When Sewell’s Orchard joined Columbia’s other lost 14,000 acres of farmland
(Editor’s note: This article, part of a series of feature articles celebrating the 50th anniversary of Columbia, Md., originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of The Legacy, a quarterly newsletter published by the Howard County Historical Society in Ellicott City, Md. It is reprinted with their permission.)
COLUMBIA, Md. — As Jim Rouse’s Columbia rose up around them during its first decade, Ronnie Sewell, one of two brothers who ran Sewell’s Orchard — the last farm in the planned community — remembered when the liability of being “the hole of the donut” outweighed the pros of being a good local farm resource.
“If we had been on the edge of town, we would’ve looked at it in a different light,” he said.
So, in April 1979, almost a dozen years after Columbia celebrated the opening of its first village in Wilde Lake, Donald and Ronnie Sewell began to sell off parcels of their farm to a Baltimore developer.
By the mid-1980s, both the orchards and the Sewell brothers were gone to Carroll County, with street names such as Black Cherry Circle, White Peach Place, and, of course, Sewell’s Orchard Drive left behind as the only reminders of their once thriving farm. Like Irvin and George Dasher, farmers to their south who had initially sold to Rouse, the two brothers had come to realize that city folks and country folks would always clash where their boundaries collided so forcefully.
George Dasher said as much in a February 1991 article from The Howard County Times: “The city people want to see the open space, but they don’t want to be concerned with the livestock if it ever gets out,’ [Dasher] explain[ed], ‘or smell the manure, or hear the tractors.’”
Yet, neither Sewell brother decried Jim Rouse’s vision.
Donald Sewell, quoted in several articles as his farm began to sprout crops of houses rather than the fruits and vegetables that first his father, and then he and his brother had become known for, stated in a 1981 Preview of Homes article, “Any criticism of Jim Rouse should be well thought out before said.
“The planned community has been tremendous for Howard County. It’s healthy, vibrant and good economically — it’s great.”
More than 35 years later, Ronnie Sewell echoed his brother’s sentiments in a discussion about the Dashers, Seilings, and the other farmers who originally sold their land to Jim Rouse back in the mid-1960s to make the town possible.
Sewell pointed out that the farmers’ ages — most were in their late 50s or early 60s with no children interested in taking over the family farm — along with the agricultural practices of the time—Sewell’s father was one of the first to move away from general farming to agritourism thanks to his retail grocery experience in Elkridge — meant that most “were ready to be done with farming.”
In fact, Sewell said, he remembers “George Dasher saying he was ‘glad for it. Maybe I could have held out for more, but I was ready to sell.’ [And] that’s,” Sewell said, “why Rouse was a good thing. They probably would have still all sold out, but it wouldn’t have been as well organized, and it wouldn’t have accommodated the diverse demographics [that Columbia encouraged.]
“A lot of people welcomed [Rouse’s] vision including his determination to enhance the aesthetics. It was amazing he could pull it together.”
Like his brother in those earlier articles, Ronnie Sewell acknowledged that he “wanted to keep farming” all those years ago; but, again like his brother, “I didn’t want to have a city wrapped around me.”