On a warm Saturday outside the Howard County Historical Society, Shawn Gladden shared some touring advice for Ellicott City, Md. His main message: Don’t just shop and drink.
“Ellicott City is more than just a very cool collection of antiques stores and bars on Main Street,” said the society’s executive director. “We have history and museums. Take a walking tour or explore the good trails behind us.”
For years, I’ve heard giddy descriptions of the town’s unparalleled shopping, a mix of hip-to-the-bone stores (owl-shaped home accessories, bib necklaces, mustache erasers) and Antiques Rows (cameo brooches, vintage cameras, hunting dog statues). I could easily have gone that way, but really, a pair of shark face mittens says more about my stunted growth than about the destination’s character. In addition, I had a sergeant called “time” at my back. Most of the town’s attractions — the Thomas Isaac Log Cabin, the Firehouse Museum, the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, the Ellicott City Colored School — are open only for limited weekend hours (1-4 p.m.) during set months (April through October and December). If I strayed into a store, Sarge Tick-Tock would yell at me to get back in line.
I set out with a tightly wound itinerary that quickly unraveled. The Patapsco Female Institute holds tours at 1:30 p.m. on both days of leisure. But a guide later told me that if no visitors materialize by 1:45 p.m., Recreation and Parks will cancel the outing. I arrived 15 minutes late, and she wasn’t bluffing: I explored the “stabilized ruins” of the 19th-century girls’ school through the chain-link fence. (I had more success the next day, joining an excursion-in-progress.)
The Historical Society, set in a 19th-century Presbyterian church, is undergoing renovations, but Gladden encouraged me to poke around, despite the slight disarray. In the first exhibit room, I read about the USS Constellation, which liberated 4,000 captives from slave ships in Africa, and the Underground Railroad, which laced through Howard County along present-day Route 1. A display of artifacts unlocked the gate to the girls’ school. I inspected an old photo of the female students, who were arranged like the cast of “The Music Man.” On a wooden desk, the pupils had memorialized their presence (and boredom) with doodles. Mamie Shipley — I know what you did in 1887.
After so many prim bonnets and noble epaulets, I sent myself on a scavenger hunt for freak-show specimens. I discovered the false teeth of Maryland’s first governor, Thomas Johnson, who probably dazzled his constituents with his 10-carat gold smile. And in a case dedicated to Jonathan Ellicott, one of the founding Quaker brothers of Ellicott’s Mills, I inspected hirsute accessories that included the blond lock of Sarah Ellicott (wife of J), a bracelet made of strands and a pin with mixed hair samples. Who needs Michael’s when you have a full head of materials to work with?
History in Ellicott City certainly repeats itself. Once again, I arrived late for a tour, this time at the Colored School, the first facility in Howard County to educate black children. I appeared just as guide Bobby Cobbs was discussing W.E.B. Dubois and his revolutionary ideas on inciting social change. Because of my tardiness, I had to learn forward before I could leap back in time, standing quietly as Cobbs covered Charles Hamilton Houston and his disciple, Thurgood Marshall. When the group started to discuss property taxes, I jumped into the conversation, bringing it back to Topic A: the one-room school that was founded in 1880 and closed in 1953, a year before Brown v. Board of Education.
“Most of the schools in the 11 [Confederate] states have been destroyed or demolished,” said Cobbs, who grew up in Alabama. “We are ashamed to be reminded of that time when whites thought we all looked alike and learned alike and weren’t equal. But it is also our history and tells us where we have come from and the struggles we have overcome.”
The school would have joined the ranks of oblivion if not for Beulah Meacham Buckner. In 1989, the Ohio visitor stumbled upon the decaying structure while searching for African American burial sites. She raised the restoration funds the old Junior League way, holding crab feasts, bazaars and calendar and candy sales. A framed portrait of Buckner stands alongside the desks, a lesson in never forgetting.
Buckner’s fiery spirit pervades the site, but she didn’t make herself known to us beyond her story. The goosebumps, however, were on alert.
Ellicott City is often called the most haunted town in Maryland, if not on the East Coast. Most of the buildings are said to harbor a ghost or two. The Historical Society, for one, claims a child who, per spectral fashion, wears a flouncy white nightgown.
“We have a little girl hanging out downstairs,” said Gladden. “She’s very happy.”
During a Saturday evening ghost tour, Tessie Fitton explained why apparitions congregate here like moths around a light bulb. For one, the “ongoing haunted town,” which was founded in 1772, is older than the United States, and many of the structures in its Historic District date from the 1800s.
“A lot of the buildings are not what they were,” Fitton said as we stood outside the county’s welcome center, a former funeral home and the reputed current residence of a ghost named Loretta. Judge’s Bench, a popular bar, was once a mom-and-pop grocery store. The owners had a daughter named Mary, who at age 17 hanged herself on an upper floor. Today, she’s said to take out her unhappiness on brunettes, tugging on their hair as they sip their cocktails.
Tragedy begets ghosts, and the city’s three rivers (Tiber, Patapsco, Hudson) have caused several major floods that have stolen many lives. In addition, the bedrocks of granite and the power lines provide the spirits with energy sources. The antiques stores, meanwhile, give them a personal reason to stick around. “People stay attached to stuff,” our guide said, foreshadowing the tale of a gloomy male ghost who wouldn’t let go of his wheelbarrow.
During our 90-minute walk, Fitton told us chilling stories involving doors opening and slamming shut, cold spots, shadow figures, floating pens, moving boxes and a mischievous bar stool that continually tried to trip up a bartender at Cocoa Lane Restaurant. “In Ellicott City, people get used to their ghosts and take them in stride,” she said.
Now, I have a ridiculous fear of the unknown and still shiver at the sight of twin girls in matching blue dresses. But I found a specter I could love at the Ooh la LaL hair salon.
Fitton led us past a Civil War graveyard to the former site of Al’s Garage, which she called the “most haunted location in Ellicott City.” One reason: the near certainty that soldiers’ bodies lie beneath the building. Another: Al, a prankster and flirt in life and after. When a yoga studio moved in, for instance, he supposedly tickled the toes of practitioners holding the corpse pose. At the salon, the manager has claimed to have heard tinny 1950s music near the shampooing station, seen an interloper in coveralls and felt her skirt flip up on her way out the door. Such a naughty, naughty ghost.
After the tour, I walked through the dark streets feeling more confident and less afraid. No longer would I tremble before ghosts or shark mittens.
Ellicott City, Md., is about 30 miles northeast of Washington.
The Columbia Inn at Peralynna
10605 State Rte. 108, Columbia
A 17-suite manor a few miles from Ellicott City. Breakfast and evening snack included. Rooms from $104 a night.
8385 Main St.
Popular pub with food to match, including several vegetarian options. From $7.95.
Ellicott Mills Brewing Co.
8308 Main St.
Pair a microbrew with seafood, pasta, steak, ribs or a German-inspired specialty. Strong recommendations for the Bavarian smoked pork chop and pumpkin ale. From $15.
Howard County Historical Society
8328 Court Ave.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 1-5 p.m. Free. Check for upcoming events, such as the Dead of Night at the Museum, a 12-hour paranormal investigation on Oct. 25.
Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park
3655 Church Rd.
Free tours Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m., April through October.
Ellicott City Colored School
8683 Frederick Rd.
Ye Haunted History of Olde Ellicott City Ghost Tour
The 90-minute tours are held Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m., April through November. Meet at the county welcome center (8267 Main St.). $13.