`The ultimate Howard Countian'

James Clark, his farm endure

At 87, ex-state senator, longtime civic leader worries about crops and government

July 16, 2006|By SANDY ALEXANDER | SANDY ALEXANDER,SUN REPORTER

Sitting in the living room of his stone farmhouse, which is surrounded by fields of shoulder-high corn and pastures dotted with cattle and sheep, James Clark talked about his health at the age of 87 with the perspective of someone who has been farming most of his life.

"You cannot overcome the forces of nature," he said. "It's irresistible."

In recent weeks, Clark has been directing activities on his Ellicott City farm, but leaving the heavy chores and the midsummer heat to his part-time staff and family members. He is recovering after a recent hospital stay brought on by several ailments, including cancer and congestive heart failure.

But over nearly nine decades in Howard County, Clark, a war veteran, former state senator and longtime civic leader, has proven to be an enduring force.

Amid relentless development, his 540-acre farm bordered by Route 108 and Centennial Lane still produces vegetables, field corn, flowers, beef and lambs. His well-known produce stand on Route 108 opened this summer for the 37th year, offering corn, cantaloupes, tomatoes and other items. A petting farm run by his daughter down the road from the farm stand is thriving.

The farmland preservation and Program Open Space legislation Clark championed in the Senate have ensured that green spaces and agricultural operations will continue to survive in the state.

Locally, institutions including the Howard County Conservancy, the Howard County Fair and the fledgling Farm Heritage Museum count Clark among their founders.

And wherever he has been, friends, colleagues and neighbors attest to Clark's standing as a respected elder statesman and well-liked gentleman farmer.

"He is kind of the ultimate Howard Countian," said Charles M. Coles Jr., chief judge of the county Orphans' Court and a lifelong friend of the senator. "He's very civic-minded, very involved in his community, very concerned about his community."

Coles added: "He and that farm have kind of stood the test of time. They have adapted and changed over the years, especially in that area [of the county] where most people would have had to fold. He found a way to keep it, and he's passing it on to his children."

Clark pauses often as he speaks and says his hearing is not very good, but there is nothing wrong with his memory as he recounts his agricultural and political careers, and his observations are sharp about the area that has been home to eight generations of his family.

"You've got too many cars, too many people too fast," he said. "When I came home from the war, we had about 20,000 people, a few more than that maybe."

Now the U.S. Census estimates more than 269,000 residents, a population he calls "unbelievable."

Clark recalled that there were about 200 dairy farms in Howard County before World War II, including his, which shipped milk for 30 years before he and his son moved the herd to Georgia and produced milk for another two decades.

"There are only four or five [dairy farms] left now," Clark said. "Lots of people just gave up and quit. It was almost a necessity in the old days. You had to have some money coming in each month, and dairy was a pretty good way to do that. ... Hard work though."

Clark was born in 1918 on a farm called Keewydin that his family owned in Ellicott City. According to his memoir, Jim Clark: Solider, Farmer, Legislator, Clark's father, James Clark, was a circuit court judge who traced his roots in the area to 1797.

His mother, Alda Hopkins Clark, was a direct descendant of the Ellicotts who settled the mill town that became Ellicott City. [Originally part of Anne Arundel County, the area became Howard County in 1851.]

Clark attended school in Ellicott City and earned a bachelor of science degree in animal husbandry from Iowa State College in 1941.

He served as a glider pilot in World War II, flying troops and equipment across German lines . When he returned, he married the former Lillian Hawkins in 1946 and took up farming.

In 1958, he was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. Four years later, he was elected to the Senate, where he served for 24 years, including as Senate president from 1979 to 1983.

He said the political landscape was also different back then.

"I didn't have a bit of trouble getting elected," he said. "I didn't have to raise any money. I never asked anybody for a contribution because I didn't need it. I always won very handily."

During his legislative career, he was a proponent of civil rights, fiscal responsibility and a national balanced budget amendment.

Today, he said, he would like to see the county, state and federal governments rein-in their finances.

"I'm not too happy with any level of government," he said. "They are all spending more money than they should. People never intended the government to do so many things."

But, he said, there is hope for the future.

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