Celia M. Holland (1911-1993) created a unique series of historical articles and books by combining her love for the people and the past of Howard County, Maryland, with a lifelong interest in writing. By forming lasting friendships with many of her subjects, arguing persuasively for the preservation of historic buildings, and creating an extensive research file, Holland became the unofficial historian of Howard County. Although her research and articles examine the historic buildings of her adopted county, it is the personal dimension that make her histories come alive.
Cecelia Mary Gassinger was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 2, 1911. She was the daughter of Gerard Gassinger, a German emigre who became a manufacturer of custom furniture in Baltimore -- a business that bore the family name -- and Louise Thillman, an Eastern shore and Anne Arundel County descendant with ties to farming and real estate. Educated in Baltimore at the Institute of Notre Dame, she left school in the eleventh year, following the premature death of her father. Her teachers had noted and encouraged her interest in writing, however, and she eventually found a position with the Baltimore Sun. A year after leaving Notre Dame, she married William Danforth O'Brien. Two children soon followed, William Danforth and Gerard Francis, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1934. Soon afterward, a former colleague from the Baltimore Sun introduced Celia to his roommate, Amos Thornton Holland of Howard County. A whirlwind, three-month courtship led to marriage in January 1935. The Hollands had four children: James Clarence, twins Charles Thillman and Nicholas Henderson, and Charlotte Thornton.
Mrs. Holland's son James remembers that there was a "tradition of talking about the past" in his family. The Hollands of Howard County, whose seventeenth- and eighteenth-century roots included some of Maryland's most prominent families (Burgess, Dorsey, Henderson, Holland, Welsh, and Warfield), still lived on the family homestead, Oakley Farm, when Celia and Amos Holland married. Celia Holland lived at Oakley Farm for more than seven years with her young family: in 1941 or 1942, during recuperation from an illness, and from 1947 to 1953. At those times, Oakley Farm housed three generations, including Amos Holland's aunt and uncle, Rebecca Burgess and Nicholas Rufus Henderson -- sister and brother -- who often talked of local history. "Uncle Nick had traveled extensively in the Old West for thirty years [1888-1908] and was a magnificent storyteller," recalls James Holland, his great-nephew. Although the Hollands sold the farm after seven generations of family residence and moved to University Park in 1953, the family stories absorbed from the older generation and from the experience of living in a house imbued with family history indelibly marked the Amos Holland family; two of the children, Gerard and James, became university history professors, while their mother channeled her interest in Maryland history into her writing.
Celia M. Holland's first writing assignments had been at the Baltimore Sun, during the time when H.L. Mencken was editor. At first a news reporter, she was assigned to cover a fire in which there was a fatality. That tragic event prompted her move to the feature department where she covered city events and the local political scene. Holland resigned her position after one year in order to marry. For the next thirty years she focused her energies on raising a family, although between 1944 and 1947 she served as editor of the Trasagion, a Catholic magazine published by the Trinitarian Fathers.
In 1964, Holland again took up her pen to author a series of nearly fifty articles for the Central Maryland News. Entitled "Know Your County," the feature series described historic landmarks in and around Howard County. This series perfectly blended her interests in Howard County's people and history with her talent as a writer. Holland and her husband drove the back roads of the county meeting interesting people and photographing their historic homes. She also wrote to the residents of these homes requesting information about previous owners, the unique features of the residence, and special interest stories. Most were pleased to share their knowledge. According to her son James, "Mother's [writing] style was marked by the personal touch; she loved gathering information and had a warm manner that put people at ease." In fact, many of her interviews led to longstanding friendships. The series also prompted suggestions for articles about other locations of historic interest.
In her preface to Ellicott City, Maryland: Mill Town U.S.S. (1970), Holland credits the "encouragement from the people of Howard County and many requests to publish the articles in book form" for the completion of her first book. Written in part to champion the preservation of Ellicott City, the book was so successful that three printings were necessary. This effort was followed by another newspaper series in the Howard County Times; Ellicott City: Maryland's 18th Century Milltown, a tour guide of Eillicott City that went through four editions; and Landmarks of Howard County, Maryland (1975), produced for the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence.
The culmination of Celia M. Holland's writing career was her final and most important work, Old Homes and Families of Howard County, Maryland (1987). Based upon twenty-five years of research, the text grew to over 500 pages in length with 173 illustrations. Explaining the evolution of the book in its preface, Mrs. Holland describes how "little by little my husband and I found ourselves traveling the main highways and back roads of the county, meeting delightful people who happily lavished on us information concerning their reassured homesteads and honored families." The book itself earned high praise: "What a great and comprehensive work this: historical, demographical, and genealogical," wrote P. W. Philby, director of the Maryland Historical Society.
Although Old Homes and Families of Howard County, Maryland was Holland's last published work, she continued to be active in historic and preservation issues. A long-time member of the Howard County Historical Society and Historic Ellicott City, Inc., she also served as a volunteer at her local Catholic Church and at De Matha High School. But history remained her primary interest; she wrote articles and letters to champion the preservation of Howard County's most important landmarks and continued to research and collect histories of the region she so loved.
Celia Holland suffered ill health most of her adult life which, at times, hampered her ability to do fieldwork, although she continued her correspondence and writing. She died on May 22, 1993, just four months after the death of her beloved husband, at her last residence in Catonsville, Maryland.