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Howard, Laurel historical societies offer a step into the past with walking tours

Every Saturday, a group of about 10 people are led by a guide in period costume down historic Ellicott City’s Main Street. Hosted by the Howard County Historical Society, the guided tours provide participants interesting historical facts and stories about the historic town that will celebrate its 250th anniversary next year.

“You have Ellicott City’s beautiful Main Street and you listen to the tour guide and get this deep history,” said Shawn Gladden, executive director of Howard County Historical Society. “You learn how important Ellicott City was in the birth of this nation.”

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It is that combination of being outside, experiencing history, and not just reading about it or seeing it in a video, that makes walking tours so attractive to people, according to Fred Campbell, owner of FFC Historical Tours, the company that the historical society partners with to produce the tours.

“It is a tactile experience,” said Campbell, a former Howard Community College history professor. “We tend to get good numbers and a whole range of people.”

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The Ellicott City walking tours were originally operated by Howard County Tourism. About five years ago, Howard County Historical Society took over the historic walking tours, as well as a pub crawl and a ghost tour, Gladden said. In 2019, the historical society partnered with FCC Historical Tours to offer only historic walking tours on Saturdays from March through October/November, depending on the weather.

“We decided to just focus on the historical stuff,” Gladden said. “It is more in tune with our mission to promote the history of Howard County and, since our museum is here, Ellicott City, too.”

Participants gather in front of historic buildings along Main Street during Laurel Historical Society's walking tour in March.
Participants gather in front of historic buildings along Main Street during Laurel Historical Society's walking tour in March. (Brian Krista)

Last month, Laurel Historical Society started offering historic walking tours for the first time in over 10 years, according to Ann Bennett, executive director of the society. Three different themed tours were created, with one offered every month. All three sold out and had waiting lists.

“People are looking for things to do. We’ve had a great response,” said Ann Bennett, the society’s executive director. “We are looking at adding multiple groups on tour days or adding second days.”

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During the first tour in March, Karen Lubienecki, chair of the Laurel Historical Society board of directors, discussed Laurel’s time in the Civil War and the city’s commercial growth as she led the group of 12 on a mile walk from the train station, up Laurel’s Main Street, and along Riverfront Park.

“It’s a way to get a up close and personal with a community,” said Lubienecki, who likes to include a lot of details and several stories in her tours. “You should learn something you didn’t know before.”

Tour guides are always researching and learning more about various locations along their tours, Campbell said.

“They are roughly the same tours, but we modify things,” Campbell said. “During the summer, we hope to offer specialized tours about Colonial Maryland and the Industrial Revolution about once or twice a month.”

Steve Emburey, of Laurel, said he and his wife enjoyed the Howard County Historical Society’s holiday tour through Laurel a few years ago and were excited to learn more.

“I’ve lived here so long, and I didn’t know half of these things were here,” said Emurey, who is signed up for one more tour and is on the waiting list for the other.

The Laurel Historical Society also hosts virtual programs, including one on Thursday about the 17-year periodical cicadas of Brood X and what people can expect when they arrive later this spring and another on May 2 about Guilford Quarry Cemetery.

Another successful new program the society started offering in February was the make-at-home kit boxes. Each month, the staff creates a box revolving around a theme for either adults or kids. In February, a Valentine’s Day box was created for youth while in March, a St. Patrick’s Day box for adults featured an Irish coffee glass.

“They are not super extravagant,” Bennett said of the free kits. “There is a craft idea, historical notes and goodies. We get inspired each month with each season.”

The kits are planned through July. Kits must be ordered in advance and picked up at the beginning of the month.

“We saw other museums doing it and thought it was something we could do,” Bennett said. “There has been a good response.”

The Howard County Historical Society is also hoping to offer two new tours in 2022, Gladden said, including one about the African American experience in Ellicott City’s Fells Lane Community and another in conjunction with the Patapsco Heritage Greenway that would travel along trails to former mills sites and talk about the environment.

“We started working and developing them a couple of years ago, but with COVID, we didn’t want to launch new tours,” Gladden said. “They will now be part of our celebrations and activities for Ellicott City’s 250th anniversary.”

Though tours were halted during most of last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, they were resumed in late summer, Gladden said, with a limit of five people to promote social distancing.

“We wanted to keep one of the services we do in the public eye,” Gladden said. “We knew we were not going to make enough to make it profitable.”

Before COVID, and after both the 2016 and 2018 floods, the walking tours typically brought in about $10,000 a year, Gladden said. Profits from the tours are split with FCC Historical Tours, with the majority going to the historical society, according to Campbell.

“We do think that once we are through this COVID emergency, this business will come back,” Gladden said. “These tours are not only led by historians, they are written by and sourced by historians. We are good storytellers.”

“The tours are entirely outdoors,” Campbell said. “People wear masks and we practice social distancing. It is something people can feel more comfortable doing.”

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