Residents revel in rural past -- and present

History: Families continue to be drawn to the area's tranquility and natural beauty.


The narrow country road meanders through the softly rolling hills of northern Harford County, past thoroughbred horses grazing and beef cattle basking in the sun.

Wildflowers create colorful spots along the road's edges, birds chirp and the air smells like freshly washed laundry.

Time seems to be standing still in these parts of Harford, where farmland remains untouched by development. Travel through wooded hills and lush green valleys and you reach the shores of the mighty Susquehanna River just before it flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Here, bald eagles majestically glide through the skies and mallard ducks float on the rippling water.

The English explorer Capt. John Smith was on the mark when he landed on the shores of Harford County in July 1608, and wrote in his diary: "Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's commodious and delightful habitation."

These scenic vistas and quality of life have kept families in Harford County for generations and have drawn droves of new-comers to the area, each searching for a small plot of land to call his own.

Aimee O'Neill is an eighth-generation Harford resident who wouldn't even consider living elsewhere. She said she left the county for four years while attending college and thought about making a new home for herself in another part of the country, but her roots called her back to Harford.

"My father's family arrived in Harford county right around the time of the American Revolution, and throughout history, it's been a family that has always participated in the community. That thread of family, that overt commitment to community and history, I couldn't re-create that any other place in the world - it brought me back home and it keeps me here," says O'Neill, 45, who lives with her husband, Jim Torre, and their two elementary school-age children in Forest Hill, a rural communfty north of the county seat of BeI Air.

O'Neill and her brother Patrick S. O'Neill operate O'Neill Enterprises in Forest Hill. The auction, appraisal, accounting and real estate company was started by their father, John H. O'Neill, in 1948.

Mr. O'Neill, a gregarious farmer, died in July of cancer at the age of 82. He spent more than a decade in local government during the 1960s and 1970s - first as a county commissioner, then as the first County Council president after Harford switched to a charter form of government In 1972.

Being involved in politics is an O'Neill family tradition. His father, Howard S. O'Neill, was a state senator and a grandfather, Thomas H. Robinson, was Maryland attorney general. Mr. O'Neill also was instrumental in the preservation of St. Ignatius Church in Hickory, a 210-year-old fieldstone and white stucco house of worship that is one ot the oldest Catholic churches in Maryland.

The O'Neills are descendants of Lt. John O'Neill, an Irish immigrant who was named as the first keeper of the Concord Point Lighthouse in recognition of his heroic defense of the city of Havre de Grace against the invading British fleet during the War of l8l2.

The lighthouse, built in 1827 on the spot where O'Neill made his valiant stand, is one of the oldest continuously operated lighthouses on the East Coast. And an O'Neill was always the keeper until the lighthouse was automated in the mid-1900s.

"We are a county that has always embraced family," says Harford County Executive James M. Harkins, whose county roots trace back to the mid-1700s. His seventh great-grandfather was a drummer boy in the Revolutionary War and one of the first Harford land-owners.

Harford incorporated in 1773 and a county seat was created at Harford Town, also called Bushtown or Bush. Court was held in one of the inns until 1782, when the county seat was moved to Bel Air. Bush was located on the main road between Annapolis and Philadelphia, now the intersection of Routes 7 and 136.

It was in Bush that 34 Harford County citizens met on March 22, 1775, to sign the Bush Declaration, a commitment to resist the British infringement on American rights. The closing words, "At the Risque of Our Lives & fortunes" is embellished on the official Harford County seal.

Local historians believe that Thomas Jefferson must have read the Bush Declaration, since there is much similarity in the text of the Declaration of Independence, which was drafted by him and signed by 56 representatives of the 13 colonies on July 4, 1776 -- 16 months after the Bush Declaration.

You can study Harford County's history in depth at the Historical Society of Harford County Inc.'s headquarters on Main Street in Bel Air. Located in the old post office, a landmark in itself, the society is a repository for Harford's history.

If you're looking for Harford artifacts, old newspaper clippings, photographs of days gone by, court records dating to the 1770s, or if you want to research your family's genealogy, this is the place to go.

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