I saw the old house first, set behind a row of faded 19th century houses strung along Falls Road a mile north of the city-county line. It was a caved-in box that had given up being a home many winters ago. The dried vines that clambered up the weathered wood couldn’t hide the gaping holes where windows had been.
Walking across an outcropping of the pale green serpentine rock that gave the neighborhood its name of Bare Hills, I notice a striking contrast. To the north of this ramshackle house is a recently built collection of upscale stores and restaurants, the type of retail center that seems to pop up overnight, leaving you to wonder what had been there before. Its solid generic brick exterior is the opposite of this forlorn, unstable structure.
The home was abandoned after a large tree crashed into the roof. As I poke around the exterior, photographing details of decay and nature, Ricky Scott, who lives in the house that fronts this one, comes by. Scott, 55, grooms racehorses when he can find work at the track or horse farms. “My family started Bare Hills,” he explains. “At one time everybody was related to the Scotts.” One of his brothers owns this empty shell.
It turns out that this cluster of frame houses on the west side of Falls Road, south of Clarkview Road, is the Scott Settlement Historic District, a Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation site which is also part of the Bare Hills National Register of Historic Places. The tract was settled by Rev. Aquila Scott, the son of a freed slave, who came to the Jones Falls in the 1830’s to work as a wheelwright and blacksmith on the Falls Road Turnpike. He built houses for himself and his descendants, as well as a log church and family cemetery. The church is long gone, but Rev. Scott’s gravestone is still visible in an overgrown pasture near Walnut Avenue.
Ricky Scott’s uncle, William Walter Scott III, the patriarch of the remaining Scott clan in Bare Hills, shares more history. Rev. Aquila Scott’s original house is still standing, but barely. Destroyed by a fire a number of years ago, the frame structure has partially collapsed, and appears to be held up as much by the underbrush and adjacent trees as by its own hewn timbers.
In better shape than the Aquila Scott House is the vacant White and Covin House, sandwiched between Falls Road and the Bare Hills retail complex. It was built in 1868 by Aquila Scott’s grandson, Matthew Yates, Jr. The Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission recognized the house “as a distinctive example of early African-American vernacular architecture,” and a significant part of the Scott family enclave. The Commission turned down a request by the current owner to raze it.
Scott family members still live in four of the surviving houses in the Scott Settlement.
William Walter Scott III, 82, views the changes to the historic community founded by free African-Americans with equanimity. He now has a number of white neighbors. Scott and his nephew, Ricky Scott, fondly remember when almost all of the houses were filled with relatives.
Ricky retrieves a photo of his grandmother, Henrietta “Nanny” Scott, who lived in the rear house destroyed by the fallen tree. “She was strict. There was no talking back to her.” Yet he also remembers that she “cooked for everybody.” His grandparents “had their own garden, maybe an acre or more. Meat and stuff – my grandfather hunted rabbits, raccoons and squirrels. They tasted good. All of us had to pluck the chickens. Everybody pitched in and did everything. If we wanted to play in the quarry on Falls Road we had to do our chores first.”
Ricky Scott recalls the house had no bathroom, just an outhouse. Nanny Scott washed the family’s clothes with a washtub and washboard. Today a clothing boutique located a stone’s throw from the Scott house sells blue jeans for $220. A gourmet pizza restaurant in the same center is called Earth, Wood & Fire. Ironically, these are the elements that have forged and scarred the pre-Civil War Scott Settlement. Wood houses were built by hand on barren earth considered undesirable except for mining. A fire destroyed Rev. Aquila Scott’s first church, and led him to build the small “Church of Slaves and Freemen in Ruxton,” which has been restored. Sadly, another fire devastated founder Scott’s own homestead, which could have been the crown jewel of the historic Scott Settlement. Yet the Scotts hang on, as traffic speeds past their proud community on the once-rural Falls Road.