Howard County Times
Howard County

The keepers of Howard County history

As a student at Atholton Elementary and Clarksville Middle schools, Mary Catherine Cochran said her eyes glazed over when teachers explained Civil War battles.

It's not that she didn't appreciate history. She did — just on a more local level.


"I would light up if I found an old piece of farm equipment, half buried in the ground," she said, recalling her childhood.

She become fascinated by the ruins of Simpsonville Mill, a former water-powered grist and saw mill that she would pass every day while riding the school bus.


"Those smaller things are kind of unrecognized in the history books," Cochran said. "But they were within my reach."

Through the years, Cochran's interest in local history grew. In 2000, she founded Preservation Howard County, a nonprofit organization that supports historical and cultural preservation and education. As its president, she helped preserve and restore everything from historic barns and slave quarters to bridges, homes and schoolhouses.

That's why on Sunday, Aug. 24, Preservation Howard County will honor Cochran with the Senator James Clark, Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award during its 13th annual Preservationists of the Year ceremony.

The award is one of four to be given during a ceremony at Waverly Mansion in Marriottsville.

"We see many people in the county who have spent significant time over many years pursuing the preservation of non-renewable resources in Howard County," said Fred Dorsey, president of Preservation Howard County."We felt that work needed to be recognized."

Each year, PHC leaders select award winners from nominations made by officers, board members, local organizations and the public. Awards recognize individuals, organizations or corporations that have worked to preserve the history, heritage and culture of the county, as well as those who have restored, preserved or found adaptive use of historic sites that are part of the county's landscape, Dorsey said.

Howard County is filled with history, but it is also growing in terms of population and development, he said. Sometimes, that growth can "encroach" upon historical structures.

This year's award winners all recognize the importance of preserving county history whenever and wherever possible, Dorsey said.


"This is the history and the heritage that has brought Howard County to where it is today," Dorsey said.

This year, Preservation Howard County will honor the following people as its Preservationists of the Year:

Mary Catherine Cochran

Cochran, a lifelong Howard County resident, served as PHC president for more than a decade.

By the time the organization formed, Cochran says the county had lost more than 90 percent of its historic resources through demolition, development or neglect.

"It only took about 30 years for it to happen," Cochran said.


Under her leadership, PHC launched its first list of the Top Ten endangered sites in 2001, bringing attention and awareness to some of the county's most threatened historic sites. Many of the original sites, including the Pfeiffer's Corner schoolhouse built in 1895, have been preserved and even relocated as a result of PHC's efforts. The list, which changes based on preservation needs, is now in its 14th year.

Among her many achievements is preservation of the slave quarters, main house, summer kitchen and barn at the former Mount Joy/Santa Fe Farm, an endangered site from 2001 that dates back to 1695. Winchester Homes bought the farm land between Route 29 and Routes 100 and 108 to build new homes. But instead of tearing the historic structures down, Cochran and Winchester worked together to protect and preserve them, Dorsey said.

Cochran also coordinated the documentation, removal and storage of one of the farm's historic barns with the Howard County Conservancy before construction began. The barn was eventually rebuilt at the conservancy in Woodstock, where it is now used as an education center.

In addition to her multiple preservation efforts, Cochran developed a PHC preservation grant program, planned historic preservation resource symposiums, educated the community about preservation efforts, created the Preservationist of the Year awards and testified before the Howard County Council as needed, Dorsey said.

"Her leadership ability, vision and tenacious pursuit of preservation have given preservation a much needed voice," Dorsey said.

Virginia Frank and Tiffany Ahalt


As keepers of the Maryland Historic National Road, Virginia Frank, of West Friendship, and Tiffany Ahalt, of Frederick County, are always looking for ways to protect its history.

The road, which runs through Howard County, is part of the Historic National Road, the country's first federally funded interstate highway.

"It really was the gateway to the west," said Ahalt, byway manager for the Maryland National Road Association. "It was instrumental to creating the successful cities and towns in Maryland. … It tells the story of our country and how our country developed."

The original National Historic Road opened in phases throughout the early 1800s. The Ellicott brothers, founders of what was then Ellicott Mills, financed an early portion of the road in 1806 to transport goods like milled flour to Baltimore. By 1812, the federally funded portion of the road began in Cumberland, Frank said. It extended to Wheeling, W.Va., connecting the Potomac and Ohio rivers, and eventually to Illinois.

Today, part of the Maryland section can be found along Route 40 and Route 144 in Ellicott City and western Howard County.

Frank and Ahalt work throughout the year to spread awareness of the road's history at area festivals, community events and the annual Maryland National Road Yard Sale. They also oversee preservation of the road's mile markers, including the one at the base of Main Street in Ellicott City. The stone marker reads "10 M to B."


"That means 10 miles to Baltimore," Ahalt said.

Many of the markers have been lost over the years due to development, Frank said. That's why the MNRA has made protecting the remaining markers a priority.

"Once we lose the history, you lose so much," Frank said.

This year, Frank and Ahalt also replaced 58 interpretive signs and installed four new kiosks along the 170-mile section of the byway. New signs include updated graphics, MNRA contact information and more accurate maps and information about the people who built, traveled, lived and worked along the road.

Both women said they are "thankful" and "honored" to receive the PHC award for doing what they love.

Bruno Reich


Bruno Reich has always had a fascination with old buildings.

The Glenelg architect has spent years trying to preserve historic structures throughout the county.

"The most sustainable thing you can do in terms of building is to save an old building," Reich said. "It's better ecologically to save the building and retrofit it."

One of his first preservation projects came in the form of a blacksmith shop.

In the 1960s, Rouse Company founder James Rouse bought farm land in Wilde Lake to develop Columbia. But before moving forward, he sold the farm's blacksmith shop and cookhouse to Reich's mother.

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Reich took over the property in the early 1980s and rebuilt it from the ground up. He added a basement, redid the roof and replaced the exterior with local granite. With each step, he kept the blacksmith shop's historic character in mind, he said.


Reich lived in the shop for 28 years and still owns it.

Reich was also instrumental is preserving the Daisy Schoolhouse, a one-room schoolhouse built in 1885 and formerly located in Daisy, Dorsey said. Nearby development threatened the building's future, so in 2009, Reich volunteered to disassemble it, document the building materials and then store them until a new home could be found.

"We took it apart piece by piece," Reich said. "It took us about two weeks. I believe that's the last old wooden one-room schoolhouse that the county had."

Plans are underway to rebuild the structure at the Howard County Living Farm Heritage Museum in West Friendship. When that happens, Reich said he'll be there.

As for the PHC award, Reich said he's honored to be a recipient.

"I think it's a great idea," Reich said. "People should be recognized for what they're doing to preserve these buildings."