For much of recent history, Bacontown was a forlorn backwater, a three-street collection of families that could trace their roots to freed slaves living among Laurel's booming bedroom communities.
While big-box retailers crowded the Route 198 corridor, the town off Whiskey Bottom Road in Anne Arundel County's westernmost nook stayed tucked behind the traffic.
As developers sold expensive houses in the neighboring Russett subdivision, residents in Bacontown's 30 homes and trailers fought for indoor plumbing and to block trucks from dumping garbage behind their streets.
And though Laurel is stuffed with newcomers attracted to its easy highway access, many in the town founded by freed slave Maria Bacon in 1860 have lived there all their lives.
"We're fighters. We've always been fighters, and that's why we're still here," said Lenore Carter, a Bacontown resident since the 1950s. "This community never went to Annapolis to ask for anything. We always help each other."
But over the past decade, the town and the county have joined to preserve Bacontown's history as well as its future.
The effort started in 1990, when the county demolished substandard trailers and homes, cleaned the mounds of garbage and stemmed the drug trade and prostitution.
It continued through the mid-1990s, when state and federal funds helped hook Bacontown to the public water and sewer system in nearby Russett, a 2,400-unit subdivision.
And it continues today, as the nonprofit Arundel Community Development Services builds homes and sells them for the cost of construction to those with strong Bacontown ties.
The program has saved the largely African-American community from being swallowed by development, and made sure that Bacontown is no longer passed over by a government that once claimed the town was in nearby Howard or Prince George's counties.
"It's important to save the aspects that tell us what life was like in the 1800s," said ACDS director Kathleen Koch. "It's not necessarily the saving of buildings. It's the saving of a community."
Koch's agency has bought nine lots and built five houses. Where a major drug house once stood, two more ACDS houses are under construction, and two more will be built next year.
Bacontown's new residents don't need a welcome wagon -- they know their neighbors.
Two years ago, Stephanie Hatchett bought a $136,000 home on Spring Road so she could live near her mother. Carter is Hatchett's godmother, and several other neighbors are her cousins. (The joke in Bacontown is that everyone's related if you go back far enough.) Two other newcomers were Hatchett's childhood friends.
Hatchett lived in public housing at Meade Village for 15 years, where she heard gunshots and stepped over syringes regularly. Twice, men were gunned down in front of her building.
In Bacontown, Hatchett, 38, can sit in her verdant back yard and hear only birds chirping and meat sizzling on the grill. She is learning from her elders how to be a community activist.
"Now that I'm here, I have something to fight for," Hatchett said. "I call this my little starter home and, actually, I have no intentions of ever leaving here."
Hatchett said Bacontown is "98 percent" better now than when she left 20 years ago as a teen-ager. The thriving open-air drug market and widespread prostitution of recent years are largely gone. Almost all residents have showers and no longer use outhouses and galvanized tubs, or hike to a nearby spring for water. And though the end of Oak Road is still strewn with rusted auto and horse trailer parts, rat sightings are not as frequent as they were before cleanups began.
Residents such as Hatchett, who didn't know the town's history growing up, are embracing their roots. They should be proud, Carter said, for their founder was extraordinary.
In 1860, Annapolis Junction landowner Achsah Dorsey freed Maria Bacon and let her live on family land in the area. When Dorsey died 20 years later, her will divided the 30 acres of Bacontown among Bacon; Bacon's daughter, Mary Virginia; and another freed slave, Lou Scoat.
According to county records, the women were among a small percentage of late-19th century landowners identified as "colored." Though Bacon and her daughter both were married, their husbands were not in the will or listed as landowners.
County historian Donna Ware said the will shows Bacon was a favorite among the more than 70 slaves the Dorseys freed, though any records explaining why have been lost.
Bacon and the other two founders farmed land and gave a portion along Whiskey Bottom Road to build Mount Zion Church and St. Jacobs Lodge, a black benevolent society. The shotgun house where Maria Bacon once lived -- named the Mary Elizabeth Henson house, after the daughter who inherited it -- stands vacant across the street from the church, its outhouse intact.