Hills and history boost mill village's renewal


Hills -- steep hills, wooded hills, rocky hills.

When you visit Baltimore County's village of Oella, perched on cliffs rising above the Patapsco River, you can't help but notice the hills.

In fact, the former mill village is so hilly, many inclines have their own names -- Herring Hill, Pleasant Hill, Reservoir Hill and Granite Hill, to name a few.

Traveling the steep winding roads overlooking the river, a visitor can easily imagine the place in the 1800s when it was a working mill town. Most of the old housing for workers remains, much of it restored and reoccupied in the past decade.

Log cabins and stone houses built in the early 1800s stand next to pre-Civil War brick rowhouses, which sit next to Victorian-era, wood-frame houses and 1920s cottages and bungalows.

Until the mid-1980s, no new housing had been built in Oella. For decades, the town had all it needed: a working mill, general store, church, school and enough housing for its workers.

Mabel Moore, who moved to Oella with her husband, William, in 1928 and raised four children there, says her family had a good life in the village, her husband working at the W. J. Dickey Mill and children attending nearby Westchester Elementary School.

"You could walk everywhere. The children got up, got ready and walked to school. Now, they run a school bus through here," says the 85-year-old, who worked in the mill for several years making bobbins.

"My husband was one of the top weavers. They made beautiful woolen material. In those days, the boys came out of eighth grade and went right to working for the mill. But you had to be 16 to be a weaver."

Mrs. Moore, who lives in a 1920s bungalow perched high on Pleasant Hill, says she'll be leaving soon to move into a retirement community. Her knees just can't take all the stairs anymore, she says.

"I'm not crazy about leaving," she laments. "I've always loved Oella. I loved the people. I had a good husband, who worked hard. And the Dickeys were wonderful people. You know, years ago, if you needed money, you'd just go to the office and borrow it. They'd take it out of your next paycheck. They treated people well."

Since those days, Oella has undergone several transformations.

A robust textile mill town since 1808, when Union Manufacturing Co. opened its mill powered by the Patapsco, the area deteriorated rapidly after the mill closed in 1972.

That same year, Hurricane Agnes wreaked major damage on the river valley, ravaging low-lying areas and the 1 3/4 -mile millrace that had served the Dickey facility. The textile industry in the village never recovered.

Houses in disrepair

Still lacking indoor plumbing and running water, the village attracted few new residents. Many mill workers moved away. Others lingered, looking for work elsewhere. Many houses were boarded up and fell into disrepair.

But Charles L. Wagandt, a descendant of the Dickey family, which had purchased the mill from Union Manufacturing in 1887, saw beyond the dilapidated housing to a historic town worth preserving. He bought the village from relatives in 1973, including 107 residences on 70 acres, and began working on a master plan to restore it.

"I was interested in historic preservation and land planning. . . . I wanted to preserve the integrity of the street-scape," he says. "What I'm doing is for the long term. If I wanted to make quick money, I would have gutted those houses and sold the shells. But I want to make sure the renovations are done right."

For more than a decade, Mr. Wagandt and a group of residents lobbied the county to bring public water service to the village and stop the flow of raw sewage into the millrace and river.

"I had to convince them there was a serious health problem in Oella. The county was faced with bringing public water and sewer in or running a lot of people out," he says.

In 1984, with public water finally in place, the way was paved for Oella's transformation from rundown, defunct mill town to restored historic village appealing to a variety of professionals, teachers and artists who commute to jobs in Baltimore, Annapolis, Columbia and elsewhere.

"We're appealing to a very specialized market. You have to be a special kind of person to want to live here. If you're looking for the most square footage for the money, Oella is not for you,"

says Mr. Wagandt, who has now restored or partially restored almost all the mill housing formerly owned by the Dickeys.

Affordable rents

After buying the village, he allowed former mill workers to live in their homes at affordable rents until they moved voluntarily or passed away. The Oella Co., formed by Mr. Wagandt to oversee the project, renovates and sells homes after they are vacated by former workers, who now occupy only about a dozen homes.

Folks like Mabel Moore, who built their lives in Oella, appreciate the gesture, noting that others might have put them out.

"I've always had a lot of respect for Charles," she says. "Some of the old people were very hurt by it, all the changes here. But I wasn't. I knew we had to go on. Life goes on, and things change."

Mr. Wagandt, who lives in Baltimore, says he has always been fascinated by life in the old village. He says Oella is a 200-year exhibit of workers' housing, to which he has contributed by adding four late-20th-century rowhouses. This "in-fill" housing on Oella Avenue is meant to blend, he says. Eight more townhouses are planned for the crest of Pleasant Hill, across from a row of Victorian-era duplexes.

Gary Clark, owner of Howard County-based GYC Builders, is the only other builder who has constructed new housing in Oella. His 30-townhouse community, Timber Point, set on one of the highest hills in the village, was such a success, he decided to build River Ridge, a group of nine luxury townhouses built into a cliff along Oella Avenue. The townhouses, of which seven have sold, start at $280,000.

Don Bowman, executive vice president for Genstar Stone Products Co. in Hunt Valley, moved from Columbia with his family last August into one of the townhouses overlooking the Patapsco.

"We weren't particularly looking to move and we weren't looking to move into a townhouse," he says. "But when we saw these houses, we just sort of fell in love.

"We like the historic district, and the view is gorgeous. It's almost like living in the mountains."

Other transplants talk about being equally smitten.

Julia Graham relocated from Greenbelt five years ago after marrying her husband, Scott, who had learned about Oella during a stint on the Baltimore County planning board.

Fascinated by vision

Both were fascinated by Mr. Wagandt's vision.

"It was a lot different even five years ago than it is now," she says. "It was a bit of a risk [buying early in the process]. But we knew how dedicated Charles was. We knew he had his heart and soul in this project. We love our house, and we have a wonderful view of the river."

Most newer residents expect the town will get better with age.

Mr. Wagandt plans to renovate five dilapidated structures on the south end of Oella Avenue and convert them into an inn. He also hopes to build a restaurant on the site.

Plans for the old mill, which is owned by a private partnership, are still uncertain. Its owners originally planned to convert it into luxury condominiums, but scrapped the plans when the market went soft. The mill now has several retail tenants, including a family fitness center, an auction house and artist studios.

Mr. Wagandt is restoring two early 19th-century stone duplexes and the community's old church on parcels adjacent to the mill for commercial uses. He hopes to attract retail shops or offices to the sites.

Four large lots along the old millrace, designated for custom-made homes, are on the market -- one at $175,000. When finished, real estate agents expect homes on these lots to fetch up to $500,000.

A few parcels, which were not owned by the Dickey family, have not seen the benefits of restoration.

Many houses on the streets leading into the historic district as well as those in "the hollow," an area bounded by Oella Hollow Road and Glen Avenue, are rundown and badly in need of repair.

But even in these sections, a few homes have been sold in recent years and renovated. Residents expect that over the years, other homes will follow.

"There has been something of a ripple effect," Mr. Wagandt says. "I assume other houses will eventually be sold and rehabbed. I expect Oella will only increase in value in the future."


Population: 1,863 (estimate based on 1990 census data)

Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 25 minutes

Commuting time to Washington: 55 minutes

Public schools: Hillcrest Elementary, Catonsville Middle and Catonsville High

Shopping: 40 West Shopping Center, with Wal-Mart, Giant Food, Super Fresh; Chatham Mall (in Ellicott City), with K-Mart, Caldor, Giant Food; St. Johns Plaza (in Ellicott City), with Valu Food, Rite Aid and other stores; Normandy Shopping Center (in Ellicott City), with Safeway, Rite Aid, fitness center, restaurants; Golden Triangle Shopping Center, with Super Fresh, Sewell's Hardware.

Nearest mall: Westview Mall, 4 miles northeast; The Mall in Columbia, 7 miles southwest.

Points of interest: The historic Dickey Mill, with shops and fitness center; Oella Neighborhood Park and former Westchester Elementary School, soon to reopen as a community center; historic Ellicott City, with antique and specialty shops; Patapsco Valley State Park; Benjamin Banneker Historical Park; Catonsville Community Park and Senior Center.

' Zip codes: 21043, 21228

Average price of single-family home: $124,500 (15 sales)*

*Average price of homes sold through the Mid-Atlantic Real Estate Information Technologies multiple listing service over the past 12 months.

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