Sep 22, 2011 11:00PM
● By Anonymous
Odenton has long been known as a town built by the railroads, beginning in 1840 and progressing with each subsequent rail line.
The morning rush of MARC commuters is over and the staff at the Whistle Stop Coffee & Tea Shop is catching its collective breath after the early morning onslaught of customers. Located adjacent to the railroad station in the toy-box bank building, c. 1917, locals and commuters regularly stop by the friendly coffee shop to pick up their coffee and a sweet roll from Minnie Bradley, proprietress. Folks sometimes linger a moment on benches in the tiny garden watching for their trains or catching up on the town’s news. When the platform empties and the riders have continued their commutes, ticket agent Ken Ellsworth stops by to pick-up his cup of fresh coffee from Joanie, the shop’s barista. Across from the coffee shop on the tiny, dead-end street a carpenter works on a robin’s egg blue farmhouse, repairing the porch’s gingerbread trim.
Not far from the tiny bank building, squirrels scamper among cemetery headstones dating back to the Civil War. Odenton has learned that survival depends on employing the serviceability and charm of what is at hand.
And, through the trees, the modern West County Library with its computers and databases and electronic books is bustling with activity. Just a block away earth-movers and giant cranes are constructing the Odenton Town Center which will house new stores and businesses. A mile or two down the road, Johns Hopkins Medicine and Anne Arundel Health System have a new medical facility under construction. Both of these projects are to serve the next influx of military families to Fort Meade and the communities that serve it. More trains have been added to the Odenton MARC schedule to accommodate the increasing demands of more than 3,000 commuters now and more to come. Odenton has also learned that survival depends on welcoming growth and the changes that accompany it.
The Odenton Heritage Society Museum building was originally constructed in 1917 as Odenton's first bank, near the B&P Train Station.
Odenton, past and present—the railroad and the military, historical ties and imminent opportunities. And the foundation of all these elements—hardworking, adaptable people. If pressed, most Anne Arundel County residents might know where to find Odenton on a map. Some people might use the busy MARC train station there. Others have read the recent reports in the papers that link Odenton to Fort Meade and the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) plans. But what are we missing? What’s been going on in this sleepy town of 20–30,000 people?
First of all, scratch the “sleepy.” According to a February, 2011 report in the Washington Post, Odenton grew by 42 percent based on the preliminary figures from the 2010 U.S. Census. That brings the population to almost 30,000 residents. Still, Odenton seems to be something of a well-kept secret. The folks who live in there are loyal supporters of the community; its history, its businesses, its churches. An exceptional example of Odenton devotees is the president of the Odenton Heritage Society, Inc. (OHS), Roger White. “I grew up in Severna Park but found Odenton in the early ’70s and moved here in 1986.” As the president of OHS for the last decade, Roger has led the community in securing and preserving three important buildings from Odenton’s history and expanding the collection of artifacts owned by the OHS. Odenton has an effective champion; Roger’s profession is curating exhibits at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Under Roger White’s leadership, the 1917 bank building that now houses the coffee shop, the Bethel Church building, c. 1923, and the Old Masonic Hall which opened in 1912, have been rescued and undergone restoration. The second floor of the former Masonic Hall now houses a nascent museum where railroad and military memorabilia are prominently displayed.
“Odenton developed in concentric circles; first the military at Camp Meade, then the railroad, and finally the community of houses and churches and shops. You see, the history of Odenton is entwined with the history of the railroads and the military,” White points out. Another eloquent champion of Odenton was Catherine L. O’Malley. In 1978 she published an interesting and comprehensive history of Odenton, The Town a Railroad Built. The Senior Center in town is named in her honor.
Beginning in 1840, Odenton was the headquarters of the Annapolis & Elk Ridge Railroad that linked Annapolis with the important cotton and grist mills and iron forges in the Elk Ridge area. That railroad served as a critical supply line for the Union Army. Skilled workers settled near the bustling Odenton rail yards, repairing railcars, engines and track. The trains’ engineers, mechanics, and service personnel settled in as well. Their jobs were secure; their lives quietly prosperous. In 1872, after the Civil War, the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad opened. The expanding crossroads was named for the president of that railroad and former governor of Maryland, Oden Bowie. One stop on the rail line became Oden-ton (pronounced by some locals, Od-ing-ton,) and the other station was named Bowie. An early adapter of electric-powered railroads, the Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis Electric Railroad Line’s offices were, you guessed it, in Odenton. The original headquarters and waiting rooms of the WB & A, the Midway Building on Telegraph Road, still stands.
Heavy snow couldn't keep the earliest Odenton firefighters from doing their job, c. 1930s.
By the 20th century, the link that began with the Civil War, between the military, its transportation system and Odenton, was firmly established. During World War I, Odenton was an ideal junction for new Army recruits or “doughboys” as they were called. Young men from up and down the east coast were sent to Camp Meade for training, and they streamed from their railcars onto the streets of Odenton. At the end of the war-to-end-all-wars, doughboys were returning to Camp Meade before mustering out, and some of those young men stayed to work and raise families in and around Odenton.
In 1918, about a block from Odenton’s train station, a modest chapel in the Arts and Crafts style opened. The Episcopal Diocese constructed the chapel to “minister to the mental and bodily needs of the men,” according to a 1923 Baltimore Sun article. The Epiphany Chapel and Church House still serve the community as the Epiphany Episcopal Church. The charming, old building has been carefully restored with the addition of a community building in a similar style housing a childcare facility. If you stop by the Chapel, senior church warden Jim Conboy may show you around; Jim was baptized there in 1921. His dad, an Irish immigrant, came as a corporal to Camp Meade, and stayed to work and raise his family in Odenton after the war. “I’ve lived here all my life; wouldn’t live anywhere else,” says Conboy.
In addition to Epiphany Episcopal, other historic congregations thrive in Odenton. Blanche Conway Stevenson, age 92, is the historian of the Macedonia United Methodist Church. The congregation was founded in 1894, and Blanche Conway was born in 1919, so she has been an active participant in most of her church’s history. “Growing up around here, we all lived together. Black and white. Everybody looked out for everybody. Peaceful,” recalls Ms. Stevenson. Blanche was the youngest of six children. She attended school at the Macedonia Church Hall, “…and Ms. Anderson, the teacher, came in on the train from Annapolis every day.”
Odenton’s pace slowed during the 1920s and ’30s, until World War II led the National Plastics Products Co. to relocate in Odenton in 1943. A state-of-the-art plastics plant was built on Telegraph Road by the owners, the Winer family. The first “Saran” plastic wrap product, mosquito netting, boot insoles and automobile upholstery were produced there. Odenton offered the company skilled, diligent employees and lots of space to expand; the Winers, in turn, were generous in their support of the community, building a health center and refurbishing the town’s Masonic Lodge. A grand mural in the Art Deco style depicting the role of plastics and chemistry in modern industry was commissioned from artist Nathan Inemitoff. It languishes to this day, unseen, in the Rotunda of the now-defunct plant.
The Epiphany Episcopal Church was founded in 1918 and continues to flourish.
Odenton’s facilities and workforce “retooled” in the 1950s to support the National Security Agency located at Fort Meade; the Friendship International Airport, later Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport; and the Amtrak and MARC lines carrying commuters between Baltimore and Washington.
Daily living in Odenton is a quiet affair. The modest and comfortable residential neighborhoods are made up of small ranchers and bungalows mostly built in the 1950s and ’60s. They line streets named Treasure Drive, Prince Charles Avenue and Williamsburg Lane. Bicyclists, pet walkers and parents pushing strollers pass the Catherine L. O’Malley Senior Center buildings on Odenton Road. A bit further down a shuttle van pulls away from the Catholic Charities Senior Housing. Several larger apartment complexes provide housing for working people. In the 1990s an upscale, planned community, Piney Orchard, added 3,500 residences to Odenton, as well as a 100-acre nature preserve, a community center, skating rink and other amenities for the influx of workers to Fort Meade.
There is an air of anticipation among the residents now. Odenton is once again preparing to shoulder another cycle of expansion and development. Fort Meade is growing, and with it, Odenton, as part of the U.S. Military’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) plan. According to the Maryland Department of Transportation, more than 27,000 new jobs are coming to the area. And with those jobs and the men and women to fill them, Fort Meade undertakes more than $1 billion in construction and approximately $47 million in infrastructure construction and expansion in the communities surrounding the base.
Once again, Odenton is positioned to benefit from the influx of military personnel and their families. The West Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce president, Claire Louder is pushing hard to move ahead the various County projects, like additional sewer and water lines, that must be in place before new homes and office buildings can be constructed to serve the new base employees. According to an article Louder wrote in March, Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is the next big push for the area because it will provide additional parking and set the stage for the Odenton Town Center (to be built by The Halle Companies). The Chamber is urging the establishment of a Community Benefit District to insure that amenities to beautify and support Odenton during this growth spurt will continue to be installed and maintained. There are big changes ahead.
“Growing up around here, we all lived together. Black and white. Everybody looked out for everybody. Peaceful!”
- Blanche Conway Stevenson, 92, historian of the Macedonia United Methodist Church
Roger White likes to call Odenton the “small town with the big history.” Keeping the balance between its history and its future will be no small task.
Janice F. Booth is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to What’s Up? Annapolis. She lives in Annapolis.