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Confronting History: Exploring the Mills of Ilchester, Maryland

AS THE SUN reached its highest peak on a beautiful spring day, my wife, Cat, and I drove up MD-295 N toward Ellicott City, Maryland.  The city itself was not our destination, but what rests in its shadow — the small hidden town of Ilchester.  After many years of exploring the various areas in and outside Washington, DC, my imagination inevitably wanted to expand into other areas.  The desire to go outside my comfort zone enticed me.  With my iPhone fully charged and my hat brim low, we were prepared to venture into the neglected buildings that sat on the outskirts of town — an eyesore for many, but for me, an irresistible chance to confront and photograph the past in its current state.

“The past is not dead, it is not even past yet.” - Faulkner

Although the purpose and function of a building may end, the place itself does not die.  It may wither, decay, and rot, but it lives on in a manner that allows you to remember it in a different light.  There are no wasted grounds.  Each space has its own authentic feel that leads to an emotionally charged discovery.  Our guide in Ilchester was a kindred spirit.  Kevin led us to the entrance of the former Thistle Mill.  After inspecting the various boarded up doors and windows, we had to figure out the proper entry point.  I could feel the adrenaline just by standing on the grounds of the property.  “No Trespassing” signs were noticeable amidst the graffiti that flooded the walls.

ALEXANDER FRIDGE and William Morris originally purchased in 1823 the land that would one day become the site of the Thistle Mill.  The two Baltimore businessmen bought the property from the Ellicott family, hoping to capitalize on the Industrial Revolution that had made nearby Baltimore such a significant city during the 19th century. Fridge and Morris turned the site into a mill that wove cotton fabric, seeking to find a profitable textile to provide the nearby booming cities.  By 1928, the facility, which had been sold to another company, contributed to the thriving automobile industry, manufacturing fabric for automobile tires.  At its peak, the small community maintained thirty to forty houses with as many as five hundred workers [and their families].

And it stood.  Against time, against numerous floods, against a shifting and out-sourcing economy, the mill and its workers fought to maintain relevance.  It did so until a fire ravaged the property.  More than 100 firefighters from across the region were called on to tackle this blistering force.  The first emergency call came at 8:40 p.m.  Minutes before the call, the propane tanks blew and the exclamation point to a mill that functioned for more than a century arrived.  There were no fire hydrants on the property, and the roads were very narrow, with sharp turns and slight hills, with the Patapsco River conquering the opposite side.  Finally, by 2003, after a history of flooding, fires, and economic pressure, the mill was left for dead.  Or so it seemed.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost

“WATCH OUT FOR THE POISON IVY,” Cat whispered as I pushed my way through the untamed brush to the side of the “No Trespassing” sign.  She pointed out the three-leaved, glossy plants that stood as sentries along the outskirts of the structure.  By the time I made it down the broken and cracked steps, flooded by shrubs and low-hanging tree branches overhead, I noticed that Cat and Kevin had found an easier route.  As we regrouped, I observed the entrance, which was covered in graffiti.  A portion of the wall had crumbled, creating a new passage into the facility.  It was hard to imagine that this once great hall had at some point been filled with the voices of five hundred men and the sights and smells that complement a fully functioning factory.  The concrete flooring had given way to fresh shoots of grass that crept through its cracks, and littering the ground were shards of sparkling glass that had, I’m sure, come from carousers who drank many a night away.  There was a haunting memory everywhere.

Experiencing this architecture as it wanes into the past, as nature reclaims it, resonated with each of us an on a physical level. A buzz of adrenaline and adventure overshadowed our apprehension as we explored each vacant room; there were vast holes in the ground where the floors had collapsed, falling pieces of the ceiling and razor sharp metal that threatened us from above, and a myriad of dark corners from which any lurker or wild animal could surprise us.  But any trepidation we might have felt was compartmentalized as we attempted to document with our iPhones every twist and turn of the warehouse.  Kevin captured the subtleties of broken windows and the shadows and shapes created by the debris, and Cat snapped away at little plants that grew in the most inhospitable nooks and crannies.  Meanwhile I searched for structure amidst the chaos wrought by time.  Exploration of this type requires a significant amount of effort — a deep commitment to engage rooms and spaces that you cannot ignore or look away from.  These locations have no reason to lie or mislead.

There is no agenda.  They just are, rotting and decaying.

Are we more interested in the aesthetics?  The photograph?  Or is it the sense of history one feels while standing inside of the location?  For me it proved to be all of the above.  As we left hours later, I quickly unlocked my iPhone and opened my camera roll, with my battery on its last legs, and began to see what I saw, to remember although it was still fresh in my mind.  I could see the possible edits and the possible crops.  I thought the photos could potentially be good, but they could not supersede the experience.

•  Kevin and his shots of Ilchester, Maryland can be found on EyeEm (at) kevmoore and Instagram (at) onekevmoore.
• Cat and her shots of Ilchester, Maryland can be found on Instagram (at) caluja.
• John and his shots of Ilchester, Maryland can be found on EyeEm (at) lujan and Instagram (at) jlujan.

All photos below are by John, unless otherwise noted.

From the Ashes, by Cat

Photo by Kevin, Edit by John

by Kevin
By Kevin
By Kevin

 

12 Comments

  1. Great article & photos John ! Interesting place..

    • Appreciate that!

  2. Great stuff

    • Thanks, Gareth. Appreciate that my friend.

  3. Beautifully written, John. And the photos are amazing, of course!

    • Thank ya! :)

  4. Love a good road story; even better when I’m in it! :) Your narrative exploration delved deep into the atmosphere and character of this spot. It is very purposeful to navigate through these reminders of our past and witness their future in order to properly chronicle each story. His story. Her story. History. Thanks, bro!

    • Thank you for introducing us to this place! Hope we can follow up this adventure with another one soon.

  5. great chronicle john…i must reading again with google translate…but on my first shot it was very good. and your shots are amazing like always.
    peace bro.

    • Google translate wins! Thank you :)

  6. A very interesting article and great shots. You are pretty brave to walk through a building in such conditions (considering your description!). Was there ever any talk that the fire was deliberately set due to the waning business? Off now to visit galleries on IG to see more images!

    • I tried to find out if the fires were deliberate, but I dont know if there was conclusive evidence to say so. Thank you for checking it out!