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Whether you crave freshly picked apples and corn, are a military history buff, or just want to escape the pavement and skyscrapers without taking a long haul, Westminster will fit your needs. With its fall wine festival, colorful orchards and sprawling fields, the area is an ideal spot for an autumn visit and a scenic drive.

Rural peace: Picturesque landscapes are commonplace in Westminster. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Tucked in the heart of Maryland's farmland 20 minutes west of Owings Mills, Westminster originally consisted of more than 100 acres known as White's Level. William Winchester, a literate indentured servant from England, purchased the land in 1764 for 150 pounds sterling (or $4.50 an acre) after working off his period of indenture. At that time, the town became known as Winchester, but was changed in 1768 to avoid confusion with Winchester, Va. According to local lore, Westminster was picked in honor of the name of Winchester's supposed birthplace in England.

Originally the land divided Baltimore and Frederick counties. However, in 1837, Westminster became the focal point of the newly designated Carroll County. Occupied by English residents who relocated from Annapolis, Germans from Pennsylvania and Scotch-Irish from Virginia, Westminster became known as a trading hub. Local farmers offered their items to traders on their way to Baltimore from central Pennsylvania. At this time, leather-making was the town's principal industry. There were also many craftspeople and merchants.

Agricultural past: This hucksters wagon is on display on the Carroll County Farm Museum. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Many of Westminster's homes and buildings were erected in the early 1800s and remain today. The Longwell Mansion or Emerald Hill was built by Col. John K. Longwell in 1842. Col. Longwell, the son of Irish immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania, named the property Emerald Hill to pay homage to his roots. It became City Hall in 1939.

This is one of the many buildings outlining Courthouse Square, the center of downtown Westminster. Many prominent Westminster residents have lived at the (indefinitely closed) Shellman House (at 206 E. Main St.). Built in 1807, it is one of the oldest homes in Westminster. German businessman Jacob Sherman bought the property from original owner William Winchester and shared it with his daughter and son-in-law, David Shriver. Shriver was the surveyor and superintendent of the Reisterstown Turnpike (Route 77). The building is now home to The Carroll County Historical Society. The Society's administrative offices and the Miss Carroll Doll Museum are located next door at the Kimmey House. Built in 1800, it is the oldest house in Courthouse Square.

Keeper of the legends: The staff of the Historical Society of Carroll County can tell you all about everything from the Civil War to ghosts. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

In addition to sporting round-arched windows, many of the buildings in Westminster feature special architectural details. Bennett-Parke House (23 North Court Street), constructed in approximately 1843, features an original Georgian eight-panel door and a seven-pane light transom. Baltimore architect Robert Carey Long Jr. built the Gothic Ascension Episcopal Church in 1844 for $50. He also built Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery, St. Alphonsus Church and St. Peter the Apostle Church.

Westminster's Old Jail (98 North Court St.), built in 1837, was designed to resemble a Pennsylvania German farmhouse. It boasts fortress-like columns meant to intimidate and deter passers-by from a life of crime. Even the Carroll County Courthouse, built in 1838, features eye-catching architecture. Courtroom Number One has been voted "one of the most beautiful in the United States" by the American Bar Association. It features original gas lights, intricate moldings, marble floors and a balcony.

There's also a lot to discover outside of the town center. Higher education has a long history in Westminster. McDaniel College, a liberal arts school, was chartered in 1868 and was the first coeducational higher learning institution south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The college is home to Theatre on the Hill, a professional theater company that has existed since 1982.

Also outside of town is The Carroll County Farm Museum. The museum is a model of a productive 19th century family-run farm. The farm was used for churning butter, growing crops, making soap and spinning wool into yarn. Today, it features gardens, farm animals, a pond, a living history center and a general store.

The old-fashioned way: They still grind flour with water power at the Union Mills Homestead and Grist Mill, which sits on beautiful grounds. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

One other interesting spot is Union Mills Homestead and Grist Mill -- started by brothers Andrew and David Shriver in 1797. After purchasing the large tract of land near Big Pipe Creek, the brothers decided to make good use of their proximity to the water and started a mill. In the mid-1800s David sold all of his shares of the property to Andrew, and additional rooms and a latticed porch were added. The porch was modeled after Thomas Jefferson's Monticello because Andrew was a loyal supporter of Jefferson. Today, visitors can watch stone-ground cornmeal, wheats and buckwheat flour being ground.

Battlefields to bike trails
Westminster and its surrounding fields are steeped in Civil War history. On June 29, 1863, a pivotal skirmish took place in Westminster. Virginia General Jeb Stuart, a Confederate military man, had been making his way north and picked up supplies from hijacked Union wagons in Rockville. By the time his troops reached Westminster, they were ready for a break.

Simultaneously, a small Union company led by Captain Charles Corbit -- the 1st Delaware Calvary -- arrived in Westminster to guard the rail and road junction that provided easy passage to the North. Captain Corbit settled in the Old Commons, a high point that provided a clear view for miles. Upon discovering that Southern troops were in the area, Captain Corbit gathered his men and went looking for the Confederate soldiers. The conflict ensued and Captain Corbit was captured, but the battle delayed Stuart from moving north and gaining the upper hand at Gettysburg. Many historians believe this was a pivotal factor in deciding the outcome of the Civil War.

Battlefields to cornfields: Westminster was the site of many important events in the Civil War due to its proximity to the Mason-Dixon Line. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Decide for yourself by touring the old battlefield -- the skirmish took place at the intersection of East Main Street and Washington Road and is denoted by a historical marker. Civil War buffs can also ride through Carroll County to trace troop movements. Road to Gettysburg maps are available at the Carroll County Bureau of Tourism.

Take advantage of Westminster's rural setting and enjoy its many outdoor activities. Bike tours, parks and golfing are all popular in Westminster. The Visitor's Center also offers bike tour brochures. Ride through farmland, woodland, neighboring villages and back roads. If you'd rather get out the tackle box, head to the Westminster Community Pond (Route 140 at Route 97) to fish for trout. Getting teed off is also a possibility. Choose from 18 holes at Bear Creek Golf Club or nine holes at the Western Maryland College Golf Course.

Relax: Stop and smell the flowers at Belle Grove Square Park. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

If wheeling and dealing isn't quite your style, relax and catch up on your people watching at any of the area parks, including Belle Grove Square Park, Westminster Municipal Jaycee Park and Dutterer Family Park.

Ghostly tales
If you'd rather commune with the dead, there are plenty of hauntings to be found in Westminster. The town hosts a ghost walk -- a "spirited" self-guided walking tour -- which features one of its better known souls. Legh Master, a prominent landowner, was buried when he died at the age of 80. Surprisingly, his bones rose to the top of the soil. This happened three times and no one could figure out why. His body was moved to Ascension Episcopal Church and placed under a large stone slab. But that didn't hold him, either. The heavy stone split in half. Much later, when his home Avondale was being renovated, a human skeleton was found behind bricks in an oven. It was rumored that he murdered one of his slaves' boyfriends and threw him into an iron furnace. Then he buried the slave alive in an oven.

More frightful tales -- many relating to the tragic deaths of slaves -- can be found at the Carroll County Public Library.

Food and fun
Here are some of Westminster's most popular eateries. Every night, Chameleon -- a cross between a hip bistro and an old Irish pub -- is packed with young locals. Grab a beer on tap and hunker down in one of the cozy booths. Eclectic, down-home grub can be found at Baugher's Farm. This family-run farm has miles of orchards, berry patches and vegetable gardens, but the main draw is its general store and restaurant. Delve into some juicy burgers and homemade cherry pies and ice cream. For breakfast staples, inventive lunch sandwiches and an ever-changing dinner menu of pastas and shellfish, sample the Fat Cat Cafe, located in a Victorian home. On the high end of the dining spectrum, try the classic veal, steak and seafood dishes at Rudy's 2900 -- located seven miles south in Finksburg.

Treasure hunting
After you've filled up on good eats, walk it off with some good antiquing. Westminster is home to at least half a dozen antiques stores. Start at the Antique Mall, which features 157 booths. Then, meander down Main Street to find Locust Antiques, Seven East Antiques and Collectibles and Silver Image Antiques, among a handful of others.

Relaxing retreats
The 30-minute drive from Baltimore to Westminster is the only excuse you'll need to treat yourself to a stay at one of the town's inns, especially after a filling late-night meal or a strenuous day of treasure hunting. When you crave a break from car alarms and fire engines, head to the charming Westminster Inn. A former schoolhouse, this bed and breakfast even offers a full athletic club. The Winchester Country Inn, the oldest structure in Carroll County, was built in 1760. Check out the sweeping front porch where guests sip iced tea and nibble peach cobbler.

Thanks to Westminsters' proximity, any Sunday will do for a stroll through antique shops, picking out fresh farmers' produce and escaping the city. It's one of those "who-knew-it-was-there?" spots city dwellers are always searching for. Now that you know it's there, go West.

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