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If Cooksville has a "town center," it would be where state routes 97 and 144 intersect.

In the rolling country of western Howard County, Cooksville is barely off Interstate 70 as it parallels busy Route 144, the old National Pike. Route 97 is a heavily traveled commuter route between Carroll County and the Washington area. No wonder there's a stoplight at the intersection, the only one in miles.

If stores make a town, Cooksville barely exists. The general store property on one corner of the intersection has become an impromptu park-and-ride lot. The old inn, where General

Lafayette once breakfasted, is a home. Only Cooksville Carryout and Liquors remains at the intersection, next to the old inn.

But what Cooksville lacks in commerce, it makes up for with rich history. Many residents seem to have deep roots here.

"I've lived here all my life except for four years and five months I was in the service," says Albert France, 75, who gained notice this summer when he was flown to Alaska and honored for his work on the Alaskan Highway during World War II. He is retired from the B&O; Railroad.

Mr. France lives in a two-story log house on about 1 1/2 acres near Millers Mill Road. Christmas lights hang on the front, ready to be plugged in for the season.

"It was built in 1850 for my great-grandmother when she was set free from slavery and has never been out of the family."

A tiny cemetery is near the house. Headstones mark graves for his mother, father, sister, brother and a cousin.

Wylene Burch, director of the Howard County Center for African-American Culture, says blacks long have been a presence in the Cooksville area. From 1936 to 1948, in the days of segregated schools, Cooksville had the county's first black high school. The land for it was given by the Hood family, which had built and given the house to Mr. France's great-grandmother, Mrs. Burch says. The same family also gave land that in 1898 became Mount Gregory United Methodist Church, one of two black churches in Cooksville.

There's more history here. Named for a family that had land near the 144-97 corner, Cooksville has chronicled two major events that occurred near the intersection: the visit of Revolutionary War hero Gen. Marquis de Lafayette to Roberts Inn in 1825, and the routing of the Maryland militia by Confederate Gen. J. E. B. Stuart and his cavalry on June 29, 1863.

Proud of its multicultural heritage, and retaining much of the rural ambience that is a remnant of its tenant-farming past, Cooksville remains a place of longtime friendships. They are the fruit of residents' dependence on each other: Cooksville's ZIP code has only 130 addresses, only 360 residents.

Charles P. "Tobe" Cook, 83, who lives along Route 144 west of the intersection, has a towing business that goes back to the 1930s. His ties and friendships go back even farther. He counts among his friends Winfield Charles Robb, whose family's farm, Trusty Friend, dates back to a 1795 land grant when this area was part of Anne Arundel County.

"We raised chickens and did general farming," says Mr. Robb, 79, who sold Trusty Friend about 15 years ago and moved to Villa Monticello, Cooksville's one main subdivision, north of I-70. "I sold eggs door to door."

Says Mr. Cook, "I've known Winfield Robb since he was a baby. We called him Winnie."

Mildred Thomas, 72, lives on Route 144 east of its intersection with Route 97. At first, she is reluctant to talk about Cooksville, saying she is "new." -- she has lived there only since 1949.

"I loved it when I came out," says Mrs. Thomas, who moved from Northwest Baltimore when she married, "and I've been here ever since." She's a widow now, and she insists, "I wouldn't go back to Baltimore."

Robert and Doris Bell have lived at Roberts Inn (the former Joshua Roberts tavern) 15 years. They breed Charolais cattle on the 26 acres north and west around it.

"The inn had 10 rooms," Mrs. Bell says. "Our goal is to return it to what it was in the early years."

The Bells have a Roberts Inn sign in the yard, a touch tying present to past.

Mrs. Bell, 56, stands next to the wrought-iron fence that surrounds the house.

It is, for an instant, country-quiet.

Then, to the north, through a gap in the trees, you can see I-70 and hear the buzz of traffic as the Charolais graze in the whispery tall grass near the barn.

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