This week in Columbia's history: Anonymous 1963 ‘Land Grab’ makes waves in rural Howard County

Newspapers in 1963 report that anonymous buyer is snapping up HoCo land. #Columbia50

In March 1963, newspapers began to report that a mysterious buyer was snapping up land in Howard County. A 1971 New York Times story recalled rumors that the land would be used for everything from rocket launches to making peat moss. By May, the unknown buyer had purchased more than 14,000 acres of what would become Columbia.

James Rouse, Columbia's founder, chose Howard County for his ambitious new planned city because its location in the rapidly growing Baltimore-Washington region made it "destined for major growth," according to the presentation that announced Columbia. At the time, Howard County was largely rural, and in 1962 its residents voted for Republicans who promised to keep it that way.

Rouse purchased the farmland in total secrecy — even instructing former landowners not to reveal details of sales — because he believed if people knew that he was building Columbia, land prices would spike. The buyup was so secretive that even those making the purchases did not know what they were for. Robert Moxley, a real estate agent who bought much of the farmland, recalled in an essay published in Robert Tennenbaum's book, "Creating a New City," that he was unaware the purchaser was Rouse's company. Only when a secretary called him about a contract delivered to "the purchaser's office on Saratoga Street," where Rouse's office was located, did Moxley realize the developer was his customer.

This is a series looking back on Columbia's first 50 years. To suggest other noteworthy moments from the past, contact asolomon@baltsun.com.

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