Stone-proud Of Its History

POSTMARK: GRANITE

April 25, 1993|By Traci A. Johnson

No one in Granite uses the front door.

"When someone's at the back door, I know I know who they are," says Leah Ford, a longtime resident who lives in a century-old house on St. Paul Avenue. "When there's someone at the front door, I know it's a stranger."

Few visitors are strangers to "Miss Leah," 82, who taught generations of local families in Sunday school at Granite Presbyterian Church.

For Miss Leah, Granite is the pastel-colored homes with pointed roofs, which lined her narrow street even before she settled there in the early 1930s. Many of these homes now are covered with aluminum siding, but telltale granite stone foundations peek from underneath the new material like a hanging slip.

"I enjoyed it when we'd sit on the porch in the evenings and yell across to our neighbors. On Sunday evenings, we would go down to a friend's house about two doors away. They had a piano and we'd go down there and sing," Miss Leah recalls. "Of course the piano was inside, but we'd go out on the porch and sing. That must have been over 50 years ago. The porches were something really important to the community then."

Porches, gardens, farms and families still dominate the lives of Granite's 600 or so residents.

Nestled between thick woods near the Patapsco River and commercial development of Randallstown, this tiny Baltimore County community remains home to descendants of early Granite settlers who worked the quarries that give the area its name.

Granite is as rich with heritage as the quarries were once with gray speckled quartz stones. But in recent years the community has gained notoriety for its least flattering landmark.

"There was a time I would tell people where I lived and they'd say 'Where?' and I'd have to explain it to them," says Beverly Griffith, president of the newly formed Granite Historical Society. "Now all I have to say is 'stump dump' and people know exactly what I'm talking about, and it's sad."

Publicity about the underground fire at Patapsco Valley Farm Inc. has Granite residents smoldering with anger. Portions of the fire, which has been burning since February 1991, have been extinguished, but the smoke that often fills the sky above Granite's serene countryside reminds them of their rage and rekindles their frustration.

"We have a thrilling history few people know about," says Ms. Griffith, who, as the town's unofficial historian, has researched the area thoroughly. "It's time we became famous for what we truly are, now more than ever."

The tranquil rural village flourished during the mining industry's heyday, the 1870s through the 1890s. The Waltersville and Fox Rock quarries provided steady employment for men who came from all over the country and abroad. Waltersville was the only quarry in the country that had a track connecting its business directly to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

The area continued to prosper after mining operations closed in the early 1930s. Residents set up grocery stores and ice cream shops in their homes, and local dairy farmers provided dairy and grains to residents.

The quarries filled with water when the mining business folded and an offshoot of the Waltersville quarry was used as the Sylvan Dell Swim Club, a thriving recreational spot in the 1940s and 1950s. Members of the Red Cross gave swim lessons to beginners, while the more experienced swimmers used platforms or a rope dangling from an overhanging tree limb to plunge into the cool water.

In the deeper, more deadly waters that filled the Waltersville quarry, some daredevils perished after diving from the sheer granite walls towering above the dark water. The Martin Marietta Corp. now uses the large quarry for sonar testing; it is fenced off from the public.

Today, although new businesses have moved to the area, Granite has not grown. The county has made two-way streets of roads barely wide enough for the occasional equestrian to exercise her mount. Trucks from local businesses like Patapsco Valley Farms Inc., a Christmas tree business, and Edrich Farms, a lumber company, travel the same routes once used as one-lane buggy paths.

Granite has retained its country atmosphere and avoided the hassles of big-city living -- without being completely isolated -- for nearly 200 years. These are the qualities Ms. Griffith and members of the Greater Patapsco Community Association want to endear to outsiders. They are working to put segments of Granite on the National Register of Historic Places so the area will be recognized as a village that played an important role in the history of industry in America.

"Granite used to be known for its quarries and the stones. I guess at one point it was known for the saloons for the workers, too," Miss Leah says. "But it's quite a friendly little town now and that's the way we are trying to keep it. You can get away from it all, but you don't have to go too far."

GRANITE FROM GRANITE:

According to Beverly Griffith, stones mined from the Granite quarries (1820 to 1930) were used in the construction of many structures, including:

The Baltimore Merchants Exchange

The Thomas Viaduct

The Baltimore City Courthouse and Post Office

The United States Naval Hospital

The Library of Congress

The Washington Monument

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