Transformation of a mill village

While on the winding road in the Patapsco River Valley, I thought it had been 30 years since I last visited Oella, the mill village tucked deep into the hills between Catonsville and Ellicott City's Main Street.

On a fall day, the rocky terrain, steep hillsides and leaf colors suggested that Oella might be in Vermont or West Virginia. Then I turned a bend and a resplendently restored Oella Mill appeared. It was one of those astounding moments, as if you hadn't been to Baltimore's harbor for 40 years and returned today.

There were other reminders of other places. Some of the native stone houses have their counterparts in the older villages that are now part of the city. More than a few suggested the Stone Hill section of Remington, where the old Mount Vernon Mill is now undergoing the same treatment as the Oella Mill.

I spoke with Charles L. Wagandt II, the 87-year-old patriarch who 39 years ago stepped in to reclaim the village and lead it gently but authoritatively to where it is today. What had been a rural backwater, without sewerage and plumbing, could now pose for travel posters and postcards.

The great-grandson of William James Dickey, he is a member of the family that owned textile mills, including the one in Oella and another in Dickeyville in Baltimore City. When Oella was at the end of its economic life in the early 1970s, Wagandt said, he acquired it from family members. "I bought it because no one else wanted it. My family said, 'We are out of here.' They did take back a mortgage," he said.

Wagandt spent nearly four decades supervising the transformation of the Oella village that unfolds on the little roads and hillsides around the mill. He was guided by planned growth, good taste and an abiding sense of historic preservation. The results show very well, but he also picked up the state's Calvert Prize, given by the Maryland Historic Trust.

He spoke charmingly and expansively from his desk in the village's former Methodist church, whose congregation scattered years ago. The building is now a handsome office where he has overseen the refurbishment of 76 acres and 245 housing units, some restored 19th-century homes, others newly built. There is little of a retail or a commercial nature within the enclave.

After purchasing the land and many buildings, he renovated them and sold them to people who appreciated the quaintness of the village.

It seems like not so long ago that the sprawling Oella Mill was antiques shops and artists' studios. Today the mill is quite a mighty building, built in 1918 to replace an early structure that burned. A studio apartment begins at $1,325. You can spend $3,260 on a month's rent here, and, judging by what I observed, you could be content. Credit for the mill's conversion goes to Southern Management, a real estate firm based in Vienna, Va., that owns the mill.

"All I do is reflect in its glory," Wagandt said of the mill renovation. Wagandt explained that his family sold the mill and its valuable looms when the bottom dropped out of the men's woolen fabric market in the 1970s.

"We were America's foremost producers of menswear woolens and sold to big tailors such as J. Schoeneman and L. Greif," he said. "But there was a cultural and a social revolution. In the 1970s, something called double-knits came along. We could make some money in the fall season, but men weren't wearing lighter wools in the spring. The mill closed in March 1972, and we sold it off."

And after a thorough renovation, it now has a cleaned brick exterior and dark green windows.

"By golly, the mill finally paid off," he said.

He has an observation of his years of patient stewardship in Oella: "I have a theory. Rehabilitation takes twice as much money and twice as much time to get to the end objective. I should be through it all by now, but I've still got a few more things here to do."

He mentions that sewer and water lines that were finally completed in 1984.

"People could stop using outhouses; now they make wonderful toolsheds. We call them amenities," Wagandt said.

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