Imagine red dust rising high above buildings in a late summer cattle drive down Main Street in Ellicott City, circa 1855. Or the sound of the gristmill as giant granite stones grind wheat into flour.
This is what Bill Sachs, an artist who lives and paints in old Ellicott City, is doing a lot of these days -- imagining what is no longer there. He is working on an eight-painting series titled "Ellicott City Memories."
The first of the series, "Mill Race," is complete. It features the George Ellicott House, built in 1789, and the mill race that once ran in front of the house. The house still stands, but the mill race, a channel of water built to power mills, is no longer there.
Much of Mr. Sachs' work takes place before he puts brush to canvas. He spends hours meticulously researching, reading and talking to people. He gets information from a variety of places, including Ellicott City's several historical societies. Then, he daydreams about what life was like in Ellicott about 135 years ago.
There is a certain pace, he imagines, to the business of daily life: stagecoaches, women in full skirts, gentlemen tipping top hats. Maybe he hears a medicine man shouting above the din, hawking his homemade remedies. When a train screeches into the Ellicott station, he may have trouble hearing anything else.
"One gentleman in town remembered an old drunk and pulling him out of the mill race. That was before it was paved over in the 1940s," Mr. Sachs said. "I talk to people. [A neighbor] brought in three family photo albums -- what are called tintypes, these are early photographs -- of the town. That gave me one picture."
Mr. Sachs' studio is one corner in his wife's floral design shop, off Main Street in Ellicott City. He sits between two windows overlooking the creek that flows into town behind the shop.
"I've been drawing since I could hold a crayon," said Mr. Sachs, 58.
His first historical painting was of the Battle of Baltimore, created for the cafeteria wall of his junior high school, in the Canton section of Baltimore. In the painting, "There were people getting killed all over the place," he said. "I imagined bloody head wounds and everybody dying." Years later he learned that not many people had died in that battle.
Mr. Sachs went to the Maryland Institute, College of Art. While there, he made extra money as a medical artist, drawing humans, animals and diagrams for medical textbooks.
When he graduated in 1960, he joined the Army and was sent to Fort Gordon in Georgia. There he drew pictures for military police crime lab manuals for two years.
This was the beginning of a 31-year career working for the federal government, including stints as art director at the Pentagon and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In both jobs, he was in charge of illustrating government documents.
But on the side, Mr. Sachs continued painting for fun and on commission. In 1976, for America's bicentennial celebrations, the Pentagon chose him to do two paintings. One is of the Battle of Chattanooga, which hangs in the Pentagon's Bicentennial Corridor.
The other, as it turns out, is the Battle of Baltimore. This was Mr. Sachs' chance to correct a few historical inaccuracies from his teen-age depiction of that battle.
When he did this second painting, he worked closely with historians at the Smithsonian Institution to make sure each detail was correct. Experts there told him that he had painted the British uniforms wrong: The British did not have their winter uniforms on as he had thought, because English supply ships, carrying the warmer wear, had been held up in Bermuda.
Mr. Sachs touched up the uniforms so they are historically accurate.
In 1984, because of his long career as an artist, Mr. Sachs was accepted as a registered copyist at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
As a copyist, he can copy any painting at the National Gallery, although his canvas must be either 2 inches larger or smaller than the original. Mr. Sachs said he painted at the National Gallery for practice and to hone his eye for detail.
Mr. Sachs stopped working for the government last spring. He continues to paint on commission and for himself.
He began the Ellicott Memories series when the resident of the George Ellicott House wanted an old painting of the house copied to hang in her office there.
Once he started researching that painting, Mr. Sachs said, he thought it would be fun to do a series, and the "Ellicott City Memories" series was born. He is working on the second and third paintings.
The series will depict scenes of Ellicott City from Colonial days to the early 20th century. And, he said, he will paint different times of day and year in each. Painting No. 2, as he likes to refer to it, is set at dusk.
"Grist Mill in the Snow" is a snowy scene of a grist mill in Ellicott as Mr. Sachs imagines it would have been. He found some records and descriptions of the mill, but only one of the mill's support walls remains.
With the absence of clear historical data, the artist is filling in the gaps. "I am reconstructing what I think was there," he said, "and I have taken some romantic license. For example, I reversed the flow of the river." This he did, he said, because the light on the river then can reflect sharply against the mill.
He also plans to hide the initials of his wife, Carol, in each of the paintings. They already are in the first two.
Mr. Sachs is researching the third painting, which will show life in 1860 around the old Ellicott train station at the edge of town. He plans to use Ellicott's Civil War re-enactors and the B&O Railroad Station Museum in the old railroad station as models for the Civil War-era scene.
What will be the subjects of the remaining five paintings in the series? Mr. Sachs said he doesn't know yet. Each one comes to mind as he researches another.
"It is fun," he said. "I just start imagining and then I'm able to re-create what life was like then."