The community of Oella dates to 1808 and is reportedly named in honor of the first woman “who applied herself to the spinning of cotton on the continent”. In 1809 the Ellicott family sold a 458 acre tract of land just north of “lower ” Ellicott Mills to the Union Manufacturing Company. The community grew to provide homes for the mill workers.

The Union Company, the first textile company to be chartered by the State of Maryland, planned a mill complex that was extraordinary in its day. The basic concept was to create a dam with an exceptionally long mill race, which could provide water power to a whole series of mill operations. Various factories were built. The first, a five story brick factory, began operation in May of 1810. On December 15, 1815, the first cotton mill of the Union Manufacturing Company burned to the ground. Six months later the Company’s warehouse on Baltimore harbor, filled with raw cotton, also burned. A decade would pass before the mill could be rebuilt. The technological advance of water-driven looms helped save the Company. Despite damage from floods in 1866 and the major flood of 1868, the mills continued to prosper. Additional factories were added along with a railroad siding.

In 1882 an enormous weaving mill (two and one half times the size of the original five story building) was built. Shortly after its completion, the textile industry went into a depression and in 1887 the mill, its village, and surrounding land were auctioned.

William J. Dickey bought the property and gradually shifted production to woolens. The mill burned down in 1918 and was promptly rebuilt. It went on to achieve the distinction of becoming America’s foremost producer of fancy menswear woolens. The demand for these fabrics dropped with the introduction of synthetics and double knits and the trend to casual dress. In 1972 the mill closed.

Until its closing in 1972 the mill was the heartbeat of the community. The shutdown caused economic and social shock that worsened in Junewith the arrival of Hurricane Agnes to the Patapsco Valley. The hurricane brought flood waters that ravaged low-lying areas and severely damaged the 1 ¾-mile mill race, reputedly the longest in America to power one mill.

Along a three-quarter-mile stretch of Oella Avenue, homes of the generations of mill workers remain today. The first were built of stone a few years before the War of 1812. Early in the 19th century, log cabins were tucked into the steep slopes and brick houses appeared before the Civil War. In the late 19th century construction shifted to Victorian-era frame houses with bracketed cornices. Around the time of World War I, a number of cottage-style kit homes added to the diversity of Oella’s architecture. With the advent of the automobile, the lodging for workers became less of a necessity for the company.

Granite Manufacturing Company

The Granite Manufacturing Company, located just east of Union Manufacturing, was the most modern textile company in the Valley because it was built after considerable legal delays. The benefit of the late construction was the inclusion of a wide variety of innovations to help fight the danger of fire. The factory had a metal roof, a “modern” fire suppression system, a water storage tank on its roof with fire hoses to each floor of the structure. The factory began manufacturing cotton products in 1850. Unfortunately, the factory still suffered major fire damage in spite of all the innovations. It was under reconstruction when the 1866 flood hit and did additional damage. The July 1, 1868 flood completely destroyed the mill and its associated dam. In 1875, the property was leased to the adjacent upstream Union Manufacturing Company. A few of the surviving homes associated with Granite Manufacturing Company can be seen along Oella Avenue (just upstream from the Ellicott City Bridge over the Patapsco River).

Union Manufacturing Company
Union Manufacturing Company
3-room Oella school house circa 1873
Mill worker housing
Granite Manufacturing millworker homes

Additional Information:

Oella Historical Society

Oella Company

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Patapsco Heritage Greenway, the non-profit managing organization of the Patapsco Valley Heritage Area, is dedicated to preserving, protecting, interpreting, and restoring the environment, history, and culture of Maryland’s most dramatic river valley for the enjoyment of all.