7 surprising facts about Howard County

Babe Ruth's first marriage ceremony took place in Ellicott City.
(illustration by Violet Lemay)

Did You Know?

Howard County is known nationwide for its schools, parks, sports programs, libraries and affluence.
But tucked away in faded, aging documents and longtime residents' minds, there are plenty of
little-known facts that might just surprise you.


Take Morse to the water
In the early 1800s, the village of Poplar Springs in western Howard County served as a temporary home for travelers headed west. Travelers including Samuel F.B. Morse, one of the inventors of Morse code, were drawn to the town for its lodging, food, general store, post office and blacksmith services for horses and wagons, according to "Howard's Roads to the Past," by Barbara W. Feaga. But some think the cool springs were the town's biggest draw. The spring water was believed to have healing powers, Feaga states. Once the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad arrived in the 1830s, with stations in nearby Woodbine and Watersville, Poplar Springs became even more popular as a summer resort for Baltimore and Washington area vacationers, she states. During the summers of 1842 to 1844, Morse is said to have stayed in Poplar Springs, perfecting his latest invention: the single-wire telegraph.

Bambino gets hitched
On Oct. 17, 1914, legendary baseball player George Herman "Babe" Ruth Jr. married his first wife, Margaret Helen Woodford, at St. Paul's Church in Ellicott City. The Baltimore-born athlete and the waitress legally separated in 1925. Woodford died in a fire in 1929, freeing Ruth to marry actress Claire Hodgson that same year. A copy of Ruth's first marriage certificate can be seen at the Howard County Historical Society's research library, inside the Miller Branch Library in Ellicott City.


Where the buzz began
With fluctuating gas prices and increasing environmental awareness, today's electric cars continue to grow in popularity. But to Columbia, they are nothing new. In 1976, Sebring-Vanguard, an electric car manufacturer, opened its national sales office and showroom off Red Branch Road. The manufacturer's all-electric CitiCar, created by Robert Gerald Beaumont, could travel up to 30 miles per hour and had a range of 40 miles. James Rouse, who led the development of Columbia in the 1960s, even bought one as a company car. According to the Columbia Archives, when the car needed a charge, Rouse and other employees plugged it into an outlet near the Rouse headquarters building in downtown Columbia. Unfortunately for Sebring-Vanguard, the car suffered due to safety concerns. Production stopped in the late 1970s.

A legend buried beneath us
In the 1920s, prominent Elkridge businessman Howard Bruce bought Billy Barton, a thoroughbred racehorse known for being unruly. At the time, Bruce owned the Belmont estate — a vast historic property off Belmont Woods Road. According to the Save Belmont Coalition, Bruce and his wife, Mary, ran a working farm on the estate. Bruce also bred and trained thoroughbred hunters, which would chase the hounds that chased foxes during hunts. But Bruce quickly realized Billy Barton was more than a hunter horse. He entered Billy Barton in steeplechase races — horse races over closed courses with obstacles like hedges and walls. In 1926, Billy Barton won the coveted Maryland Hunt Cup and the Virginia Gold Cup. In 1928, he lost the Grand National Steeplechase crown in England by only inches because his jockey fell off over the last jump, the coalition says. Still, he had gained international fame. He even graced the March 18, 1929, cover of Time magazine. Four years later, when Billy Barton died, he was buried a few yards from his old paddock at Belmont.

More ice cream, please
Travel down Whiskey Bottom Road in Laurel, and eventually you'll see — and maybe even smell — it: the 700,000-square-foot Nestle Dreyer's Ice Cream plant. The plant, known as the company's Laurel Operations Center, is one of the largest ice-cream plants in the nation. It distributes more than 200 different Dreyer's, Edy's, Haagen-Dazs and Skinny Cow ice-cream products and frozen snacks. The plant is so big it can store enough milk to fill 10 Olympic-size swimming pools, says Greg Brown, head of factory finance. Nestle bought the building in 1996, and Dreyer's moved in in 2003 after the two companies joined forces. Today, the plant employs almost 1,000 people during its peak summer season. Ice-cream sundae, anyone?

Who needs mountains?
In 1968, Columbia planners examined more than 20 locations for possible ski slopes in Columbia, according to the Columbia Archives. One recommendation was to develop a permanent camping and recreation area with a ski run west of Hobbit's Glen Golf Course.

Build it and they will come — or maybe not
In the late 1960s, planners tossed around the idea of adding a large sports stadium in Columbia. Around the same time, Carroll Rosenbloom, then-owner of the Baltimore Colts, began searching for his own new stadium. According to a Nov. 17, 1970, Baltimore Sun article stored at the Columbia Archives, Rosenbloom wanted an alternative to Memorial Stadium, then home to both the Colts and the Baltimore Orioles. Here's where the Columbia and Colts paths merge. A March 14, 1971, Baltimore Sun article, also found at the Columbia Archives, states Columbia authorities were confident they would soon close a land deal near Snowden River and Little Patuxent parkways, putting the Colts in a new 60,000-seat stadium within a few years. Yet according to several James Rouse memos, an agreement could not be reached. The Colts eventually found a new stadium and a new home on March 29, 1984, when they infamously left in the middle of the night for Indianapolis. And that Columbia stadium many dreamed of never came to be.

The Columbia Archives and The Howard County Historical Society have hundreds of documents on file tracing the county's history. For more information, visit www.columbiaarchives.com and www.hchsmd.org.

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