Cider Mill Farm won't open again

Landmark cancels tours scheduled for final season

Financial reasons noted

Developer wants access to property without visitors


March 27, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Cider Mill Farm, a rural landmark in an increasing suburban landscape, is suddenly closing its doors without the public getting a chance to say goodbye.

The hands-on farm in Elkridge, where children could milk cows and feed goats, had been expected to open April 8 for at least one more season, before closing in a deal to sell its 59 acres for development.

But in recent days the decision was made to close for financial reasons, causing scheduled tours for more than 2,000 children to be canceled.

"This kills me," said Cheryl Nodar, the farm's general manager, whose job ends Sunday.

James Keelty & Co., a Timonium-based builder, reached an agreement with the family of owner Tom Owens in November to build 94 expensive houses on the highly sought after land.

Visiting the 85-year-old farm has long been a fall tradition for generations of children across the Baltimore region, attracting families and schools with its freshly made cider, pumpkin patches, hayrides and petting farm.

Patrick Merkle, a lawyer for the Owens family, said the developer wants to be able to access the property without people on it, and he estimated that by the fall - the farm's busiest and most profitable season, with 12,000 to 15,000 children visiting - development would be far enough along to make operating the farm's mill impossible.

During the spring and summer, the mill is open only for scheduled tours "for the love of it, not for the money," making its closure necessary to "avoid a hemorrhage of funds," Merkle said.

"We're basically doing it as a community service, and that's wonderful," he said of staying opening during the spring and summer. "But the opportunity to do community service also has a commercial angle to it."

Nodar, who has worked at the mill for 11 years, had been hoping to open the mill next month, allowing the staff and public a chance to give it a proper sendoff.

During the mill's last season, which ended in November, its future was uncertain. Owens, 73, who bought the apple farm in 1970, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 2000.

"I was hoping to be able to be the last one to turn the lights off at Cider Mill," Nodar said. "It's hard to not have the opportunity for folks to come out and have it be the last year."

Frances Thomas, an administrative assistant at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Nursery School, said the school was planning to bring more than 80 3-year-olds to the farm, as the school has done for at least the past 10 years.

She said the school staff members are "very distraught" that they can no longer tour the mill. She said the tours were used as a social and educational time for the children.

"It's part of our spring - in the spring, we're talking about rebirth, about plants coming up, talking about the caterpillars becoming butterflies," Thomas said. "It just enriches our program."

Merkle said the family wants to donate the mill - including the cider press and related equipment that farm staff members used for making 10,000 to 20,000 gallons of apple cider and at least 5,000 pies during the fall - to the county or a nonprofit organization that could relocate the business and allow Nodar to manage it.

Merkle has contacted one nonprofit group and Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, and the family is keeping its options open. It would cost at least $40,000 to dismantle and set up the mill at a new home, he estimated.

"It isn't appropriate to set up a museum," Merkle said. "What's appropriate is to set up a working day-in-the-country experience, operating something where kids can understand where apple cider comes from."

Gary J. Arthur, county recreation and parks director, said the county isn't interested in operating the mill as a business and doesn't want to compete in the agri-tourism industry. But he said the county would consider storing the mill equipment until it could be used for historical agricultural demonstrations.

Merkle said that if the family cannot donate the farm as a whole, it might get sold in pieces. The 70 petting farm animals - including goats, turkeys, peacocks, cows, ponies and donkeys - are for sale.

The family would like to sell the petting farm to someone who would continue it. But Merkle said he is not optimistic that will happen because liability issues might cause people to shy away from operating petting farms.

Thomas said the mill's sudden closure has left schools, preschools and day care providers that annually tour the farm scrambling for other places to visit. Her school plans to go to Sharp's farm in Brookeville, but the decade-long tradition of taking field trips to Cider Mill will still be missed.

"It's so sad - you know there has to be progress, you know that things grow, but can't we keep some of these things in the county that are important?" Thomas said. "It's such a shame."

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