There's a turn-of-the-century, storybook look about the small community of Relay. The older homes with broad wraparound porches can fill an architect's notebook of styles: Victorian, Federalist, Georgian, Queen Anne. Many homes date to the Civil War, built on streets that have been quiet and tree-shaded ever since.
Relay is south of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, hugging the hillside along the protected river and woodlands of Patapsco Valley State Park.
"You'll only find us if you're looking for us," said Anne Heinrichs, 41, whose parents, Herbert and Dolores Plitt, purchased a Civil War-era home on Rolling Road and Cedar Avenue about 40 years ago when she was a year old. They restored the original yellow wood siding with green shutters while raising six children.
"And the six of us bought homes in or near Relay. We didn't get very far," she said.
The storybook character of Relay is one small clue to the village's abundant history of local inventors and the challenges they overcame while working here.
A small marker shows where Samuel Morse kept a laboratory before stringing telegraph wires between Baltimore and Washington by way of Relay for the world's first successful telegraph message.
The railroad tracks through Relay show the site of the race between a horse-drawn train carriage and the first American locomotive. With the population wagering on failure, the world's first curved railroad viaduct was built from Relay to Elkridge over the Patapsco. Another inventor, Relay resident David Woodward, patented the first photographic enlarger.
Even the Relay Town Hall is known for firsts. It once was station No. 1 of the Baltimore County Volunteer Fire Company. Also, it held the first branch of the Baltimore County Public Library. The Relay Improvement Association was chartered in 1903 and is one of the oldest in Maryland.
"It's been a community grass-roots effort to renovate the town hall, to bring it up from its knees to where we're in the final stages," said Linda Vanderbeek, an association member whose home dates to 1868.
In addition to receiving four community conservation grants, association members host a Relay History Weekend on the final weekend of September and have other fund-raisers during the year to restore and maintain the historic town hall.
Protecting the gentle culture that remains in historic Relay is the work of improvement association members. Marge Fahrenbach and Cathy Sweet helped Relay become a Baltimore County Historic District this year.
Relay began about 1828, when train carriages were pulled by teams of horses over steel-topped wooden tracks. The relay, which was a fresh team of horses, waited here, midway in the 13-mile route between Baltimore and Ellicott Mills, as Ellicott City was known back then.
Today, maps of Relay show a place seemingly trapped in a web of highways. Yet the traffic bypasses the pulse of the community, and visitors find an undisturbed quality to the neighborhood.
One can walk most places
"We've got great access, and that's a good selling option lately," said Heinrichs, president of the improvement association. "We're back to having people come in who aren't tied to the area. Houses used to never go on the market, but were bought by children. My mom used to put notes in mailboxes if a house was to be sold."
"Relay is on a human scale. You don't need a car, really. You walk to the train station, and, within less than a hour, you're at the Library of Congress in Washington. Some even say this is a Washington suburb," said Gabriele Hourticolon, a free-lance researcher.
She and her husband recently returned to Relay after a 10-year residency in Dickeyville. For their three boys, Hourticolon says, living in Relay is "the American boyhood fable, wholesome, original, where the world is still together."
Hourticolon lives in what residents call "Old Relay," a community of about 500 families built on the hillsides above the fork in railway tracks leading from Baltimore to points north and south. The elaborate, frequently photographed Relay train station and hotel was demolished in the 1950s.
Today, locals are served by the St. Denis train station named for the residential area on the south side of the tracks.
The modern community of Relay, as defined by the student population now attending Relay Elementary School, extends north of Old Relay, to neighborhoods of Wynnewood and Huntsmoor, as far as the Maiden Choice area of Arbutus, noted lifelong resident Kathy Hawkins, who is the school secretary.
The first suburban surge developed about 130 years ago when train service allowed an easy commute, and the railroad promoted village development.
After the Civil War, one developer offered a $100 bonus to the first purchaser in St. Denis.
The growth of the area continues. Modular classrooms were added two years ago and again this year to the Relay Elementary School that opened in 1965.