Heathcote – History

Heathcote: More than half a century of shared history

The contact era

Freeland was a frontier region; Not only between white settlers and AmerIndian tribes, but of the Piscataway to the south and the Susquehannock to the north. The two tribes were drawn into conflict that was exploited by the white settlers, resulting in the retreat of the Piscataway. The Susquehannock were in turn wiped out by the white settlers, notably among the last of the recognized Susquehannock massacred by the infamous Paxton Boys. The remnant Piscataway are among the “landless Indians” who are unrecognized by the US federal government but recently acknowledged by the state of Maryland. Whether they settled our little valley, or whether this was a hunting zone buffer for them is unknown to Heathcote at this time.

The Turning Wheel

Nobody is sure when exactly Thomas Wantland constructed the grist mill that now serves as the public center of Heathcote. Public property records show the address the mill now stands on was first built upon in 1842, at a time when Freeland was a remote station on the North Central Railroad rising from the seaports of Baltimore and heading into the industrial heartland of Pennsylvania. This line was built within just a few years of the first rail line in the United States, also rising out of Baltimore. In 1851, the town of Freeland got its first post office during a time of rapid growth. Mill builders searched for every usable run of the headwaters of the Chesapeake to power the area’s growing of industry and industrialization of agriculture.

Around the time of the mill’s construction, Freeland had at least eight paper mills and six sawmills. This small township also eventually had six grist mills, which included the Heathcote Mill. These mills ground wheat into flour crushed between water-driven stone wheels to create a durable and profitable export. This capitalized on the rapid establishment of grain farming in northern Maryland and south Pennsylvania that poured its products through Baltimore to other shores.

A new generation of owners gives Heathcote its name-sake

Baltimore was one of the biggest cities in the US and just as leading in American flour production. The long displaced original inhabitants of this area were soon joined by a succession of residents, owners, and industries during an era of rapid turnover and change. It wasn’t long before Martin Heathcote, the mill’s namesake, bought the mill in 1862. Mr. Heathcote belonged to a generation of mill owners who were buying out the original builders. But Baltimore’s grist mills too went into decline with the rapidity they appeared, replaced by new local industries and the shift of wheat farming further west into the new lands freshly trodden under the tracks of the railroads and the buffalo soldiers.

Rise of the School of Living

A little more than a century later, after the land and building had passed into the hands of the local Aniker family, they were sold to the School of Living. SOL too had its own rich history by that time, starting with Dr. Ralph Borsodi in 1934. His Ugly Civilization and then Flight from the City promoted the back-to-the-land movement he was participating in in the suburbs of New York City. Borsodi was originally a follower of New York urban farming pioneer Bolton Hall, as was Borsodi’s father. Hall was ‘taking back’ the land through ‘vacant lot farming’ in the city. This movement also encouraged implementation of small-holdings agriculture, concentrating on individual use of less than an acre, which Borsodi and a group of School of Living enthusiasts took outside the city by homesteading. Dr. Borsodi’s homestead was a working laboratory that became SOL.

As a community land trust (CLT) guided by Henry George’s economics, SOL was guided by a belief that land must be treated more as a commons benefiting everyone equally rather than as private property benefiting those who accumulated it through successive inheritance. To achieve this goal, SOL expanded to eventually encompass several homesteading communities in rural areas, though most members were not interested in community. They saw School of Living as an education and self-help organization supporting their own homesteading and farming rather than a communitarian organization. School of Living members donated the Heathcote land for School of Living use, and it was officially dedicated as the headquarters of School of Living in 1967. It would remain so for most of the following decade before becoming an independent community on School of Living land trust property. The initial 37-acre purchase cost $12,500. Subsequent purchases brought the holdings to 44-acres today, including the 2-acre subdivision of Polaris and the purchase of another residence, the FarmHouse.

School of Living comes to the land at Heathcote

1965 was a new beginning for the little valley. The historic grist mill began renovation on an SOL member’s land to anchor this new community with a common kitchen and meeting place. It became the social center of community life as well as seminar and program center. Outlying buildings were converted to residences and small huts were built to house newcomers.

Once Heathcote became the headquarters of School of Living, School of Living’s Education Director Mildred Loomis moved to the center and lived here: publishing, writing, and directing the establishment of a small residential community and a hosting center for education in homesteading and supporting skills. When the national headquarters left Heathcote, this briefly became a Montessori School, and then host to a series of adult education and residential projects. Throughout these ups and downs, Heathcote remained a social and events center with ties beyond its property lines, including educational and other programs.


New Transition and Growth

Heathcote became a cross-generational community again the 1994, for a time attracting families and older residents. In 1997, another residence was added with the purchase of the ‘FarmHouse’. That rising wave began to crest in the early 2000s, with the planning, construction, and completion of a new residence building, Polaris. Polaris was constructed with straw-bale wall insulation and wood stove heating. This reflected a desire for evolving Heathcote’s structures in the direction of green and healthy buildings. The first residents, Greg & Juji, moved into Polaris in 2008, and Karen moved in in 2009.

This expansion parralleled the expansion of the Heathcote Education Center. Between 1995 and 2015, 111 people were certified as Permaculture Design Apprentices. 45 workshops on permaculture, natural building, cooperative living skills, and community processes saw 557 participants. 67 interns passed through Heathcote learning farming, carpentry, and pottery. And Visitor Days and weekend events saw over 700 visitors, while 16 visiting organizations used the center for presentations and their own events. At the same time 70 presentations and events were held off-site, with over 1,500 participants, and Heathcote was used for 25 house concerts and 103 other events.

Set-backs again: neighbor complaints, zoning, covid

It was hoped this was the first step toward expanded numbers and programs, but neighbor complaints and zoning changes forced abandonment of several outlying residence buildings alongside restrictions in public activities. In 2020, covid gave Heathcote another blow, forcing temporary suspension of its remaining public events programing. In its place, the farm space was expanded to a CSA and and a demonstration space. It became an out-door focus for member participation and internship opportunities.

The community now has 5 adult members and two children living on the land. There are more than two dozen non-resident members, mostly living in the surrounding areas and in Baltimore. Many non-resident members are former residents or have long ties with the property. With planned renovations now approved by permitting and necessary for an eventual hybrid learning environment, initial phases of renovation work will soon begin on the mill’s ground floor.

This will improve handicapped accessibility and grounds safety for renewed public events and guest hosting in the future. Heathcote still seeks to grow to include more resident and non-resident members, expand partnerships and programs, and to continue its ties to organic farming by continuing to host a community garden project.