Ever since he was 21, Steve Wecker has been telling his skeptical friends he would leave the printing business to run a country inn, somewhere off the beaten path -- some day.
"Yeah, right," they always said. "Have another beer, Steve."
Now that he's 33, some day may not be all that far off as Mr. Wecker, his brother Dan and their sister, Margie Cobb, are already at work restoring the Elkridge Furnace Inn. The tavern dates from the late 18th or early 19th century, and there are two old houses on the same property at Furnace Avenue and Race Road in Elkridge.
They hope to open the inn in the fall, Dan Wecker said.
The work is being done under a state program designed to preserve historic sites that the Department of Natural Resources has purchased but has no money to maintain.
Under this curatorship program, families are allowed to live in state-owned buildings such as the two houses in Elkridge rent-free, provided they restore and maintain the buildings. And businesses can sign commercial leases with the state to run restaurants or inns in some buildings.
"But don't get the idea you can slap up a coat of paint and stay there forever," warned Ross Kimmel, who runs the program for the Department of Natural Resources. "We want to see a plan, and we want to see progress on that plan."
According to Mr. Kimmel, the department owns about 330,000 acres statewide, much of which was acquired in the past 20 to 30 years with federal money and open-space funds. Along with that land came some 1,300 buildings.
Many are just old, but almost a third have some additional historical significance.
But according to a 1980 estimate, it would cost at least $13 million to "do something with the buildings," more than the state was about to spend, said Mr. Kimmel.
He said the program was modeled on a local one in Chestertown.
"It sounded like a good process to us," he recalled. "As long as they [people participating in the statewide program] continue to restore and maintain the places, they can stay there as curators."
Since the first curatorship was granted in 1982, the department has granted 12 more and has received about $1 million worth of restoration work in return, Mr. Kimmel said. "It's a way of enhancing state property at not much cost other than my salary and gas money."
But not anyone can be granted a curatorship, he added. Mr. Kimmel wants to see a five-year plan that involves substantial improvements and proof that the applicants have "the financial wherewithal" to pull it off.
In the case of the Weckers, who are doing their job on a shoestring, "It's an exercise in faith," Mr. Kimmel conceded.
"They have youth and enthusiasm and an incredible ability to develop networks to pull in people to help them," he said. "So I decided to take a chance."
Since they started the project, they have received hundreds of hours of volunteer labor from local historical groups, Boy Scouts, community groups and their churches, Dan Wecker said.
"We're lucky that we belong to churches that believe in ministering to their congregations," said Patty Wecker, Steve's wife. "They have been so much help to us."
A young couple who are members of the Evangelical Presbyterian congregation in Columbia that Dan Wecker belongs live rent-free on the second floor of the inn in exchange for helping with the restoration, and two single men live in another part of the building under the same arrangement.
Dan, Steve and Mrs. Cobb all have worked in the old family printing business at one time or another, and they have been in and out of the restaurant business over the years.
Dan was an assistant chef at the King's Contrivance restaurant near Columbia until he quit 12 years ago in a salary dispute. Since then he has worked in the printing business and has run his own catering firm. Margie Cobb has run fast-food restaurants. And Steve?
Well, Steve can cook some things, but his real talent is in promotion. Steve is the visionary, Dan explained.
"He was the one who thought this was a great idea."
"I've dragged my poor wife everywhere from Bangor, Maine, to North Carolina to look at places," Steve Wecker recalled. "And when I saw this place was for sale six years ago, I called Dan and his wife and everyone I thought might be interested, and we went to look at it. I was in love with the place, but they all looked at me and said, 'You are nuts.' "
That sale did not go through, and the state eventually wound up with the inn, the two houses and 14 acres on the edge of the Patapsco Valley State Park. The State Highway Administration purchased the property as part of a right of way for Interstate 195, which connects the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and I-95. The 14 acres were turned over to DNR when highway officials realized the historic significance of the buildings.