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Charming Community of Dickeyville, Maryland




​​The Village of Dickeyville: Charming and Historic

By Paul H. Belz

​​On the western edge of Baltimore City, in Maryland, lies a charming, historic village of roughly three hundred acres and about 140 homes. It is a National Historic Register site with the look of a quaint New England town.

Dickeyville is not far from the regular route south down Garrison Boulevard and west along Windsor Mill Road that several Algonquin Indian tribes traveled to process their hunting and fishing harvests in Ilchester, in Howard County. Large concentrations of arrows were found on Ashland Hill in Dickeyville, suggesting battles between peaceful Powhatans and Piscataways and the more warlike Susquehannocks, who had been forced south from the upper Susquehanna River by the Iroquois. There is no evidence of a permanent Indian settlement in the area.[1]

As Europeans arrived and took the land, the area that became Dickeyville first belonged to Charles Carroll. It was annexed from Baltimore County by Baltimore City in 1918.

Dickeyville lies on the fall line of the Piedmont Plateau to the immediate north of the city’s nearly 1,000–acre Leakin Park. The picturesque little village off North Forest Park Avenue experienced a steady succession of mills, owners, and names (Franklinville in 1811, Wetheredville in 1829, Dickeyville in 1871, Hillsdale in 1917, and back to Dickeyville in 1934) from its earliest history.

The grist mills of Peter Bond (son-in-law of Richard Gwin) in 1719 and Wimbert Tschudi in 1762 were the first settlements in the area. They were succeeded in 1811 by the Franklin Paper Mill, which stood in the hollow below the present-day Forest Park Avenue bridge in Dickeyville. A deed filed in 1811 at the county seat in Towson lists the names Gwynn, Levering, Payson, Dall, William Wilson & Sons and others. It was a primitive operation in which the wood pulp was beaten by hand. The town itself was then known as Franklinville.

During the War of 1812 with the British, dwellings in the area were used as emergency hospitals for soldiers wounded in the battles of North Point and Fort McHenry. The company operated until 1829 when it sold everything to the Wethered family. Three brothers ran the mill. John, George and Charles were the sons of “Santa Fe” Sam Wethered, a close companion to Kit Carson, the frontier legend.

The Wethereds were strict Quakers, so alcohol was always  forbidden in the town, to the extent that deeds to buildings incorporated covenants forbidding the sale of alcohol as a property usage. The most influential of the brothers, exhibiting the most ambition and personality-appeal was John, who married Mary Thomas (daughter of the B&O Railroad’s first president) in 1835 and was elected to Congress in 1843 as a 3rd district Democrat.

John, who bore a striking resemblance to Confederate General James Longstreet, had a stern visage that commanded respect. His dark head of hair, full triangular beard—long enough to rest on his chest—carefully groomed upturned mustache, full sideburns, heavy eyebrows and large, strong-featured face, all combined to direct one’s initial attention to two deep-set, piercing eyes communicating a resolve that would tolerate no dissonance. His social magnetism built political legends, such as the one which had the legislators recessing to his hotel whenever he visited Annapolis, so that he could regale the lawmakers with jokes and wisdom about politics, horses, and art collected on his trips abroad.

Mary Wethered became close friends with fourth president James Madison’s widow Dolley and on May 24, 1844, received the second telegraph ever sent. After New York City artist, Professor Samuel F. B. Morse sent the first to the B&O office in Baltimore from the Supreme Court building in Washington (wiring the words “What hath God wrought,” written by Miss Anne Ellsworth, daughter of the Commissioner of Patents), Dolley immediately followed with a message simply sending love to her friend Mary.

The Wethered’s stone mansion—with the entire first floor a ballroom—perched near the crest of a hill, roughly across from present-day 2441 Forest Park Avenue (opposite Pickwick Road). John was the only Wethered brother to take up full-time residence in the area of the mills.

Once purchased, the mill’s Franklinville name was dropped and the brothers gave their little town five miles west from the heart of Baltimore the name Wetheredville (no letter “s” in the town’s name, unlike the misspelled legal street name Wetheredsville Road). Additionally, they retooled the mill from paper to woolen production. Forty-nine looms, operated by steam and water power, produced highly acclaimed products which won many prizes at fairs in neighboring states.[2]  In 1844, in partnership with James S. Gary, they built several additional mills upstream and formed the Ashland Manufacturing Company (Ashland was the name given Wimbert Tschudi’s original land grant for that property). Gary supervised Ashland’s operations successfully for the next ten years.

Wetheredville’s population waxed and waned with the roller-coaster economy, growing to a high of seven-hundred people by 1835 while dwindling to three-hundred and sixteen in 1881.[3] Disaster struck on December 7, 1854, when Ashland’s cotton factory burned to the ground, exacerbating what was already a lean national economy throughout the 1850s. The Wethered brothers personally owned the building but the company owned the machinery and had the financial backing to recover for the short-term. Gary, however, left the Ashland organization to devote his time to a new mill he had just opened in Howard County in 1853. He called it the Alberton Manufacturing Company.

The Wethered’s operation recovered only to face another setback. The devastating flood of 1857 did extensive damage when the Powhatan Dam partially broke. Like a prize-fighter somehow enduring a pummeling, the mill persevered and remained solvent, but in a few years the Civil War brought labor shortages that forced the struggling Wethereds to sell woolen blankets and cloth to both Union and Confederate troops. Their Quaker religious beliefs opposing violence also contributed to their willingness to sell to both sides. But in 1863, when Union forces discovered a mule train of mill wagons hauling grey cloth to the Confederacy, they forced the Wetheredville operation to close.[4]

In spite of the town owners’ patriotic shortcomings, the Union could be proud of one Wetheredville resident during the Civil War. Billy Ware carried a thirty–two star flag, made by the Methodist Church ladies, into the Battle of Gettysburg. When Ware was captured and sent to Libby (the notorious Confederate prison in Richmond), a friend brought the bullet–riddled flag home. It is now in the museum of the D.A.R. in Washington. Billy survived to host many fried-chicken-filled Decoration Day reunions of Civil War soldiers on his front lawn at 5131 Wetheredsville Road.[5]

After the war the ever-resilient Wethered brothers recovered again only to be blindsided by one final disaster. With the lean 1850s economy and the labor-short Civil War years (when child labor became essential) behind them, the business was regaining its footing when catastrophic weather struck. The great rains of the summer of 1868 stressed the Powhatan Dam beyond endurance. Ironically the storms had ended and the sun was shining when the entire one-hundred foot span of the dam collapsed (not a mere breach as in 1857). The subsequent flooding (called the “Great Freshet”) inundated fifty acres downstream, damaging the Wethered’s mills to the extent of $100,000.

Rowboats went to the rescue of one hapless old lady, whose house in the hollow (behind modern 2449 Pickwick Road) was flooded to the second story. She stood at the window, refusing to get into the boat, wailing that her laundry was still on the line.[6] Some houses in the Gwynns Falls valley were totally immersed. In newly named Ellicott City on the Patapsco River (chartered as a city and renamed from Ellicott’s Mills in 1867), over fifty lives were lost. Baltimore’s harbor was choked with debris and disease-generating silt from the Jones Falls, triggering a commission and several years of debate on modifications to the stream to prevent future recurrences.

The Wethereds never recovered and their bank would soon force them to auction everything they owned. But their misfortunes, bad-timing and dire situation would present a brief window-of-opportunity for a man named William Dickey in 1870.

William J. Dickey was born on November 27, 1814 in Ballymena, Northern Ireland and was brought to America at the age of six by his father Patrick, a Scotch-Irishman. Patrick established a wool-weaving establishment on Saratoga Street near Poppleton. Hard-working and successful, Patrick educated William at the best private schools and assumed his son would follow in his footsteps.

He was outraged when his son revealed his dream to become a Presbyterian minister. Immediately Dickey withdrew his son from Asbury College and put him to work in the family milling business, with lackluster results. Patrick finally admonished, “My son, you will never be worth a cent in this world.”[7] Stung by this criticism he quit the Dickey family’s business in 1838, took $75 in savings and started a small woolen mill a few doors away (435 Saratoga Street) in competition with his father. After an interlude operating a woolen plant in Philadelphia, he returned to serve as president of the Ashland Manufacturing Company for the Wethered brothers in Wetheredville.

In 1870 his ambitions and the aging Wethereds’ struggles arrived at a fateful nexus. Dickey, who had been the Wethereds’ president of Ashland, rented their operation in 1870. In April, 1871, when a court-order forced the Wethereds to public auction, Dickey had the inside track and was able to buy the entire town of Wetheredville, including three mills, workers’ homes and three-hundred acres of land, for $82,000. The Ashland complex he acquired also included a weaving building, a dye house, a cotton-pickers’ building, and two other structures for drying and coloring wool fabrics.

The Wethered patriarch, “Santa Fe” Sam Wethered, father of John, George, and Charles, died on June 17, 1878, seven bitter years after having his life’s grandest achievement snatched away and bestowed on an underling. In 1884 John Wethered joined the gold rush and traveled to California, by stagecoach as far as the trail allowed. He soon returned disillusioned and resumed his political leadership in Maryland until dying at his home “Ashland” in Catonsville in 1888 at the age of seventy-nine.

Meanwhile Dickey quickly renamed his newly acquired town Dickeyville and the mill complex Ballymena Mills in honor of his birthplace in County Antrim, Ireland. He already owned a grand home in town since, in 1865, he had built a three-story frame mansion on the same ridge of land as John Wethered’s home (off Forest Park Avenue).

Dickey quickly tripled the production and employment of the mills. He enlarged the mill buildings, added more workers’ houses, and cut production costs by manufacturing a courser, cheaper cloth than the Wethereds, a material known as “ Dickey kersey” (course, lightweight, gray and brown woolen cloth used in workmen’s trousers and farmers’ suits).

But Dickey was not immune from Ashland’s persistent curse. Tragedy struck again, when, on September 9, 1873, the woolen mill was gutted by fire. Dickey proved resilient and resourceful, however, because by 1881 the rebuilt operation had grown to three mills employing hundreds of people manufacturing high grade cotton yarn and warp, which was sent to Philadelphia to be made into fabrics such as linsey and gingham.

Dickey’s resilience was aided by the broad base of his business empire, directed from his office at 16 Light Street in downtown Baltimore. He was an organizer and an original director of the Manufacturer’s National Bank, which enabled his mill operations to secure favorable financing on short notice. During the business depression of 1882, he shrewdly bought goods at deflated prices and stockpiled them, selling them for huge profits when times improved. Then in 1887 he bought 1,500 acres of land along with the buildings and machinery of the Union Manufacturing Company (operating since 1810) near Ellicott City, on the Patapsco River in Baltimore County. He renamed the plant Oella Mills using the old Indian name for the area. This location would eventually displace Dickeyville as his company’s primary operational site.

Two churches were central to Dickeyville’s life. The Methodist church was the most handsome structure, built in 1849 from rubble-stone on land donated by the Wethered brothers.[7] Dickey himself opened the Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in 1885, poetic justice for one denied the dream of a minister’s career.

Dr. Jesse W. Lazear helped Dickey organize the church. He was Johns Hopkins Hospital’s staff bacteriologist who died in 1900 at age thirty-four while helping Walter Reed study yellow fever in Cuba. The circumstances were macabre. He saw the mosquito that killed him. His diary revealed that he saw “a common, ordinary brown mosquito” settle on his arm. Thinking it probably wasn’t dangerous but aware of the chance he was taking, he watched with a scientist’s detachment and curiosity as the mosquito bit him. Five days later he was wracked with yellow fever and ten days later he was dead.[8] Hopkins honors him with a statue in the hospital but his house on Wetheredsville Road got no such respect from area kids who called it the “witch’s house” because of its foreboding appearance. The stretch of road passing the Lazear house was called “Spooks Road” because the old trees lining it formed a closed arch which added to the house’s chilling effect.

Dickey and Lazear’s progressive church sent four missionaries to Japan, India and Persia. Both town churches collaborated for the annual fourth of July parade and the summer excursion to Tolchester (sponsored by William Dickey), on the bay boat Emma Giles. The Methodist church bell rang out a 9 p.m. curfew for the town each evening.

Dickey continued to run the business until his death on August 13, 1896. He was buried in the Springvale section of Green Mount Cemetery not far from the Winans family and the notorious John Wilkes Booth’s grave site. Dickey’s  sons William Alexander and George Allen succeeded him in the family business.

The 1890s were a boom period for Baltimore textile mills. By early in the decade most successful cotton mills were producing heavy-grade cotton duck sail cloth and seventy-five percent of the U.S. supply was manufactured in the Baltimore area.[9]  One problem plaguing the mills during that decade was the decreasing stream-flow caused by development in the area. As the hills and valleys were denuded of vegetation for farms, mills, and homes, the watershed was harmed, causing springs to dry up along with the streams they fed. This led to a new expense. In 1893, the mill closed temporarily to allow the installation of a 250-horsepower steam engine to augment the water-power provided by the stream.

The most exciting day in the town’s history came during the summer of 1899 when election fever was running high and Teddy Roosevelt came to town for the day. He was riding a wave of popularity from his Rough Rider days which featured the legendary capture of San Juan Hill in Cuba on July 1, 1898 during the Spanish-American War. He was campaigning for the Republican presidential candidate, William McKinley, for the 1900 election, an election which would make Roosevelt the vice-president. Then on September 6, 1901, McKinley was shot by an anarchist and died eight days later, making Roosevelt, at age forty-two, the youngest president to-date.

For Roosevelt’s visit, Dickeyville was hung with bunting (some of which caught fire) and a parade was organized featuring a float holding the Goddess of Liberty. Herman Myers, (of current 2433 Pickwick Road) played the trombone and led the Dickeyville Silver Cornet Long Distance Walking Band. Then-governor of New York Roosevelt and Maryland’s Democratic governor Lloyd Lowndes mounted the steps of the building (which doubled as the mill office and jail and is now 2435 Pickwick Road) to address the admiring crowd, but were delayed by a delivery of bouquets from two little girls in white dresses and colored sashes, Florence Lilly (of 2434 Pickwick Road across the street) and Bess Sakers of 5016 Wetheredsville Road (whose families are both buried in the abandoned Leakin Park-area cemetery below the south end of Ridgetop Road). Roosevelt hugged them both. His speech was well-received in the predominantly Republican town (although Dickey himself had been a Democrat).

After Dickey’s death the business slowly declined and after thirteen years his family sold their Dickeyville operation to a New York firm, Otto Goetze & Company (cotton & woolen specialists), and the name of the mill operation was changed in 1909 to Glasgow Mills.[10] The Dickey Company was now solely invested in Oella and the village of Dickeyville sunk into its worst period of decline. The textile industry was changing (people wanted lighter, more colorful and stylish garments) and electricity was making steam power obsolete, raising the specter of another huge capital expense.

The Wethered mansion was being leased by a gambler, with a different game hosted in every room. Rumor even had Jesse James hiding out there for a while with the “Ellicott City boys.” Fences rotted and homes went unpainted.

Throughout the ensuing years, the mills operated intermittently and the town declined in importance as well as population. Finally, in 1917, the mills were taken over by Capital Cotton Company and the town’s name was changed to Hillsdale in an attempt to improve its image. But the Great Depression soon struck and bootleggers set up operations at both ends of town. In 1930, one of the mills was purchased for the manufacture of the unlikely combination of kitchen cabinets, coffins and rowboats, but tragedy struck in 1934 when fire destroyed that mill.

In November of 1934, the entire village consisting of sixty acres, eighty-one dwellings, three mills and the Wethered’s three-story mansion was sold at auction for $42,000. At that point, restoration of the town began, led by the new development company’s architect, Harold A. Stillwell. Dickeyville reclaimed its name, and began to assume its present charm and New England flavor. The Dickeyville Improvement Association was formed in 1937.

In 1954 the Dickey Company re-purchased the surviving mill from C. R. Daniels, Inc., renamed it the Ballymena Woolen Mills and used it to produce yarn for their plant at Oella.[11]

The firm permanently closed the mill in 1967 and shipped its machinery to a newly purchased plant in Marion, South Carolina. The flooding from 1972's prolonged tropical storm Agnes permanently ended all prospects of reintroducing milling activity in Dickeyville. Use of the mill buildings resumed in 1976, but this time as an art gallery, a used book store, and a weaving shop.[12]

The town is now an historical and architectural preservation area. Just as the nineteenth century had ended the grist mill activity in the area, the twentieth century reduced the textile mills to photos and folklore, and, as often happens, the passage of time began injecting people’s reminiscences with a romantic nostalgia for simpler times. Romance, it has been said, is always where you’ve been, not where you are.

[1] Virginia A. Sandless, “History of Dickeyville,” letter transcribed from oral history of Miss Annie Dalton, Mrs. George Neal, and Mrs. Elsie Zimmerman, 1960, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland.

[2] J. Thomas Scharf, History of Baltimore City & County, (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 1881), 828.

[3] Isabel Davidson, Real Stories from Baltimore County History (Baltimore, Maryland: Warwick & York, Inc., 1917), 182.

[4] Neal A. Brooks & Eric G. Rockel, A History of Baltimore County (Towson, Maryland: Friends of the Towson Library, Inc.), 197.

[5] Virginia A. Sandless.

[6] Virginia A. Sandless.

[7] “Dickey Woolen Mills Oldest, Largest in State,” Ellicott City Times, Ellicott City, Maryland, 17 Mar 1941.

[8] William Stump, “Jesse Lazear,” The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore, Maryland, 19 Jun 1949.

[9] Neal A. Brooks & Eric G. Rockel, 200.

[10] Randi Henderson, “Dickeyville: A Story of the Past and a Story of the Present, Too,” The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore, Maryland, 30 Nov 1977.

[11] “W. J. Dickey & Sons – 125 Years of Textile Leadership,” Baltimore Magazine, Jun 1963.

[12] Woodlawn History Committee, Woodlawn: Franklintown & Hebbville (Baltimore, Maryland: Woodlawn Recreation and Parks Council, 1977), 19.