Historic mill town lives again

October 22, 2006|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,Special to The Sun

Anytime there's a 90th birthday party, it's a special event. For Harford County resident Mary Silling, the day held particular importance.

That's because the site of the celebration - the old general store in the historic Jerusalem Mill Village - belonged to her grandfather, Samuel Oliver McCourtney, and is a place that holds many fond memories for her. "It's about as close as I can get to going home," Silling said.

The party, held Oct. 1, also served as the culmination of many volunteer hours spent refurbishing the former store, which dates to the mid-1800s. The project, expected to be completed later this year, is part of a commitment made many years ago by the Friends of Jerusalem Mill to save and refurbish the mill village adjacent to the Little Gunpowder Falls in Harford County. The site also serves as the headquarters for the 18,000-acre Gunpowder Falls State Park.

The restored general store will be part of the living history experience of the village, which includes a museum, craft demonstrations, Colonial displays and festivals.

But the group has no plans to stop improving the property anytime soon. Instead of taking a rest when the general store is complete, they are ready to move on to their next project, restoring the bank barn and improving a trail.

"School groups, teachers and parents who have not been here before are impressed," said Chris Scovill, curator for Jerusalem Mill. "They are blown away by what is right here in their backyards."

`Soothing experience'

Volunteers have also restored the blacksmith's shop, the gunshop and performed some work on one of the tenant houses. The mill, for which the village is known, is a re-creation of the original mill, using many of its salvageable parts. The site offers visitors a walk back in time through a water-powered mill.

"With all the rampant development that's going on, it's nice to have a place where time has stopped in its tracks," said Scovill. "It's an educational experience, and kind of a soothing experience of how things were."

The Friends of Jerusalem Mill organized in 1985 in an effort to restore and protect the former gristmill, the key structure in the village. The mill dates to 1772 and was part of a thriving Quaker settlement. It operated continuously until the last miller died in 1961, when the state acquired it. The re-created mill now serves as park headquarters, a museum and visitor center.

Passing on the history of the village is something Silling finds important for future generations. She asked her friends and family to donate to the continued restoration efforts of the village, rather than bringing her birthday presents.

"It's history that slips right through your fingers," said Silling. "Before you know it, it's not there. Young people don't know about the history of [the general store] because they didn't experience it."

With a budget of about $25,000 of their own funds, the volunteers over the past year have cleared and refurbished the store. It now resembles what it used to be, complete with a potbellied stove, old measuring scales, display counters and representative items that would have been sold there.

The project was aided with the help of old photographs and the original store ledger that included a list of more than 800 items that the store carried. Restored floors, a refurbished front door, air conditioning and updated plumbing and electricity are all part of the project. Eventually, a small gift shop will be opened in the building and costumed volunteers will run the shop.

The store was in business from the 1840s until 1939. McCourtney ran it from 1906 to 1939, after which it was divided into apartments.

"You have to see the before, to appreciated what we have here now," said Scovill. "It was really in terrible shape."

Jack Shagena, who wrote a history of the mill village and who worked closely on the general store restoration, said they hired an architect to aid them in the project.

"The architect produced a document, which was our guide for doing everything we did," said Shagena. "You can't get it 100 percent, but you can get it pretty close."

During the renovation, several artifacts were found under the floor of the store, including old spectacles, a clay pipe, several oil lamp chimneys and pieces of various glass and porcelain pieces.

The project fits in well with the news last year that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources purchased the 9-acre Pullen property, which is also in the historic village and is used as a residence and doctor's office.

Also known as the Lee Mansion, the Pullen property brings the entire historic village under state ownership and protection. The mansion, along with the other properties of the Jerusalem Mill Village, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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