By Janene Holzberg, Jholzberg76@msn.com
8:05 AM EST, December 19, 2013
At age 86, Alfred Bassler can still climb nimbly into the snug cockpit of his Kolb Firestar ultralight, a single-passenger plane that resembles a three-wheeled go cart suspended from a fixed wing.
The plane's lightweight construction and simple rudder controls make it "easy to take for a spin" at 200 feet, Bassler said. Instead of strolling around his Clarksville neighborhood, he takes to the skies and surveys it from above.
But his decades-old ritual of walking out the front door of his home and hopping inside his ultralight, or his Piper Cub J-4, will soon fall by the wayside.
Hayland Farm, a 504-acre spread that had been home to the county's only airport since 1974, is being developed. When Alfred and Patsy Bassler move from their 94-acre parcel in a couple of weeks, they will take with them the last traces of a family's agricultural legacy and a way of life that's becoming increasingly rare in Howard County.
The land located off Sheppard Lane, and around the bend from River Hill, is in the midst of becoming Walnut Creek, a development of 159 luxury homes with price tags starting at just under a million dollars. Builders are Camberley Homes, Craftmark Homes and Trinity Homes.
The Basslers have been watching the transformation from grain and livestock farm to pricey residential community through the 10-foot-wide picture window of their second-floor living room. That window has functioned over the years like an oversized, widescreen TV through which the hustle and bustle of Haysfield Airport was on constant display.
"We were flight bums sometimes, sitting around and watching the planes take off and land," he recalled of earlier days with fellow pilots. "We loved flying that much."
But their treasured view of the 50 airplanes parked on the grass airstrip in its heyday became a distant memory last January when Haysfield closed. For another week or so the Basslers have front-row seats to watching suburbia encroach even further on their once-rural enclave.
Former County Executive Ed Cochran, who served from 1974 to 1978, learned to fly at Haysfield shortly after leaving office.
"The airport was a great resource to have, and it's a shame to see it inundated by development," said the longtime Clarksville resident.
He flew his Cessna airplanes to such locales as the Bahamas and the West Coast after getting his pilot's license, but sold them five years ago.
"Awful" is how Alfred describes his feelings about the closing of the grass airstrip as well as the forthcoming demolition of the couple's home and four other houses where Bassler family members live. A quarter-mile, tree-lined drive was closed in November and a pond where they fished is no longer stocked with crappies, blue gills and bass.
"There's no place on earth that I'm going to like as much as living here," he said.
Hayland Farm was also home to grain fields, livestock, a tree nursery, a forest recycling business and a horse-boarding facility at various times over the years.
The Basslers will rent an in-law apartment from their son, Jeff, 54, who already has moved with his wife and two children to their new property in Woodbine. Their other son, David, 57, lives in Oregon with his wife to be near their three kids.
"People think we're rich, but we're land-poor for now," Alfred said, gazing out toward the bulldozers at work.
Lots are being released to the developers a couple dozen at a time, he explained.
"We will be rich — after I'm dead!" he said with a laugh, adding that money was never their motivation.
In 2007 the eight-member board of directors of the Bassler family corporation, which owns Hayland Farm, voted 5 to 3 to finally sell it to developers after going a couple years without achieving a majority. Alfred and Patsy voted against the sale.
Patsy, 79, isn't happy about leaving either, but says having six years to adjust to the idea has helped.
"I decided not to feel sad," she said, emphasizing there's no hard feelings over the vote. "Everything has its day, and it's time to move on. But it's been a great place to raise kids and grandkids."
Family sells land to Rouse
Alfred was born on a 400-acre farm off Cedar Lane that belonged to his grandfather, George Bassler. George eventually split the land into four pieces and gave one to each son, including Alfred's father, Benjamin.
After Alfred and Patsy wed in 1952, he established a poultry farm on 5 acres of his dad's share of the property, and eventually had 2,000 hens and came to be known as "The Egg Man."
He also mowed a grass runway there that he and a handful of pilots shared with cows, pigs and mules that had to be "scattered out of the way" during takeoff and landing, he recalled.
But in 1968 Ben decided to swap his land with James Rouse, who viewed the property as a strategic piece of the rural jigsaw puzzle he was assembling to become his planned city of Columbia. Ben traded his 92-acre portion of the Cedar Lane farm for 504 acres and five houses off Sheppard Lane so Rouse could build Howard County General Hospital.
"My in-laws wanted to get further out into the country," Patsy said of Ben and Gertrude Bassler. "They said, 'This is going to be a city and we want to live on a farm.' "
One of Ben's brothers, also named Alfred, had two years earlier sold his portion of the farm as the future site of Howard Community College.
Patsy and Alfred's 5 acres, which he called Midway Farm, were developed as the site of Hickory Plaza, off Hickory Ridge Road. Alfred finally sold the strip shopping center seven years ago.
"Some of the old-time farmers looked down their noses at the city folk," Alfred said, referring to long-time residents who were skeptical of Rouse's plans and their future impact on the county.
"We were a hollow dot in the middle of his pie," he said of his father's farm. Knowing that, the Basslers held out for, and got, a better deal than some farmers did, he said.
Eventually, Alfred's own opinion of Columbia softened.
In 1984, the couple even attended "Before Columbia: An Evening of Nostalgia and Discovery," an event designed by the now-defunct Columbia Forum to bring members of longtime county families face-to-face with new residents of Columbia in order to shed flawed perceptions on either side.
"Years later I thought that if the area had to be developed, Jim Rouse did a good job," he said.
After moving to Sheppard Lane in May 1970, building a hangar and establishing a grass airstrip on his share of the land were Alfred's top priorities. He left his egg delivery business behind and created a 3,000-foot runway that started at the top of a hill, and opened for business in 1974.
"I felt I was doing the county a favor by establishing a public-use airport," he said, adding that some people didn't share that view. Zoning battles played out over the years, but all were resolved.
Basslers' love of flying
Haysfield was the culmination of a long-held dream for Alfred, going all the way back to his model-airplane-building days in fifth grade. He and Patsy approached running their airport with gusto.
The couple joined a chapter of Flying Farmers, whose members flew to each other's farms in the county and on the Eastern shore. In 1978 they also helped establish the Howard County Pilots Association, which boasted a roster of 120 members.
Though Alfred was a pilot before he and Patsy became sweethearts, she remained afraid of flying for many years, even after establishing a plane rental company and flight school called Flite Rentals in 1982 with older son, David.
With an "if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em" mentality, Patsy finally decided to take flying lessons at age 51 to fight her fear and got her license two years later in 1985.
"That was the best thing I ever did for myself," she said. "That gave me the confidence to reach for other things."
After 9/11, flying became "a lot less fun," Alfred recalled.
In response to the 2011 terrorist acts against the U.S., an Air Defense Identification Zone was established in 2003 that covered a 30-nautical-mile radius of the White House, an area encompassing Haysfield.
Most pilots didn't want to deal with the additional procedural regulations required to fly in restricted airspace and moved their planes to neighboring airports in Frederick, Westminster and Fort Meade, he said.
"But everybody loved this place," Patsy said. "They said it was like coming to the country. Everybody knew everybody and it was like a party every day."
Cochran said his guess is that the Basslers will adapt well to the changes and Alfred will continue flying his ultralight, which he described with a chuckle as "a bit like riding in a lawn chair."
Craig Kerr, who was a flight instructor at Haysfield from 1982 to 2012, when the airport's closing was imminent, said he recently flew over Hayland Farm but the sight saddened him.
"I looked down and thought, 'It doesn't even look like an airport anymore,' " said the Columbia acupuncturist, who taught Patsy and David to fly and still gives lessons. "But that makes its closing a lot less painful to endure."
Though Alfred won't be able to take off from his new property in Woodbine, he isn't going to let that small inconvenience stop him from flying. He's already narrowed down his options for parking his planes to two Carroll County airports, either Harrison Farm Airport, in Union Bridge, or Clearview Airpark, in Westminster.
"Old guys keep coming back crying about all their Haysfield memories. They're almost worse off than I am," Alfred said, as the couple's last weeks on Hayland Farm tick by. "I could almost cry about the place closing, but I'm not going to let myself sink into that kind of mood."
Perhaps Kerr, who is 76 and one of those "old guys," summed it up best: "I consider Haysfield a gift to all of us who have a love of flying and enjoy having pilots around us.
"We purposely didn't advertise the airport's location because we wanted it to be Howard County's best-kept secret," he said. "It was just this neat, tucked-away thing that existed, and we owe these two amazing people a debt of gratitude for that."