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Howard County Conservancy marks 25 years with big plans

In 1990, a small group of citizens concerned about land conservation founded the Howard County Conservancy. Within 25 years, their organization has become a regional leader for environmental education and stewardship.

In addition to preserving open space throughout the county, the Woodstock-based conservancy now houses several historic buildings and community gardens and runs nature camps, guided hikes and a thriving outdoor education program, covering everything from stream and soil health to biodiversity.

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"I still think it's one of the county's best-kept secrets," says Ned Tillman, former president of the Howard County Conservancy Board of Directors. "It gives people a great sense of history, as well as nature, and it will hopefully inspire them to become better stewards."

This year, as the conservancy celebrates its 25th anniversary, we take a look back at its early days, how it has evolved and what's ahead for this growing nonprofit.

Foundations in farming

While the conservancy officially formed in 1990 as a private land trust, it wasn’t until 1993 that it had a place to call home: Mt. Pleasant, a more than 300-year-old, 232-acre farm off Old Frederick Road.
In 1692, Patuxent Ranger Thomas Browne received the property then known as Ranter’s Ridge as a land grant. It stayed in his family for eight generations, eventually becoming home to descendants Ruth and Frances Brown.
The sisters lived on and ran the farm for more than 75 years. The farmhouse, originally built by Ranger Browne as a two-story log cabin, was the center of farm activity, surrounded by outbuildings like the main barn, smokehouse, icehouse, carriage house, blacksmith shop and corn crib.
The women also raised guinea fowl — considered a delicacy at the time — in two chicken coops, says Meg Schumacher Boyd, the conservancy’s executive director.
“We had several get-togethers with people that knew the sisters so we could record their memories,” she says. “Several people shared that the guinea hens acted almost as guard dogs, making a big racket when visitors came. The noisy hens were how the sisters knew a visitor had arrived.”
While the sisters never married, they cared for and educated plenty of children. Ruth Brown taught for 49 years at several county schools, including West Friendship Elementary and the one-room Alpha School, often called “Corn Cob College” because of the local farmers’ children who attended.
Frances Brown taught for 48 years at county schools, including Glenwood Middle School and the former Alberton School, which served the Daniels Mill community near Ellicott City.
Ruth Brown died in 1990, leaving all of her property to her sister. When Frances Brown died in 1992, estate documents stated the Mt. Pleasant property should be preserved and used for educational purposes.
“The fact that they had the foresight to preserve the property and say they wanted it used for education was such a gift,” Boyd says.
The conservancy immediately expressed interest in the site, but it needed help from the state and the county to settle the estate tax bill.
County resident and conservancy founder James Eacker, assisted by fellow founders Sen. James Clark, George Reynolds and Joyce Kelly, spent most of 1992 at the farm, preparing paperwork for the conservancy to manage the site and removing everything from decades of old school papers in the farmhouse to manure in the chicken coops, says Georgia Eacker, James Eacker’s widow and longtime conservancy volunteer.
“If they hadn’t taken action, we wouldn’t have this property,” she says.
Within a year, the conservancy hosted one of its first events: A strawberry social on the farmhouse porch.

Land for learning

As the conservancy settled into its new home, it offered environmental education programs and forged partnerships with groups like Howard County Master Gardeners and the Howard County Public School System.
Charlotte Harris, a former Wilde Lake Middle School teacher, and several of her colleagues organized one of the first field trips to the site in 1995.
Students studied the farm’s soil and water, planted trees and shrubs throughout the property and ate lunch amid the stone foundation of the farm’s old barn.
The experience left its mark on the students — and on Harris. After she retired in 2004, she began volunteering at the conservancy as a naturalist.
“I just love the outdoors and opening [students’] eyes to what’s out there, what’s available to them and important for generations ahead of them,” Harris says.
To accommodate its growing programs, the conservancy opened the Gudelsky Environmental Education Center in 2005. The building houses meeting space, a classroom, a nature center and conservancy offices.
“The growth was just exponential after the building opened,” Boyd says.
Today, the conservancy holds conservation easements — legal agreements between landowners and the conservancy restricting future land use — on more than 1,600 acres of property. And it continues to fulfill the Brown sisters’ wish. With the help of volunteers and partners, the conservancy reaches more than 8,500 children per year through educational programs and summer camps.
Among the school-related programs: Chesapeake Bound, where conservancy staff members bring a Diamondback Terrapin to area elementary schools and discuss humans’ impact on its habitat; a descriptive writing field trip where fourth- and fifth-graders document wildlife habitats and the conservancy’s goats, chickens and owl in a nature journal; and a watershed report card, where high school students from throughout the county collect and analyze samples from watershed areas near their schools.
The school system’s partnership with the Conservancy takes what the students are learning in the classroom to the next level, says Ann Strozyk, environmental educator for the Howard County Public School System. “Hiking through wetlands, forests, meadows and streams, students have the opportunity to make observations, collect data, use scientific equipment and study the world around them.”
The experience is invaluable, says Amy Reese, coordinator of elementary science for Howard County Public School System.
“It’s tremendous,” she says. “What they offer our students is something they can’t get elsewhere.”
In addition, people from across the country visit the conservancy’s headquarters annually for private events or to tour its grounds, nature center and historic farm outbuildings.
“It went from a very sleepy place to a place where 10,000 people visit a year,” Tillman says.

Ripe for growth

As for the future, the conservancy has its sights set on expansion.
Since 2005, its budget has almost doubled to $500,000. It welcomed the historic Montjoy Barn, an Ellicott City barn built in the 1700s that was disassembled, moved and then reassembled at the Mt. Pleasant site in 2007. And in 2014, the conservancy opened its second nature center at Belmont Manor and Historic Park in Elkridge.
“We’re growing by leaps and bounds,” says W. Craig Engelhaupt, president of the conservancy’s board of directors.
That growth will continue as the conservancy adds educational programs at both locations, Engelhaupt says.
In 2016, the conservancy also plans to expand its Mt. Pleasant education center. The 1,500 square-foot addition will cost about $1 million and create more office and program space.
“We’ve seen such an uptick in the popularity of the site, as well as expansion of the programs,” Engelhaupt says. “There’s a real need and interest in keeping something like this going.”
The expansion will also allow the conservancy to provide more programs in the winter, when outdoor events are more challenging, says Boyd.
“The expansion will allow us to hold multiple programs at the same time,” she continues. “We plan to build on already successful programs like our summer camps, free monthly hikes and seasonal festivals, but we also envision being able to offer a greater variety of programs for different age groups.”
Mt. Pleasant
headquarters

10520 Old Frederick Road, Woodstock

Open Wednesday through Saturday
from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Grounds and hiking trails are
open daily from dawn to dusk.

Belmont

6553 Belmont Woods Road, Elkridge

Open for scheduled events only. 

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