A throng of students from Elkridge Landing Middle School swarmed across the historic Belmont property in Elkridge last week.
They examined lichen on century-old tombstones, built makeshift erosion filters and dressed up in 19th-century costumes to recreate an old family portrait in front of the nearly 300-year-old Belmont Manor House.
For the students, it was the culmination of a year spent studying storm water management.
But for Belmont, it was another step in transforming the property's rolling countryside and historic buildings into Howard County's newest park: Belmont Manor and Historic Park.
"These are the first real park events here," said Meg Boyd, executive director of the nonprofit Howard County Conservancy, which organized last week's student visits and will provide future environmental education programs at Belmont. "But this is just the beginning."
County officials have big plans for Belmont, and last week's events — visits by the Elkridge Landing students Thursday and Friday, and a preview event for the public on Sunday — were indeed just the beginning.
In the coming year, the conservancy plans to involve other county schools in projects at Belmont, including developing a species list for the new park. The conservancy already has scheduled other events, including a family open house, lectures, expert-led hikes around the grounds and a summer nature camp for the next few months.
The county Department of Recreation and Parks, meanwhile, will open up the grounds and the manor house for weddings and other events — corporate meetings, parties, holiday gatherings — in June. Already, the department has received about 50 applications for events, said Director John Byrd.
In the fall, Byrd said, the county will stage a "full-scale public opening" of the new park and begin offering heritage programs, such as reenactments, meant to highlight Belmont's centuries-old history.
"We are very excited about this," Byrd said. "All the work we've been doing behind the scenes is starting to come to fruition."
The park plans are just the latest reincarnation of a pastoral piece of land with a long and meandering history.
Tucked away in rolling countryside just south of Patapsco Valley State Park and a couple of miles west of Interstate 95, Belmont has a history that dates back to the late 17th century.
In 1689, Dr. Mordaci Moore, visiting the site as part of a surveying party, was so enamored that he bought nearly 1,700 acres and named it Moore's Morning Choice. For unknown reasons, he never built on the site, and eventually sold it to Caleb Dorsey, of Hockley-in-the-Hole, near Annapolis.
In 1735, Caleb Dorsey gave the land to his son, Caleb, and his daughter-in-law, Priscilla, as a wedding present. Three years later, the younger Caleb Dorsey built the stately manor house that still stands. He went on to become a wealthy tobacco grower and industrialist.
A long line of Caleb Dorsey's descendants continued to live in Belmont until the 1960s, although over the years they sold off much of the property. But in 1964, then-owner David Bruce, concerned about preserving Belmont, gifted it to the Smithsonian Institution.
The Smithsonian used the manor house and grounds as a conference center, but sold some of the remaining property to the state, which incorporated it into Patapsco State Park, and donated other acres to the Maryland Historic Trust. In 1983, the Smithsonian sold the manor house and some outbuildings to the American Chemical Society, which continued to use it as a conference center.
In 2004, the society sold the property to Howard Community College, which moved its culinary school there and announced ambitious plans to renovate Belmont. But those plans were undermined by the recession, and after a few years, the school put Belmont on the market again.
In 2012, the county stepped in to protect what County Executive Ken Ulman called "a historic treasure" and bought Belmont, which by then included 81 acres. Working with the conservancy and a committee of interested residents, county park officials developed plans to preserve Belmont as a history and nature park.
The county has spent between $800,000 and $1 million renovating the buildings and improving the grounds, Byrd said, work that is just about completed.
"I'm really excited about how this has come together," Ulman said last week. He recalled walking the grounds of Belmont with a friend shortly before the county acquired it, and working with a citizens' committee and the conservancy to determine how best to use the property.
"We kept coming back to an environmental, historic park," he said. "No ball fields, no additional structures. This is a park where people can come and experience history, experience nature in a hands-on way. … A passive park rooted in the environment and history."
Fred Dorsey, a historian and descendant of the Dorsey family that built Belmont, called the passive park focused on history and environmental concerns a perfect fit for the property.
"There couldn't be any better use," said Dorsey, president of Preservation Howard County, a nonprofit organization that protects historic county sites, and a member of the advisory committee that helped come up with the county's Belmont plans.
"I fully support [Howard County's] plans for the use of Belmont and their partnership with the Conservancy," Dorsey added in an email response to a question. "These two organizations will breathe life into Belmont through events and existing programs, opening Belmont Manor House and the Historic Park to the community."
Elkridge Landing Middle School students got the public's first taste of what Belmont has to offer on May 1 and 2. Besides their environmental science lessons, their mornings at Belmont included the history lessons that will be a main feature.
Dorsey, for example, was on hand to offer short presentations on the property's history, and volunteers from the Nature Conservancy helped the students reenact notable events from Belmont's past.
Elkridge Landing teachers and students questioned were enthusiastic about what they saw and heard at Belmont.
"It's been good — I learned a lot," said sixth-grader Alexis Underwood. "This seems like a land you can learn from."
"This is a great experience for the kids," said Elkridge Landing science teacher Kim Mahle. "This is the culminating trip for what they've been working on all year. … It's been pretty cool. … The educational, the history aspects — it's just a wonderful experience for them."
Ann Strozyk, an environmental educator for the Howard County Public School System, said Belmont would be a valuable resource for county schools.
"This will open up a whole new perspective for us to create programming for students," she said.
"We're going to take small steps — one trip at a time," she added. "But there are so many possibilities for working with students out there."