A drive through Bel Air -- which bustles with upscale suburbs and agricultural pastures -- reveals its considerable charm. One of Harford County's three incorporated towns (the other two are Aberdeen and Havre de Grace), Bel Air, nestled in the middle of Harford County right between Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay, is a virtual cornucopia of leisure activities. There are unique landmarks for history buffs, shopping areas with both big-name chain stores and mom-and-pop shops, and spacious meadows indicative of the town's ranking as one of Maryland's premiere farming areas.

Dinner time: These geese get dinner from a young friend at Bynum Run Park. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Names and flames

Bel Air's identity has gone through several incarnations since 1780. Landowner Aquilla Scott planned the town on a portion of inherited land known as "Scott's Improvement Enlarged," which he called "Scott's Old Fields." Four years later, the town had expanded as local politicians, merchants and innkeepers purchased lots from Scott, and the county commissioners decided to change its name to the more appealing "Belle Aire." In his deeds, Scott dropped one letter, renaming the town, "Bell Aire." Around 1798, court records decided to drop two more letters and "Bel Air" was born.

During this period, Bel Air began to show strong communal legs. In 1782, just two years after its conception, it became Harford's county seat, and Daniel Scott (Aquilla's son) started building a courthouse on Main Street, which is still the town's main road. In the late 18th century, Bel Air's city limits encompassed both sides of Main Street, but the days following the Civil War ignited a building and land-development boom that remains in full swing today.

Just a trim: The Towne Barber on Main Street is proof that old-fashioned barbershops still exist. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

In the 1900s, a series of unrelated fires obliterated buildings around the town. Two major blazes in 1900 and 1942 destroyed a carriage company and a tavern, respectively. Then, in 1972, overflow from a fuel tank sparked a fire that raged for four hours, destroying six businesses and an apartment complex resulting in $2 million worth of damage.

In 1970, the trial of H. Rap Brown had violent repercussions in Bel Air. Brown, a member of the militant political-revolution group the Black Panthers, was charged with inciting a riot in Cambridge, Md. He was originally to be tried there, but was granted a change of venue to Bel Air in order to receive a fair hearing. However, the Bel Air courthouse received several bomb threats after his arrival. Two men drove to the courthouse on March 23 with the intent of using plastic explosives to demolish it. Due to threats, though, the courthouse was under heavy guard and they were unable to carry out their plan. As they retreated on Route 1 at Tollgate Road, the explosives detonated, killing both, blowing out the windows of the nearby tollhouse and leaving a hole in Baltimore Pike. Interestingly, Brown disappeared on the night of his trial. Upon his disappearance, the FBI added him to its most wanted list, where he stayed for 17 months. Then, he was shot and captured shot during an armed robbery attempt in N.Y.C. He was paroled in 1976, but was arrested again in 2000 for a murder in Georgia.

Shopping spree

These days life in Bel Air is much more peaceful -- though with the abundant retail outlets throughout the town, one can imagine that holiday shopping can be rather action-packed. More malls and shopping centers than you can visit in a day mark the town's portion of Route 24 and its side roads. Harford Mall, on the corner of 24 and Business Route 1, boasts a plethora of clothing stores for the whole family (Old Navy, Aeropostale, Gap and Gap Kids), specialty stores (Spencer's Gifts and Science Rocks), a food court and stand-alone restaurants Cactus Willies and Friendly's.

Hot stuff: Cactus Willies serves up Southwestern fare at the Harford Mall. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

If you can't find what you're looking for at Harford Mall, go across the street. Opportunities for shopping include PetsMart, Best Buy, Dollar Tree and Gardiner's Furniture. Nearby on South Business 1 are several more marketplaces that are home to such businesses as Super Fresh, Sears, Blockbuster and Premier Cinemas. Also nearby at Bel Air South Station are Talbot's, Bob Evans, Papa John's and the popular DuClaw Brewing Company, where you can take the edge off all your hectic store-hopping with a pint of one of five flavorful handcrafted beers.

For more shopping, just travel less than a mile southeast on Rt. 24. The Tollgate Marketplace consists of a cluster of fairly big-name stores like Circuit City, Toys R Us, Staples, Barnes & Noble, Starbucks, T.J. Maxx and Michael's. And if you still haven't spent enough money ... well, The Avenue and White Marsh Mall are just 10 exits down Interstate 95. Go nuts.

Pleasantville, Md.

If you're fond of quieter, less-commercial diversions, you'll probably enjoy a scenic drive down Main Street, a long strip of Bel Air residences and independent businesses with a retro Pleasantville ambiance. Offices appear to be in converted houses, and the houses themselves -- single-family homes with brick fronts and clean lawns -- have a cozily wholesome 1940s and '50s glow, a far cry from the analogous, modern townhouse neighborhoods elsewhere in Bel Air and Harford County.

Saddle up: The Mill has tack, garden supplies and other odds and ends for the home and garden. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

The vendors on Main Street bring Bel Air's simpler, more agricultural side into focus. There are farmers markets selling homegrown produce, bakeries offering oven-fresh bread and the Mill of Bel Air -- a marketplace offering farming supplies including lawn and garden provisions, custom-blended feeds, saddlery and equine goods, pet products, birdhouses, sundials, clothes and gifts.

But perhaps Main Street's most stunning attraction is the gorgeous facade of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, a sight people of all faiths can admire. From a distance, the Gothic structure looks like a small fortress, with an old-fashioned stone exterior, a tall turret and large red doors. A closer look reveals ornate stained-glass windows, and inside, the handsome wooden pews, impressive pulpit and ample space make this an ideal wedding location.

Diversions cultural and historical

History buffs will note that Bel Air is the birthplace of presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth. Located on the outskirts of the town in rural Harford County is Tudor Hall, the house in which Booth and his nine brothers and sisters grew up. Regrettably, Tudor Hall, now privately owned, is no longer open to the public.

Infamous: The home of John Wilkes Booth is denoted with a sign, but is private property. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Tours are offered at the Hays House, not far from Main Street on Kenmore Avenue. The preserved frame home built in the late 1700s now functions as a museum, offering a glimpse into Maryland's yesteryears. A busy calendar means there are public activities that vary from season to season, but the most popular is a springtime encampment, where actors re-create 18th- and 19th-century chores like blacksmithing and basket-weaving.

For another taste of the past, visit the Liriodendron Mansion. Located on West Gordon Street, the Liriodendron was once the summer home of Dr. Howard Atwood Kelly, a successful Bel Air surgeon and one of the founding members of Johns Hopkins Medical College, who purchased the mansion in 1897. Named for the tulip poplar trees that provide shade on the estate lawn, this luxurious mansion is open for tours and holds art exhibits, classical music concerts, croquet tournaments and other events.

After enriching the intellect, reward your senses at Rockfield Park, where expansive flora and an extraordinarily unique horticultural garden bring to mind a scene in an Edith Wharton novel. For the kids, there's a generous baseball field and a trail leading through the forest adjacent to Churchville Road. But the main draw is the garden, which has eight separate divisions featuring different themes -- for example, one section features fragrant trees and flowers, while another focuses mainly on evergreens.

First and foremost, a community

Get your read on: The library on the campus of Harford Community College is not only one of the most important buildings at HCC, it's also one of the prettiest. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

In addition to having its own elementary, middle and high schools, Bel Air is home to the campus of Harford Community College where Harford Community Radio (WHFC 91.1 FM) can be found.

With Bel Air's keenly assorted range of consumer and personal diversions it is obvious that this is a town that emphasizes a relationship between the community and its members. Consider the many public events the town holds annually: There's a chocolate festival in late winter, an antiques appraisal day in early spring, an Independence Day celebration that includes such picaresque activities as a bicycle rodeo, frog jumping and a "patriotic costume contest," and a Christmas parade during the holidays.

In other words, Bel Air feels like the contemporary equivalent of one of Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers -- small-town charm and big-city convenience in one enjoyable package.