OELLA – The front of Rich Burns’ cliffside Oella home is a two-level, wheat-colored log house that sits right up against the curb of a windy, single- lane road, looking much as it has for the past century.
But a look around back finds an ultra-contemporary “tree house,” whose glass-enclosed rooms and balcony dangle over the steep banks of the Patapsco River.
Like Burns’ home, the former Baltimore County milltown of Oella has two faces.
At first glance, Oella is little changed from the mill town that produced sailcloth and then wool clothing from 1808 until the 1970s. The millworkers’ narrow rowhouses still crowd the twisting road and some still have outhouse buildings out back.
But a second look reveals large single-family homes and pockets of new townhouses around the W.J. Dickey Mill, which is now home to art studios and antique shops.
Oella, isolated in the Patapsco River valley and overlooked because of its working-class roots, has been attracting growing numbers of young professionals, empty nesters and city escapees over the last decade, who are looking for less of a cookie-cutter lifestyle. An additional lure are the coffee shops and boutiques of historic Ellicott City, just down the hill and over the river in Howard County.
“With most of what we knew about Oella, we would have avoided it,” said Don Bowman, a former Rouse Co. executive. But he and his wife, Ann, decided to move into an Oella townhouse with a spectacular river view after raising their kids in Columbia.
“It was a leap of faith, but this is our favorite place yet,” he said. “It doesn’t feel trendy. The people who come here do because it has a little of the beauty of a state park with this kind of river valley. It’s just a simple place.”
Oella was always a simple place.
The first mill, powered by the nearby Patapsco River, was built in 1808 by the Union Manufacturing Co. and briefly stood as one of the largest cotton manufacturers in the young nation. It was tended by workers — as many as 700 at one point — who lived in the company houses that sprang up in the new community. Generations of families often worked in the mill and lived in the many multi-unit houses that were rented to them by the company.
The mill was sold in 1887 to William James Dickey, who shifted production to woolens, manufacturing soldiers uniforms and later wool men’s suits. But declining demand for woolen goods in the face of new synthetic materials eventually doomed the mill. It ceased production in 1972 and the machinery was sold off.
“The economic soul of the village had collapsed” with the mill, said Charles L. Wagandt, Dickey’s great-grandson, who worked in the mill until it closed.
While the mill was closed, the company town of Oella — whose residents still used outhouses and relied on wells for water — remained.
“With no water and no sewer, we couldn’t find anyone to essentially buy a village,” said Wagandt, who paid $85,000 to buy the town himself in 1973 and started the Oella Company Inc.
“It certainly was a unique opportunity,” said Wagandt from his office in a rehabilitated Methodist church across from the mill. He said the town, where the newest home dated from 1925, was a “museum case of housing, representing a village of homes.”
“The early housing was stone, then it became brick. The late 19th-century frame houses have a modest Victorian element. Some were ‘kit houses’ that you actually buy and put together and there are generic houses built back then that didn’t really represent any style,” Wagandt said.
He promised lifetime tenancy to the remaining millworkers and then set about developing Oella, while trying to preserve its history in natural beauty.
“I wanted it so that if someone came back from the 1800s, they could still recognize where they were,” Wagandt said. “Instead of tearing up the landscape, there are clusters of houses…. We had to work with the land, so we built houses where the land allows it.”
After an 11-year battle, Wagandt got plumbing and sewers for the area in 1983, clearing the way for modern development.
The mill, which had been used mostly as storage space, suddenly became attractive to artists, with its airy space and views of the Patapsco. The former heart of the community has now become an artist’s haven of open studio loft space and 20 specialty art and antique shops, from Dorfman’s Wax Works to the Bagpipe Museum, and other small businesses, like architects and advertising agencies.
“The whole community is down-to-earth and uncomplicated,” said Sue Bassler, who runs The Final Merger, a specialty art shop she started with two former bank co-workers who grew weary of the mega-mergers in their old field.
“I’ve given away all of my suits,” Bassler said, opting instead to be in the co-op of artists who take turns manning the cash register and answering shopper’s questions three days a month.
“It’s nice that no one came in with a bulldozer and knocked the [mill houses] down and put in condos, it’s a good mix of old and new,” she said.
The new face of Oella came as a surprise to Bassler, who grew up in Roland Park.
“I’ve lived in the area all of my life and Oella was not a popular community. It was truthfully worlds apart because it didn’t have any modern conveniences,” she said. “If you said that you were from Oella, you might as well have said that you were from the hills of West Virginia.”
But real estate agent Diane Kenworthy said it is just because Oella is worlds apart that more and more people have come to it in the last decade.
“Where else can you find a village that is finite in the number of houses that will be built, with a river running through it, surrounded by a state park and walking distance to Ellicott City?” asked Kenworthy, an O’Conor, Piper & Flynn-ERA real estate agent, who has sold in the area since 1992.
She said the original hardwood floors and stone fireplaces — even the old outhouses — have been a big draw for buyers.
“They love them,” Kenworthy said of the old outhouses. “They make them into tool sheds and things.”
But today, there are also newer townhouses going for more than $200,000 and half-million-dollar houses along the river.
Burns, an architect, designed several of the new houses with a Baltimore design company and designed his own contemporary house among the trees.
“I loved the convenience of having downtown Ellicott City nearby,” said Burns, who used to live in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill. “You can walk on a Sunday and you can go to a coffee shop, there’s a jazz and blues club there and restaurants. It’s a neat kind of bohemian area.
“I really don’t even need a lot of artwork because each season my artwork changes,” he said, gazing out his wall of windows toward the Patapsco. “In spring it is a beautiful light green, in fall the leaves change these gorgeous colors and it’s covered in white in the winter … and when the train goes by it just feels so very — American.”
But he said his extensive travel schedule recently forced him to put his home up for sale.
“I hate to have to leave it. A lot of the suburbs are very homogeneous, very cookie-cutter. Vanilla,” he said. “This area has character, a distinct personality. The roads, the people, even the weather has a character. I couldn’t imagine living in a place like Columbia with its cul-de-sacs.”
That reluctance to leave comes as a refreshing change to Wagandt.
“For awhile nobody wanted to be situated with Oella,” Wagandt said. “It became good to be an Oellaite.”