Although it's within the shadow of used-car lots and warehouses along U.S. 1 in southeastern Howard County, Savage is a place that still looks more like a classic, camera-ready New England village than a piece of suburban sprawl.
The town's crown jewel, the Savage Mill, was a thriving 19th-century textile factory that has been resurrected as a retail center. The Bollman Truss Bridge spanning the rocky Little Patuxent River was built elsewhere during the 1860s and moved to its current location in about 1888 when the railroad was in its heyday. The bridge is the last standing wrought-iron and cast-iron structure of its kind in the world.
Like every community in Howard County, Savage is unincorporated. Still, it has many of the trappings of a town. It boasts three parks; an old community hall; a post office; Baptist, Methodist, Fellowship and Coptic Orthodox churches; a county fire station; a Masonic Lodge dating to 1865; and barbecue at Ma's Kettle on Baltimore Street.
Connie Feeser, who moved to Savage six years ago from Baltimore, said one of the attractions is that "the pace is slower, quieter" than in the city.
There's not much construction in Savage, said Donna Vencil, a real estate agent who has been selling property in the area for 26 years. Instead, she noted, many owners of vintage Victorian homes along Baltimore Street and elsewhere are updating the houses while keeping the original look.
"Other than putting updated floors and windows in, it's the original stone," she said.
Those older houses date to 1847 and were built for mill workers. Vencil said they have been selling for $180,000 to more than $250,000.
Like other mill towns, Savage exists because of the river. In 1820, Amos Williams and his three brothers received a $20,000 loan from John Savage, a friend in Philadelphia and namesake of the community. They took the money and started Savage Manufacturing Co., a textile-weaving business on the banks of the Little Patuxent River. Power for the machines used to weave the cloth was supplied by a 30-foot waterwheel.
The lightweight, durable cotton fashioned there was used as sails for clipper ships in Baltimore Harbor, for cannon covers in the Civil War and as cots and transport bags for GIs during World Wars I and II. The fabric also served as backdrops for Hollywood's first silent movies.
From 1947 to 1950, the mill was transformed into a Christmas display village where holiday ornaments were manufactured. The Winer family bought the property in 1950, and it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. The parcel, though, sat largely dormant for decades.
In 1984, with the state and county chipping in with loan guarantees, a limited partnership unveiled a three-phase renovation of the mill into a crafts-and home-design-oriented retail center. The $12 million, 200,000- square-foot project started in the New Weave building and spread to all of the buildings in the complex.
Today, shoppers have an offbeat selection to choose from. They can snap up a restored 1950s gasoline pump for $3,000, assorted bric-a-brac from Ireland and Scotland, wood-fired French bread at Bonaparte Bakery and Nantucket fried oysters at Rams Head Tavern.
Joe Robison, a local historian and former mayor of neighboring Laurel in Prince George's County, said the two towns have long enjoyed a close bond.
"A lot of Laurel boys married Savage girls and vice versa," he said.
Riverside textile mills, he said, drove the economies in both locales.
"The mills would trade equipment if there were breakdowns," Robison said. Savage had one advantage over Laurel, he added, in that a railroad spur led directly to the mill. That made it easy to transport the finished product to the railroad in Annapolis Junction, about two miles east at the Anne Arundel County line.
In 1979, Cliff Shipe and his wife, Deborah, paid $62,000 for a 1910 Victorian house that originally stood closer to U.S. 1. "When they built Route 32 up here, they weren't sure how much property they were going to use," he said. "So they picked the house up and brought it down here."
Shipe, 51, who is retired on disability from the Postal Service, said Savage offers relative peace and stability.
"Most of the time when people move in, they stay forever, which says a little bit about the area," he said.
The rapid growth of Laurel has not reached Savage, Shipe said. "Laurel grew too quickly," he said. "It used to be 20 minutes from one end of Laurel to the other. Now, it's 20 minutes from one traffic light to the next."
The Savage Community Association, organized in 1960, studies development issues and arranges community events, including the Savage Festival, an ice cream social and a community cleanup day.
"We're not a homeowners association," said Corrine Arnold, the group's acting director. "We don't tell people what doors to put on" their homes.
The 80-year-old Carroll Baldwin Memorial Hall, built by the owner of the mill and deeded to the community, has been used for such activities as nickel movies, plays and bowling. A section of the imposing stone structure nestled in a park in the heart of town housed the local library before a permanent facility opened in 1991 on the North Laurel side of Gorman Road.
"From a social standpoint, Ma's Kettle is definitely the place to gather," Arnold said. "When there's focused activities, it's the hall."
Mary Ann Mitchell has owned Ma's Kettle for 25 years. She said her customers come from the nearby National Security Agency, from the industrial park on the east side of U.S. 1 and Laurel, three miles south.
Mitchell's son, Bobby, oversees Puttin' on the Ritz, the family's catering business in North Laurel.
Savage preserves a flavor distinct from the tonier parts of Howard County, she said.
"The planned communities don't have the history or the feel," Arnold said. "It's not a town you go through, it's a town you come to."
Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 25 minutes
Public schools: Bollman Bridge Elementary, Patuxent Valley Middle, Hammond High
Shopping: Savage Mill, Weiss Market on U.S. 1, Kings Contrivance Village Center, The Mall in Columbia, Laurel Mall
ZIP code: 20763