Demise of outdoor heritage Goodbye: The Pikesville Sportsman's Club, an institution for a half-century, is giving way to development for Owings Mills.

March 26, 1997|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Frank Smoot crosses a skeet range strewn with shotgun "empties" and shattered clay pigeons. He's drawing on a pipe packed with Tennessee tobacco, and he's shaking off the aches that come with a damp day when you're 90.

Hiking through acres of Owings Mills woodland -- oak and sycamore he's known for a half-century -- he comes to a clearing with a rifle range, and a view.

"Me and the clubhouse are both fading into the mist," Smoot says, gazing through the fog toward the Pikesville Sportsman's Club's abandoned headquarters. "This may be progress. To me, it's more like deterioration."

To see the changing face of Owings Mills, look no further than the 108 acres owned by the club.

Purchased nearly 50 years ago by a band of suburban outdoorsmen who forged a sanctuary in what was then the boondocks, the property is now earmarked for the fast-growing area's largest office park, complete with restaurants, stores and a health club. The clubhouse -- for decades the site of hunters' safety classes and archery competitions, of save-the-rockfish skull sessions and family Easter egg hunts -- is now four piles of rubble in a ribbon of mud.

The clubhouse was knocked down earlier this month because it was smack in the middle of a half-built road to the future: a three-mile, $11 million extension of Red Run Boulevard.

Nearby development is expected to produce jobs by the thousands, and tax dollars in the millions. It is all part of a plan to funnel growth to a section of Owings Mills and protect rural areas of northern Baltimore County.

But forgive Frank Burt Smoot, a member of the Maryland Wildlife Federation's hall of fame, if he's not too thrilled. To Smoot, who was a "conservationist" before anyone used words like "ecology" and "environmentalism," the club has been a place where sportsmen fired bullets and arrows in competition, where generations of children learned to respect nature.

"It was a conservation center before we really knew what conservation centers should be like, or were like," says Bill Burton, retired outdoors columnist for The Sun. Told that the club now seems likely to disband, he adds, "You make me cry."

Smoot doesn't even seem too impressed with the selling price -- about $12 million, according to the club's president, Robert Lee Powell. Club officials doubt that the aging and dwindling membership will want to scour the countryside for a new site. The money will likely be distributed among 62 vested members, but Smoot says much of it will be gobbled up by taxes.

He prefers to think of the property as it was 50 years ago, when he first scouted it: "It was like you were in the wilds of Canada."

Over pitchers of beer at Roger's Tap Room, a Pikesville bar, Smoot encouraged a group of hunters and fishermen known as the Deer 12 to buy it. They did, for just a few thousand dollars, and the Pikesville Sportsman's Club was in business.

Children learned to fish for trout in Red Run, a stream that passes over the edge of the club property on its way to the Gwynns Falls. Their parents staged Saturday night dances in the clubhouse.

Gun lovers shot skeet, or targets at the rifle range. Archers practiced on targets spread through the woods like a golf course.

At its peak, in the early 1970s, the club had 160 members, recalls Powell, a retired Baltimore police bomb technician who has been a member for 26 years. On sunny Saturday afternoons, the property was scented with the smoke from portable barbecue grills.

"They'd bring the whole family," Powell says. "Some would camp overnight in tents.

"It was a retreat."

Hunting was not allowed on the property. Powell says the deer are so tame, they sometimes have to be shooed away from the shooting.

"They're born with noise in their ear," he says.

Smoot and others also trained beagles to run down rabbits. One day, as dusk descended on the woods, a pack of hounds ran an animal up a tree. Smoot saw bright eyes -- and an animal he'd never seen before.

"It's the only place I ever saw a wildcat, a bobcat, in all the woods I've been in," he recalls.

But this seeming wilderness was marked as a logical spot for growth. James T. Smith Jr., who represented the area on the Baltimore County Council when the Owings Mills plan was adopted, says the prospect has hung over the area for decades.

"I remember when I was in grade school, my mother wringing her hands over the surveyors going through our property," says Smith, 55, now a judge on the Baltimore County Circuit Court. "She'd say, 'We're going to lose our woods. We're going to have to move.' "

In those days, surveyors were preparing for the Northwest Expressway -- a highway that would not be built for decades. In fact, the sportsman's club agreed in 1964 to sell land for the highway. As part of the deal, the state built the club a new access road, named Smoot Lane.

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