Cromwell Valley Park near Towson, MD, has always seemed a place apart, a throwback to the days when this corner of Baltimore County was an agricultural valley. After passing the Big Screen Store, a beltway intersection and a busy high school, visitors are presented with 460 acres of trails, meadows and the Mine Bank Run stream valley.
This tucked-away getaway is popular with hawk- watchers and geocachers. Now, a piece of local heritage is providing another reason to visit: three newly restored lime kilns, located along a popular walkway that leads to a meadow filled with sycamore trees and deer. Stonemasons and brickworkers have repointed the brick and restored the beautiful domed arches and ironwork.
Kilns first appeared here in the late 1700s, when the valley became the heart of a population explosion that would soon hit the county. It provided a great supply of marble from a crystalline rock formation called the Loch Raven schist. Cockeysville marble, named for a nearby town, undergirds both the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, and Baltimore’s smaller version of it.
Cook that marble, and it turns into lime — useful in replenishing agricultural soil, making building materials or serving as mortar for bricks. In 1785, the Risteau family had the first lime kiln on the Cromwell Valley property. In 1883, the Jenifer family built a second kiln and, 10 years later, the Shanklin family added a third one. In those days, the area was known as “lime kiln valley.”
By 1908, the kilns at Cromwell Valley had fallen out of regular use as modern methods of manufacturing lime took over. The grandson of the last owner remembers going to the kiln with his uncle in 1937, when the family still owned the land, to pick up the last load of lime.
The lime kilns took a toll on the surroundings. Hills were denuded. Trees died. It was an age of exploitation, said park director Kirk Dreier, when industrialists kept drawing from a “bank that was already bankrupt.”
In time, the trees returned and, beginning in 1993, funds from the state’s Program Open Space helped the county acquire the farm and forest parcels for a park.
For years, the crumbling Cromwell kilns were a curiosity to hikers and dog walkers. Like a ruined castle, their brown bricks seemed etched into an overgrown hillside, with much of the kilns buried underground. No signs explained the kilns or warned children to stay off the unstable structures.
The state of disrepair bothered Jim Kelly, a retired benefits manager who had become active on the park council. In 2005, after visiting the Furnace Town Living Heritage Village, which preserves and interprets the Nassawango Iron Furnace in Worcester County, MD, Kelly wanted to restore the three kilns.
“When we started, we figured we had about 10 years before they crumbled. If I didn’t do it, nobody would do it, and those kilns would disappear,” Kelly said.
He had no idea it would take a decade and cost approximately $700,000. The France-Merrick Foundation and Maryland legislature donated most of the funds. Kelly and the council raised the balance from members and friends.
Kelly estimated that he’s spent nearly 20 hours a week on the project since it began. He is working with Dreier to design an interpretive sign and plans to give guided talks about the kilns’ history. Dreier and Kelly also want to restore the house adjoining the kilns, where the operators lived.
For the 79-year-old Kelly, it was a heavy lift, but one that’s almost over.
“I’m going to be really delighted when we’re done,” said Wayne Skinner, a former county councilman who is also on the park council and Kelly’s friend. “But I think his wife is going to be really, really delighted.”
For information about visiting Cromwell Valley Park, go to cromwellvalleypark.org or call 410-887-2503. To see the kilns, park at the Willow Grove Nature Center and walk the Lime Kiln Trail for about a third of a mile.