The tale of a tiny river village that was nearly wiped out in 1972 after the shuttering of its textile mill — and that had its existence further threatened months later by Tropical Storm Agnes — is a compelling one.
The rebirth of Oella, which has an Ellicott City ZIP code despite being located on the Baltimore County side of the Patapsco River, will be the subject of a talk by Charles Wagandt on Tuesday at the Miller branch library.
Wagandt, a grandson of mill owner William J. Dickey, is a developer who purchased 76 acres in Oella in 1973, promising to revitalize a town ravaged by fire, floods and financial woes.
Forty years later, at age 88, the president of the Oella Co. is still actively working to fulfill that pledge, spurred by his family's 125-year association to the mill village and his fierce determination to keep his word.
"I would like to see the work completed in my lifetime, but who knows?" said Wagandt. "I've got projects I need to finish, so I keep telling the Lord I need a couple more years."
Wagandt has been rehabilitating and preserving Oella's unusual properties over the decades despite major challenges — water and sewer problems among them — while also working to keep rents affordable for the descendants of mill workers who still live there. His self-described "tiny operation" is located in the century-old Oella Methodist Church.
He is currently tackling Granite Hill, a group of granite homes on Oella Avenue that sit directly across from the lower end of Main Street's historic district. A duplex there was recently sold and another one is for rent with an option to buy, he said.
He's also finishing up work on a former community hall, which has "guts that date back before the Civil War," he said. The two-story, 5,000-square-foot building is under lease as office space to a small technology firm.
His many projects were slowed down by the "Great Depression of 2008" — his label for the country's economic downturn five years ago — which he said "was really a depression as far as real estate goes." The market is now starting to show signs of life, he said.
Wagandt said he is buoyed by the fact that his youngest child, James, 29 and now living in Oella, has taken an active interest in the community and its preservation.
Wagandt's presentation is part of Patapsco Heritage Greenway Week, organized to draw attention to "the amazing resource that is the Patapsco Valley," said Lisa Wingate, spokesperson for the nonprofit group Patapsco Heritage Greenway.
The Howard County Conservancy is co-sponsoring Wagandt's presentation and other events with PHG, including a talk Monday on the Patapsco River Valley and the Industrial Revolution by historian and author Henry K. Sharp at Pfeiffer Corner Schoolhouse in Rockburn Park.
"Many people don't know Charles or his story, but when they really listen to him, they realize he's extraordinary," Wingate said, noting that Oella's history holds appeal for old and young alike.
"Oella is an amazing gem, yet it's no longer a gem in the rough," Wingate said. "Thanks to Charles' perseverance and love of history, nature and architecture, it is nearly polished now."
To register for Wagandt's talk at the Miller library branch, 9421 Frederick Road, Ellicott City, call 410-313-1950 or sign up at hclibrary.org. The talk is cosponsored by the Howard County Historical Society and Howard County Public Library. To learn more about other Patapsco Heritage Greenway Week events, go to patapscoheritagegreenway.org.