They were mostly idealistic twenty- and thirtysomethings with good careers and burgeoning families.
They had heard that a new, different kind of community was being built in the wide-open farmland between Baltimore and Washington -- and they liked what they heard.
They were Columbia's first residents -- pioneers, they called themselves -- and they began unpacking their boxes in the first Village of Wilde Lake three decades ago this month.
As Columbia begins its 30th-birthday celebration this summer -- a party in Wilde Lake kicked it off yesterday -- many of Columbia's first residents are retired, and their once-modern homes need refurbishing.
As Wilde Lake ages, enrollment at local elementary schools is dwindling. Even its shopping center could use some sprucing up.
But a good proportion of Wilde Lake's pioneers have stayed: On some streets, as many as half the homes are still occupied by their original owners.
And many of them are still committed to village life and are talking about renewal.
"We realized the community was growing older," says Bernice Kish, village manager in Wilde Lake since 1984.
"But instead of letting it die like they do in some cities, we wanted to help the village grow old gracefully.
"There is a general sense that something is afoot," she says. "There is no huge master plan that is going to make things happen. But little by little, it's happening."
In this spirit, residents and village officials held a birthday celebration yesterday on the Village Green -- the inner courtyard at the village center -- complete with pony rides, music and a tribute to Columbia founder James W. Rouse, who died last year.
Six hundred or so residents gathered on a chilly, gray day as village officials and Columbia planners reminisced about Rouse and the early days of Columbia.
A newly planted dogwood tree and a memorial plaque were dedicated to the man who, as one speaker put it, "gave us the greatest gift of all -- the gift of himself."
Rouse formally dedicated Wilde Lake village on June 21, 1967.
For more than six months, Columbia was little more than a small cluster of homes near Wilde Lake -- a manmade hole of mud not yet filled with water.
All around, builders noisily installed roads, schools, stores and more houses, and some wondered whether the so-called New Town would actually work. Nothing quite like it had ever been built before.
Taking a gamble
"A lot of our friends told us, 'You're really taking a gamble,' " says Dick Callis, a retired engineer who moved into a house by Wilde Lake with his wife and three children the first year.
" 'No one even lives there yet,' they told us. But we had a lot of faith in James Rouse. We liked the concept and we took it on faith and went with it."
Three years later, more than 8,000 people lived in Columbia. Today the population is more than 85,000. The town's 10th and last village, River Hill, is under construction.
And some -- only half in jest -- are starting to call Wilde Lake Columbia's historic district.
"The historic district?" says Harold Feldmesser, a 28-year resident of the village, laughing.
"Well, I haven't heard that before, but I guess it is. I will admit that I proudly wear my Wilde Lake T-shirt that says, 'In the beginning ' "
Not that the village is problem-free. As in some other older areas of Columbia, concerns about crime, the quality of the public schools and the health of the village's shopping center are growing.
For years, village officials have urged the Rouse Co. to upgrade the fading storefronts and outdated design of the village center.
The center's merchants' association recently sponsored two customer satisfaction surveys to try to boost sales in the ailing center. Results are expected this month.
Two years ago, village and county officials also created a Revitalization Committee to help the village age more gracefully.
Workers installed curbs where there had been none on a section of Governor Warfield Parkway, the Faulkner Ridge neighborhood center was refurbished, and three neighborhood signs and a series of streetlights were replaced.
In addition, residents began twice-a-year village clean-up days.
"There are a lot of things that are happening," Kish says. "It's because if a community looks at itself, it sees things that should and could be done. You look around and see things and think someone should be taking care of that -- now it's time for us to do it."
Many residents are heeding the call.
One Wilde Lake couple -- Donna and Mario Gorjon -- extensively renovated their 30-year-old house on Waterfowl Terrace last year.
Aiming to start a trend among their neighbors, they invited the public to walk through to get remodeling ideas.
In October, more than 500 people, most from Wilde Lake, took them up on the offer.
"We're starting to get calls again this spring," says Donna Gorjon, a teacher. "We see a lot of face-lifting around our area and on our street."