County will honor its 150-year history with yearlong bash

Residents look back to era of dirt roads, rural communities

March 05, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Sometimes, it seemed like the long, slow trek to the county seat of Annapolis would never end, what with traffic moving at the proverbial snail's pace -- but what could you expect in the 1830s?

Unlike now, when travelers seek wider highways and faster vehicles but are still sometimes stuck in stalled traffic, Howard residents from the early 19th century had a different solution.

They split Howard free from Anne Arundel County, built their own courthouse in Ellicott City and moved their destination closer to home.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article published Sunday in the Howard County edition of The Sun about the county's 150th birthday celebration, the Elk Ridge Heritage Society Inc. was misidentified. The Sun regrets the error.

Lousy roads and laborious treks -- not oppression -- led to Howard's birth as a county July 4, 1851.

To celebrate that beginning, a yearlong 150th birthday bash begins July 4 in Centennial Park, renamed "Sesquicentennial Park" for a year. Roadside signs advertising the historical event will begin appearing in April, officials said.

"We believe it will be a tie-in with old Howard County -- the families that have been here a long time, the rural community that has been here for years," said Dessie M. Moxley, one of the organizers.

"It's a great opportunity to get people more aware of the county as a whole," she said.

In the 1830s and '40s, the travel problems were caused by the narrow dirt tracks and rutted wagon roads people were forced to use.

A century before, the Patapsco River had been deep enough to allow large sailing ships to load tobacco at Elk Ridge Landing (Elkridge), but it had quickly silted in, further isolating the area west of Baltimore.

That's why in the late 1830s a "Howard District" was formed in western Anne Arundel County, and in the mid-1840s a new courthouse was built at Ellicott Mills. The final split came after the state's constitutional convention approved the move in 1850, and the voters confirmed that the next year. The new county -- the state's second-smallest and the only one not bordering either the Chesapeake Bay or another state -- was named after Revolutionary War hero, governor and U.S. Sen. John Eager Howard, who owned land in the district but didn't live there.

The split "just made sense," said former state Sen. James Clark Jr., honorary chairman of the celebration committee, whose family came to Howard in the late 18th century. "The county was so far from Annapolis to go down for business, it was a natural thing to do," Clark said. The trek would take days, not hours.

Once the decision to form a new county was made, Howard's boundaries were easy to choose. The Baltimore and Ohio railroad was an easy separation line on the east, and the Patuxent and Patapsco rivers formed the other two sides of a rough triangle.

For the next century, Howard County was a sleepy, rural farm county, until the suburban explosion began in the 1960s, accelerating with the founding and growth of Columbia, which would be Maryland's second-largest city if it were incorporated.

As plans for the new town moved to fruition, Howard, like the rest of the nation, began dealing with the scourge of segregation, which Howard12B for generations had kept black people back.

"I walked up and down Route 40 [in the 1960s] to integrate restaurants," said Leola Dorsey, 82, of Guilford about Howard's last days of Jim Crow. "That's the way it was. I thought I could help change it, and I did," she said. Dorsey is a member of the Sesquicentennial board of directors.

The idea for the celebration came from James M. Holway, a retired Westinghouse engineer who served on the first County Council in 1970. About five years ago, he began talking about celebrating the county's 150th birthday.

"It was Jim Holway's idea, from start to finish," said Ann Harrison Ryder, a local historian who works at the information booth in the county office building. Holway died recently, before his idea could come to fruition.

The two hashed out the idea over lunches of Roy Rogers' rare roast beef, she said, and Holway got then-County Executive Charles I. Ecker's approval, along with $55,000 in county seed money.

Holway inspired Helen P. Voris to write a local history of Elkridge. She's had 200 copies printed and is selling them at $15 each to benefit the town's nonprofit group, Historic Elkridge.

An organizing committee of more than 60 people has begun a $250,000 fund-raising effort while planning a full year's worth of activities.

Lee Wildemann, the new full-time executive director, works from county-donated office space in the Department of Recreation and Parks.

There are nearly a dozen small groups of volunteers planning everything from light-hearted events, such as a strawberry social in June, to devising ways to weave Howard history into elementary and middle school curriculums.

Year-end picnic

At the year's end, on June 30, 2001, she said, "there will be a huge celebration -- a free, family-style picnic" at the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship.

"The value is to bring to all citizens our wonderful history," Ryder said, mentioning the B&O Railroad Museum in Ellicott City as a prime example.

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