"Nancy had the best toys, the best clothes," says Elizabeth Harrison, 85, a cousin who lives in Glen Burnie. "She was a very pretty child with curly blond hair who had everything.
"For me, a farm girl, hers seemed like a fantasy world."
Her father called his daughter "the apple of my eye." She was still a child when Henry Smith taught her to ride horses. When she was a teen-ager, though, the horse she was riding froze before a jump and bucked her off. The fall broke her hip and back, friends say.
FOR THE RECORD - An article about Columbia's Blandair estate that appeared in Tuesday's Maryland section incorrectly reported that the farm's longtime owner, Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, died of a heart attack. She suffered a stroke.
But in 1937, Henry Smith decided he'd still make her horse-farm dream come true. He paid $22,000 for a 300-acre Howard County farm with three barns, two tenant houses and riding trails, and brought in some of the first Arabian horses in the county.
Shortly after quitting the family business in 1939 to devote his time to raising cattle on the farm, Henry Smith became ill. He was hospitalized and died while in surgery, leaving a fortune valued at $175,000 to his wife and daughter. Friends say Nancy, who was in her early 20s at the time, never forgave herself for letting her father die away from the farm.
Even as a young woman, Smith was something of an enigma to her neighbors.
She was intelligent -- and beautiful. "She had very lovely white skin. She had this golden hair she wore back in a bun," recalls Joseph Rogers, 79, a former neighbor and would-be beau. "She just had this aura."
Records are unclear, but it's believed she was educated at Bryn Mawr School for Girls for years, then home-schooled. She is also believed to have traveled widely as a young girl. Friends say she spoke four languages besides English -- French, Spanish, Hungarian and German.
As a 19-year-old, Joseph Rogers was intrigued by her. He worked up the courage to invite her to a dance, and to his delight, she agreed.
But when he pulled his coupe up to Blandair a few days later, Nancy balked. "I was all ready to go, and for some reason, she declined right at the door," he recalls. "She didn't even let me in."
They did go out once, Rogers says, to a movie in Catonsville. But, he adds with a chuckle, "Heck, we didn't even hold hands. All she talked about was her dogs and her horses."
Smith's only real companion and confidante seemed be her mother, the former Lillian E. Pumphrey. The two reveled in gardening. They grew exotic flowers and hedges and invited anyone on the grounds for afternoon tea -- a 4 p.m. daily ritual they'd brought with them from the city.
Rarely was one seen without the other. Even at the grocery store, they would walk arm-in-arm, giggling. Many took them for sisters, and dubbed them "the Smith girls."
Nancy, though, was reluctant ever to be far from the farm. When her mother traveled to Europe, she insisted on staying behind to "protect" the house and land, friends say.
"Nancy was just crazy about that place," says Frances Mason of Ellicott City, who knew Smith for almost 40 years. "She never wanted to leave it."
But when her mother died in 1979, Smith was suddenly alone at Blandair.
"When Nancy's mother died, she seemed to lose her compass," says Mason, 78. "She ... just let things pile up around her."
She stopped riding as much. Weeds grew up around the prize-winning daffodils and boxwoods she and her mother had planted. Paint peeled and shutters fell from her 11-room home.
As she grew older, few realized she still lived in the sprawling, secluded house. Her only daily outing was to the old Ellicott City post office on Main Street.
Postmaster Jim Stromberg remembers her well -- and not just for the outfit she wore every day: a light pink blouse or turtleneck, jodhpurs and a hat (straw for summer, wool for winter). And always a beige trench coat. Hidden beneath the coat was a money belt, in which she often carried $100 bills, Stromberg says.
"It was like she was a politician or a celebrity," Stromberg says. "She was one of the only people who got boxes full of mail every day."
Most if it, he says -- junk mail, magazines, developers' inquiries -- she would throw out. The only thing she always kept were copies of the Wall Street Journal, which gathered in yellowing piles around her home.
"One day, she fussed me out because her Journal wasn't there," Stromberg says. "She said: 'You don't think I read that thing. ... I most certainly do!' "
Her interest in the paper was understandable. An inventory of her assets after her death showed she had parlayed her father's investments into more than $2 million in corporate stocks -- mostly South African mining companies -- plus almost $2 million in various bank accounts and investment funds.
At Blandair, as vines began choking the front door and the steps rotted away, Smith shut herself off from almost everyone, including her family. No one -- except for Carrie Ecker, a neighbor for 40 years and a caretaker of sorts -- walked freely down the mile-long driveway.