Waiting to buy more land

Park: Howard County wants to build a recreational area in Troy Hill, but it must wait until area residents are willing to sell their properties.

April 16, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Up a dirt track, back in the woods off U.S. 1, the dull roar of traffic from nearby Route 100 and Interstate 95 intrudes as a telltale sign of the modern world.

Inside the green, wooded cocoon at the top of a hill, legend has it that Revolutionary War plotters once gathered on Col. Thomas Dorsey's family homestead, where the empty shell of an imposing stone house now sits. The site has been occupied since earliest colonial times in 1695, but the modern world is closing in, fast.

Three older couples occupy the enclave near the old stone house. One couple's home is surrounded by an impromptu auto graveyard and junkyard, and the area is flanked by three major highways and a business park. Troy Hill house is awaiting rescue by the Howard County government, which paid to stabilize it after a devastating arson fire nearly a decade ago.

Plans are to restore the old house and build a $5 million public park with a new entrance through the Troy Hill Corporate Center next door, said senior park planner Clara L. Gouin.

"If the stones could talk, we'd learn a lot," Gouin said. Although the house has been vacant since 1968, the unpaved carriage road leading to it remains, along with a few of the large trees that used to line the wooded lane.

Officials aren't sure exactly when the stone house was built. Some accounts say it was in 1820, on or near the foundation of the older 17th-century house. But a 1975 book called "Landmarks of Howard County" speculates that the current building is -- at least in part -- the original house.

The 1991 fire, set by intruders who used to come from I-95 looking for shelter, destroyed the interior. The county paid for a new roof, stabilization of the building's exterior walls with steel poles and beams outside, and new floor trusses inside. The only inhabitants are occasional turkey vultures.

Gone are the white wooden porch and columns that adorned the front. Most windows are bricked in, and a partially collapsed fence surrounds the building. Ruins of stone walls from old outbuildings are visible, as are two newer cinder block buildings that are also in partial ruin.

No archaeological work has been done on the property, Gouin said, and historical accounts indicate a small graveyard might be near the house. Some say a large underground pit or root cellar in the basement, known as "the dungeon," was used by Revolutionary War soldiers under Dorsey.

Dorsey commanded a battalion of the Elkridge militia. He was the great-grandson of John Dorsey, who obtained the 652 acres that included Troy Hill in a land grant in the late 1600s. After Thomas Dorsey's death in 1790, his widow sold the land. The area nearby is still called Dorsey, and the name is common in Howard County, from Dorsey Hall in Columbia to Dorsey Road.

"It's a house of legend and lore," Gouin said.

Much of the nearby land was farmed years ago by Edward Bealmear, the stepfather of 84-year-old Ruth Struck, Gouin said. Most of it was sold later for a business park.

Struck and her husband, John, 80, are one of three couples who live near the old mansion house, and all say they are determined to stay in their isolated green retreat as long as possible.

"When I first moved here, I was about 3 years old," Ruth Struck said recently, sitting comfortably in the neatly kept brick bungalow she and her husband built more than 50 years ago. She was a farm girl and grew up doing hard manual labor as the surrounding area slowly developed.

As an adult, she said, she had a large garden, but no more. The Strucks' nearly 2-acre plot is green with grass, not plowed for planting.

"I can't do it anymore," she said. "I guess our next move is to a senior citizens home."

Across the road, a white wooden home stands empty on 10 acres the county recently bought for more than $80,000 an acre, said Ken Alban, capital budget expert for the Department of Recreation and Parks. When the Strucks built their home in 1946, Ruth Struck said land was selling for $100 an acre.

The county bought the old stone mansion and 52 acres from the state in 1971 for $67,500, and Alban hopes to buy 24 more acres at a similar discounted price for the park this year from the State Highway Administration.

Alban said plans call for restoration of the Troy Hill house next year and construction of the park in fiscal 2003 but things could be pushed back if land purchases are delayed.

The county has high hopes for building recreation facilities that residential neighborhoods in other areas of the county have fought, Alban said.

"The commercial nature of that community allows us to do more," he said, although details haven't been planned. Residents who live near the proposed Western Regional Park in Glenwood, Alpha Ridge Park nearby and Meadowbrook Park near Ellicott City have fought county plans for things such as lighted fields, large corporate-sized picnic pavilions and lighted, roofed roller-hockey rinks.

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