PLANNING FOR THE PAST Uniontown treasures its ties to yesterday


UNIONTOWN -- When the Western Maryland Railway decide to bypass Uniontown in 1858, it dealt this tiny Carroll County farming village a severe economic blow.

But that long-ago decision created one of Maryland's finest historic legacies, a virtually intact 19th-century village that is an abiding joy to its 200-odd residents and a model for preservationists everywhere.

When the rails drove to Union Bridge by way of Westminster and New Windsor, some 20 years after Uniontown failed in its bid to becomethe county seat, businessmen began moving to towns along the railroad, leaving the village in its pastoral setting.

"Uniontown died for 100 years," said Tom Romoser, 40, chairman of the Uniontown Improvement Association.

But that ultimately saved the town. The old families remained in their houses along picturesque Uniontown Road, lined with thick, ancient maple trees that arch across the road in full foliage.

Some were built as log houses in the late 1700s and later were covered with brick or siding. Others are elegant Federal-period brick houses. Still others are solid Victorian and Edwardian homes.

The homes were well-maintained as succeeding generations added contemporary improvements, laying a firm foundation for restoration. Many houses are being returned to near-original exterior appearance while retaining modern conveniences such as central heating, kitchens and indoor plumbing.

"I hope the next 20 years see as much progress as the last 20 years have in continuing restoration," said Jerry Trescott, a professional restorer who is refurbishing his 1813 home. At least half the town's 80-odd houses have had exterior rehabilitation, he said.

Restoration began in the 1960s and accelerated after 1970 when Uniontown became the first town in Maryland to place itself in the embrace of historic-district zoning restrictions and new owners began to take over the old houses.

"We don't want to freeze the town at any particular period, because many periods are represented among the houses," said Mr. Trescott. "We want alterations that are compatible with the ,, town."

Most of the newcomers are "professional people" who work elsewhere and return to Uniontown at night, said Caroline Devilbiss, 70, the postmaster who was "born here and never got any farther."

The town may be quiet during the week, she said, but it's often busy on the weekends.

"Lots of tourists come through here to see the houses and the old store," said Ms. Devilbiss, whose family has run a general store and post office for three generations in a building erected in 1830.

Many townspeople, like 78-year-old Miriam West, are happy to see a new generation arrive.

"They fit right in and they have taken a historical interest in the town," said Mrs. West, who was born in the Lutheran parsonage where her grandfather was pastor and has lived since 1947 in the family's 1842 brick home up the street.

"We older ones have served our time, and now the young ones aretaking over," she said.

Charles R. "Russ" Clarke Jr., 55, a resident since 1962, said townspeople saw the change coming in the late 1960s.

"What we saw was an unspoiled village in which most of the population was older," he said. "We could see the properties changing hands and dramatic changes occurring.

There was great interest and great concern about this."

The town decided to do something about it by getting the Carroll County commissioners to adopt the historic-district zoning, said Mr. Clarke, a computer engineer for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. who was then chairman of the improvement association.

With the buildings protected, the next step came in 1978 when the commissioners moved to protect the surrounding area from intrusive development through agricultural zoning, voluntary creation of agricultural districts and the purchase of development rights.

Carroll County, a statewide leader in agricultural preservation, has created a buffer zone against development of nearly 4,000 contiguous acres around Uniontown, said Mary Ellen Bay, an interior designer who lives in a restored 1790s farmhouse at the edge of town with a magnificent vista across rolling brown and green fields.

So impressive was this linkage of historic and agricultural preservation that the National Trust for Historic Preservation included Uniontown among 28 national case studies in "Saving America's Countryside: A Guide to Rural Preservation," published in 1989 by the Johns Hopkins Press. Uniontown was cited for "Multiple Means of Protecting Agricultural Lands."

However, the preservation restrictions don't please everyone.

"I'm not for preservation," said Evelyn Crouse, 73, who lives with her mother, Cora, 102, in their home in the center of town. "You can't do what you'd like to do, but you have to go along."

Still, most residents credit the laws with enabling Uniontown to protect itself from the commercialization that has transformed New Market, a similar town near Frederick, into one long Antiques Row.

Uniontown now has only four businesses -- a general store-post office, a bank, an antiques shop and a bed-and-breakfast. Residents are resolutely opposed to any commercial expansion. A proposal for a tea room got short shrift.

The influx of younger families has produced a bumper crop of children, too, and many of them attend the local elementary school.

The Uniontown Academy was founded in 1810. Its 1855 brick building is preserved by Historic Uniontown Inc. as a museum and community center. The group also owns the old Uniontown Bank building, built in 1907 and used until 1979 when a new bank was built.

Janice Watkins, 39, who is restoring her Federal-period house, said newcomers are the majority. "It's about 60-40, but there are quite a few old residents who feel comfortable with newer ones," she said.

The mix has created "a sense of community" that brings people together in a variety of events, particularly the biennial Christmas tours that feature horse-and-buggy trips through town, according to Mr. Romoser, the improvement association chairman.

Grace Smelser, 91, mother of state Sen. Charles H. Smelser, D-Carroll, recalls the horse-and-buggy era in Uniontown with great nostalgia but finds the newcomers refreshing because they are serious about preserving the village.

"They do a good job with the houses," said Mrs. Smelser, who was born in the farmhouse that is now Mrs. Bay's home and since 1918 has lived in the 1811 building that served as house and general store for her husband's family.

Uniontown's newest building meets the village's continuing challenge of preserving the past; it looks the oldest. Competely modern inside, it is a log house constructed in 1976 by cabinetmaker Richard Blacksten, 53, using weathered logs he salvaged from old buildings.

For the former state policeman, who lives on a 55-acre farm just outside town, the village is something to be cherished, like a family heirloom.

"I drive through town almost daily," Mr. Blacksten said. "It's a jump back in time with the trees and the period houses. But it's taken outsiders to realize what was there and become active in preserving what they saw."

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