHSONIAN AS WELL AS MR. FREEMAN. BOTH THE INSTITUTION AND MR. FREEMAN HAVE BEEN IN MY LIFE FOR ALMOST ITS ENTIRETY. EDDIE AND MS. BARBARA ALWAYS SHOW OUR FAMILIES THE MOST RESPECT. I AM GLAD OUR FAMILIES HAVE BEEN TOGETHER FOR SO LONG. I LOVE BOTH MY GODFATHER TEETH AND DIGGS (BIO DAD) THEIR FRIENDSHIP TAUGHT ME WHAT FRIENDS ARE FOR.

    • http://folk1a.si.edu Smithsonian Folklife Festival

      Thanks to you and your family for being such good friends of the Festival!

  • Lamont “Wee-Wee Willams

    I would like to thank Kelly and my Uncle Sonny Diggs for teaching me how to earn an honest dollar. Thanks to Uncle Sonny for teaching him about horses as this lead to employment for over 20 years working with horses which includes Pimlico Racetrack etc.

  • ROLAND MELVIN DIGGS

    ALONG WITH MISSING KELLY I MISS THE TIMES WHEN THE HORSE AND WAGONS WERE ALLOWED TO PARTICIPATE BUT THANKS TO SMITHSONIAN FOR ALLOWING US TO SHARE OUR CULTURE FOR SO MANY YEARS

  • PAUL SONNY DIGGS

    I AM GRATEFUL FOR MEETING MR. RALPH RENZLER AND FOR HIM ALLOWING KELLY AND I TO PARTICIPATE IN THE SMITHSONIAN FESTIVAL OVER THESE PAST YEARS.

  • PAULETTA DIGGS-JORDAN

    Smithsonian, We the Diggs Family really appreciate and would like to graciously “Thank You All” for all of the Memories. For Uncle Walter “Teeth” Kelly will forever live in our Hearts. He’s one of Balto’s finest Wagon Builders. He and my Dad (Paul “S0nny” Diggs) are some of Balto’s greatest story tellers and Arabbers.