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Company town is far from run of the mill Thistle productive from 1820s to present


As Les Deutsch, Betty Gibson and Danny Eddy make their way down the narrow stone stairs toward the gritty mill on the riverbank, they retrace the footsteps of workers from as far back as the 1820s.

They are among the handful of residents of Baltimore County's last known company town, Thistle, a busy but isolated community about two miles downstream from Ellicott City on the Patapsco River.

Located on a dramatic bend in the river, the scene is framed by tree-coveredhills ablaze with autumn color. Plumes of steam rise above the Simkins Industries Inc. paper mill and from its power plant across the river in Ilchester, on the Howard County side.

Founded by two Scottish merchants, the Thistle Cotton Mill was operating by 1824, according to Baltimore County historian John W. McGrain. The thistle, a name used for various prickly plants, is Scotland's national emblem.

In its 19th century heyday and even well into this century, the community had 30 to 40 houses, and at times as many as 500 workers produced cotton and silk fabric and thread at the mill.

In his book, "The Patapsco, Baltimore's River of History," Maryland Park Ranger Paul Travers described Thistle as "resembling a typical village in northern Wales."

The roads are narrow, and stone cottages with walls nearly 18 inches thick line the riverbank and the hillside.

The oldest buildings, sturdy tenements beside the river and duplex cottages above, were of locally quarried granite.

Later dwellings farther up the hill were of frame construction.

Today, six houses remain. And 110 employees -- only a few of whom live in Thistle -- process recycled wastepaper into box board, according to the plant's general manager, Les Deutsch, who has a long view of the valley from his hillside home.

The fire-ravaged shell of a four-story stone house -- the last riverbank dwelling -- stands opposite the mill.

While so much has changed, the half-dozen dwellings still clinging to thehillside are reminders of Thistle's past.

The village housed generations of millworkers who began producing cotton goods in the 1820s. Over the years, ownership changed and production shifted to silk fabric and thread, then back to cotton.

In 1928, production switched to paper and cardboard, which continues today.

Although dozens of tractor-trailers rumble in and out daily hauling recycled wastepaper, Thistle nestles on its hillside in obscurity.

"If you don't know it's here, you won't find it," said Robert N. Frey Jr., 41, the plant controller, who grew up in the area.

"Most of my friends were here," Mr. Frey said. "We had a lot of cousins. . . . We played in the woods and we dammed a stream for swimming. The water is a lot cleaner now than it was when we were kids."

Fire, flood and demolition have taken their toll on the old buildings. But 69-year-old Samuel Shifflett of Sykesville, who spent 44 years in Thistle, remembers it as "beautiful."

"The whole hill was in green grass that was kept well cut. All the houses were kept painted, and the maintenance crew looked afterthem. It was just beautiful," he said.

Some buildings were razed in the 1940s, and the mill owners let county firefighters burn eight houses for practice, he said.

Betty Gibson, 55, arrived in Thistle at the age of 2 when her stepfather began his 36-year career as a millworker. She has spent most of her life here. The family lived in a company house on winding Hilltop Road, but only the front steps remain.

The family moved later to a stone house nearer the valley. Mrs. Gibson still lives there with her son and grandson.

"All the houses were here when we came," Mrs. Gibson recalled. "There were no parking lots then."

Ruins of what might have been the village's church and school stand beside Thistle Road. On the ridge above, overgrown by trees and bushes, is the old graveyard. Many gravestones have been vandalized and others have been weathered into illegibility. The legible markers show dates from the 1830s to 1928.

The threat of flooding during severe storms hangs over the valley, and Thistle has suffered over the years like other mill villages along the river.

But unlike the others, which have disappeared, it has always rebounded.

Mrs. Gibson recalled Hurricane Agnes' devastation in 1972: "It was scary. The roar of the water sounded like the mill was still running.

"We watched houses float downriver, and the original catwalk [which provided access to the power plant across the river] washed out. When the water receded, there was a man's body entangled in the wreckage of the catwalk."

The plant was recovering from the $1 million storm damage when a four-alarm fire erupted in November 1972, she said.

The plant was rebuilt within the ruins, work resumed and, once again, Thistle fought back, Mrs. Gibson said.

Melvin Shifflett, 48, grew up in Thistle during his father's career at the mill and worked there himself until 1981, when he started a paper recycling company.

"I lived in a lot of houses in Thistle, the Lodge [one of the surviving dwellings that was once used as a company guest house] and the burned-out house," Mr. Shifflett said.

"We were like one big family. Everyone knew everyone else," he said. "It was a good community to be brought up in. It was a poor community, but most of the people who grew up there have done really well. Our parents pushed us to make something of ourselves."

Danny Eddy, 41, moved into Thistle four years ago, into a near-ruin of a house that has become a haven to a man to whom a steady job seemed almost beyond reach.

"No windows or doors, no plumbing or electricity. It was abandoned, and they were going to tear it down," he said. "But we fell in love with it." The family has restored the dwelling in exchange for free occupancy.

"I really like it here. This is my home," said Mr. Eddy, a welder at the mill, which employs his son and where his wife also worked. "We came from Ohio; work went bad there in 1985, and I was out of work for a long time" before the family found jobs at the mill.

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