There is only one rule in the new Ellicott Mills Children’s Museum in Ellicott City: “Touch everything.”
That’s according to Pat Greenwald and Anne Schoenhut, co-chairs of the education committee at the Howard County Historical Society.
“Everything we have in there are things to teach and touch,” Schoenhut said. “In the store, [children] can weigh beans or write a letter and post it at the post office. At school, they can pretend to be the teacher.”
Fred Campbell, executive director of the historical society, said the new museum is meant to be a tactile museum. The intention is to show visitors what life was like in a mill town by letting them experience it, whether by sitting at a school desk or playing with a toy. About 90% of the pieces in the museum are authentic period items donated to be used as learning props, not museum pieces looked at from behind glass, Campbell said.
“We have quirky, unique things,” said Campbell, noting the volunteer docent’s desk dates to 1887 and features old graffiti carved into it. The accompanying chair was an original jury chair from the old courthouse.
The museum will have a grand opening at 10 am on Friday, April 22. The address is 8328 Court Ave. in Ellicott City.
Known by several names in the past, including the Quaker School, the Second Quaker School and the Weir family home, the museum building also housed the historical society’s offices and archives until 2011, when it moved to the Miller Branch of the Howard County Library System . The building remained mostly vacant and was used for storage until the idea of a children’s museum took hold 10 years ago.
“It’s been a dream for Pat and me,” Schoenhut said. “To make it into a children’s museum takes a lot of time and money. We worked on it a while.”
The main floor of the house was completely renovated, a staircase relocated, a new bathroom added, and four rooms created. The lower level’s layout remained the same and will be used for storage; upstairs, a staircase was relocated to create more space for a meeting room.
“It’s a very interesting building,” said Eileen Giles, president of the Board of Directors for the historical society. “It has elaborate cast iron decorative railings on the porch because an owner’s daughter was a Carmelite nun in New Orleans.”
Funding from Howard County and the State of Maryland as well as donations from members helped pay for the project, Campbell said.
“It’s been a true community effort to move this forward,” Giles said. “It’s exciting to have it arrive during [Ellicott City’s] 250th anniversary celebration. It was the mills that brought people here.”
Each of the rooms on the main level is designed to exhibit a different phase of life in a mill town in the late 1790s and early 1800s. One room is a school and another represents a general store, or “the Walmart of the day,” as Campbell put it.
“General stores were also a social gathering spot,” Campbell said. “You could get your goods and play a game of checkers.”
The great room represents a “solid middle-class family great room,” with a bed, chairs and a spinning wheel, Campbell said. The smallest room is the teacher’s room. It will feature panels with written information about the building as well as some items found during its reconstruction, including a cobalt-colored tobacco pouch.
Schoenhut and Greenwald created a curriculum for the museum, with monthly themed lesson plans and activities for the first Saturday of each month. In 2018, they offered “A Year of Old-fashioned Fun,” a monthly children’s program held at the Museum of Howard County History, as a test to see what worked well, Schoenhut said.
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“It wasn’t well attended, but it went over really well,” Schoenhut said. “The kids liked it.”
Groups of 10 to 12 can schedule themed field trips to the museum on Fridays. While the museum is designed for children, its lessons are for everyone, and there are plans to offer programs for senior citizens, too.
A garden is planned for the front of the building, and a wish list includes a patio to be built between the children’s museum and the neighboring Museum of Howard County History.
“We try to keep one step ahead – ‘What comes next?’” Schoenhut said. “’What do we need to do?’ There is not always money in the budget. We have to work for it.”
On April 7, standing on the museum’s porch, Campbell said he was looking forward to the museum’s opening.
“There’s nothing major left to be done,” Campbell said. “There is still some staging and props to put up. It’s been a learning experience for everyone. I’m looking forward to getting past this part.”
The Ellicott Mills Children’s Museum will be open every Saturday and Sunday.