When Elaine Howes learned that the school bus driver had refused to pick up her granddaughter, it was no surprise.
The errant driver, whose job was to pick up Carroll County schoolchildren, incorrectly concluded that Mrs. Howes' granddaughter lived in Howard County.
Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of local geography might wonder at the mistake.
The Patapsco River separates the two counties, so how could anyone miss it? On Four-County Farm near Mount Airy, it's easy. The farm is the site of Parr's Spring, where the cold water of seven springs bubbles up to form the Patapsco's narrow beginning.
Parr's Spring was a natural landmark for surveyors who drew the boundary line between Baltimore County and the newly created Frederick County in 1750.
After Montgomery (1776), Carroll (1836) and Howard (1851) counties were created, the spring connected all of them with Frederick County.
Since 1837, when David Wilson Smith and his new bride, Alice, bought the place, they and their descendants have had to cope with the complications of living on the edge. Mrs. Howes, a granddaughter of Mr. Smith, managed to straighten out the Carroll County school system for her daughter's benefit, but nothing is ever simple where she lives.
"If you call the police for help, where are you?" Mrs. Howes asked. "From [her house], I call Howard County Police. From the farmhouse, you call Carroll," she said, adding that when she calls the state police from her home, she gets the Waterloo barracks in Jessup, instead of the barracks that serve Carroll or Frederick counties.
Mrs. Howes, 70, owns and lives on the farm. Two cousins, Arline Snead, 71, of Catonsville, and Doris Rust, 68, of Fort Collins, Colo., also own a stake in the farm.
Marking the four-county junction and the Patapsco headwaters is a granite monument placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Under a half-foot-square trap door at the end of a wooden pier over the pond is a granite post marking the actual four-county point. Each side bears the first letter of the county it faces.
Montgomery County's section is a mere sliver of land that spikes into the property "like a wedge of pine," said Mrs. Howes.
The segment is so small that the county decided about 10 years ago to stop taxing the property.
Mrs. Snead remembers her mother, the late Erma Wagner, being given the choice of paying taxes in one of three counties that trisected their house.
"Mother's front door was in Howard, so that's where she decided to pay taxes."
The 232-acre property, partially bounded by Penn Shop Road, Bennett Road and Interstate 70, is mostly in Howard County.
The rest, in descending order, belongs to Carroll, Frederick and Montgomery counties.
"We owned everything you can see from here," said Mrs. Howes.
Some parcels have been sold, such as sites now occupied by 84 Lumber and a Long & Foster real estate office (both in Frederick County).
In August, Frederick County commissioners debated whether to grant commercial zoning to the family's land along Route 27. It was suggested that the land be preserved from development, partly because of its historical nature.
The cousins balked at the idea, arguing that they have maintained the four-county meeting place just fine themselves, and intend to continue well into the future.
Their argument seems supported by the well-trimmed grass around the pond, polished granite marker and the pier, replaced in July.
Although the cousins are often frustrated at having to deal with the bureaucracies of the different counties, not all of Mr. Smith's descendants saw it that way.
Their late aunt, Motie Cuthbertson, lived in the farmhouse next to the pond (in Carroll County) and urged family members to continue paying taxes to Montgomery County even when they didn't have to.
Mrs. Snead explained that Mr. Smith's four daughters lived in different houses on the property. "She wanted to be able to say that each of the four girls paid taxes in different counties."