Park next chapter for Cromwell area

A VALLEY STEEPED IN HISTORY

August 03, 1993|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer

A red-tailed hawk circled at treetop height, searching for a fat field mouse or baby rabbit. Its distinctive, high-pitched shriek carried across the quiet meadows and woods of Cromwell Valley.

"Probably doesn't like the intrusion," said Bob Stanhope, a 53-year-old naturalist with the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks.

He was standing in a field waist-high in dogbane, Canadian thistle, foxtail grass and milkweed, looking for an easy path down to a bubbling spring on what is about to become state property.

Natural beauty and pastoral history will be part of the multimillion-dollar deal if the state and county complete their plan to purchase major portions of the valley, four miles northeast of Towson, and turn them into a public park.

Brush-covered lime kilns from the late 18th and early 19th centuries are hidden in the landscape.

There is a house built in the mid-18th century, and one believed to have been built in the early 19th century.

Towering trees are everywhere,including one black walnut with a girth of 14 feet. Its owner said it is the second oldest tree in the state.

The valley's written history, found mostly in land records and wills, goes back to the late 1600s, when settlers were reluctant to move inland from Baltimore for fear of encountering unfriendly Indians.

As Mr. Stanhope pushed through the undergrowth, he flushed out two big rabbits. He pointed to a flattened area in the grass, something he called a "form."

"A deer has been here not too long ago, resting in the shade," he said.

Halfway down the hill, a spring bubbled out of the ground and made a small pool before snaking on down the hillside. Raccoon prints marked its path.

"See that watercress?" Mr. Stanhope said. "It means the water is pure enough to drink. When I bring youngsters down here on hikes, they can't believe it, pure water coming out of the ground. The water is always at 55 degrees, winter and summer."

Mr. Stanhope's obvious enthusiasm for Cromwell Valley soon will be put to the test. A graduate of Boston University, he came to Baltimore County in 1980 to develop the nature center at Oregon Ridge and will play a major role in the valley's development for public use.

Paperwork for state acquisition of the 220-acre Satyr Hill Farm, where the cool spring is bubbling, is complete at a cost of about $3.75 million. Negotiations with the owners of two other properties are continuing.

State would hold title

They include the 102-acre Sherwood Farm, appraised at $1.6 million, and the 77 undeveloped acres of the Good Fellowship farm. The cost of buying Good Fellowship has not yet been discussed publicly. The 7-acre Jenifer property at the foot of Satyr Hill Road is also under consideration.

The state would hold title to the properties. The county would maintain and operate them under a long-term lease. User fees would provide the revenue to develop and maintain the valley as a major parkland and model farm.

Parts of it are in a somewhat unkempt state as a major change in its history approaches. The Sherwood and Satyr Hill farms have fallen into caretaker status, although some farming is being done on the latter on a lease basis. Minebank Run, which runs the length of the valley, suffers from neglect.

"It's too shallow and wide. It's silted up," Mr. Stanhope said of the stream. "It needs to be dredged and shored up with rocks NTC and tree stumps to stop the erosion. Its course has to be altered so it will meander more to cut down on sediment buildup."

There is no shortage of stumps, or trees.

"On the Satyr Hill Farm alone, 130 of the 220 acres are woodland," Mr. Stanhope said. "All the native trees are here; beech, black walnut, box elder, maple, oak, hickory, redbud, dogwood, willow, tulip poplar, sycamore and others I can't think of right now."

He stopped and peered up at a tall hickory.

"I actually saw a Baltimore oriole the other day, the flying kind," he said. "They like to nest in the tops of tall trees."

The black and flame-orange bird, slightly smaller than a robin, spends its summers in the eastern and central U.S. and winters in the tropics.

It is a slim, shy bird, seldom seen. Baltimore County represents about the southern end of its coastal range. Mr. Stanhope thought it a treat to see one in Cromwell Valley.

"I saw a great blue heron recently," added Mr. Stanhope.

"We also have four species of owls, including the great horned owl, which is the largest bird in the valley. Plus all the other birds we're used to seeing. This is a perfect habitat for wildlife."

About 300 yards up a long slope from the Minebank, traffic glided along Cromwell Bridge Road, its sounds muted by the distance.

"We hope to create an overlook on the other side of the road for hikers," Mr. Stanhope said.

The Ma and Pa railroad ran along a ridge parallel to the valley until it ceased operation in 1954. The tracks were taken up in 1958. Baltimore Gas & Electric now owns the right of way.

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