A former roller-skating rink and dance school, along with an 1899 farmhouse, facing U.S. 29 are to be demolished to make way for a residential development.

From history to new houses

September 07, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Like a forlorn sentinel from Howard County's past, the decrepit former roller-skating rink and dance school facing U.S. 29 from Columbia Road in Ellicott City witnessed the disappearance of farms and fields.

Now, it, along with the 1899 farmhouse next door, will soon be gone, replaced next year with 13 large homes selling for about $900,000 each.

Older county residents remember carefree days in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, roller skating and eating homemade pies and sandwiches there in later years. Others recall cringing in tights and tutus before a stern ballet teacher tapping a wand on the polished wooden floor in the 1960s and 1970s.

"It's sad," said Granville "Sonny" Wehland, 70. "There's a lot of memories that go with that building. I was upset when I saw it."

Wehland remembers skating in the big, green-roofed, wooden hall in the early 1950s, when Columbia Road was the only highway and the six to eight lanes of busy U.S. 29 were green fields. At the time, he said, "you could have bought a bunch of farms for $900,000."

Now, the barnlike, white wooden structure stands trashed and open. Vines cover the front door, and holes in the roof were put there by county firefighters practicing rescue techniques. The house, too, is vacant, the yard overgrown with high grass and weeds. Just across Columbia Road, contractors are erecting sound barriers opposite the Route 100 intersection with U.S. 29.

Builder Rob Dorsey of Dorsey Family Homes said he will demolish the wrecked structure and the farmhouse in a few weeks.

In their place, he will build large, "brick-front standard" detached homes up to 3,600 square feet each. Dorsey, who grew up in Howard County, bought the 6.8 acres in late 2002 for $750,000. His return before development costs would be close to $12 million.

Land is more valuable than older homes, and the World War II-era Howard County that Wehland remembers is long gone.

"People had different kinds of recreation," said Joetta M. Cramm, a local historian. "I hate to see the house come down. Newcomers who come to this county are going to think there were no houses here - no Cape Cods, no bungalows - no modest houses at all."

P. Ralph Jett, 62, was born in the house. His grandparents, Rose Lee and Arthur Clarence Jett, bought the place in 1925 for $6,150, he said.

Jett said they had the roller rink built in 1936 and ran it until 1958. In later years, his grandmother operated a small restaurant out front, selling her homemade pies, ice cream and sandwiches that people could eat on the screened-in porch. The family cured and smoked its hams.

Mark Jett, a great-grandson, said Rose Jett's hams, hot mustard and apple butter were known all over the county.

The store was no fast-food joint, he said. Customers would ring a bell in the store, and a family member would come from the house to serve them, he said.

Later, the building was rented for family events, and then for a dog-obedience school, Ralph Jett said.

Ballet schools

The Ellicott City Ballet School - later the Columbia Ballet School - opened there in 1965, but both had closed by 1977, when the family sold out, he said.

"I hate to see the house go more than the roller rink," Ralph Jett said. "The hardest thing was watching the store go" in 1963.

Wehland recalled that skaters would sometimes hold hands, forming a long line in a maneuver called "crack the whip." Skaters whipped around the big floor until, occasionally, he said, the momentum propelled the last person in line into the toilet stalls in one corner. Heat came from a pot-bellied coal stove set into the wall. The rink was closed in summer, when it was too hot inside.

Jean Warfield Keenan, 78, who lives nearby, said she remembers the building from the mid-1930s, when her family moved to the area.

"There wasn't much else to do out here," she recalled. "They ran a very nice place. No rough talk, no smoking and drinking."

The county was so sparsely populated, she said, that she remembers spending long Sunday afternoons entertaining herself and friends by counting cars.

"We were lucky to get 25," she said.

For Leon Hall, 76, Rose Jett's banana cream pie evoked the clearest memory, as the ham sandwiches and pickles did for Wehland.

"I always had a good time," Hall said, recalling the early 1950s when he was 17 or 18 and had just graduated from the county's only high school.

Took lessons there

Years later, Mary Catherine Cochran and her younger sister, Courtney Watson, now the county school board chairman, took ballet lessons there.

"The main room was one long room with floor to ceiling mirrors, wooden floors and a bar that ran along one wall," Cochran said.

"I still have my toe shoes. Most of the instructors were very intimidating and would make you do exercises over and over until you had it exactly right. You could only address them as `Mademoiselle,' and they had incredibly tight hair buns, which pulled their faces back and turned their smiles into a grimaces."

Watson said: "It was the largest room I had ever seen. There was a little sort of locker room where you put your ballet shoes on."

Soon, Dorsey said, there will be nothing left of the place.

"We'll load it in the Dumpster and haul it away," he said.

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