Odenton tries to get its history on the right track

Booming town strives to preserve railroad past

May 12, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

To the thousands of subdivision-dwelling commuters passing through on their way to work, Odenton may be little more than a MARC train stop between Washington and Baltimore.

But to the Odenton Heritage Society, the fast-growing West Anne Arundel County suburb will always be the town a railroad built, a place whose history and culture remain intact even as strip malls and planned developments encroach.

And now, the society has a place to showcase Odenton's railroad past to the very residents the modern train continues to attract.

The society recently bought the Old Masonic Hall, a neo-Gothic lodge built in 1908 at Odenton Road and Waco Avenue, with $180,000 from Anne Arundel County.

Members considered the Masons' price a bargain, despite the restoration the building needs.

The society will use the lodge as its headquarters. It is using the space for an exhibit of photographs of Victorian porches and railroad life called Windows on the Past.

"We couldn't have asked for a more ideal spot," Odenton Heritage Society President Roger White said as the society recently celebrated the opening of the historical center. "The Masons built it with their own hands 90 years ago. It's perfect for us."

The 210-member society also benefited from the generosity of the Soroptimists International of Severn Run. The group owned the Bethel Church building next to the Masonic lodge and donated it to the society. That building is the last of three that make up the society's historical center; the group also owns an old bank building at the MARC station.

One of the Soroptimists who advocated the donation of the church building was Janet S. Owens, county executive and supporter of the society's mission to preserve the town's 110-year-old historic district.

"I knew something about this building," she said. "Everybody [in county government] supported the acquisition and really the restoration of this."

The society hoped to receive $200,000 from the state to help pay for restoration work, which includes rewiring the building and adding an air-conditioning system. But legislators tabled the bill, and other similar funding requests, to balance the budget. Sen. Robert R. Neall, a Davidsonville Democrat, said he will reintroduce the bill next year.

But Neall, who was county executive from 1990 to 1994, agrees with Owens that a lack of funding won't stop the two women who run the society, Sally Shoemaker and Pat Wellford, from starting the restoration. It hasn't in the past.

In 1994, the pair of longtime Odenton residents helped obtain $55,000 from the state to restore the bank building and turn it into a snack bar for MARC commuters.

But because they disagreed with the state's restrictions, they took only $15,500 and financed the rest through donations and loans.

"One of the reasons this center is going to be a success is because they have other projects they've done successfully," Neall said.

He joked that he was so fearful about telling the women they would have to wait another year for funding that he asked an aide to make the call.

Wellford's mother, Catherine O'Malley, literally wrote the book on old Odenton. The area's senior center is named for her, and her book, Odenton: The Town a Railroad Built, is considered invaluable by area preservationists.

Odenton grew around the junction of the Annapolis and Elk Ridge Railroad, which opened in 1840, and the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad, which opened in 1872, according to the heritage society. Situated between Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington, the town was an ideal junction for the tracks.

Wellford, 60, was raised in a stately Victorian house built in the 1880s, next to what is now the MARC parking lot.

"When I dream," she said, "all my memories are of that house."

In those days, children walked to school along what is now a busy highway. There were few stores, and most families traveled to Glen Burnie for groceries. Many of the families who settled there worked for the railroad.

The train remains a crucial attraction for new residents -- witness the overflowing parking lot at the Odenton MARC station on any weekday. But the very engine that is driving Odenton's growth threatens to obscure its past.

With close to 50,000 residents, Odenton is one of the fastest-growing areas in the county.

The county targeted the area for growth, and developers sprung to the challenge, constructing huge developments such as Piney Orchard and Seven Oaks on once-rural land.

Residents hungry for affordable suburban living and easy MARC commutes moved in, but many remain unaware that their homes are so close to a historic district that has houses dating to the 1800s.

Odenton's main roads -- Piney Orchard Parkway and Route 175 -- are so packed with commercial development that they hide the historic area, which is tucked along Odenton Road.

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