Soldiers Delight Barrens: Preservation of a Rare Ecosystem

Serpentine Grassland
Serpentine grassland
The uniform, monotonous wastes of the Earth — the deserts, the Arctic plains, great swamps, and marshes — have a power to cast a spell on the human soul. So it must have been with the Barrens. The spirit which haunts it endows it with more than mere beauty... The spirit of the waste is sinister, yet wistful; it is morose yet induces to melancholy. It is, perhaps, a phase of the Divine, yet it does not invite to worship.

—William Marye


On first sight it seems like a very strange place. The soil, lacking in nutrients and moisture, produces gnarled and stunted Post and Blackjack Oaks and a profusion of Virginia Pines and Greenbrier. Rocks from the Earth's deep crust and upper mantle are exposed at the surface, angled in every direction. Blackrat and Hognose snakes slither through the Bluestem and Indian grasses of the prairie savannah. Fringed Gentians, Birds-foot Violets, Blazing Stars, Sandplain Gerardias, and Fameflowers add bright purple and pink hues to the otherwise stark landscape. Streams with pools of copper colored water lie undisturbed except for the dace darting madly along the bottoms. One writer described it as a "2,000 acre hunk of the American West dropped into Maryland" (Mondell). This is Soldiers Delight, the largest and most diverse of the disappearing serpentine barrens on the East Coast and home for over 39 rare, threatened and endangered species. Soldiers Delight is a wild land, a haven for hikers, nature lovers, geologists, kite-flyers, and children, all of whom are fascinated by its distinctiveness. Nearly a century ago, it was described as "a place of all others to catch a boy's fancy—for these stunted black oaks and pea-stick sassafrases were the primeval forest. This land had never been cultivated" (Spencer 141).

Soldiers Delight stands in the midst of a high-density growth area in suburban Baltimore. By the 1960s there was a real sense of urgency to save this rare ecosystem because of rapid commercial and residential development, accompanied by the building of a new interstate highway nearby. For over three decades, local citizens embarked on a crusade to get the area in the State Master Plan, to purchase parcels of land, and to build an educational center on the premises. Christopher Ludwig of the Maryland Natural Heritage Program calls Soldiers Delight "one of the most successful conservation stories in the state" (qtd. in Brandlon 22). Why was it preserved when so much open space in the region vanished? This is an account of how local residents combined their specialized talents, the public character of this land, and Soldiers Delight's own peculiarities (natural and historical) to achieve the preservation of this rare ecosystem.

From Fire-Hunting to Mining

In 1995 Maryland developed a Master Plan for Soldiers Delight that involved restoration of the serpentine grasslands to their pre-colonial status. Controlled burnings, tree cutting and girdling, and clearing the land of invasive species have helped in the process of returning a part of the area to its original condition. By implementing this program, the state was following in the footsteps of the Native Americans, who kept large areas of Pennsylvania and Maryland as "barrens" through their land clearing and fire-hunting, methods that they employed for at least 10,000 years. In the 17th century the cleared barrens stretched from York, Pennsylvania down into parts of Harford, Baltimore, and Carroll counties (Marye, "Barrens," 130). The smoke from these fires could occasionally be seen from ships coming into ports along the Atlantic coast. A number of Native American tribes hunted in the area, but the primary ones were the Susquehannocks and the Piscataway, whose members traveled through the Patapsco Barrens (location of Soldiers Delight) and flushed out wild game with enormous fires sometimes miles in diameter.

Arrival of the European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries displaced and decimated the Native Americans in Maryland and effectively stopped the large-scale fire hunting. Patents were issued to colonists for land parcels in what was known originally as Soldiers Delight Hundred, an extensive area from Elkridge Landing on the Patapsco River to the Pennsylvania border (Place Names 54). In 1750, Baltimore County justices divided this administrative unit into three parts, one of which was known as Lower Soldiers Delight Hundred (Melville). According to Ross Kimmel, State Historian for the Maryland Forest, Park, and Wildlife Service, the name "Soldiers Delight" was given to the current acreage sometime during this period. In 1750, James Moore and his son had a survey performed on an unoccupied tract of 53 acres in what is now northwestern Baltimore County. In the following year they conveyed 33 acres under the Soldiers Delight name to Nicholas Ruxton Gay. Three years later Gay had a contiguous tract of 2,700 acres surveyed under this designation and transferred the title to Thomas Harrison (Kimmel). Exactly why it came to be called "Soldiers Delight" remains a mystery and a subject for endless speculation. The "Soldiers" may be a reference to rangers from nearby Fort Garrison, who hunted and patrolled in the area in the service of the King of England (Scharf 866). It is likely that they passed over the barrens on their way to Patapsco Falls (Marye, "Garrison," 210).

In the colonial era, Soldiers Delight was used at times as a public place and in fact it was the site of the first hanging and gibbeting in Maryland. In 1751 a twenty-year old colonist named John Berry, who lived nearby on a farm at the corner of Delight and Cherry Hill Roads, was found guilty of the gruesome axe murder of his stepmother and the attempted murder of his stepfather as they lay abed. He and two young indentured servant girls were accused of this notorious crime, tried at Joppatown, and sentenced to death. Available evidence indicated that he was probably motivated by money and the desire to get title to the land, while the two servants had been promised their freedom in return for their collaboration (Maryland Gazette). The females were executed at the county seat, but the judge ordered that John Berry be hung from the highest point in the area, as a lesson to the public of his infamy. Soldiers Delight, which has several hills at 600 feet or more above sea level, was chosen for the site of the scaffold, which was erected on what hereafter would be called "Berry's Hill" (Wennerstrom 41). With the stringent laws of England still in force, the authorities dictated that he be hung in chains until dismembered by decay and vultures ("Soldiers Delight" 14-15). Residents of the area talked about his howls at night as the wolves snapped at his feet. His skull, according to local legend, hung there for years as a reminder of the costs of such a heinous crime (Herrera 8).

The public character of parts of Soldiers Delight continued in the late colonial and early national periods, when farmers found its grasslands ideal as a commons for their stock. Its value as rangeland was recognized as early as 1746 when it was advertised in the newspapers as grazing land (Tyndall, "Serpentine," 4). This use of the area as pasture continued for nearly two hundred years and resulted in the maintenance of meadows and open fields, achieving similar results to the fire-burning previously practiced by the Native Americans.

Because its nutrient poor soil and rock outcrops made it unsuitable for farming and for digging wells, the barrens had relatively few homesteads. In addition, an address in the barrens was not considered prestigious, and it was routine for area residents to claim that they lived "just on the edge" of Soldiers Delight, but not in it. This rocky and unproductive land came to be occupied by poor whites, who envied their more prosperous neighbors on the large plantations in the nearby fertile and lush Greenspring and Worthington Valleys. The contrast between the two areas was even more apparent after the state authorized the building in 1803 of a road from "Reister's-town turnpike [just beyond which were the plantations] and Old Soldier's Delight Road" (Proceedings of the Assembly). Despite the transportation connection, Spencer commented that the people who lived in and around the barrens were "the most primitive people within 50 miles of Baltimore" (154).

While the public used this land for both hunting and grazing, in the 19th century the principal activity occurring in what is now the Natural Environment Area was mining. Soldiers Delight was the site of a significant chromium mining district in the United States. Chromite ore, used in the manufacturing of chemicals, paints, and dyes, was first discovered in this country in the serpentine area of Bare Hills in Baltimore County by 1810. A Baltimore Quaker chemist, geologist, abolitionist, and businessman, named Isaac Tyson, Jr., developed the Bare Hills mines and by 1825 extended his mining activities to Soldiers Delight (Johnsson 72). Tyson had the "superior acumen" to recognize "that the chromite always occurs in the serpentine and was able to follow this rock by the barren areas to which it gives rise" (Maryland Geological Survey 285). He established the Baltimore Chrome Works in 1845, and had nearly all ore in Maryland and southeastern Pennsylvania shipped to Baltimore, providing him with a virtual monopoly on the world chrome market until the middle of the century, when significant deposits were discovered in Asia Minor (Maryland Geological Survey I, 1897).

Incorporated as the Tyson Mining Company, the operation involved placer and underground mining. The Weir (previously Ware), Choate, and Harris mines were the largest of the underground operations. This type of mining in the nineteenth century was very "labor-intensive, literally hammer and moil. Miners used mattocks, picks, shovels and sledge hammers to break and remove ore and waste rock" (Johnsson). Black powder detonations were used to break up the rocks. Despite the construction of air shafts, the air in the mine shafts and tunnels was foul and the work was hazardous to the health of all of those involved. Irish, German, and Polish immigrants were hired to work the mines and they boarded with local residents or were housed in mining company accommodations along Ward's Chapel Road. Some miners lived in small huts scattered throughout the area. One cabin, used as a mine assay office, was fashioned from American chestnut and dates to 1848. It remained on site until it was burned by arsonists in 1985 ("Arson Claims"). A chrome mill was built nearby by the Tyson Mining Company and operated by the Triplett family. The chromite was hauled by wagons (reinforced to stand the weight of the ore) to Owings Mills to be transported by turnpike and later by railroad to distant smelters (Forbes 6-12). According to the locals, an incident occurred during the Civil War when a driver of a wagonload of chromite was arrested in Baltimore because the military believed it to be gunpowder that was in the process of being smuggled to the Confederates. In an effort to prove their point, the authorities actually tried many times to ignite the material until, with red faces before the expectant crowd, they were forced to admit their mistake ("Soldiers Delight" 13).

When Isaac Tyson passed away in 1861, his sons, Jesse and James, continued his mining operations during and after the Civil War. One hundred and thirty-five years after Isaac's death, he was selected for membership in the National Mining Hall of Fame in Leadville, Colorado. Mine historian Johnny Johnsson and Ranger Fraser Bishop, the Soldiers Delight sponsors of his candidacy, toasted this pioneer at the induction banquet in Las Vegas in 1996. Tyson was honored for founding the American chromium industry and for his work in copper mining in Maryland and elsewhere. One of the few Easterners to be selected by the Mining Hall of Fame, he was designated as a "Renaissance man of the early United States' mineral and chemical industries" (historic plaque).

Although placer mining continued in Soldiers Delight in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most of the other operations had shut down by 1880. When Jesse Tyson died in 1906, several parcels of the family land were sold off. Frederick A. Dolfield, a prominent local businessman and President of Canton National Bank, noted: "Mr. Sherwood [Watson E.] and myself [sic] bought Soldiers Delight because it adjoined farms we owned and we wanted to keep our water pure." When World War I started, Dolfield was notified by the US Geological Survey that chrome was in short supply because of the sinking of the transport ships by submarines and was needed for the war effort, so he decided to reopen the Choate Mine. A contract was signed with Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation for $100,000 worth of medium grade chrome; this was followed by other contracts and plans for shipping to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The war ended around the time the mine became fully operational. John H. Buxton, then foreman for the mine, bemoaned the loss of business after all the money and extensive preparations involved in the reopening. "We had a mine. We had a lot of equipment. We had lots of ore. Nobody wanted any of the mine, equipment, or the ore" (Buxton).

An Aura of Notoriety

Two years prior to World War I, Dolfield, along with Sherwood and several other friends, decided to build a hunting lodge in Soldiers Delight. This small stone dwelling, known as Red Dog Lodge, is one of the few remaining structures in what is now the Natural Environment Area. Three adjacent buildings � a carriage house (garage), a "maternity house" (for a pregnant foreman's wife during W.W.I), and an outhouse � were also constructed, although all three outbuildings were destroyed by vandals in the 1950s (Hilbine). In the early 20th century, hunters from Baltimore City and elsewhere arrived by train to Garrison Station and were transported by carriage and later automobile to Red Dog Lodge for expeditions in search of rabbits and quail, which abounded in the barrens. The Lodge had a reputation among the locals as a "gentlemen's club" and a place of wild parties (Bishop). At a later date, the fox hunters established their own club on the opposite side of Deer Park Road near the site of the Choate Mine. They too found the grasslands surrounded by dwarf trees and bushes ideal for pursuit of their quarry.

The isolation of the Soldiers Delight, so coveted by the small game and fox hunters, drew individuals engaged in illegal and unsavory activities. In a barn near the site of the log cabin, raucous cock fights attracted gamblers from the surrounding countryside. Area residents occasionally came upon federal agents in search of bootleggers, who reputably operated numerous stills along the streams of Soldiers Delight during the early years of the Depression. Local families warned their children to stay out of this dangerous area (Bidinger). Eventually as Deer Park Road running through the barrens was paved in the 1930s, the increased access to the area led to a decline in this rogue and outlawed activity.

Throughout the 20th century Soldiers Delight continued its multi-purpose uses for the public. Area residents commonly used it as a dumping site for their garbage, including large objects like appliances and vehicles. The amounts of trash were staggering. Ranger Fraser Bishop, when he first arrived in 1984, was overseeing the collection of 16-18 dump truck loads a month. Refuse filled the old mine pits, clogged the air shafts, littered the streams, and disfigured the landscape adjacent to the roadways. Garbage and bulky items totally blocked the driveway to Red Dog Lodge and had to be removed at great expense and effort. Broken down cars of every make, model, and color, were dumped in convenient locations. Other clunkers were brought over to the barrens, driven recklessly until they gave up their ghosts, and then abandoned on the spot; their skeletons can be found today bleaching in the sun and scattered over the landscape (Bishop). Everything imaginable has been found in Soldiers Delight, from Native American artifacts to a silver chalice, engraved "Ward's Chapel 1878," which was stolen from a nearby congregation.

The Baltimore Ramblers, a motorcycle club that owned about 25 acres of land in the future park, also contributed to degradation of the landscape by using Soldiers Delight's hills and ravines for racing their vehicles. They also partied in and around an old abandoned street car that sat on their property (Johnsson, interview). The Ramblers shared the area with dirt bikers, horseback riders, and Boy Scouts; the latter group had a camp and also owned some land in what is now the Natural Environment Area.

Paradoxically, while the barrens may appear to be a rugged and somewhat harsh environment, its fragile soil and flora communities are easily destroyed. The future Natural Environment Area was threatened by the activities of both the motorcyclists and the horseback riders. The horses disrupted the thin layer of topsoil, trampled on the wildflowers, and brought in the seeds of invasive species in their manure (Lewis). The bikers used much of the area, not just their own acreage, causing what conservationists viewed as irreparable harm. The Ramblers Motorcycle Club President, William Clagett, argued that neighborhood boys who were not club members were responsible for much of the soil damage, vandalizing, and dumping in the area. He characterized these individuals as "scum on motorcycles," adorned with iron crosses and swastikas, and prone to curse anyone who challenged their right to be there (Clagett). Although both Rangers Tracy and Bishop defended the Ramblers from charges of wanton abuse of the land, the conservationists remained opposed to the bikers' activities. The state eventually threatened to use its power of eminent domain against the motorcycle club in an attempt to force its members off the land (Triplett), an effort which culminated in 1979 when the Ramblers reluctantly sold their acreage to the government.

From Trash Dump To Nature Preserve

It was not the motorcyclists or trash dumpers who would determine the future of Soldiers Delight. Rather, it was local residents who appreciated the site for the solitude of its trails and open spaces and the unconventional beauty of the landscape. Helen Tovell Reese, who lived on nearby Cherry Hill Road, was typical of this group. Helen first discovered the charms of Soldiers Delight while on an unexpected vacation from Goucher College, which was temporarily shut down due to the worldwide flu pandemic at the end of W.W.I. Her subsequent explorations were shared with her extended family, including her niece, Jean Reese Worthley, who later became one of the key figures in the fight to save the area from development. As a young girl in the 1930s, Jean spent her Sundays on horseback with her family riding from their farm in Owings Mills, across Reisterstown Road, over to the barrens. She remembers their routine very fondly:

[We] had these wonderful Sunday morning breakfasts along the stream where the fringed gentians used to grow in abundance... Mother would break eggs into a jar, put them in her saddle bags, so that by the time we got there they'd be well-scrambled. And a delicacy in those days was fresh herring roe that you could get in little cans, so we had scrambled eggs and fresh herring roe and strawberry jam and biscuits. We tied our horses to trees and built a fire right there along the stream, so that is how I became acquainted with Soldiers Delight. (Worthley)

When she later married, Jean continued this tradition with her children and her husband, Elmer, a University of Maryland botanist whose special interest in lichens, mosses, and grasses drew him to Soldiers Delight.

The Worthleys found that their interests in nature were shared by their friends William and Frances Fastie. The two couples created an informal natural history club in the 1950s, making frequent trips to Soldiers Delight to study the distinctive flora and to collect minerals. William Fastie, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University, was an active member of the Owings Mills Recreation Council, an organization that the two couples used to spearhead the original movement to set aside the barrens as a preserve. As Jean Worthley noted, "It all started with here's this great natural area, it's very unusual, and it ought to be saved instead of being a no man's land with all these things going on � some legal and some illegal." This would allow those who camped, caught minnows, explored caves, and admired the wildflowers, to do so without the fear of trespassing.

By this time in the late 1950s it was clear that Owings Mills, already growing rapidly in the postwar suburbanization of Baltimore, was slated for even more extensive development by the County. The building of the Tollgate housing complex on the very edge of Soldiers Delight created the impetus to act quickly if the area was going to be preserved. In 1959 the Owings Mills Recreation Council formed the Citizens' Committee for Soldiers Delight Park, led by the Fasties, and voted unanimously to approach Baltimore County to get action on this matter. Their reasoning was cogent:

The Soldiers Delight land is probably the largest tract of land suitable for park purposes within a 50 mile radius of Baltimore. Its unique features... its central location in the Northwestern area, its unsuitability for other uses and consequent low assessment value, make it appear to be an ideal site for the one large park proposed for the Northwestern area. (Owings Mills Recreation Council)

The County's Planning and Zoning Committee received a staff report in 1963 recommending immediate acquisition, estimating that over 2,000 acres could be acquired for just $500,000 to $900,000 (Smith). However, when given the opportunity to purchase 500 acres in 1967, the county balked, citing expense as the major reason. But a more fundamental question was involved: Was conservation part of the parks and recreation function for local government? Many county officials did not believe so. As Frances Fastie noted: "Conservation doesn't count. Wilderness areas have no meaning. If they buy land, they feel they have to cover it with tennis courts, golf courses, and swimming pools" (qtd. in Wilkes). Baltimore County eventually came to support the park, ultimately because of the dogged persistence of the proponents who refused to take "no" for an answer.

There were a number of additional obstacles to the acquisition of the land. Much of the ownership of the land was unknown and "large tracts appear as blanks on the county's assessment books" (Smith). Although there were only about 17 homes within the tentative boundaries of the park, there were altogether about 70 separate parcels of land averaging about 25 acres in size (Baltimore County). In addition to questions about ownership, the land itself was steadily rising in value as housing developments multiplied nearby. The appeal of the barrens was not universal to area residents, with some people regarding the acquisition to be a waste of taxpayers' dollars. Margaret and Arthur Tinkler in a letter to the Baltimore Sun expressed the typical blunt opposition. "This ugly barren land of sedge, blackjack oak, scrub pine and bull briars (sometimes known as 'Dead Man's Alley') can be used to much better advantage by ...keeping the land in individual hands where it belongs" (Tinklers). The very peculiarity of the land, while an attraction to some, was not appealing to others. Hubert Snyder, director of Baltimore County Department of Parks and Recreation, glibly noted: "Certainly the thin topsoil would make it difficult, if not impossible, to plant grass for golf courses" (qtd. in Henry).

While the obstacles against conservation were formidable, the talent and persistence of the Citizens' Committee for Soldiers Delight Park were unmatched by their opposition parties. The Worthleys, Fasties and others had the scientific expertise to testify to the proposed park's historical, geological, and ecological value. Upon the recommendation of the CPHA (Citizens Planning and Housing Association), they were joined by Florence Rogers, a Pikesville resident and long-time community activist known for her impressive political and fund raising skills. Rogers, who had never previously visited Soldiers Delight, joined Dr. James Poultney, a classics professor at Johns Hopkins University, in raising both money and consciousness in favor of the park through their involvement with Soldiers Delight Conservation Incorporated (SDCI), a new group formed in 1965.

SDCI sought and received numerous endorsements for its proposed park from business, civic, environmental, and educational organizations. The Natural Area Council, a private consulting firm specializing in land preservation, was hired to assess the value of the site. They noted in their report that there are very few areas in the world with extensive outcrops of serpentine rock, producing unique flora and the prairie grasslands more typical of the West than of the Eastern forests. The author of the report concluded: "This site stands as high in my priority as any I know in the Eastern United States worthy of preservation" (Dowling). The Maryland Academy of Sciences appointed a team of biologists, ecologists, and geologists to investigate Soldiers Delight and they independently validated the conclusions of the consulting firm. They also noted:

There are open fields, pine forests, rocky gorges, streams, swamps, and rolling meadows, each with its own natural flora and fauna, included in the tract. They furnish an unusual number of different environments near enough to each other to be useful for outdoor educational laboratories in the biological sciences. (Maryland Academy of Sciences)

The geological and ecological distinctiveness of Soldiers Delight and the use of the site for educational purposes were two of the principal arguments used successfully to promote preservation.

While there was little debate among those knowledgeable regarding the worth of Soldiers Delight for multiple uses, the competition for funding for park land acquisitions and for high priority spots on state and local master plans was fierce. Realizing this was the case, members of SDCI sought to demonstrate the seriousness of their commitment by seeking direct community support. This organization spearheaded the effort to raise funds by canvassing local supermarkets, asking shoppers to contribute $1 each to their cause, an effort which eventually culminated in the presentation of a check for $25,000 to the State of Maryland to apply to purchase of the land. The fund-raising labors of SDCI were accompanied by extensive efforts to elevate public knowledge of the potential park through luncheons, workshops, meetings, hikes, dedications (e.g., historic marker), and commemorations such as Park Day.

Florence Rogers, the chair of SDCI, accompanied her efforts to inspire the public with an extensive one-woman lobbying campaign, arousing the awareness of public officials concerning her special project. In voluminous correspondence with public officials, conservation associations, philanthropists, business and civic leaders, she prodded, cajoled, and pleaded her cause. Her requests for action were shifted from local to state to national officials and back again in a seemingly endless stream of evasions and rejections based on budgetary or jurisdictional issues. In a public statement Rogers castigated public officials for their lack of "zeal, imagination," and foresight (1 Mar. 1967). She didn't understand why the urgency she and others on the committee felt was not shared by the politicians who should understand that rapid development and rising land prices in the area threatened the future of any park on the site. In a letter to Dale Anderson, Baltimore County Executive, she candidly expressed her frustration.

We of the Citizens Committee are clearly aware of the fact that you and the County Board of Recreation and Parks have not included one cent for Soldiers Delight in the next five years. We would like to know how Oregon Ridge [another proposed park] can get funds and our priority doesn't rate or exist? We all counted on you! (1 Mar. 1968)

Three months after the above letter was written Rogers changed her tone upon learning that the County had appropriated $75,000 for 1969 for the conservation of Soldiers Delight.

The competition on the state level for resources was equally fierce. In the Maryland General Assembly, Florence Rogers worked through Delegate Richard Rynd (Democrat of Baltimore County), a very wise choice, because of his cordial relationship with Governor Spiro Agnew (1967-1969) and close personal friendship with Governor Marvin Mandel (1969-1977). His access to the Chief Executive's office plus his seat on the House Appropriations Committee enabled him to sponsor successful legislation providing funds for Soldiers Delight. Rynd, who had never visited the Natural Environment Area before he was initially contacted by SDCI, became an ardent champion for the cause of its preservation through the constant encouragement of Rogers, who phoned him nearly every day while the General Assembly was in session (Rynd). The state initially appropriated $175,000 with the federal government (HUD grant) providing $284,000 for the first purchases of land (Smyth).

It is abundantly clear that Florence Rogers' expertise in fund-raising, lobbying, publicizing, and crusading for her "SPECIAL project" (as she designated it) was essential to the preservation of Soldiers Delight. Her political acumen, single-mindedness, and persistence were unmatched among those involved in this process. She brought a principled intensity to this crusade, because in her mind this was an effort by sincere and dedicated citizens to overcome the special interests, "horse play," "hanky panky," and other forms of maneuvering inherent in the political process (Letter 17 Apr.1967). Despite the numerous setbacks, it never occurred to Rogers to consider the possibility of postponing or failing in this grassroots campaign. Not one to minimize her own contributions, she later very proudly and justifiably noted: "It seems safe to say that without Mrs. Rogers Soldiers Delight would never have become a park and might well have been ruined by development" ("Political History").

Land acquisition began in 1970 with the purchase of the Dolfield Estate of 575 acres for $175,000, and continued into the 1990s with the use of Project Open Space funds and parcels donated to the state by the Nature Conservancy (Soldiers Delight Conservation Inc.). The Park officially opened in 1975 with a public ceremony and the fanfare provided by musicians and politicians. However, aside from funding some of the land purchases, the state devoted little attention to its newly created preserve. Chronically short on staff and resources, the Natural Environment Area relied heavily upon volunteers and upon borrowed equipment to function. The first two rangers, E. Vernon Tracy (1971-1984) and Fraser Bishop (1984-1996), were overwhelmed with law enforcement, administrative duties, maintenance of land and existing buildings, and collecting and hauling items to the landfill.

Vern Tracy, in addition to his routine duties, managed to vandal-proof Red Dog Lodge and also worked to restore the mid-19th century American chestnut log cabin that was on the site until 1985. Fraser Bishop, his successor, stepped up enforcement of laws banning hunting, vandalizing, and dumping by investigating, tracing, confronting, and prosecuting those involved. He also was instrumental in getting the general public and Maryland's Natural Heritage Program interested in the rare and endangered species found in the area. Both rangers believed that a good relationship with the surrounding community was critical to their success at Soldiers Delight. Bishop, in particular, was able to defuse potential problems with neighbors because of his friendliness and accessibility. Surprisingly, there was very little opposition to the state's controlled burning program because Fraser explained the rationale to those concerned. In another incident involving the public living around Soldiers Delight, a farmer dumped enormous quantities of chicken manure, resulting in the appearance of millions of flies. "Some of the houses on Ward's Chapel Road were black and it looked like they had wall-to-wall carpeting on the side of the house with all the flies from the manure. And people got very hostile and threatened to sue the state and all kinds of stuff" (Bishop). The situation was eventually resolved without massive chemical extermination and without lawsuits, when Fraser did research and assured the perturbed neighbors that the pests would be gone on their own within two weeks.

The rangers were also responsible for recreational and educational programs. In a few cases massive numbers of visitors descended upon a park without a visitor center or adequate parking to handle the crowds. In February of 1975, over 415 Boy Scouts, leaders, and parents participated in a Klondike Derby. In the following month an orienteering hike, advertised in the Sun and sponsored by a number of groups, drew an incredible 584 people to a muddy scene of wall to wall cars and people (Tracy). Until recently, 5th grade children from Baltimore County Public schools came to Soldiers Delight for annual outdoor educational programs, organized by Susan Leslie, and featuring such subjects as geology, wildflowers, and the Native Americans from this area (Durkee). In addition, students from higher educational institutions such as Johns Hopkins, Western Maryland College (now McDaniel), and the University of Maryland gathered here for field trips and ecology studies. A scientist interested in serpentine barrens even traveled from as far away as Australia to tour this distinctive landscape.

In the 1980s the focus of Soldiers Delight Conservation Inc. was on the effort to get a multi-purpose center that would serve the public and the Department of Natural Resources. Florence Rogers, who spearheaded this effort, was told at a meeting with state officials that neither Patapsco nor Sandy Point State Parks had a Visitor Center, so Soldiers Delight was certainly not going to get one until after those parks did. She took this as a challenge (Bishop) and prevailed over the nay-sayers. The first funds for the Soldiers Delight facility were appropriated in 1986 and ground-breaking began in 1990. When the million dollar Visitor Center was dedicated in 1991, Rogers sat in front among the state's political heavyweights who attended the ceremony. An astute observer noted: "She smiled sweetly as one by one they praised her for constantly reminding them of the Soldiers Delight project. Some of their comments, of course, were tongue-in-cheek as their praises sounded like prickly barbs. But Florence didn't seem to care. She had won" (Yengich).

Senate President Melvin Steinberg underscored the importance of citizen involvement in this effort: "We decided to give Soldiers Delight Conservation the funding for the center because (group members) are sincere individuals � all volunteers � dedicated to saving the environment and one of Maryland's most unique natural areas" (qtd. in Blackburn). Soldiers Delight, now administered as part of Patapsco State Park, is a natural environment area that has been designated by Maryland as "wild land," which is the highest protective category for state property.

After the construction and opening of the Visitor Center, the principal initiative in the NEA has been an intensive, volunteer-driven effort in serpentine restoration. Aerial photographs taken during the 20th century revealed the steady encroachment of Virginia Pines from the 1930s on due to the decline of grazing and fire in the area. As the forest replaced the serpentine grasslands, ecologist Wayne Tyndall warned of the continuing disappearance in Maryland of a unique ecosystem. "Before European settlement, this community comprised over 100,000 acres in Maryland and Pennsylvania alone. Today, less than 1,000 acres remain and 80% of this occurs in Soldiers Delight" (Tyndall, "Restoration," 1). As the new millennium dawned Tyndall is coordinating efforts to restore the original ecosystem created in part by the Native Americans who hunted in the area centuries ago. Volunteers are spending their weekends cutting and killing the Virginia pines, "freeing" the oaks, preparing firebreaks, and waiting for opportunities to conduct controlled burns.

Blackened patches of forest and ragged tree stumps are unsightly to some in the public who do not fully understand the scientific and aesthetic reasons for this transitional disorder. Vigen Guroian, a Professor of Theology and Ethics and visitor to Soldiers Delight, noted: "I observe how the felling of the pines has opened these meadows and let them breathe. I wonder, however, why the stumps were left sticking up two feet high? Why weren't they cut level to the ground? My gardener's eye objects" (2). For those who argue that the serpentine restoration is creating ugliness, interfering with the process of natural succession and preventing the survival of the fittest species, the rebuttal is simple. As monoculture becomes increasingly prevalent in our man-made landscape, we must realize the necessity for complexity in ecosystems and learn to appreciate the subtle magnificence underlying this barren, stark landscape. Naturalist Jack Wennerstrom explains: "The ultimate payoff will be a restored serpentine prairie with lots of biodiversity that will be able to withstand stresses. And it will also be beautiful for the reason that all these numerous species are intertwined in a more healthy and interesting way" (interview).


The story of Soldiers Delight has come full circle from hunting-ground to wasteland to a treasure, largely through the efforts of local citizens who conceived the idea of a park, contributed seed money, and battled for decades to get the government to support the effort through legislative protection and the financing of land acquisitions and the Visitor Center. Why were they able to prevail? Certainly it is important that the group's members, all of whom resided in the area, used the barrens for recreation, observation of nature, and solitude in the midst of very high population density. The original committee and the subsequent Soldiers Delight Conservation were led by volunteers, who were also people who had specialized expertise in botany, ecology, and physical science. They saw the importance of the area for educational purposes, which is one of the major activities of the site today. Florence Rogers (now deceased), had a history of successful fund raising projects in her community before she came to this particular one and she had the connections to sell the group's vision to the bureaucracy and the politicians in Towson (county seat) and Annapolis (state capital). Most importantly, Soldiers Delight was saved because its unique qualities — colorful serpentine soil and rocks, rare and endangered grasses and flowers, and history of memorable figures like John Berry and Isaac Tyson — proved inspirational. It has been called "no man's land," but in a sense it has always had a public character, which continues to intrigue with its strangeness and its unconventional beauty. Frances Fastie, one of the pioneers in the effort to save Soldiers Delight, summed it up very succinctly: "It doesn't look like much. But to us it is the same as the Painted Desert or the Petrified Forest or the redwoods" (qtd. in Wilkes)

Today Soldiers Delight continues to face a number of challenges, mostly relating to man-made modifications in this fragile ecosystem. The highly prized Fringed Gentians, which bloomed in profusion along Chimney Branch as late as the 1960s, are now struggling to survive after decades of being plucked, photographed, and trampled upon by admirers (Durkee). If they perish, this striking azure-colored species will disappear entirely from the state of Maryland. Rare and endangered flora also face competition from invasive aliens and consumption by white-tailed deer. Bill Martin, a long-time neighbor and volunteer at Soldiers Delight, observed that when he was a fireman in the early 1960s, his friends at the station on Liberty Road had to make an annual trek to Maine to hunt deer; today they are in everybody's backyard. Perhaps the greatest challenge in the future is posed by the increasing numbers of visitors seeking refuge from the surrounding suburban sprawl. They're arriving at a time when no full-time personnel are on site to enforce regulations to protect this Natural Environment Area from vandals, bikers, ATVs, equestrians, and unleashed dogs.

Ultimately, the future of this ecological treasure will depend upon the ordinary citizens who use it and upon those volunteers who contribute to its preservation and restoration. Will enough people take the time in this hectic world to fine-tune their senses to respond to the rhythms and charms of the wild things that inhabit this exotic landscape? The future of Soldiers Delight lies in the hands of those who are fascinated by the behavior of the Toad bugs and the wily salamanders, who are awe-struck by the meadows painted golden by the Ragworts in the spring and purple by the Blazing Stars in the fall, and who are lured by the call of the Whip-poor-will at dusk.

Claudia J. Floyd

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