`Underground Railroad' project proposed for Blandair property

History `immersion' idea one of several for parcel

October 15, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Anthony M. Cohen wants you to walk in the shoes of a slave -but only for a few days and for your own good.

The executive director of the Menare Foundation in Montgomery County has a dream of "Underground Railroad immersion" experiences - played out on a restored plantation - which would propel people to overcome modern-day problems.

His problem is finding a suitable plantation site. On the list: a 300-acre farm in Columbia that once housed slaves.

First, Cohen has to sell his idea to a citizens committee pondering uses for the dozen buildings on the 19th-century Blandair estate, slated as a future regional park for Howard County.

Others have different ideas for the property.

The local antique farm machinery club is searching for space to start a museum and can think of a good use for all the aged farm structures.

A foundation that wants to manage the property as an open-space management research facility envisions offices and a dormitory in the mansion. A local archive can see itself operating in Blandair's historic atmosphere.

"So many people want that building and want that land for so many different uses," said Michael Walczak, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society, which has inquired about the possibility of moving its library and museum from Ellicott City.

Committee members are not close to making a recommendation.

Cohen, a historian who attracted national attention by trekking 2,000 miles along the Underground Railroad, is hoping for the best after a Montgomery County possibility fell through.

He's investigating seven other sites - including one in western Howard - but the Columbia estate has a mid-19th-century slave quarter.

"We think that Blandair is a stunning site," Cohen said. "It has definitely the architectural and historical landscape to sustain a program like this."

He envisions a living-history farm open for tours, youth education and the Underground Railroad immersions.

Cohen wants a five-day program with history and workshops sandwiched around 48 hours in the life of a slave.

He's hoping people of all races sign up.

"The immersion isn't really about teaching slavery," Cohen said. "It's about teaching people that at every point in history, there have been people who have had to face adversity, and a lot of strength and power comes in having to deal [with] and survive troubling times."

He expects to present his plan to a subcommittee of the citizens group later this month.

"It would be pretty neat. We don't have anything like that in Central Maryland," said Mary Catherine Cochran, a committee member who has talked with Cohen. "We're looking for all different kinds of ideas."

Members are brainstorming possibilities and will meet with the public later for input, but Cochran warned that it could be years before anyone moves in. Planning begin a decade ago on the Western Regional Park and construction started Friday.

Cohen, who wants to get going soon, is hopeful that something can be worked out if Howard County chooses him and vice versa. He does not need paved roads or a full restoration.

"Even depicting the year 1850, a lot of the buildings on a large farm would have been in various stages of repair or decay," he said.

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