Preservationists honor a savior of old Ellicott City

Jean Hannon began by painting the town

November 29, 2006|By Elizabeth Dow | Elizabeth Dow,sun reporter

In the late 1940s, the B&O Railroad stopped service in Ellicott City. And by the 1950s, many businesses had moved from Main Street to U.S. 40, leaving the historic town lined with empty storefronts.

Jean Hannon changed that. Beginning with her "Paint Ellicott City" campaign in the early 1960s, Hannon has devoted her life to preserving Howard County's history and heritage.

"When I first came to the county in the [early] '60s, businesses were closing down," said Joetta Cramm, a member of Preservation Howard County. "[Hannon] was very businesslike and knew how to get things organized and done."

Hannon's contribution was recognized this month when Preservation Howard County honored her as the first recipient of the Senator James Clark Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award. The award recognizes not only the physical changes that revitalized the historic area, but also the inspiration and commitment of one woman's remarkable dedication to her community.

In 1959, Hannon and her Cross Country Garden Club entered a Sears, Roebuck and Co. contest for community improvement. The next year, Hannon began painting storefronts and cleaning up trash in the "Paint Ellicott City" campaign. This "operation face lift," as she called it, "ran from the railroad station to the Columbia Pike."

"I was in charge of it. Started it. Organized it," Hannon said about "Paint Ellicott City."

"We painted ... and refreshed the buildings and tried to make it more attractive. Until that time, the county was thinking very seriously of moving out of Ellicott City, and then we spruced it up, we got some antique shops and made it more viable. ... We opened a shop and restaurant and got a newsletter and did many things like that."

"Paint Ellicott City" won Hannon a $500 prize from Sears, Roebuck and Co., but Hannon's efforts did not stop there. She entered and won The Howard County News contest to design the Howard County flag. The red-and-white flag is one of Hannon's favorite memories.

In 1962, Hannon opened an antiques store, called Old Line Shop, and began a revival of Main Street's stores, setting a precedent for more antiques shops to come. Hannon recognized that the ability to preserve Old Ellicott City was closely linked to the economic revival of Main Street.

"She was well ahead of her time," said Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County.

In 1968, Hannon was honored as the Central Maryland News prize-winning cartoonist for depicting Howard County history in The Howard County News.

Hannon's contributions to Howard County also include her work on the county's Bicentennial Commission in 1972, and her role in the formation of the Historic Ellicott Mills and Historic Ellicott City Inc. volunteer organizations.

Preservation Howard County was formed in 2000. According to Fred Dorsey, second vice president of the organization, the group's goal is to "actively pursue the preservation of the historical and cultural heritage of Howard County," as well as to recognize "those folks who in the past have made significant contributions to the preservation of Howard County's history and heritage."

Cramm nominated Hannon for "saving [historic] Ellicott City from disappearing."

Nominees were presented to Barbara Kellner and Fred Dorsey, the selection committee. Other awards were given to Barbara Seig, for her work in the restoration of county cemeteries; and to Paul Bridge, for his work with the B&O Railroad Museum, the Maryland National Road Association and the development of Preservation Howard County's annual Top Ten Endangered Sites List.

The award ceremony took place at Waverly Mansion, a historic building constructed by the Dorsey family in 1761. Jean Hannon is a descendant of the Dorseys. Her great-grandfather was Basil Evan Dorsey.

Preservation Howard County renamed its lifetime achievement award after state Sen. James Clark Jr., who died in August.

"Senator Clark was a promoter of agricultural heritage," said Fred Dorsey. "He was involved with the organization of the Howard County Antique Farm Machinery Club and involved with agricultural preservation, so we felt it was fitting to make that award in his name going forward."

Said Hannon: "It is nice to associate the award with Clark since all the Clarks participated in the efforts down there [Old Ellicott City]. The whole family was behind the project."

Hannon's work, which started as the call to enter a contest to improve her community, became a lifelong devotion and a legacy.

"Jean was a doer. She just doesn't give up easy," said Enalee Bounds, a fellow preservationist, longtime friend of Hannon's and owner of Ellicott's Country Store on Main Street.

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