Oella honors its plumbing past

URBAN LANDSCAPE

May 12, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

A grand opening for an outhouse?

That's what the residents of Oella staged this week to show off the newest and smallest, restoration project in this former mill town in western Baltimore County.

Located near the intersection of Oella Avenue and Logtown Road, the wood frame building with the tilted metal roof is no ordinary outhouse. It's a deluxe "single-seater," used for many years by a weaver named William Moore, his wife Mabel, and their four children.

It's also a high-tech outhouse, painstakingly restored to its original appearance but equipped with modern amenities such as a cellular phone.

As such, it's a fitting symbol for this renascent hill town, which didn't get indoor plumbing until 1984. Before then, outhouses were a necessity.

"This is one of our finest models," beamed Charles Wagandt, a local preservationist and developer who has been working for the past decade to bring new life to this historic village. "It's . . . very commodious."

Mrs. Moore, who has lived in Oella for 67 of her 84 years, cut the ribbon during a dedication ceremony Tuesday. "It's beautiful," she marveled. "I'm very honored."

Named for the first woman to spin cotton in America, Oella occupies a 90-acre tract about a mile north of Frederick Road, overlooking the Patapsco River near Ellicott City.

Founded in 1808, Oella was the home of the W. J. Dickey & Sons textile mill, at one point the largest cotton mill in the United States.

As recently as the 1960s, the mill employed more than 500 people, who made cloth used in mens' sports coats. All lived in houses owned by the mill -- log cabins, frame cottages, brick rowhouses and other dwellings, the oldest dating back to 1817.

In the early 1970s, the village hit its nadir.

The mill shut down in March 1972, and Hurricane Agnes caused extensive damage three months later. Since Oella still did not have public water or sewer service, all growth stopped.

The next year Mr. Wagandt, a great-grandson of former mill owner William J. Dickey, bought the entire property, except for the mill. He has worked ever since to restore the historic structures and add new residences, while preserving the area's architectural integrity.

His efforts got a boost on July 19, 1982, when Baltimore County began connecting the village to public water and sewer systems. The first four residences were hooked up on April 3, 1984.

Today the village has more than 100 historic dwellings in various stages of restoration, most of which are occupied.

In addition, 60 new homes are planned or under construction.

Mr. Wagandt said he restored the outhouse to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the start of Oella's restoration -- and the advent of indoor plumbing.

He unveiled it this week because it's National Historic Preservation Week.

"We thought it would be a good way to dramatize the concept of recycling old buildings for new uses," he explained. "That's what Oella is all about."

Constructed about 50 years ago, the outhouse measures 4 feet by 4 feet. It has been cleaned, repaired, and converted to an information center for the Oella Co., Mr. Wagandt's business.

On weekends, it will be staffed by an Oella Co. representative who can answer visitors' questions about the town, in person or on the cellular phone. Mr. Wagandt believes it may be the world's smallest real estate office.

Inside, the outhouse walls are covered with drawings and photos of Oella's award-winning restorations.

There's a shelf with a guest book for visitors to sign, note paper, and a kerosene lamp for use after dark.

Visitors can also lift the lid of the "throne" and pull out literature about various houses for sale.

Such gimmickry wouldn't work everywhere.

In this case, it's a good example of the resourcefulness and humor that are guiding the restoration effort today.

It shows that while Oella may be a time capsule of an early 19th century mill village, it's not locked in a time warp. It says the past can have a future -- even something as seemingly insignificant as an outhouse.

That's not such a bad message for Preservation Week -- or any other time of the year.

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