Hills and history boost mill village's renewal


April 02, 1995|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Sun Staff Writer

Hills -- steep hills, wooded hills, rocky hills.

When you visit Baltimore County's village of Oella, perched on cliffs rising above the Patapsco River, you can't help but notice the hills.

In fact, the former mill village is so hilly, many inclines have their own names -- Herring Hill, Pleasant Hill, Reservoir Hill and Granite Hill, to name a few.

Traveling the steep winding roads overlooking the river, a visitor can easily imagine the place in the 1800s when it was a working mill town. Most of the old housing for workers remains, much of it restored and reoccupied in the past decade.

Log cabins and stone houses built in the early 1800s stand next to pre-Civil War brick rowhouses, which sit next to Victorian-era, wood-frame houses and 1920s cottages and bungalows.

Until the mid-1980s, no new housing had been built in Oella. For decades, the town had all it needed: a working mill, general store, church, school and enough housing for its workers.

Mabel Moore, who moved to Oella with her husband, William, in 1928 and raised four children there, says her family had a good life in the village, her husband working at the W. J. Dickey Mill and children attending nearby Westchester Elementary School.

"You could walk everywhere. The children got up, got ready and walked to school. Now, they run a school bus through here," says the 85-year-old, who worked in the mill for several years making bobbins.

"My husband was one of the top weavers. They made beautiful woolen material. In those days, the boys came out of eighth grade and went right to working for the mill. But you had to be 16 to be a weaver."

Mrs. Moore, who lives in a 1920s bungalow perched high on Pleasant Hill, says she'll be leaving soon to move into a retirement community. Her knees just can't take all the stairs anymore, she says.

"I'm not crazy about leaving," she laments. "I've always loved Oella. I loved the people. I had a good husband, who worked hard. And the Dickeys were wonderful people. You know, years ago, if you needed money, you'd just go to the office and borrow it. They'd take it out of your next paycheck. They treated people well."

Since those days, Oella has undergone several transformations.

A robust textile mill town since 1808, when Union Manufacturing Co. opened its mill powered by the Patapsco, the area deteriorated rapidly after the mill closed in 1972.

That same year, Hurricane Agnes wreaked major damage on the river valley, ravaging low-lying areas and the 1 3/4 -mile millrace that had served the Dickey facility. The textile industry in the village never recovered.

Houses in disrepair

Still lacking indoor plumbing and running water, the village attracted few new residents. Many mill workers moved away. Others lingered, looking for work elsewhere. Many houses were boarded up and fell into disrepair.

But Charles L. Wagandt, a descendant of the Dickey family, which had purchased the mill from Union Manufacturing in 1887, saw beyond the dilapidated housing to a historic town worth preserving. He bought the village from relatives in 1973, including 107 residences on 70 acres, and began working on a master plan to restore it.

"I was interested in historic preservation and land planning. . . . I wanted to preserve the integrity of the street-scape," he says. "What I'm doing is for the long term. If I wanted to make quick money, I would have gutted those houses and sold the shells. But I want to make sure the renovations are done right."

For more than a decade, Mr. Wagandt and a group of residents lobbied the county to bring public water service to the village and stop the flow of raw sewage into the millrace and river.

"I had to convince them there was a serious health problem in Oella. The county was faced with bringing public water and sewer in or running a lot of people out," he says.

In 1984, with public water finally in place, the way was paved for Oella's transformation from rundown, defunct mill town to restored historic village appealing to a variety of professionals, teachers and artists who commute to jobs in Baltimore, Annapolis, Columbia and elsewhere.

"We're appealing to a very specialized market. You have to be a special kind of person to want to live here. If you're looking for the most square footage for the money, Oella is not for you,"

says Mr. Wagandt, who has now restored or partially restored almost all the mill housing formerly owned by the Dickeys.

Affordable rents

After buying the village, he allowed former mill workers to live in their homes at affordable rents until they moved voluntarily or passed away. The Oella Co., formed by Mr. Wagandt to oversee the project, renovates and sells homes after they are vacated by former workers, who now occupy only about a dozen homes.

Folks like Mabel Moore, who built their lives in Oella, appreciate the gesture, noting that others might have put them out.

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