Farmers: town's forgotten pioneers In 1960s, they sold land to Rouse, making Columbia possible

May 19, 1996|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Ibbotson Associates, a Chicago-based investment consulting firm, and staff reports. Pub Date: 5/19/96CONTRIBUTING WRITER

When Howard County farmland began changing hands like Monopoly properties in the 1960s, the ensuing development of the planned new town of Columbia fattened the wallets of speculators, the Rouse Co. and its partners.

But the farmers who made that boom possible sold their land for an average $1,490 an acre -- triple the going rate at the time, though much lower than the $240,000 to $400,000 an acre that such choice land is worth today.

As the planned community takes stock of itself in the wake of visionary founder James W. Rouse's death last month, those early-1960s land deals loom large in the story of Columbia's creation.

These farmers were the other Columbia pioneers -- the ones who left the area so that the new town could be built.

By the time Rouse revealed his plans for a model community in 1963, his agents had snapped up 14,000 acres from 140 farms -- land that has formed the foundation of more than a half-billion dollars in land sales by Rouse and its partners since 1967.

Yet many of those who cashed in their farms in the early 1960s appear to have no regrets at having sold gilt-edged real estate at what has since turned out to be bargain prices.

In most cases, the money from Rouse and his partners let these pre-Columbia residents buy twice the acreage elsewhere in Howard and Carroll counties and stick with what they knew best: farming.

"It worked out well for us," said G. Laurence Moore, 69, who traded a 125-acre dairy farm near today's Kings Contrivance Restaurant for Lariland Farms, a 250-acre spread with an expanding pick-your-own business near Lisbon in western Howard County.

"If we had held a few more years, we probably would've made out better financially," he said, "but this farm wouldn't have been available."

Riches not always realized

Fortune eluded many of those who sold their land outright. Many used the money to pay off mortgages and other debts.

"I didn't even buy a new dress," said one farmer's wife, whose family moved the farm from Columbia to another part of the county.

Still, the Howard County farmers -- who made deals before it was clear who was buying the land and what would be done with it -- said it wasn't hard to give up their farms in the soon-to-be-booming Baltimore-Washington corridor.

"I knew sooner or later development would happen," said Frank Vollmerhausen, whose family sold most of its 140-acre farm on Gerwig Lane and Berger Road.

Rouse makes deals

To keep prices low, Rouse, who died April 9, hid his intentions behind a wall of dummy corporations and financial shells.

When the deals were complete, the stage was set for gravel and sand giant Isodore's Gudelsky's 500-acre plot to become Columbia Town Center, and Irving and George Dasher's fields to be plowed under to create parts of Oakland Mills and Owen Brown villages.

Making deals

Acquiring the land was no easy task, even for the developer's chief agent -- real estate entrepreneur Robert R. Moxley, who grew up on a farm in Howard County and knew the area and the farmers well.

"You couldn't just go in there and say, 'Sell the farm that's been in your family for years,' " Moxley said. "You had to give them reasons -- maybe they got rid of the mortgage or could have had a more desirable way of life [somewhere else] but still be a farmer."

Persuasion from Moxley and other Rouse agents took many forms: farm swaps, lifetime estates and deals allowing farmers to keep part of the land they sold.

For instance, farmer-artist Kenneth Hobbs agreed to part with his land on Trotter Lane only after Moxley proposed a lifetime estate for Hobbs' beloved horse.

And Benjamin Frederick Bassler and his wife said their eight children and their spouses had to agree before they would part with the 93 acres where Howard County General Hospital stands.

No easy feat

"I, therefore, needed 18 approvals for one farm," Moxley said. "And since they were not willing to pay capital-gains taxes, the end result was a land exchange for Hayland Farm -- 500 acres on Shepard Lane near Clarksville."

The confusing, fast-paced land transfers sometimes didn't come off as expected.

Plans for David Clarke to trade his house and 11 acres on the south side of Oakland Mills Road to another farmer fell through, leaving Clarke stuck with two houses -- one in Columbia and his new home on 15 acres in Cooksville.

rTC "Eventually, I got a good price for it and I needed a bigger house anyway," said Clarke, who later became the first state chemist.

Smart farmers

Those who seemed to make out best in the negotiations with Rouse's agents were farmers who agreed to sell -- if they could keep just a bit of the land they were leaving.

"The smart farmers who sold land to Columbia saved some of it," said Vollmerhausen, who retained a house and a 1-acre plot from his family farm but sold it in 1972. "If we had held it, it'd be worth millions. When the plot was last sold a few years ago, it went for over $400,000."

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