The bells at St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church in Elkridge give Kathy Schlickenmaier an old-fashioned way of assembling her children. "I tell them when they hear the bells at 6, it means it's dinnertime," she said. "These are real church bells. They're not recorded."
On a sun-drenched morning, Schlickenmaier was gently pushing her children on the playground swing at the church, which is marking its 100th anniversary this summer.
Schlickenmaier, a preschool teacher at the parochial school, said one of the reasons she and her husband and their two boys moved from Landover Hills was to escape the car thefts and vandalized mailboxes in their old Prince George's County neighborhood. When they scouted for a new property in Columbia, they were looking for gas heat but could find only electric heat.
"I had never heard of Elkridge," she said as a funeral procession wound its way out of the church parking lot. What they found by shopping the northeastern margin of Howard County was a 60-year-old, split-level on a third of an acre. Price: $145,000.
Her husband, Philip, carpools to his job at the Navy Department in Alexandria, Va., about 50 miles away, she said. "We couldn't afford the housing in Virginia," she said.
She knows neighbors who work for the Secret Service in Washington and at Fort Meade, a short distance away.
Elkridge also had the right ring for Brian Moroney, who said he treasures the community's diversity. "We've got nurses, young high-tech employees, small-business owners, paint contractors, general contractors," said Moroney, 31, a Baltimore native who makes the short commute to his job as a product planner for a credit union in Laurel. "Everyone's really friendly. We have a block party every year, usually in September."
In early 1999, he moved into a new, four-bedroom Colonial in the Downs Ridge development on Elkridge's east side, just around the corner from the volunteer fire department. Moroney said he paid a little more than $200,000. With Howard County housing prices zooming, he thinks the home, with a 600-square-foot deck addition, is worth about $250,000.
Moroney grew up in Ellicott City and knew that buying a similar home there would cost substantially more. Yet Elkridge had its charms, he said. "It's always been stable with a lot of older homes, a lot of older businesses because of Route 1. I think everyone feels at home in Elkridge. There's no snob appeal," he said.
Terri, his wife of nearly three years, agreed.
Elkridge, she said, has the same small-town flavor as Bowie, where she grew up. "That's what we wanted," the registered nurse said. "We bought what we could afford at the time. If we wanted to live in Ellicott City, we would have had to put out a lot more money."
Elkridge, seven miles southwest of Baltimore, was originally named Elkridge Landing. In 1746, it was Maryland's second-busiest port after Annapolis. Its main shipment was tobacco, which was rolled down sloping roads in hogsheads.
Iron ore, found along the banks of the Patapsco River, was also shipped. Nothing remains of the old town, and so much silt has built up in the river that it's barely navigable.
The community's signature landmark is the Thomas Viaduct, spanning the Patapsco River. At 612 feet long and 28 feet wide, it's the world's oldest multiarched stone railroad bridge, according to information provided at adjacent Patapsco Valley State Park.
Still in daily use, the granite structure was named for Philip Thomas, the first president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Finished in 1835, it formed a key link in the B&O's new Washington branch between Baltimore and Washington. During the Civil War, Union troops protected the structure from Confederate forces.
In her book Elkridge: Where It All Began, Helen Voris identifies another well-known spot, Lawyer's Hill.
Situated on the west side of town, just off Montgomery Road, Lawyer's Hill became popular in the 1850s as a quick escape from the city heat. One of the first to take advantage of the cool suburban oasis was George Washington Dobbin, a judge who bought a parcel and erected a home that he called The Lawn. Many of his friends followed his lead, buying land and building summer homes.
Gloria Berthold, a Lawyer's Hill resident, lives in a late-1840s Victorian dwelling that was built as servants' quarters. Berthold's was one of three homes that were moved from their original spots when Interstate 95 opened more than 30 years ago.
"It's almost embarrassing," she said of the house she purchased in 1974. "I paid $33,500 for a historic home on a half-acre of paradise." Because of the historic zone designation, additional development there is unlikely, she said.
As one of 40 individual property owners in Lawyer's Hill and the adjacent area, Berthold said, she enjoys "the woody, old oak forest" near the water. "It has a very private feel," she said.
Many of her neighbors, she said, are couples whose children have grown and moved away. "There is also an influx of young marrieds," she said.
At the new Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. office on U.S. 1, agent Amber Holemo said Elkridge is evolving into an affordable community where white-collar and blue-collar residents co-exist. Another motivating factor is the quality of the Howard County public schools.
"It's got the benefits of Columbia without the cost, although it's starting to inch up," Holemo said. "The medium range for home sales is $200,000. That's the highest it's ever been for Elkridge."
U.S. 1 pulsates grittily from Maine to Florida, but off the highway in Elkridge, "you've got pretty wide-open spaces," Holemo said. That's where you can observe residents piloting riding mowers on expansive, well-manicured yards. A few blocks away, tattooed neighbors sip their morning coffee on front stoops of bungalows and Cape Cod-style homes.
Approaching Elkridge from the south, one finds billboards, used car lots and businesses dispensing everything from plumbing supplies to flowers.
Within the past decade, a storefront public library was replaced by a large, freestanding facility. In addition, Elkridge Corners, a retail strip center, opened with a Super Fresh grocery as its anchor.
Cindy's soft-serve ice cream sits next to the Super Fresh. With its red and white awning and fast-moving lines, it's one of the most familiar faces on the local landscape.
Claude Sacker, the owner, represents the old guard in Elkridge. Working the window on a Friday afternoon, he paused to retreat to one of the picnic tables in back. Sacker recalled Elkridge when it was something quite different.
"It was very rural; I lived right across the street," he said, pointing across traffic-tangled U.S. 1, between a gasoline station and an assortment of other businesses. "You could hunt anywhere around here. If you carry a gun down Route 1 now, they'd call a SWAT team."
Sacker, 51, a former chief of the Elkridge Volunteer Fire Department, has also owned the Hillside Motel, next to Cindy's, for 26 years.
"Route 1 was always here," he said, "and the nature of Route 1 has remained the same: commerce."
Although he has since moved six miles away to Columbia, he doesn't want the basic character of Elkridge to change. "We're not Columbia," he said. "We're Elkridge, and we're damn proud of it."
Commute to downtown Baltimore: 15 minutes
Public schools: Elkridge Elementary, Rockburn Elementary, Elkridge Landing Middle, Howard High
Shopping: Elkridge Corners Shopping Center, Arundel Mills, The Mall in Columbia, Laurel Mall
ZIP codes: 21075