Its roots were deeply agricultural long before the Revolution. But national road and rail networks sprouted here, Civil War soldiers marched here, debutantes were educated here and mills that helped to shape America's industrial revolution rolled here.
The rich tapestry of Howard County's history was celebrated yesterday at a daylong conference in the Smith Theatre at Howard Community College to mark the county's 150th anniversary.
The birthday of one of Maryland's fastest-growing counties will be formally marked July 4 with music, amusements and a laser show at the Sesquicentennial Grande Finale Festival in Symphony Woods.
Although Howard was home to a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the county's formal independence occurred relatively late in Maryland's 350-year history. In 1851, Howard was divided from Anne Arundel to become the 21st of the state's 23 counties.
Howard's agricultural tradition and close association with the nation's early transportation and industrial development contributed to its diverse history.
"Ellicott City developed connections with Baltimore through one of the first [national] roads, Frederick Road," explained Larry Madaras, a history professor at Howard Community College and conference organizer.
The B & O Railroad terminus was in Ellicott City, and Ellicott Mills and Savage Mills were "part of early industrialization," he said.
But Howard maintained a rural character long after the Civil War, Madaras noted. "Population stayed around 20,000 for about 60 to 70 years. ... It's 248,000 now. It's hard to imagine - the first shopping center, Normandy, wasn't built here until 1961," he added.
Howard's past is more than just a matter of economics, transportation and growth, yesterday's speakers said.
They told stories of businessmen who clung to family and religious roots, and prospered despite discrimination. And they described the accomplishments of a nationally noted educator who had a career, yet was committed to her era's conservative ideas about a woman's role in society.
Tales were told about a motley collection of civilian soldiers from Ellicott City who held off an enemy brigade one night in Chambersburg, Pa., during the Civil War, with an arsenal of only five cannonballs and a few rifles.
Historian Mary Jeske of Baltimore discussed the extensive role in Howard of the Carroll family and their ancestral home, Doughoregan Manor. Charles Carroll III was the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. He and his forebears were among the nation's wealthiest landowners despite anti-Catholic legislation that prevented them from holding public office or meeting for public worship.
Lee Preston, a teacher at River Hill High School, and Helen Mitchell from Howard Community College spoke about the Patapsco Female Institute, and its director, Almira Phelps. The Ellicott City school and its leader were nationally renowned during the mid-19th century for training the daughters of the elite.
Madaras presented a video about Silas Craft, a pioneer in educating African-Americans during Howard's years of school segregation.
Historian Anne Wolfe of Ellicott City described her research into the escapades of the Patapsco Guard, a militia formed in Ellicott City during the Civil War. Those considered black sheep tend to "leave a wonderful paper trail," she said. Much of her information about the Guard was culled from transcripts of military courts-martial and pension disputes.
Wolfe's most intriguing story was courtesy of her grandmother, a retelling of a great-great-grandmother's recollections of a July 4th picnic during the Civil War. It seems that a Union army contingent from New York celebrated the day "under the wisteria vines" on the property of the Patapsco Female Institute - with prostitutes brought in from Baltimore.
"Years later, [local women who'd heard about that day] would just fall out of their rocking chairs recalling this story," Wolfe said.
Looking forward, Paul Bridge of Ellicott City discussed plans to develop a top-10 list of "endangered" county historical sites that might be protected. He offered the example of former slave quarters that could be lost to encroaching development.