Witten By Mary Spiro
When Diana Mills Scott of Eldersburg looks out across Liberty Reservoir, she sees a double row of red floats. In her mind’s eye, though, she also sees, under 3,100 acres of murky water, the remains of the town of Oakland Mill.
In the mid 1950s, Baltimore City created Liberty Reservoir to meet its growing demand for water.
Engineers demolished the town of Oakland Mill (also known as Oakland Mills or simply Oakland), dammed the north branch of the Patapsco River, and flooded the valley. Baltimore’s Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., officially dedicated the reservoir on September 21, 1954.
At the time, many people viewed the project as a sign of progress. But to Scott, those buoys in the water mean something else.
“They remind me of grave markers,” Scott said. “They make me think of the end of an era; the end of a town.”
Oakland Mill was once a thriving company town of about 150 souls, sustained entirely by the Melville Woolen Mill, which opened in 1915. Scott describes the town as “a little world unto itself ” with two streets: a now submerged section of Oakland Mills Road and another that led to the factory. There was a church and a school and about 60 rental homes for mill workers. A mill-owned community center featured a bowling alley, silent movie theater, theatrical plays and snack bar.
A mill-run company store, similar to today’s convenience stores, offered ice, and a place where residents could get medical care. It also boasted the town’s only telephone. The community had a band and a baseball field and two mail deliveries each day. The mill owners, John Graham Melville I, George Melville and Thomas Melville, all lived within city limits. A road in the area still bears their name.
Even area farmers depended on the business. During busy times at the mill, farmers left the fields to lend a hand. During slow times at the mill,
farmers hired mill hands to work the fields. Only Springfield State Hospital employed more people at the time. Oakland Mill was self-contained –an economy in balance.
Surprisingly, local historians had little information about this section of Carroll County in their archives when Scott first began research for her master’s thesis at McDaniel College. She completed her work in 1998, and it has now been turned into a book, “The Forgotten Corner: A History of Oakland Mill,” available this summer through the Historical Society of Carroll County.
“Diana’s history of Oakland Mill is a wonderful story that most people would never be aware of,” said Catherine Baty, curator of collections at the Historical Society of Carroll County. “I am amazed at the number of people that she was able to find who had lived in Oakland Mill and worked at the mill.”
Oakland Mill captured Scott’s imagination almost from the time she and her husband,Charles, moved into their Oakland area home as newlyweds in 1965. “I would take walks through the neighborhood,” Scott recalled.
“Oakland Road would just disappear into the water.” On modern maps, one can trace the former path of Oakland Road from where it ends by Scott’s home to where it picks up again on the Baltimore County side of the lake to intersect with Deer Park Road.
Scott probed her neighbors about the area’s history. In the mid 1960s, memories of Oakland Mill were still fresh and an oral tradition had developed. Many of her neighbors had been affiliated with the former mill town either directly as employees or indirectly through family members.
“I learned how people had lost their way of life when they lost the mill to the reservoir; they lost a way of life that could not be recreated elsewhere,” Scott said. Some families were forced to move away to Oella, Rockland or Dickeyville to find work in other mills. Farmers, too, were forced to leave when authorities seized their lands. Their legacy was marked only by those red floats in the water and the memories of residents who had decided to remain.
It wasn’t until Scott began formally researching the area, more than three decades later, that she realized hardly any written history of Oakland Mill existed. Initial inquiries to the Historical Society of Carroll County yielded little.
When she discovered that Oakland Mill, along with the rest of the county east of Route 27, had been part of Baltimore County (until Carroll County’s creation in 1837), Scott redirected her research efforts. In Baltimore County and city records, she soon located several people with critical information who were glad to help.
John McGrain, Executive Secretary of the Landmarks Preservation Committee, had compiled an unpublished manuscript about Oakland Mill and the Melville family. George Horvath, now a retired surveyor for the state, provided maps of land grants and other information.
Scott returned to her neighbors for eyewitness accounts, especially that of longtime Oakland Mill resident Elizabeth Meadows. Meadows’ memories put the town’s history into perspective through her large collection of newspaper articles, photographs, and other memorabilia of the era before and after the Liberty Reservoir project. The result of Scott’s work has filled in a missing piece of southeastern Carroll County history.
“I wanted to find out how people lived, how they managed to make it when life was so much more difficult,” Scott said. “I also think that I did this because I wanted to see how I fit it and I wanted to do something to benefit the community.”
Though Scott’s research into Oakland Mill is complete, she is not finished digging into the past of Carroll County. Her current work in progress investigates the Westminster Cemetery and the lives of the people who are buried there. She also published one other historical work while at Towson University. An independent study project based on the diaries of a Virginia plantation owner’s wife, “Louisa Maxwell Holmes Cocke,” was published as a book through the Fluvanna County Historical Society of Virginia in 1993.