Brought low by privies, ironworks town of Ashland re-emerges as luxury village


April 24, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson

Virgie Gover moved to Ashland as a 10-year-old and left 47 years later, after raising five children in the tiny village along Western Run in Cockeysville. And during all that time, her family never had an indoor toilet.

"That didn't matter. It was a great place to live," said Mrs. Gover, 64, who still misses the old days in the close-knit community.

Ironically, it was the proliferation of privies that led to the demise of this 19th-century village and its resurrection as what one historian calls "the best preserved ironworks town in Baltimore County."

Ashland's outhouses were polluting Loch Raven Reservoir so badly that by the late 1970s authorities had issued an ultimatum to the Mano Swartz family, which had owned the village since 1924: Install municipal sewerage or demolish the place.

"It was so costly that it didn't make sense," said Mr. Swartz, the Towson furrier, who went as far as to draft a plan that included rehabilitating most of the old homes. Instead, the Swartz family, which bought Ashland from the city of Baltimore at an auction for $43,000, opted to sell.

Developer Kimberly Strutt bought the 34-acre village in 1984 and found himself facing a tough decision. Time had taken its toll; it would have been easier -- and less expensive -- to bulldoze the dilapidated old houses and start fresh.

But when he considered Ashland's history, Mr. Strutt decided to save as many buildings as possible and make them the centerpiece of a new luxury development nestled in a bend of Western Run. In the end, he razed about 20 old buildings, mostly unsalvageable frame houses, "and about 30 or 40 privies."

He saved 11 of the most important buildings, some dating to the 1840s when Ashland's iron furnace was built. Among them were the two-story brick houses of ironworks managers, the old company store, post office and school. Most were stripped to their brick and stone shells and rebuilt.

"It was a labor of love," Mr. Strutt said.

It turned out to be the right economic choice, too. Mr. Strutt says restoring the old buildings has made Ashland a more desirable neighborhood, increasing the value of the new homes he's built.

The new houses, both detached homes and town houses, were designed to take advantage of the town's past. Covered with gray-painted cedar shakes or mellowed red brick with white trim, they are plain on the outside in keeping with Ashland's working-class history.

"It's a good compromise," said county historian John W. McGrain, who included Ashland in his industrial history of Baltimore County, "From Pig Iron to Cotton Duck." Normally a purist on preservation, he calls the result "immensely preferable to destruction."

The Ashland Iron Works was begun in 1844 and was named for the Kentucky estate of Henry Clay, then one of the country's most famous statesmen. The furnace produced its first iron two years later.

The works prospered during the Civil War and by 1867 had three furnaces and more than 200 workers. Development of the Bessemer steel process in 1866 spelled the end of pig iron, and Ashland closed in 1884. The furnace ruins remain in the woods beyond the old Northern Central Railway tracks.

After the iron industry shifted to Sparrows Point in the 1880s, Ashland remained a country village. "It sat still for nearly a hundred years," Mr. Strutt said.

The town's transformation has been "astounding," said the Rev. Fred Stashkevetch Jr., pastor of the Ashland Presbyterian Church, which has stood at the edge of the village since 1874.

"It came from what could have been the wrong side of the tracks to an upscale community," he said, referring to Ashland's slow decline to near-destruction after the works closed down.

Ashland's signature restoration is the block of sparkling white-painted brick and limestone houses called Stone Row.

Once eight four-room workers' cottages, Stone Row retains its 19th-century charm but has been transformed into four luxurious homes beside the stream at the beginning of the hike-and-bike trail along the old Northern Central Railroad line.

Mrs. Gover said she was paying $37.50 monthly rent for her Stone Row house when she left in 1984. She can scarcely believe the same two-story house -- now restored -- can command a price above $200,000.

Brenda Beall, 39, of Monkton, one of her daughters, was born on Stone Row and recalls it fondly -- even though the family had to use an outhouse and for much of her childhood drew its water from a pump at the end of the street.

"I loved it when I was younger," she said. "We kids used to go swimming where Western Run goes behind the church. And we used to explore the old ironworks ruins" in the woods beyond the village.

Linda Roberts, 42, who now works for the Mano Swartz family and lives in "The Cottage," an 1840s house near the main house, said she and her husband are the only Ashlanders who have returned, and they are delighted.

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