In a shady clearing in Stevens Forest, not far from a paved pathway off Thunder Hill Road, a cluster of granite headstones marks the graves of six members of the family of George Cooke, a wealthy antebellum farmer.
The two largest markers, which are about 4 feet tall and lean side-by-side at the same angle, belong to Cooke and his wife, Eleanor, who died within four years of each other, in 1849 and 1853.
Weathered engraving on a pair of smaller headstones shows that two of their 12 children, Elizabeth Powel and Mary Cooke, died before their parents, at ages 26 and 16, respectively.
What may be most remarkable about this 20-by-50-foot family graveyard is its unremarkable setting, an unfenced, occasionally tended patch of grass off Whiteacre Road. The burial site sits under a canopy of 70-foot-high trees near Shadow Oaks Condominiums and just down the street from Talbott Springs Elementary School.
Marred by a broken headstone and an assortment of empty beer cans and bottles, the small cemetery hardly seems the fitting resting place for an aristocratic farmer, patriarch and owner of Hazlewood, a 505-acre farm that thrived more than a century before James Rouse began acquiring the land that became Columbia.
The Cooke family graveyard is one stop on the walking portion of the newest edition of the Columbia BikeAbout and Walking Tour set for Saturday, Sept. 3. Sponsored jointly by the Columbia Archives and Open Space, both divisions of the Columbia Association, the 11th annual event is intended as a way for modern-day residents to "discover the history of where we live."
But the tangible remnants do underscore, in a way that history books cannot, the rich agricultural nature that defined Howard County long before Columbia came into existence, says Barbara Kellner, director of the Columbia Archives.
"This is real, pre-Columbia history," said Kellner, who added that she planned the separate, one-mile walking tour because she doesn't "assume everyone wants to ride a bike."
The walking tour, which was rescheduled from May because of rain, also drives home how accessible the village of Oakland Mills is to Town Center by way of the pedestrian bridge over Route 29 at the southern edge of Lake Kittamaqundi, she said.
George Cooke's diary
George Cooke grew up in Baltimore, the son of wealthy parents, and won the right to purchase the Hazlewood property in an 1819 auction, Kellner said. He paid $36 per acre, for a total of $18,180.
"It was a pretty big enterprise," she said of the farm. "But the most interesting and valuable contribution [the landowner] made was keeping a diary."
The Cooke diary is a handwritten, two-volume journal of day-to-day life at Hazlewood between 1826 and 1849, and is displayed at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Library in Beltsville. The first volume is available for perusal in a typed and edited format at the Columbia Archives.
On the library's website, the diary is referred to as "one of the most complete in existence of farm life in Maryland" in that era.
While much of Cooke's writings center on farming, he also records information on politics, transportation, slavery, and sporting and family activities.
"The Cooke diary is visually very appealing and people are fascinated by the information it contains," said Susan H. Fugate, head of the library's special collections. Researchers are not only interested in what was being grown at that time; they also use Cooke's records to track weather patterns over time and to study the life cycle of pollinators versus the life cycles of the plants they pollinate, she said.
"The diary has a lot more applications to contemporary research than people might think," Fugate said.
Cooke's father, William Cooke, was a lawyer and tobacco merchant from Prince George's County who also served on the Baltimore City Council. His mother, Elizabeth, belonged to the Tilghman family of the Eastern Shore.
George Cooke grew tobacco, wheat and potatoes, among other crops, as well as rye, clover and timothy, according to an introduction to the diary. He and his wife enjoyed visiting their neighbors at Blandair and Oakland Manor, Kellner said.
In addition to the historic cemetery, there is a stop to see a sculpture in the Oakland Mills Village Center titled "Celestial Serenade."
The contemporary piece, which Kellner points out is open to interpretation, appears to represent three figures — a man running with the sun, a woman running with the moon and a child running alongside them, she said.
Baltimore artist Rodney Carroll, who was commissioned to create the 11-by-14-foot aluminum sculpture for the 20th anniversary of Oakland Mills in 1990, remarked at the time that his artwork was intended to "give a sense of Columbia, where everybody is going to the Promised Land and the individual can make a difference," Kellner said.
The BikeAbout is a self-paced, 12-mile tour that will take riders through several Columbia villages and stops, including Howard Community College, the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area in Clary's Forest, Hobbit's Glen golf course, the site of a former BMX racing track in Harper's Choice, and Wilde Lake, where tourists will see two prefabricated custom homes in The Birches. Historical highlights will be discussed at each site.
"Both the biking and walking tours will show the connectivity of the Columbia pathways, though they are not as connected as some people would like," Kellner said, calling that an issue CA is working to improve by initiating a study that is set to start soon.
Open Space employees will mark the BikeAbout route with neon pink arrows and ribbons in the pre-dawn hours the day of the event so that participants "don't have to pay much attention to where they're heading" and can enjoy the picturesque landscapes unfolding before them.
"This event is so great and so fun," said Kellner, noting it attracts a few hundred participants each year. "The pathway system goes through beautiful open spaces that could be in the middle of a state park with dense trees, birds and almost no houses in sight.
"Yet it's so accessible," she said. "Five or 10 minutes later, you're back out on the street."
For more information or to register, call 410-715-3103 or go to columbiaassociation.com.