A birthday marked by growing pains Development: Ellicott City is set to celebrate its 225th year, as some see history being overrun by the trappings of suburbia.

September 19, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

This weekend is the 225th birthday of Ellicott City, a town that predates Howard County by 79 years, the state of Maryland by 13 and the Declaration of Independence by four.

But even as it marks its celebrated history, Ellicott City faces an uncertain future. Though some still see the quaint community that built the country's first railroad terminal on the banks of the Patapsco River, others see history being overrun by development, turning the town into just another anonymous suburb.

"Ellicott City was a country town, and for the most part, it still is," contends 73-year-old Leroy Lydard, who has lived more than half his life in the same house in Ellicott City. "It has stayed true to itself pretty well."

Adds Sally Bright, a local activist for 30 years: "I wouldn't consider living anywhere else."

That's what Ann Jamke thought when she built a $290,000 Colonial home on Old Frederick Road last year, but a 1,013-unit housing development going up a few miles away has changed her mind.

"I could've stayed in this house forever," says Jamke, who has put her house up for sale. "It's kind of sad that I can't do that now."

Walter Darnall, an 11-year resident who is selling his home on Old Columbia Pike and moving to Florida, agrees. "It was peaceful and quiet. What brought us here is being lost."

The concerts, guided tours, craft demonstrations and museum exhibits that begin tomorrowcelebrate a history that goes back to 1772 when John, Joseph and Andrew Ellicott paid $3 an acre for land and water rights in what was then the Howard district of Anne Arundel County.

They built a flour mill nestled in the wilderness where the Patapsco River met the Tiber Branch about 20 miles west of downtown Baltimore.

In time, the town grew, becoming the site in 1830 of the B&O Station -- which has been designated a national historical monument -- and a stop for several presidents. (Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay stopped there during the 1832 race.)

The town's first general store opened in 1789 on Main Street. More merchants set up shops, making the two-block area Ellicott City's premier shopping district well into this century, says B. Harrison Shipley Jr., author of "Remembrances of Passing Days: A Pictorial History of Ellicott City and Its Fire Department."

"I can remember that on Saturdays, this town was buzzing," Shipley, 83, recalls. "You had doctors here, drug shops, barbershops, grocery stores to do your shopping, service stations to get your car fixed -- everything."

Two major floods, in 1868 and 1972, and a fire that leveled six stores in 1985 devastated the shopping district, but merchants banded together after each calamity to rebuild, says Ennalee Bounds, who opened Ellicott's Country Store on Main Street in 1962.

"Everybody worked together and brought it back to life," she said.

But as Main Street grew, so did the surrounding area. Narrow dirt roads used by horses and carriages were widened and paved. Farms that had dotted the rural landscape were replaced by subdivisions of dozens of single-family homes and townhouses.

As the population increased, the main shopping moved from Main Street -- now home to restaurants and antiques shops -- to new shopping centers on U.S. 40.

Construction of upscale developments has propelled a surge in the local population -- from 23,119 in 1950 to 47,986 in July 1997 -- that shows up in many ways. Eight of Howard County's 33 elementary schools are in Ellicott City, including Hollifield Station, just built on Old Frederick Road. Membership is growing at Nob Hill Swim Club. County police are receiving more calls from the area.

More communities are on the way. Ryan Homes has begun building luxury townhouses at Frederick and Toll House roads.

Construction of the 1,013-unit Waverly Woods project on 650 acres on Old Frederick Road is expected to be completed by 2010.

A Howard County Circuit Court judge will soon decide the fate of a plan to build 74 homes on 81 acres near Bonnie Branch Road.

That is too much for many residents, who say they moved to the area because of its ambience.

One man says he is selling his home on Rolling Ridge Court because many employees of the Social Security Administration use Old Frederick Road as a shortcut from U.S. 29 to Woodlawn.

Jack Worsham, who has lived on Walnut Drive for three years -- his housemate has lived there for 28 years -- said new homeowners are more concerned about work than being neighborly.

"Before, if you didn't have money to buy food, you would find a bag on your doorstep," Worsham says. "Today, the younger ones wouldn't know if you're drowning or if you're wealthy, and I don't think they care. The younger ones can't appreciate that."

But County Councilman Darrel E. Drown argues that the $300,000 homes being built in the subdivisions around Ellicott City can blend with the historic traditions of the Main Street district.

"Those houses are so out of place with historical Ellicott City, but I think that's the charm," Drown says. "You can go five minutes from your home, and you're in a different era."

He also contends that the development will soon stop because the area is running out of land for subdivisions.

The question many residents are wrestling with is what the future holds for Ellicott City. Some envision its Main Street becoming a local version of Oldtown Alexandria or Georgetown, an area of historic ambience in the midst of modernity.

Cindy Hirshberg, an Ellicott City resident since 1986, agrees.

"I don't see why we can't," Hirshberg says. "We can keep one foot in history and reach for the future at the same time."

Pub Date: 9/19/97

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