Gunpowder Valley history joins towns once asunder Preservation-minded find common ground

August 04, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson

When Judy Beard was a girl, Franklinville, the tiny mill village a mile from her Upper Falls home, was off-limits.

"We were forbidden to go there. It was a different kind of town; there were transients and the houses were rented. But we went anyway; we'd ride our bikes and fill our canteens at the pump across from the general store," she said.

Things are quite different today for the 46-year-old real estate broker and for Franklinville itself.

Mrs. Beard not only lives in the heart of the tree-shaded village but is a leader in a joint project with Upper Falls residents to have the two enclaves nominated for the national and Baltimore County historic district registers.

Even as a youngster, she had her eye on the 175-year-old brick and stone store building that had also served as Franklinville's post office and town hall, Mrs. Beard said.

Eight years ago, her wish came true.

The building came on the market; the Beards bought it and began a restoration project that has uncovered such details as the hand-hewn beamed ceiling in an old storage room with rows of wrought-iron meat hooks still in place.

"Franklinville was a self-sustaining mill town off by itself and then a forgotten little town," Mrs. Beard said. "But now I'm reaching my goal for the town, getting it on the map, getting Kingsville and Upper Falls to recognize the historic Gunpowder River Valley. The young people are preservation-minded, and they're interested in restoring it."

The area called Franklinville, on the banks of the Little Gunpowder Falls -- the border between Baltimore and Harford counties -- had a grist mill in the 1770s. Later an ironworks was built, and in 1826 Mount Vernon-Woodberry Mills built a company town to support the cotton-duck factory that survived until 1910.

The village became a quiet rural backwater after the workers moved away and the houses were sold to private buyers starting in the late 1920s.

At the other end of Franklinville Road, in Upper Falls -- which lies between the Big and Little Gunpowder Falls -- Marlene Rollins lives in what was once that village's general store and post office, at Bradshaw and Franklinville roads.

Built around a late 18th-century two-room log cabin, as were several other homes in the immediate area, the building was expanded and modernized through succeeding generations.

Mrs. Rollins and her husband, Donald, principal of Riderwood Elementary School, threw themselves into the preservation effort through the 18-month-old Gunpowder Valley Conservancy. The group is involved in farm and forest conservation, community beautification and care of streams and trails as well as historic preservation.

"When you come out here, everyone is an historian because you're part of it," Mrs. Rollins said. "This area is so rich in history from the Indians right up to the mills still operating in the 1950s."

Franklinville has about 17 buildings surviving of the 44 recorded at its peak, while the Upper Falls area has 22 structures -- some of them pre-Revolutionary -- which are considered historically significant.

"The two villages are quite distinct," said county historian John .. W. McGrain. "One is a beautified mill town while Upper Falls had farming and the country homes of well-to-do people. They are extremely interesting places."

Ronald L. Andrews, head of evaluation for the Maryland Historical Trust, has toured the villages twice and says they merit landmark status.

Upper Falls and Franklinville have retained much of their original architecture as well as domestic, agricultural and industrial features.

Although individual buildings have been altered and some new construction has appeared over the years, the original village structures remain intact, Mr. Andrews said, "and it must be taken as a whole."

On Bradshaw Road in Upper Falls is a steepled white building called The Casino, a local landmark since 1859. Built as the village school, it became the community center for suppers, plays and other entertainments. It is now the Odd Fellows lodge hall.

Farther along Bradshaw Road stands the stone and brick St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church, whose cornerstone was laid in 1889 by James Cardinal Gibbons in a ceremony that included brass bands and a cavalry escort.

Upper Falls, originally called McCubbinsville after the founding family about 1800, was a typical 19th-century country community, with farming, tomato canneries, a blacksmith, general store, undertaker and even a cigar-maker, Mrs. Rollins said. It was surrounded by the fields of large estates, some of which dated to 17th-century land-grants.

Louise "Pete" Hammond Clarke, 68, an Upper Falls native, has operated an antiques store for 30 years in what was a cannery and later a hardware store.

"It was a nice neighborhood to grow up in. Upper Falls hasn't really changed much in 100 years" except for a few new homes, a new post office and establishment of Gunpowder Falls State Park as a buffer zone for part of the area, she said.

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