To get an idea of how long Enalee Bounds has been on Main Street -- Ellicott City's historic and now oh-so-trendy swath of restaurants and shops -- listen to her tell the mailman story.
Things were so dead when Bounds and her late mother opened Ellicott's Country Store on this street 36 years ago that the two women began to look forward to the daily chat with the letter carrier.
"The mailman used to come in, and I'd say, 'Do you have to leave right away?' " said Bounds, who still runs the store on a crowded and decidedly busy Main Street. "Things have changed."
To Bounds, it's a story she has told many times, but to others such anecdotes are important history.
Bounds was one of 28 people who lived or worked in the former mill towns of Ellicott City, Oella and Daniels who were interviewed as part of the Patapsco Heritage Oral History Project.
Yesterday, that local lore was replayed before a crowd of more than 100 in a two-hour celebration at the Historic Oella Mill, once a dank textile factory, now a gallery and antiques emporium.
The Daniels Band, a gray-haired, 11-member band in its 118th year, played old ditties against the backdrop of a blown-up photograph of the old country corner store. And five residents, sitting in rocking chairs on stage, shared their memories of a way of life that's long passed.
Harry Byrns, 70, talked about the days when he worked at the mills -- the wetness, acids and ammonia that imbued the place.
Susan Saunders, 51, recalled the "invisible line" between blacks and whites in the community, a secret cemetery for blacks and mystical family rituals, such as how her mother healed wounds with a cobweb.
"Of course," she said, "there wasn't as much pollution as there is now."
Wilhelmina Oldfield, 84, reminisced about her days as a schoolteacher when her students went barefoot, milked cows and got in trouble for spitballs.
Franklin Baker, also 84, remembered life on a farm without electricity, the days before cottage cheese was invented and his pre-dawn chores as a milkman.
Then there was Paul Corun, 81, who has known everybody else on stage for years. "We're just like one big happy family," he said. " Life was just worthwhile."
That life was captured during three months last year by the Maryland Historical Trust, which commissioned the project to help future generations understand the bygone mill era and the towns that nurtured it.
The oral history grew from a long-term effort to create a "heritage area" along the Patapsco Valley.
The history "is too unique and too wonderful not to share with others," said Charles L. Wagandt, who has led Oella's restoration and rehabilitated the mill housing formerly owned by the Dickeys. He is the last family owner of the Dickey Mill.
"There was recognition by a cultural conservationist that we needed to save the stories of people who know of this area and who have lived in this area over an extended period of time," he said.
Tucked along the Patapsco River, the old mill sites go unnoticed by many people, said Ed Orser, professor of American studies at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. But they represent what was once "the heart of the early Industrial Revolution in America," he said.
"People often aren't even aware that they're there," Orser said. "There were a whole series of mills up and down the river. Many of them disappeared with various floods. Part of what's unique about Oella is that it's still there, physically."
Alison Kahn, a Takoma Park folklorist and writer who did the interviews, talked to a "mishmosh" of people, including former Dickey Mill workers, a dairy farmer, a former state senator and a member of Oella's tiny African-American community. The stories added to a vivid picture of life earlier in the century in Howard and Baltimore counties.
"They represent a period of time and a way of life that no longer exists," Kahn said. "There were some incredible stories."
One tells the legend of the Ellicott City policeman who had drunkards and other disorderly residents walk themselves to the town jail, putting merchants on alert to make sure the offenders got there. Oella was looked down upon for its outhouses and low-income residents. The local baseball leagues were sources of community pride.
"It's more colorful when you put together a picture of people's past through their recollections," Kahn said. "Folklore is part of the community's tradition. You start hearing the same stories, which clues you in to the community's body of lore."
Places with history
Kahn said the people she interviewed had a deep loyalty to their towns.
"There's a very strong sense of pride that came through -- people who said they wouldn't live anywhere else," she said. "People are very proud of what they've built there."
People such as Doris Stromberg Thompson, who grew up in Ellicott City in the 1940s and became editor of one of the family newspapers, the Howard County Times.