Remains of mill, shops discovered


January 10, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

In the late 1700s, a busy grain milling and textile center thrived in Howard County. Today, the remnants of its buildings and even its trash dump are providing valuable clues to 18th-century village life.

"It's pretty rare in Maryland that you'll find this much of a village left intact from the time period we're looking at," said Richard Ervin, an archaeologist with the State Highway Administration.

He is managing research at the site, now known as Simpsonville, that straddles hilly, wooded land bordering the Middle Patuxent River near Route 32 and Cedar Lane on the southern edge of Columbia.

"A lot of times new development piles up on top of the old, and the old is lost underneath," Mr. Ervin said. "But in this case, new development shifted away from the Simpsonville village."

The artifacts and the structural remnants of homes, shops and mills, were discovered by consultants hired by the state to conduct archaeological research before work begins on a new overpass. The overpass is part of a planned realignment of Route 32, which runs east-west south of Columbia. Work is due to begin this summer.

Researchers say that artifacts and the remnants of more than a dozen structures dating back to the late 1700s found at the site in the past three months represent a significant archaeological find.

The site is considered so valuable that a state bridge engineer redrafted the design for the new overpass so that abutments and footings would not damage any structural remnants.

Mr. Ervin said that the site has been undisturbed by 19th- and 20th-century development, leaving remnants of buildings and artifacts buried but intact. Few other villages from the time period have been found in such good condition in the state.

Simpsonville may help archaeologists and historians determine

what village life was like in Maryland in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Mr. Ervin said.

"The really neat thing about this site is that it shows what an integral part . . . this area of Maryland played in the development of a new nation," said M. Lee Preston, a history teacher at Atholton High School and president of the Upper Patuxent Archaeological Group, a chapter of the Maryland Archaeological Society.

Mr. Preston assisted the state with land record and other documentary research on Simpsonville, named for a family that owned land there in the 1850s.

Archaeological digs at the site, which began in October and concluded temporarily last month, uncovered footings and foundations of about a dozen homes, a blacksmith and wheelwright shop and evidence of a post office and other shops. Best of all, a Colonial-era trash dump was discovered.

Mr. Ervin said that a large number of items were found in the trash deposit. They should prove valuable to archaeologists back at the lab as they attempt to piece together clues to an earlier American life. Items found include broken ceramics, bottle glass and what are called "structural artifacts," such as nails and windows.

"The items found in trash dumps are always very valuable to archaeologists because they usually represent things about life that everyone back then considered so common no one documented them or their value," Mr. Ervin said.

The most noticeable structural remnants are the walls of one of two grist mills, which once processed grain for shipment locally and to the Baltimore area. The stone walls can be seen easily from Cedar Lane.

"Milling was a very important part of the mid-Atlantic economy in the late 1700s and early 1800s. We're confident the Simpsonville mills were producing flour for export outside just the local market," Mr. Ervin said.

The largest of 13 such milling centers in Howard County during the 1700s and 1800s was Ellicott Mills in Ellicott City.

The first known land record of the site was a will found by Mr. Preston, the teacher. The 1768 will signed by a Joshua Warfield shows that a mill may have stood on the site as early as the mid-1700s.

Land maps show that by 1794 Richard Owings, founder of Owings Mills, became a mill owner in Simpsonville. It was he who apparently transformed the site into a major industrial enterprise.

Artifacts and structural remnants at the site show that Owings constructed a dam and water race, which took water to the mill wheels. He also built a second mill at the site equipped with the latest in milling machinery.

In the early 20th century, the mills were used as a cider press, research has shown. The last known operator was John Igelhart.

Archaeological excavation halted about two weeks ago when researchers determined that the two standing walls of the mill structure were unstable. The state has hired a contractor to stabilize them.

Mr. Erwin expects archaeologists to return to the site within two weeks to resume digging. They will focus on earth around the perimeter of the stone walls.

"That area should provide some pretty interesting finds," said Mr. Ervin. "It's a fairly complex site.

"Researchers will go over this material for months before they can determine any trends or conclusions," he said.

Researchers on the $350,000 archaeological project will prepare report on their findings, which will be placed on record at about a dozen depositories, including state and county historical societies and the Howard County library.

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