The main street of this historic Baltimore county town twists up away from the wide county road and back into the 19th century, passing through a way of life that has vanished almost everywhere else.
Many of the century-old brick houses in this company-built mill town lack indoor water and sewer facilities, so outhouses sit behind them. The 1,400 residents are nearly all former mill workers or descendants of the workers who flocked here when Oella was a flourishing textile mill town and adventure was a trip to the company store.
Only 25 miles west of Baltimore. Oella is perched on the east bank of the Patapsco River across from Ellicott City, the county seat of neighboring Howard County. Originally a classic 86-acre company town, whose workers paid pennies for rent, bought stamps in the company post office and played baseball for the company [WORD ILLEGIBLE]team. Oella today may, for the first time in its history, be on the verge of having a water and sewer line installed.
The area has had an AA rating for the past 10 years, which is the worst health rating we can give," said Frank R.Smith, assistant Baltimore County development coordinator. Each day thousands of gallons of untreated sewage pours into the Patapsco River, he noted.
The county had always objected to putting in water system because its estimated $4 million cost would have to be borne by all county taxpayers, and not just the 1,400 Oellas who would benefit, Smith said.
In 1974, however, the federal Water Pollution Control Act was passed, allowing the county to pass $3 million of the cost to the federal government. With the remaining $1 million split equally by the county and state.
"If all goes well there could be a sewer system in Oella in three or four years." Smith said.
Founded in 1808 as a company town and owned since they by various textile concerns. Oella was purchased in 1887 by the W.J.Dickey and Sons Co. according to county records. When the Dickey firm closed its mill operation in 1972, a victim of changing fashions and technology the town, its citizens and its problems were, in effect, left as foundings in the doorstep of Baltimore County.
"What Oella really needs is a benefactor." said deputy Baltimore County planning director Norman E.Gerber. Gerber added that, considering the town's comparatively small size, it is hard for the county to justify spending the millions of dollars needed to solve the town's problems.
For generations, the town's benefactors had been its owners. The Dickey Co., for example, built roads and houses, a school and a church for its 500 workers and their families. The company produced fancy wool fabrics for men's clothing at its sprawling, 200,000-square-foot mill.
When the mill closed in 1972, the town was bought lock, stock and outhouse by Charles Wagandt, a Dicker family member and former company treasurer.
"I am here to preside over change, and also to preserve the unique character of the towns," Wagandt said recently.
Wagandt declined to reveal the purchase price, but noted that the mortgage for the town was held by the Dickey Co. - so Oella is still, in a way, a company town.
As landlord, Wagandt sits on the second story of a former Methodist church the company built at the turn of the century and accepts applications for tenants for the six and eight-room stone houses. Some of these were built as early as 1812, none was built more recently than 1925, and most of them rent for $50 to $70 a month - depending upon whether there is running water and bathroom facilities inside the house. There are 109 houses in the towns.
"I came here in 1925, and have always lived in this house," said Margaret Isabella Godfrey, 84, a retired weaver at the mill, whose late husband, daughter and grandsons all worked at the mill with her.
"When I left the mill after 45 years I had a 45-year pin to show for it," Godfrey said. Four younger generations of her family live within walking distance of her $68.25-per-month stone house, which has indoor plumbing.
In 1976 the National Register of Historic Places listed Oella as a living museum of 19th century structures and styles. The recognition, Wagandt said, might someday help him get federal aid for the town's improvement.
In the historic district there is Spring Street, named for the many springs behind the cramped, narrow row houses where mill weavers and machinists lived. At the higher end of the avenue is Pleasant Hill, an area of white frame structures where the supervisors lived.
In between is Herring Hill, built without indoor staircases, so that both the lower and upper floors have outside doors built into them, even though the outside stairs have long since been removed.
"Oh, Lord, I hope to live to see the day we get water and sewer lines here," said Clara Cavey, 72, who has spent all her life in Oella, including 35 years in a white frame house in Pleasant Hill.
"This isn't a gissiping town, it's a town of cooperation and fellowship. My late husband worked 49 1/2 years at the mill, and that company store Mr.Dickey ran carried everything from soup to nuts," she said.
The company store closed shortly before the mill shut. And when the mill closed, unemployment increased and the character of the neighborhood changed, too, some people said.
The mill is vandalizes daily by neighborhood teen-agers, who hurl rocks through the windows, according to Wallace E.Merryman, 49, its caretaker. More and more of the windows are boarded up. Another lifelong resident said teen-agers on motorcycles at night turn placid Oella Avenue into drag strip.
Edward Zellmer, 77, who has lived most of his life in a house on Stone Row, a series of houses built in 1812, said, "There used to be a cab service up from Ellicott City, but they stopped that some time ago. I'm too old to move now. It's okay here, but, look, the porch is slipping away. And it's cold in winter, using the outhouse, let me tell you. But where else could I rent a house for $54.82 a month?"