A long commute to the good life Madonna beckons to those who like big yards and gardens

Neighborhood Profile: Madonna

December 21, 1997|By Bob Graham | Bob Graham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Phoebe and Leroy Degen decided to head north from Baltimore 30 years ago to see a rancher for sale in Madonna, a small and secluded community in western Harford County, they were surprised at how far they had to go.

"I remember saying as we were driving, ' It's a long, long ride up here,' " Phoebe Degen said. "There was nothing up here back then."

Despite the distance and isolation they feared, the couple and their three children moved into Madonna Manor, wooed from Northwood in Baltimore to a model home because the developer discounted the price to sell it quickly.

Not long after moving into their three-bedroom rancher, the family realized just how far from the city they were.

"One night we heard a loud noise like something was in pain. My husband and sons went out to see what it was, even though I told them, 'Stay here.'

"What they found was a cougar. A cougar, can you imagine?" Phoebe recalled with a laugh.

Back then, the Degens could look out from their front yard onto Cattail Branch and the small unnamed pond stocked with bass that formed at the foot of a hill. Since those days, the trees and shrubs have grown up and their view of the open space, protected by covenants when the subdivision was approved, is now obstructed.

Despite the changing view, she still likes the neighborhood. "It's really a great area out here," she said.

Madonna -- stretching from the intersection of Routes 23 and 146 for about two miles north on Madonna Road -- continues to gain favor from people who can afford to spend $200,000 to $500,000 to trade their view of streetlights for stars.

Workers in Cockeysville; Bel Air; York, Pa.; and Baltimore have become enchanted with the open area, featuring ranchers and two-story houses built on lots of at least three-quarters of an acre.

Most properties are wooded and are sufficiently secluded to afford privacy, while at the same time neighbors are quick to assist others with tasks ranging from household chores to getting to work on a snowy morning.

The area's narrow roads are often among the last to be plowed.

But residents take that in stride since Harford County officials have continued to affirm their plans to protect the northern and western portions of the county from the high-density development that has gripped the Route 40 and Route 24 corridors, neighboring areas where growth has been targeted since the late 1970s.

"We still have land here where you can still have big yards and gardens," said Patricia Wolf, a real estate agent for Coldwell Banker/Grempler in Harford County.

Yet, the new homes that are being built in a variety of locations off Madonna Road are slowly being gobbled up by people looking to buy four-, five- and six-bedroom houses.

"There's a lot of land available for people to build what they want and express themselves as individuals," Wolf said.

"It's a pretty versatile area."

For many people, Madonna is known as a point between Jarrettsville, Jacksonville and Bel Air.

The intersection of Routes 23 and 146 -- Four Corners, as some residents call it -- is an intersection that doesn't require a red traffic light yet.

Flashing lights control the intersection, where there are a local bank, gasoline station, convenience store and a new strip shopping center, featuring a favorite local restaurant, the Madonna House.

The old Madonna House burned several years ago.

A few blocks from the intersection, heading north on Madonna Road, is the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service ranger station, an outpost where vehicles are maintained and from which rangers and volunteers are deployed when forest fires, in Maryland or points west, require a helping hand.

Madonna got its name from William McCurdy, a local doctor who became postmaster for the area in 1898.

He named the town after his only daughter, Madonna, and the area was known as a trade center for commerce between Baltimore and small towns in southern Pennsylvania around the turn of the century.

Looking at Madonna now, it's difficult to imagine it being a center of commerce.

Degen recalled that, when they moved into their house in the late 1960s, a neighbor explained how a shopping center soon would be built in Forest Hill. That shopping center, Rock Spring Center, wasn't built until the early 1990s.

"We've always had to plan to do our shopping because it requires a trip of at least eight miles one way," Degen said.

James F. Young and his wife, Jill, built a house in Madonna in 1976, after finding the location perfect for his sales work, which took him around Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

They built a three-bedroom rancher on one of the area's smaller lots -- almost four-fifths of an acre -- and the location remains good for Jill, who works for Lucent Technologies in Hunt Valley.

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