Farmstead seeks a wider audience


In an area where the hum of development is the signature of daily life, the Howard County Conservancy is a beautiful anomaly -- a historic farm protected forever and tucked away in rolling hills not far from the buzz of Interstate 70.

It's the sort of place people could easily pass by unawares, and many do.

But now, with the largest grant in its history in hand, the conservancy is poised to undergo some development of its own, designed to draw people in for hikes along streams, tales of farms long ago or simply a closer look at what was once a solitary outpost in the Central Maryland wilderness.

Conservancy leaders, who announced the $500,000 Homer and Martha Gudelsky Family Foundation gift yesterday, say the money will help build a long-needed environmental education building. With it they can reach more people -- and bring their events in from the cold.

At the moment there's little space for indoor learning at Mt. Pleasant, the conservancy's 232-acre home in Woodstock. Though picturesque, the historic farmhouse and its nine outbuildings are no place for a sit-down class.

"We are so excited," said Liz Stoffel, director of the 12-year-old group. "It will mean so much that we'll have facilities when the weather is bad, and we can have hands-on exhibits that the children can see easily."

Holly Stone, the Gudelskys' daughter and a Clarksville resident, said she was mortified to discover that her children had to travel out of the county for nature education field trips -- and eager to help the conservancy fill that gap. School groups rarely visit Mt. Pleasant in the winter, and she wants that to change.

"Children can be here year-round," she said yesterday, walking across the grounds to see where the new building will rise.

"Now we'll be able to have winter hikes in the snow ... and then be able to come in and get warmed up and do environmental games," Stoffel agreed, smiling and shivering in the chilly morning air.

Designed to look like a barn and to be built where the ruins of a barn now stand, the conservancy's education building will cost $823,000, Stoffel estimated.

Construction is expected to begin in April and be finished by spring next year. The county and state each pledged $150,000 toward the cost, and organizers hope to fill the $23,000 difference with donations of building materials.

Conservancy leaders are also preparing for a major fund-raising campaign to turn their small endowment into a nest egg that will cover building maintenance and staff salaries indefinitely.

As one of Howard County's land trusts, the conservancy works in partnership with other nonprofit groups to help people preserve their property by removing the development rights. Nearly 1,000 acres are protected at least in part by the group.

Conservancy volunteers reach beyond typical land trust activities by offering opportunities to learn about agriculture, the environment and history at the expansive Mt. Pleasant.

Families trek there for Earth Day activities. School groups visit for a taste of times past, of blacksmith shops and henhouses and corn cribs. Gardeners drive in to help rid the grounds of invasive plants. And each fall about 5,000 people pass through for Farm Heritage Days.

But organizers, thinking of Howard's quarter-million population, believe the conservancy is a secret too-well kept.

"Every time I have a new school group, people [say], 'I didn't even know you were here,'" Stoffel said. "We're here, we're here."

Nestled against Patapsco Valley State Park, Mt. Pleasant has a long history unusual in a county that was largely undeveloped until the 20th century.

Ranger Thomas Browne, assigned to survey the headwaters of the Patuxent River and observe Native Americans in Woodstock, was awarded the place in 1703 as part of a 1,000-acre land grant. Eight generations of the family that was later known as the Browns lived on the farm he created amid hills and valleys.

Three centuries after Browne envisioned a home in Woodstock, thousands of people have had the same idea. Mt. Pleasant -- no longer a lonely outpost -- has suburban neighbors across the street.

But its history remains. A portion of the farmhouse, hidden under siding, is the ranger's original log cabin. A tulip poplar that took root before America's birth stands guard out front, a defiant survivor of multiple lightning attacks.

The final generation of Browns at Mt. Pleasant, sisters and longtime teachers Ruth and Frances Brown, wanted the farm and the beloved tulip poplar preserved. After they died -- Ruth in 1990, Frances in 1992 -- the conservancy worked out a deal that ensured preservation while sparing the heirs from paying a tremendous inheritance tax: The land went to the group, the county and the state.

Ann Jones, the conservancy's vice president, thinks the Brown sisters would approve of Mt. Pleasant's soon-to-be-expanded role in educating people. Combined, they taught Howard County children for 97 years.

"That was their life," Jones said.

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