Oella formally designated a heritage area Recognition makes town eligible for public funds

trails, museum considered

October 28, 1997|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Oella -- a tiny, historic mill town on the Patapsco River where some stone structures predate the War of 1812 -- may soon vault into the 1990s for good, with the help of state taxpayers.

The Maryland Heritage Areas Authority has formally recognized Oella and its rustic surroundings as a heritage area, making it eligible for public funding that could help chart a formal course for the southwestern Baltimore County community.

Among the possibilities that could emerge from an Oella master plan being developed: a system of hiking trails, a picnic area and a museum that would feature Oella's rich legacy of millwork.

"We're about preserving and enhancing and interpreting the historical culture and natural resources of the valley," said Charles L. Wagandt, a developer who owns Oella and has nurtured its rebirth since he bought it in 1973. "And there is an economic element, to generate tourism here."

The authority was created last year to help preserve communities around the state, making them eligible for matching funds. The neighboring areas of Relay, Ilchester, Ellicott City and Elkridge have received the heritage designation.

In Oella, where the master plan is to be completed by spring, old meets new in subtle ways: 100-year-old rowhouses sport trendy flags and geraniums; an 87-year resident brags about the new, "distinguished" look; outhouses stand as abandoned mementos of days gone by.

"Here, there were cotton, flour, iron and paper mills at one time," said Wagandt. "This was a beehive of activity."

Since buying the town, Wagandt has tried to maintain its character by gingerly renovating its houses -- some of them old stone structures, some brick homes built during the Civil War and some "kit" homes ordered from a catalog in the 1940s.

Homes in Oella have sold in recent years for between $80,000 and $400,000.

With many of the 110 houses he bought 24 years ago rebuilt, Wagandt is directing his energies toward preserving Oella's historic traditions and natural beauty.

An oral history on the town's millworkers was just completed by the Maryland Historical Trust, and a historian from the University of Virginia is studying the area.

Wagandt is pursuing a dream of building a hiking trail along the wooded rapids of the Patapsco River that run parallel to Oella Avenue, a plan that would compliment the heritage area. He said he would like to build an inn near the banks. "The only way to see this valley is walking up it," Wagandt said of the trail.

Wagandt said he hopes the proposed changes -- many to be privately funded -- will begin by 2000, and the public is expected to be involved with each step.

Such potential changes don't faze resident Patience Dayhoff Easton, 87, a lifelong resident of Oella.

"Tourism? I just don't know," said Easton, who went to work in the town's mill at age 16 and stayed for 43 years. "I like everything about Oella. They have built it up some, they've renovated all the houses and sold a lot of them."

County Planning Director Arnold "Pat" Keller is more enthusiastic. "It's really progressing very well," Keller said. "With more access and visibility, it opens up the whole system, and that's going to be kind of neat."

Gary Maule, president of the nearby Ellicott City Restoration Foundation, which helped to snag the heritage designation, said the town has a role to play in historic preservation efforts.

"There's a historic resource in the area -- Maryland is known for its Colonial history," he said. "People have to recognize the value of the valley, and Oella is very much a component of that resource. It's a scenic location and also it's still a thriving and intact community."

Pub Date: 10/28/97

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