MHT File Photo
Oella Historic District
Ellicott City, Baltimore County
Oella is a small factory town lying at the bottom of a rocky gorge on the east bank of the Patapsco River. Oella is unified by its industrial heritage as a working community. Its structures are functional, without ornamentation. This stark quality of the built environment placed in a dramatic natural setting still densely wooded gives Oella its special character. The village consists of 19th century workers housing and one late 19th century church. The only known 20th century building is the 1919 mill. For a mile and a half north along the east bank of the Patapsco an early 19th century mill race still exists which until the 1970s provided water to the mill. Roughly 50 structures and two sites exist in Oella. A constant domestic scale is maintained by the residences. The Dickey factory may dwarf earlier buildings but could not be considered an intrusion since the focal life of the district has always been the factory. The workers’ housing in Oella consists of multiple units and sizeable family houses constructed of stone, brick, and wood. All these buildings retain the same scale and proportions. They are sited close to the road on steeply sloping lots. The stone houses and the four log buildings (Logtown Road) were constructed in the first quarter of the 19th century when the Union Manufacturing Company began operation. The Maximilian Godefroy drawing (c. 1812) shows most of the stone buildings. The brick houses date from the mid-century, while the frame buildings were constructed at the end of the century when the W.J. Dickey Company began operation. The commercial building in the district is the County Corner Grocery at the junction of Oella and Westchester Avenues. The one ecclesiastical building is the Oella Methodist Church, a simple frame building with a tower on the northeast corner. It has been converted for offices, and the top of the steeple removed. The dominant structure is the 1919 W.J. Dickey Company Mill. The brick building varies in height between three and five stories depending on the ground level. It was constructed in the ruins of the Union Manufacturing Company’s mills. The exterior is divided into bays by continuous brick pilasters from the ground to the cornice joined by an arch. In between are large, multi-paned windows to maximize the use of natural light. At the junction of two of the wings is a four-story tower with a hip roof. Extending north from the factory is the Union Manufacturing Company’s mill race which continues to Union Dam at U.S. 40. Flood gate controls remain on the race.
The Oella Historic District is a major 19th century industrial center in Maryland whose original character and setting is absolutely intact. One of the earliest and most extensive cotton factories in the United States, the Union Manufacturing Company, located in and chose the name of Oella. This company used water-powered looms as early as 1819. The W.J. Dickey Company, the successor to the Union Company, was one of the largest textile firms in the South in the early 20th century. The influx of manmade fibers tolled the death knell of the W.J. Dickey Company, a producer of woven goods. Manufacturing continued through the 20th century with a brief interruption during the Depression. The Patapsco continued to provide power to generate electricity until 1972 when hurricane Agnes flooded the power plant. The same year the Dickey Company ceased manufacturing. Industry has dominated the economy of Oella. The constant demand for newer facilities coupled with fires and floods on the Patapsco led to the frequent replacement of factories. The continuing rich history is reflected in the extant residential buildings. Oella, therefore, is a 19th century village of pristine, unpretentious, functional workers houses.