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Oella invites a lazy stroll on paths once trod by weary mill workers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Carl Taylor moved to Oella in 1948, it was for a job at the textile mill. In those days, that was the reason people moved to Oella. It's a different story today.

Founded in 1808 and reportedly named for the first woman to spin cotton in America, the village was created to house workers for the original cotton mill that was later converted into a textile mill.

Even though the mill closed in 1972, Taylor stayed because much of the original town remains. A step back in history, Oella features some of the finest examples of early brick, log, frame and stone homes in the area. Many of the old mill buildings have been transformed into studio space for arts, crafts and antiques.

"I had a house here from the Oella Company, and I just stayed on. I just like the community," said Taylor. "I try to walk around the neighborhood almost every day. Everybody who comes here likes to see these houses. They are so pretty, and they look out over the river."

Tucked away in Baltimore County, just across the Patapsco River from historic Ellicott City, Oella is a collection of renovated historic homes mixed with new homes throughout the winding roads and cliffs. Many of the houses, duplexes and townhouses have decks and porches that overlook the Patapsco.

"It's just a neat area. It's an old-style village where everyone walks around. You see people out all the time - walking dogs, talking to everyone," said Diane Kenworthy, a real estate agent with the Ellicott City office of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA. "For the most part, buyers usually end up stumbling on it. We used to always say, 'If you can find us, you'll love it.'"

Although the homes in Oella weren't ornate when they were built, many still have original woodwork, fireplaces and plaster walls. Most have been modernized to include skylights, decks and updated kitchens.

Homes in Oella can range from one of the many styles of original mill homes that start in the low $80,000s to a new townhouse in the $170,000 range to a single-family home overlooking the river in the $300,000 range. There are also a limited number of lots available in Oella that sell for $65,000 to $174,000.

Oella offers much for residents to do, especially those who enjoy the outdoors. The scenic Patapsco is a continual attraction, and Oella is adjacent to Patapsco Valley State Park. A converted trolley trail provides a much-used hiking and biking path, and the restaurants and shops of historic Ellicott City are only a few minutes' walk away.

"There aren't many places that are as conveniently located, that have a river that runs through it and is surrounded by a state park," Kenworthy said. "And it's like a painter's palette up there in the fall. It's just surrounded by color."

Because of the topography of the neighborhood, Kenworthy finds that many people who end up buying in Oella have lived in California or have a passion for Europe. "People that aren't afraid of the hills and aren't afraid of houses that sit right on the streets seem to like Oella."

Jay Patel moved to Oella 17 years ago. Originally, Patel wanted to buy a business in Baltimore City. What he found was the Country Corner General Store, an Oella landmark since the early 1900s which Patel owns and runs.

"I love Oella, the whole nine yards of it," said Patel, president of the Greater Oella Community Association for the past three years. "The store is a central piece of the neighborhood where everybody can come. The people are very friendly here. And the neighborhood is like a big family."

Patel said residents participate in several annual events such as the Christmas party, July 4 parade and fall picnic.

"Ever since I've been living here I have been loving life; it's a nice, quiet, peaceful neighborhood," Patel said.

Along with the rich mill history of the village, the area also has a strong African-American connection. Benjamin Banneker, known as the first black man of science, was born in Oella. Today, a historical park and museum honor his accomplishments. Susie Saunders, who was born and raised in Oella, remembers when there was a much larger African-American community there. But when the streetcar line was closed, many residents moved to areas that had easier access to public transportation, Saunders said.

"There are only a few black families here now," said Saunders, who grew up in the house she now owns. "We are very proud that Benjamin Banneker was born and raised here and that the museum is in the neighborhood. I just love it here. I can still come down late in the afternoon and see deer playing in the field across from me and they run around in my back yard."

Although much of the history of the mill town has remained, Saunders said, she has had a difficult time gaining support to preserve tangible evidence of the community's black history. Many of the original wooden houses have been torn down.

But Mount Gilboa AME Church, thought to be the only pre-Civil War black church still standing in the Baltimore metropolitan area, remains at Oella and Westchester avenues. Although the present structure was not built until 1859, the church has served the community since the 18th century. Its protection was secured when it was placed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1976.

Charles Wagandt is a major reason so much of the mill town was preserved. Wagandt, great-grandson of William J. Dickey, the mill's second owner, bought the village and surrounding property from his family after the mill closed in 1972. Working with architects, land planners and the county and state governments, Wagandt secured public water and sewer in 1984 and restoration began.

At first the village homes were rented out to the former mill workers, but as they eventually left to find work elsewhere, the houses were renovated and sold.

Wagandt had three objectives when planning the modern village of Oella: historic preservation, sensitive in-fill development and a social program that allowed former mill workers to be able to remain at rents they could afford.

"This was something I believe in; it's part of our heritage and then there is also the family tradition part of it," Wagandt said.

"Oella is so unique in that it has such a great cross-section of people," he said. "And there is a unique beauty here that allows opportunity to make use of the great outdoors."

Oella

ZIP code: 21043

Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 20 minutes

Public schools: : Westchester Elementary, Catonsville Middle, Catonsville High

Shopping: The Mall in Columbia, downtown Ellicott City, downtown Catonsville, Triangle Shopping Center, 40 West Plaza, Pike Park Plaza.

Homes currently on market: 5

Average listing price: $216,114 *

Average sales price: $212,189 *

Days on market: 172 *

Sales price as percentage of listing price: 98.2% ** Based on 14 sales in the past 24 months compiled by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.

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