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Farmers: town's forgotten pioneers In 1960s, they sold land to Rouse, making Columbia possible

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Howard County farmland began changing hands like Monopoly properties in the 1960s, the ensuing development of the planned new town of Columbia fattened the wallets of speculators, the Rouse Co. and its partners.

But the farmers who made that boom possible sold their land for an average $1,490 an acre -- triple the going rate at the time, though much lower than the $240,000 to $400,000 an acre that such choice land is worth today.

As the planned community takes stock of itself in the wake of visionary founder James W. Rouse's death last month, those early-1960s land deals loom large in the story of Columbia's creation.

These farmers were the other Columbia pioneers -- the ones who left the area so that the new town could be built.

By the time Rouse revealed his plans for a model community in 1963, his agents had snapped up 14,000 acres from 140 farms -- land that has formed the foundation of more than a half-billion dollars in land sales by Rouse and its partners since 1967.

Yet many of those who cashed in their farms in the early 1960s appear to have no regrets at having sold gilt-edged real estate at what has since turned out to be bargain prices.

In most cases, the money from Rouse and his partners let these pre-Columbia residents buy twice the acreage elsewhere in Howard and Carroll counties and stick with what they knew best: farming.

"It worked out well for us," said G. Laurence Moore, 69, who traded a 125-acre dairy farm near today's Kings Contrivance Restaurant for Lariland Farms, a 250-acre spread with an expanding pick-your-own business near Lisbon in western Howard County.

"If we had held a few more years, we probably would've made out better financially," he said, "but this farm wouldn't have been available."

Riches not always realized

Fortune eluded many of those who sold their land outright. Many used the money to pay off mortgages and other debts.

"I didn't even buy a new dress," said one farmer's wife, whose family moved the farm from Columbia to another part of the county.

Still, the Howard County farmers -- who made deals before it was clear who was buying the land and what would be done with it -- said it wasn't hard to give up their farms in the soon-to-be-booming Baltimore-Washington corridor.

"I knew sooner or later development would happen," said Frank Vollmerhausen, whose family sold most of its 140-acre farm on Gerwig Lane and Berger Road.

Rouse makes deals

To keep prices low, Rouse, who died April 9, hid his intentions behind a wall of dummy corporations and financial shells.

When the deals were complete, the stage was set for gravel and sand giant Isodore's Gudelsky's 500-acre plot to become Columbia Town Center, and Irving and George Dasher's fields to be plowed under to create parts of Oakland Mills and Owen Brown villages.

Making deals

Acquiring the land was no easy task, even for the developer's chief agent -- real estate entrepreneur Robert R. Moxley, who grew up on a farm in Howard County and knew the area and the farmers well.

"You couldn't just go in there and say, 'Sell the farm that's been in your family for years,' " Moxley said. "You had to give them reasons -- maybe they got rid of the mortgage or could have had a more desirable way of life [somewhere else] but still be a farmer."

Persuasion from Moxley and other Rouse agents took many forms: farm swaps, lifetime estates and deals allowing farmers to keep part of the land they sold.

For instance, farmer-artist Kenneth Hobbs agreed to part with his land on Trotter Lane only after Moxley proposed a lifetime estate for Hobbs' beloved horse.

And Benjamin Frederick Bassler and his wife said their eight children and their spouses had to agree before they would part with the 93 acres where Howard County General Hospital stands.

No easy feat

"I, therefore, needed 18 approvals for one farm," Moxley said. "And since they were not willing to pay capital-gains taxes, the end result was a land exchange for Hayland Farm -- 500 acres on Shepard Lane near Clarksville."

The confusing, fast-paced land transfers sometimes didn't come off as expected.

Plans for David Clarke to trade his house and 11 acres on the south side of Oakland Mills Road to another farmer fell through, leaving Clarke stuck with two houses -- one in Columbia and his new home on 15 acres in Cooksville.

rTC "Eventually, I got a good price for it and I needed a bigger house anyway," said Clarke, who later became the first state chemist.

Smart farmers

Those who seemed to make out best in the negotiations with Rouse's agents were farmers who agreed to sell -- if they could keep just a bit of the land they were leaving.

"The smart farmers who sold land to Columbia saved some of it," said Vollmerhausen, who retained a house and a 1-acre plot from his family farm but sold it in 1972. "If we had held it, it'd be worth millions. When the plot was last sold a few years ago, it went for over $400,000."

Another farmer who did well was Henry Seiling, who sold his 870-acre cattle farm -- now Snowden Square on Snowden River Parkway -- but retained a lifetime estate for his entire family.

When Rouse wanted to sell 1,100 acres to General Electric, Seiling agreed to release his saved portion.

"Henry got almost as much for releasing his life estate on a portion of his farm as he received for the sale of the entire farm," Moxley said.

Brothers George and Irving Dasher also kept a portion of their 680-acre cattle and grain farm along Oakland Mills Road, and had an agreement to continue farming the land.

Howard Research and Development Corp., the joint venture of the Rouse Co. and Connecticut General Life Insurance Co., took 50- to 100-acre chunks of the Dashers' land from 1971 until 1978, when the Dashers bailed the last bit of hay.

The Dasher brothers' holdings had dwindled to 10 acres by the time Marie Dasher, the widow of George Dasher, sold the rest of their land in 1994 for $770,000. Dasher Court is being paved to provide access to a 23-house development that will be started this summer.

The Brunner family, who owned the 100-acre farm where Long Reach village homes now stand, sold their main farm but kept a 3-acre plot that was sold years later.

No regrets

"We have no regrets" about selling the majority of the land in the 1960s, said Norman E. Brunner, whose family relocated to Carroll County. "It was a good price -- much more than we expected at the time. However, we still got three times [more] for those 3 acres than we did for the entire farm."

Donald R. Sewell, a developer himself, tried to keep all of his 250-acre family orchard -- but when teen-agers and drug users began using his land as a nighttime gathering place, he reconsidered his plan to stay.

"There's more to life than spending it in court," Sewell said. So about 10 years ago he sold the land that would become the 700-house community Sewell's Orchard.

Standing their ground

A few farmers refused to sell a yard of land in or near Columbia, no matter what the price.

"I'm a farmer first, last and always," said former state Sen. James Clark Jr., who, with his children, owns 549 acres next to Columbia's western borders. His family was approached on many occasions but refused each time. "They were paying pretty good prices but our land was not for sale."

Besides, he said, "I didn't know what was coming, but I knew it would make the land worth even more. So, I advised [other farmers] not to sell, too."

In 1988, Clark put his farm in farm preservation, a program in which the state buys development rights, thus preventing it from ever being commercially developed.

"I still get calls from real estate people who don't know it's in farm preservation, which is kind of like having a blight on the land," he said. "It suits me fine [because] I think it's important to keep farmland."

Final frontier

Perhaps the most talked-about of Columbia's original landowners is Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, an 81-year-old recluse who owns 300 undeveloped acres near the heart of Columbia.

The property -- between Columbia's Thunder Hill, Phelps Luck and Stevens Forest neighborhoods and bisected by Route 175 -- has become Columbia's last internal frontier.

County officials and preservationists continue to argue about how best to protect it from development. But if Smith has plans to preserve the land, she has not made them public.

Meanwhile, the Rouse Co. still has 2,000 acres, about 14 percent of the new town, available to sell before Columbia is finished -- most of it in the new River Hill village on the community's far western edge.

How could a farmer turn a profit?

The Rouse deals may not have turned any farmers into multimillionaires in the 1960s, but investment of the proceeds or keeping the land could have. If a farmer had invested $1,000 received from Rouse in 1963 in stocks that have done as well as the Standard & Poor's Index of 500 widely held common stocks, the farmer would have $36,162.94 from the growth of the value of the stocks and their reinvested dividends. If the farmer had taken $1,000 and bought land in more rural sections of Howard County, he or she could have purchased about 3 acres -- land that today would be worth between $60,000 and $100,000. If the farmer had kept a choice 1-acre plot in Columbia, the land would be worth $240,000 to $400,000 today.

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