1800s rich summered in style

150 Years of Howard History

January 23, 2001

Helen Voris is a local historian who lives on Lawyers Hill in Elkridge. These excerpts are from her book "Elkridge: Where It All Began," published last year, describing 19th-century life on the hill.

Residents of Lawyers Hill mentioned in the book include Judge George Washington Dobbin and lawyers Thomas Donaldson, J.H.B. Latrobe and Benjamin Waters. The Dobbin sisters - Jeannette, Annette and Rebecca - were granddaughters of G. W. Dobbin's; George Dobbin Brown was his grandson. Helen Voris and her family purchased their home, a property then called "Wayside," from Jeannette Dobbin.

Life in the city in the 1850s must have been less than pleasant, especially in the summer. With few of the amenities we take for granted, it is no wonder that as many as were able sought respite from it.

With the coming of the railroad it became possible to do this if only for a short time to have a picnic. Others found it possible to establish summer homes, either along the Main Line which went west through Ellicott Mills or the Washington Line.

One of the first to establish a summer home [on Lawyers Hill in Elkridge] which became a year-around dwelling was George Washington Dobbin. His interest in the railroad made him aware of the possibilities that existed not too far from his office in the city.

Consequently he purchased land and built a home which he called "The Lawn" and, indeed, until it was abbreviated by Interstate 95, the large expanse of green which surrounded the house made it an appropriate name. It had an observatory, a wind tunnel, several tenant houses, a barn, and a pond. It is said that it became a year-around home after Judge Dobbin experienced a serious illness and found the healthful environment more livable.

Several of Dobbin's friends found the convenience of the area as well as the scenic beauty attractive. Thomas Donaldson was one of these who built a home he called "Edgewood." Donaldson was followed by J.H.B. Latrobe, already mentioned for his stay at Relay House. Benjamin Waters located closer to Montgomery Road.

The same group of people who came in summer also associated among themselves in the city in winter. They inter-married, sub-divided their properties among their children, and established Grace Episcopal Church.

At their idyllic summer places they relaxed from the duties people of their class followed in the city. I recall that the Dobbin sisters called on the "new" people, leaving their calling cards when by the 1960s most of the summer homes had been sold. It caused some puzzlement as to how to respond among the new people, because it was the remnant of a different way of life - one that had "gone with the wind."

Indications of that way of life remain. There are still some of the large houses with the names given to them by their original owners - names such as MAYCROFT, WAYSIDE, BONNIEWOOD, HURSLEY, ARMAGH, THE GABLES, TUTBURY, and ELIBANK. The trees planted are not native to the area. I have a large ginkgo and a linden on my property.

Since horse-drawn vehicles were necessary, there were stables for the horses; some of the owners had cows. Most had chickens as indeed did many of the people in the village. They took pleasure in their fruit trees, their asparagus beds, their strawberries and fresh cream.

Without the modern amenities of the air-waves, they amused themselves at card parties, by making formal rounds of calls, entertaining at dinners, rehearsing and producing plays - the latter a carry-over from life in the city. After the Civil War they built an Assembly Hall which still stands and is a focal point of the community.

Hucksters provided many of the things that were necessary - like ice for the refrigerators. Servants who came in by the day brought things they could procure in the village - staples like sugar and flour. They often did the cooking, the housework and the heavy cleaning. Some lived in tenant houses year-around, and if there was livestock they cared for it. They kept their eye on the main dwelling during the winter months.

Children of these families went to private schools in the city, schools such as Bryn Mawr, Gilman, Boy's Latin and the like. When October came, there was a general exodus back to the city.

The life in this rural setting was interrupted in 1861 by the deployment of Union troops to encampments in the area. Their purpose was to keep the Washington line open to rail traffic and guard the Thomas Viaduct. It was a strategic link connecting the North with the capitol.

Homeowners on the Hill had their gardens raided, their livestock confiscated, and their quiet interrupted. Judge Dobbin was known to be a supporter of the rebel cause. Donaldson was pro-union, J.H.B. Latrobe tried to remain neutral but his wife was from Mississippi, and his brother-in-law was a colonel in the southern army.

There was also the problem of sanitation. As the camp facilities became unbearably smelly, new sites nearby were used. The old ones were vacated, leaving the sun, wind and rain to do the cleaning. Property owners didn't dare leave, fearing that unoccupied dwellings might fare worse.

Many of the children of the original owners continued to maintain their homes until World War Two. George Dobbin Brown was at this time an old man, and with great regret at leaving the area, he sold "The Lawn" to Mr. and Mrs. Joe Cobb.

Now a full complement of school buses makes its way up the steep hill. A bus stop at the Assembly Rooms' porch provides shelter for a new crop of children who attend Public School. The schools, both elementary and middle, are relatively new and are located on part of the Benjamin Waters estate. Times change.

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