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Oella History

Nestled in the wooded hills reaching down to the Patapsco River, Oella is a time capsule — a step back into history. Named for the first woman to spin cotton in America, the village owes its creation to the presence of immense water power.

William J. Dickey
That is what attracted the Union Manufacturing Company, the first textile company to be chartered by the State of Maryland. Founded in 1808, the company briefly achieved renown as the largest cotton mill in America. The Union mill also experienced fire and flood, good and bad times. The bad times led to the auction of the mill, its village, and surrounding land in 1887. William J. Dickey bought the property and gradually shifted production to woolens. The mill burned down in 1918 and was promptly rebuilt. It went on to achieve the distinction of becoming America's foremost producer of fancy menswear woolens. The demand for these fabrics dropped with the introduction of synthetics and double knits and the trend to casual dress. In 1972 the mill closed and was sold to a machinery dealer.

It's gone now — the sight of richly colored fabrics; the aroma of dyes, chemicals, and wool; the feel of tweed, saxonies, and shetlands; the clatter of looms echoing off the hillside. No longer do hundreds of workers pour in and out of the mill at shift change. No longer does water from the mill race set the electric turbines humming. Stripped of the machinery and workers that gave life to its brick walls, now all is just a memory.

Mill families

Mill Families

Along a three-quarter-mile stretch of Oella Avenue, there exists something more tangible than a memory — the homes of generations of mill workers, the men and women who turned out millions of yards of cloth. Their first homes were built of stone a few years before the War of 1812. Early in the 19th century, log cabins were tucked into the steep slopes, while a scattering of vernacular styles emerged over the years. Brick houses appeared before the Civil War. In the late 19th century construction shifted to Victorian-era frame houses with bracketed cornices. Around the time of World War I, a number of cottage-style kit homes added to the diversity of Oella's architecture. Thereafter, all house building stopped. The automobile made it unnecessary to provide additional lodging for workers.

Until its closing in 1972 the mill was the heartbeat of the community. The shutdown caused economic and social shock that worsened in June of the same year as Hurricane Agnes swept down the Patapsco Valley. The flood ravaged low-lying areas and severely damaged the 1 ¾-mile mill race, reputedly the longest in America to power one mill. Sewerage problems worsened. This was a community where outhouses still dotted the landscape, and the few indoor bathrooms emptied into the river or the now-stagnant mill race.

The Mill
Oella Mill

As Oella reeled under these natural and economic disasters, the company sold the mill village, exclusive of the mill, to Charles Wagandt, a great grandson of William J. Dickey. The new owner formed the Oella Company and went to work with architects, engineers, land planners, and Baltimore County officials. The seeds of new life sprouted. An Oella community association was formed. Working with County, State, and Federal governments and with the help of local residents and political leaders, the Oella Co. finally received public water and sewer services in 1984. These facilities extended far beyond the original mill village and thus benefitted a large area.

In the meantime, Baltimore County produced a master plan for the community that the County Council subsequently approved. In 1983, the County and the Oella Company signed a unique Agreement of Intent, whereby both parties joined in seeking an improved quality of life for the Oella area. Programs evolved to make it possible for long-term tenants to remain in upgraded, affordable housing.

The Oella Company sought to preserve the architectural integrity of the streetscape. It practiced smart growth before the term ever entered the lexicon of land planning. Sensitive infill development with predominately clustered housing preserved open space and wooded hills. Southern Management has also supported smart growth by buying the mill from its most recent owners, rehabilitating the structure with the approval of the Maryland Historical Trust, and recycling it into upscale loft apartments. Meanwhile the Oella Co. is breathing new life into the historic stone buildings at the lower end of the village. This area is known as Granite Hill and will see a cluster of new homes to complement the old. Granite Hill looks across the Patapsco River to Ellicott City, site of America's first railroad terminus and a charming old hill town of shops and restaurants.

A block away is the 1789 George Ellicott House, which has been saved, moved out of the flood plain, and restored. Oella adjoins the Patapsco Valley State Park and Baltimore County's Benjamin Banneker Historical Park, which commemorates America's first black man of science. Nearby are scenic hiking trails. Hisotric Oella Founded 1808

This is a region of great rugged beauty. Oella is a place apart amid wooded hills and white water, yet within 20 minutes of Baltimore Inner Harbor and BWI Airport. The Washington Beltway is less than 30 minutes away. Nowhere in Maryland is there such a remarkable example of fine mill-village architecture so picturesquely situated and continuously occupied since before the War of 1812. Educational, cultural, recreational, economic, and scenic opportunities abound. In Oella the past looks forward to a promising future as it passes its bicentennial in 2008.