Legends of the Victory Garden
Kensington, Maryland 1950
The Victory Garden
I live in a County of transient memory.
Most of the people who have lived here since World War II -- I don't know the stats, but I'd be very surprised if I'm wrong -- have come from elsewhere, bringing memories from elsewhere. Even the likely sizeable number of Montgomery Countians who have grown up here have no "memory" of what happened before they were born. And many of those born here have moved away. What native memories thrive are specific to family, friends, and neighborhoods -- all but very few of which did not exist before the War.
One reason for this absence of historic memory is that nothing either great or terrible has marked the County's history. It is not haunted by a legacy of devastation or defeat or epic loss like Faulkner's South. Quite the opposite. Since at least the 1850's, in fact, it has prospered from wars that took place elsewhere. Except for Jubal Early's abortive three-day raid in '64, and the four years of tension before and after, even the Civil War passed it by. But the farms of Montgomery County fed both sides, as they had earlier fed the combatants in the faraway Crimea. It was Twentieth Century war -- especially victory in Twentieth Century war -- that made Montgomery County, Maryland, during the last half of the Twentieth Century one of the very wealthiest Counties in America per median family income -- the most telling measure.
Uninterrupted growth in wealth does not a haunted history make.
But so what? Why should any Montgomery Countian care what went before -- who made the County they enjoy -- especially when the whole thrust of County life since WWII has been Today and Tomorrow -- not Yesterday? I mean this. Why -- beyond idle curiosity -- should anyone living here go out of his or her way to learn something about the men and women who built the County-they-enjoy? What difference would it make in their lives? What questions would it answer?
Not only do I have no answer -- I don't care if they don't care.
In the early 1970's, for reasons I won't go into, I decided I needed to understand my own situation historically, in particular the situation -- in American but also world history -- of growing up in a suburb like Montgomery County -- which I had come to suspect to be something new and different. (I could add the qualifiers 4th generation Irish-American, Catholic, Democrat, and more; all in good time.)
Of course boys had grown up in suburbs here and elsewhere in the world before the War -- of course, of course. But nowhere in this peak of common prosperity -- as opposed to the uncommon, the aristocratic or haut bourgeois kind. Or to give it the name J. Kenneth Galbraith bestowed upon it -- in the title of a book which arrived, with publisher's compliments, in my father's Congressional office one day in 1959 -- affluence.
My father, in fact, many years forcibly retired from that office, said, "Talk to Col. Lee"; and one of his former top aides said, "Of course you have to talk to Sam Eig. He's Mr. Montgomery County!" I had shaken hands, as a boy, with Col. Lee and Sam Eig. I knew they had been important men, but I didn't want to take reputations at face value. Not wishing to be or appear a fool, I wanted to research thoroughly beforehand anyone I'd talk to.
I had a dissertation to write, and my committee accepted the proposal. I had the luck to learn that the Montgomery County League of Women Voters had just embarked on an oral history project, and they accepted me as a volunteer interviewer. Written sources were sketchy and repetitive, largely dependent on the same old newspaper clippings. Other living sources, requested to unearth memories of a world ago, either could not recall precise detail or would not talk. But the legends themselves welcomed me to hear their tales.
And I have my own.
September 1947, Kensington.
Mud everywhere. I stood on my new porch looking up and down the street, and it was all mud. Red houses stood up in it. The windows of the houses looked like giant square eyes and the doorways like long square mouths. In the mud of the street stood up what looked like giant anthills.
This was not the house I thought we were moving into. I had realized that last night, waking up at the end of the ride, when we turned down the hill instead of stopping at the top in front of the house with the long sidewalk I was told my bulldozer could crawl all the way to the curb. The sidewalk from this porch to the car was broken by steps; the bulldozer would fall.
Boards in the mud led around from the steps toward the back yard. I walked carefully because I didn't have galoshes on. But there was nobody in back either. Everybody on the street was still asleep.
MR. MONTGOMERY COUNTY
Five years earlier, in the spring of the War, and about five miles to the southeast, another hill of mud was where the post-War began. Thirteen thousand miles to its southwest General Wainwright ordered 3,500 of his men to withdraw from Bataan to Corregidor, and ten thousand miles further to the southeast British tanks held a line against Rommel at Gazala while both sides gathered reinforcements. Work on the mud hill had to be accelerated because in April 1942 a building moratorium would descend.
Sam Eig had started clearing this hill back in '38. Old Man Grubb, the tenant farmer, had hitched up his horse and ploughed foundations for the first two houses. Sam Eig still had to count his change carefully, but the whiskey let him count each time a little more. He saved on streets. Old Grubb's horse strapped to pulleys tore out the sycamore and oak and pine roots and broke the soil of Lots 20 & 21. Washington Avenue was a horse path. On the other side of Lots 20 & 21 Eig's men were felling trees for Blaine Drive. Blaine was his first son, pre-medical student. It took the horse a week to dig a street half a block, Larry Place, Larry was his second son. Mr. Eig saved his money for a one day roller job, to bury and bury gravel shoveled on the dirt.
Early '39, with three or four footings laid, two blocks of Blaine Drive cleared and graveled, he had to hold up. He had thrown all his money into one last grab of Kentucky barreled bourbon, thousands of gallons at only $1.22 a gallon, and then Hitler ran his tanks into Poland. He'd seen it coming. He'd been telling them for years about that Hitler. Mr. Eig had faith in Mr. Roosevelt, though; and when America made up its mind to put a stop to Hitler, all new alcohol would go for artillery.
But the Eig family would be safe.
He had grown up in a little village outside Minsk in Russia. His father was a rich man, a butcher, and so when the War started, the first War -- he was just a boy, fourteen -- his father had put him on the Trans-Siberian Railway with a chaperone. He never saw his family again. After two years he arrived in New York, without a penny, but through cousins he got jobs. After another two years, busing tables, he had saved up some money. He bought a new pair of shoes and the goodbyes were easier; there was no family to leave this time. He got on a train for Chicago and met four Irish boys. They asked him where he was going and he told them Nebraska, to be a cowboy. They laughed. They asked to see his ticket and laughed again. He couldn't go to Nebraska, they said; the ticket was only good to Washington. It so happened that they were getting off in Washington too; they had construction jobs, new government buildings were going up. They told him they'd get him a job and he could make the fare to take him the rest of the way west. So off he got with them in Washington, but hauling tar buckets made him sick and after two weeks of it he quit and got a job cutting meat in Union Station. That was how Sam Eig came to the Nation's Capital. Fifty years later he had not been to Nebraska yet.
In Washington he made a new family. He became a butcher in a little grocery store on N Street and worked hard. He married the boss' daughter and opened his own grocery. After expenses and a little savings deposit he put every extra nickel into real estate. His father-in-law had told him: The city is moving up the Potomac. Wherever you go, go northwest.
So when his first grocery store failed Sam Eig opened a new one on 7th Street, and when that one failed he moved up 7th onto Georgia Avenue, and the third time he survived; and when repeal of the Volstead Act came through he started stocking the store with liquor. He knew no more about the liquor business than he had known about real estate. But he had asked and listened, bought and sold lots, subcontracting to builders and watching how they worked; and now he talked with distillers in Kentucky and began buying, accumulating barrels of whiskey there, not selling, letting it age.
By 1935 Sam and Esther Eig had survived the worst of the Depression, and indeed had prospered. They had two fine sons, growing strong. He sold the grocery and further up Georgia Avenue -- moving northwest -- he opened Eig's Liquors. He deposited in two suburban banks in the little crossroads, Silver Spring, and in Takoma Park. He continued to make payments on some half-forgotten wood lots just over the District Line west of Silver Spring, and continued to improve lots on the District side of Takoma. By 1937 he was President, National Liquor Stores Association, fifty-four stores in the Nation's Capital. By 1939 he was a major stockholder in the Silver Spring bank, the Suburban National. Then in late 1938 the bottom dropped out of the bulk whiskey market, plummeting prices from $1.25 to $.50 a gallon, and forcing Sam Eig, in the sudden face of bankruptcy, to make a Solomon's choice to save everything he and Esther had worked hard for eighteen years to build. In Europe, though, any man with eyes could see a war was coming. So instead of his whiskey holdings, he sold off all his real estate -- all the real estate he owned, that is, except the woods in Silver Spring, which remained virgin. Instead of selling whiskey he used the real estate proceeds to buy. He bought up all the Kentucky whiskey he could find, and kept it in the warehouses, and let it age.
Not twelve months after the whiskey market collapsed, Hitler invaded Poland. It was only a matter of time, then, before America was in.
After Pearl Harbor, all newly distilled alcohol was ordered diverted to war production.
The Eig family survived. Sam Eig owned hundreds of thousands of gallons of aged whiskey, distilled years before.
Now he began bottling.
In Washington, D.C., during the War, Eig's Hour became famous. Most of the day Eig's Liquors sold wine and beer, but from 11 a.m. to 12 noon, or sometimes from 5 to 6 p.m., the lines would stretch around the block. For one hour a day the whiskey came out -- Seagram's 7, Hiram Walker, Paul Jones, Four Roses -- and the popular new label that never ran out, Eig's Bourbon and Mammoth Cave Whiskey. The rule was one fifth to a customer, a sharp eye kept out for repeaters and known bootleggers. Midway through the War Eig's Liquors still had a quarter of a million bottles of its own brand aging in Kentucky. It was the only store in the city which always had whiskey, and not even rumor involved it in the heavy black market in wartime whiskey.
A Senate investigating committee called Sam Eig up to the Hill to explain why not.
The whiskey profits went into the woods above Rock Creek on the second hill west of Silver Spring.
Fifteen years earlier his friends had said, Sam, you're crazy! Silver Spring is the woods! Now he had shown them how crazy. Eleven days after Pearl Harbor, he bought the rest of the woods. Four days before D-Day he bought the adjoining meadow. He renamed them all Rock Creek Forest. As the Allies pushed from France through Belgium in November of 1944, Sam Eig bought Old Man Grubb's farm on the north side of East-West Highway, and then he owned the whole hill.
March 1942, the war only four months old, Mr. Eig was so busy with the Hillside Terrace apartments in Southeast Washington, he could spare for his Silver Spring operation only one bulldozer. It went into the clearing across from the County road through the old Ray property and left it a battlefield of roots and broken quartz. One boulder near the Highway the men tried to dig out and pull out but it was no use. So Mr. Eig laughed, Keep it there. That was the Rock in Rock Creek Forest.
On an April morning shortly before the home construction ban came down, two bulldozers and an earthmover began their work. They started down the horse path from the battlefield to Blaine Drive, and up another horse path from the Creek. Mr. Eig kept them working overtime; two shifts a day, six days a week. He personally supervised, down in the mud himself, unmistakable every morning in his white helmet and dark suit and tie, cigar in his fingers, a little egg of a man with a brow like a muscle, giving strict instructions to be careful of the dogwoods and the tulip-poplars. He kept all the trees that could be kept, hickories, pines. He had cherry trees planted. He paid a lot of money for Rock Creek Forest, he didn't buy it to make a baseball field. People liked shade, they liked cherry trees, at any rate that was the kind of people he wanted in this community, he was going to live here too.
The more houses started . . . .
The War Production Board's housing construction moratorium of April 1942 succeeded in halting some of the activity Sam Eig had been able to start in Rock Creek Forest. But as early as summer 1942 lots were selling like Eig's Bourbon.
By 1946 the woods were full of red houses.
For twenty years he had done what everybody else did, building a house here and there for a lot-owner, in the District, Takoma Park. But you couldn't do that any more. He had seen that before the War. There were too many people coming to Washington even then, and now so many more, and all the boys coming home. They didn't want a house in a horse pasture, they wanted a community. They wanted a place for families to grow. They wanted a church, they wanted a school, a little shopping center -- grocery store, beauty shop, a bank, a hardware store. They wanted a playground for the kids. They wanted trees and quiet. You didn't need the Government to give them that. You didn't have to be Greenbelt to do that. You didn't have to be a co-op. You needed eyes and a brain, that was all, guts and integrity.
Rock Creek Forest became the first tract community built in Montgomery County, Maryland. It opened the rich farmland north and west of the Nation's Capital to the postwar suburban development boom. Sam Eig built his own house in Rock Creek Forest; he wouldn't build a community he wouldn't live in himself. He was the first Jewish businessman to make a success in the County. He had been making friends there since the 'Twenties, depositing in the Takoma Park Bank and Suburban National. When he was about to open the Forest one of his Christian banker friends took him aside. "You know us, Ben. We're friends," he said. "We're not anti-Semitic. Be smart. Keep it restricted. You'll make a fortune!" He would make a fortune, all right. First thing he did, he gave deeds to three churches, Catholic, Methodist, and a Jewish congregation.
The secret was always to move northwest -- that was where the open land lay. Never necessary to buy a lot of land -- only the choice piece.
January 1952, FORTUNE named Sam Eig and nine others from across the country as the vanguard of the postwar millionaires. There was a bumper crop, said FORTUNE. 15,000 new millionaires since 1945. They were church builders, restaurateurs, used car dealers. Twenty years later Sam Eig could look back on them and, if he fancied, see a national Montgomery County of millionaires, for they were a phenomenon marked, said FORTUNE, less by the size of the fortunes made than by the profusion of the makers. The 1960 census would show Montgomery County had surpassed Westchester County, New York, and now enjoyed the highest median family income in the United States.
"The opp'tunities for a young man in America!" Mr. Eig would say, waving his cigar. "Just look at dat keed with no papa, no mama, Sam Eig! He made Mon'gomery a land of femilies."
He made it a place for his own family to grow -- his sons, his grandsons. By the Twenty-first Century, he'd boast, there would be more Eigs in Montgomery than cowboys in Nebraska!
But he could not stand still, either. He could not settle. Ten years after the War ended, Rock Creek Forest built and sold, Sam Eig sold all his Silver Spring holdings -- his shopping center, the building with his name on it -- even the old liquor store. He sold his house and with Esther moved again northwest and closer to bankruptcy than ever before, to a pasture near Gaithersburg at the dead-end of an Interstate Highway that would not be complete for another ten years. He built a motel, but a motel to beat any hotel on Miami Beach. The Washingtonian Motel -- with an elegant dining room, reception rooms, an Olympic swimming pool, a golf course -- a motel that was also a country club. Not just a place for travelers to spend the night before venturing into the Nation's Capital, but a vacation resort for the whole family.
He lost millions of dollars.
At night he and Esther would walk out along the unfinished Highway embankment, in evening clothes, peering for guests. The buffet in the Maryland Room got cold.
At banquets now, testimonials, he was being toasted as Mr. Montgomery County. It was very nice, it was just. But he was not dead yet.
THE MAJOR AND THE COLONEL
Did anyone ever call E. Brooke Lee Mr. Montgomery County?
Born at Blair House, across the street from the White House, come of age on a country estate just over the Maryland line, E. Brooke Lee left Princeton to work in his father's Senate office, picked up a law degree at night, married, and when America entered the War in Europe, formed a Maryland National Guard company of farmers' sons and the sons of lawyers and doctors. They chased Pancho Villa along the Rio Grande and then went to France. Brooke Lee was a natural commander, first to plunge into any fray, and his men -- his buddies -- would follow like linemen a quarterback, cheering and laughing. Many of them died. There were no cheers along the road to Metz the morning the armistice was announced; smiles, hugging, tears, few words. But Paris helped put the Meuse-Argonne behind, and when they boarded the troop ships for home cheers went up again. They left the mademoiselles behind with the War, and home lay out before them, new and virgin. The Twentieth Century had only now begun, and Brooke Lee discussed with certain of his men -- in particular Captain Frank L. Hewitt, his second-in-command -- how they could bring it to the farmlands of Silver Spring.
Silver Spring, just over the District-Maryland line, was a grade-crossing and a feed store and a blacksmith shop. The Twentieth Century was everything modern, and what was modern was growth.
Politics had not been part of the plans. The political campaigns of his father had exhausted the family fortune and young Major Lee was intent on turning the family farms into lots and building cottages to sell the government workers the War had brought to Washington. He had not stepped off the gangplank in Norfolk, however, when he was informed of his nomination for Comptroller of the Treasury of Maryland. The Democrats needed a Lee on the ticket to unite the Western and the Baltimore-Eastern Shore factions of the party. Only a Harmony Ticket could drive the Republicans out of the Governor's Mansion in Annapolis -- and his father's men wanted in. There were political debts to be paid off. The young Major's reluctance disappeared almost as soon as he was prevailed upon. The possibilities were obvious -- and with the Maryland 29th Division just returned as its vehicle, Harmony would be irresistible. And so it was. In November 1919 a Democrat was elected Governor by the narrowest margin in Maryland history, while the rest of the ticket, behind the young war hero, swept into power in a landslide.
On the way to becoming a Board of Trade the Silver Spring National Guard Company became something else again. The Organization was born.
Led by lawyers and doctors, all with investments in real estate, it was an army of loyal workers almost all of whom got jobs with the County. In those days the County -- seated far from Silver Spring in Rockville -- provided jobs, not government. In Maryland at that time all County laws, with the exception of minor ordinances, were passed in Annapolis, where Major Lee, unofficially, at the Governor's right hand, presided. Before long the presidency became official. For the last time in his life (at the age of 35) E. Brooke Lee was formally elected to public office -- the Maryland House of Delegates -- and on his very first day as a freshman was elevated to Speaker. He was already a legend. Tall and athletic, with a crop of red hair that commanded eyes from all over a crowded chamber, and with a set of shoulders said to have carried three wounded men out of No-Man's-Land at Balschwiller, he bullied -- he bullied with charm. The charm was Maryland patrician like the curve at the tip of his nose. He had a reputation as a ladies' man, but that was the least of it. He had eyes especially for his enemies, amused, unwavering eyes. And when harmony was consummated, a tart gleam, a faint sardonic turn of the lips. His command always brought the chamber to laughter and attention.
So the Organization paved roads and installed streetlights, and its people built houses and schools and opened up new blocks of little shops in Silver Spring to the east and in Bethesda to the west. Major Lee and his friends built real estate companies and home construction companies and building supply companies and banks and title insurance companies, and there were no conflict of interest laws, so there were no conflicts of interest. The plan was growth, and to insure the plan was orderly Speaker Lee, as his sole and crowning legislative achievement, conceived and widwived the birth of the bi-County Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission -- after which he left the House of Delegates, received promotion to the State Roads Commission, and commenced construction of the East-West Highway, the great contour road linking Silver Spring in the Eastern County to Bethesda in the West.
They called the East and West Highway the Zig Zag Highway, Colonel Lee later recounted, and charged that it was built to help me sell my property, that its principal purpose of existence was to increase the value of my property. Now the basic fact was, there was no way to get from Georgia Avenue or the Eastern County to Connecticut Avenue or Wisconsin Avenue in the Western County, without driving south into Washington to the Military Road, or north in the County on very poor roads to Kensington. And the most obvious need was a public highway between Silver Spring and Bethesda.
(The original four blocks of what would become East-West Highway did touch Lee property. It had been built years earlier, though, and the family -- not the County or the State -- had paid all the front foot benefit assessments. Neither the Major nor his family owned any of the farms along the likely route between Silver Spring and Bethesda. They might have owned other properties along the likely route east of Georgia Avenue; or not. Mere trees, however, in the forest of Growth. But since the Lees and their Blair cousins owned or controlled almost all the commercial land in Silver Spring, whose value could only be enhanced by a direct link with the Western County, the political charge by disaffected Bethesdans scored a brief political victory in the mid-'Thirties, when other more serious troubles beset the Major.)
A profuse forest of Growth was the plan. A dozen years later the Home Rule movement of the 'Forties would cry there had never been any plan -- no General Plan of the Park and Planning Commission, no master tool for ordering County Growth in a coherent pattern of homes and shops and factories and parks. There was only sprawl, they charged. They would charge incompetence, venality, chicanery, and to young reporters the Colonel -- after Pearl Harbor the Major, in the National Guard, made Colonel, and not long after that, Parks Commissioner -- the Colonel would shake his head in wry indignation, as though surprised to find that there was still some patience in him. It was very difficult, he would explain, to draw up such a Plan and make it realistic. They could not, in 1947, guide the County according to a Plan devised in 1927. A Plan would have to be revised continually as needs developed, so that the General Plan of 1947 would look almost nothing like the General Plan of 1927. In any event, Growth could not be achieved by plans alone. You needed people. You couldn't tell people where to buy land. If what they wanted to do with it was not unreasonable, if it promoted Growth, they should be free to do it. That was free enterprise.
But, of course, there had always been a plan, if not a Plan. Whether or not he fully envisioned the end in the beginning, Brooke Lee did see how Montgomery County could become a city as big as Washington, independent of Washington, a rival of Baltimore, but clean and lovely, not dirty, and everything he did built toward it. The Federal Government would continue to grow, as it had grown enormously during the Great War, and as it grew government workers would need homes and neighborhoods. First you had to make the County a home, a good home, a pleasant home for the "higher grade of people" serving the government. The next ten-twenty years you'd bring in industry from the outside, clean, light industry, and then half your people would be working as well as living in the County. Then as the slums of the District grew into Northeast and finally into Northwest Washington, the government itself would be moving out, agency by agency, to Montgomery and to Prince Georges County, even into Virginia. Eventually Montgomery County, and the Federal Government itself, would no longer have to depend on Washington at all. In 1947 the Parks Commissioner did not see any of the Home Rule Charterites moving out of Montgomery and back into Washington. He did not hear any Charterites objecting to Growth, or favoring decay.
And essential to this plan were the parks. It was for this that three years after the Park and Planning Commission was founded C more than fourteen years before he himself would become a Commissioner -- Major Lee led a delegation to Capitol Hill in Washington and charmed a Senator from Kansas and a Congressman from Michigan into co-sponsoring a bill to preserve the natural beauty of the Nation's Capital and environs. An older bi-County sewer and water commission had managed to clean up the polluted creeks spilling into the District from Montgomery and Prince Georges, but now the creek valleys were "threatened with development," and the condition of the valleys was an "integral part of the beauty and attractions" of the Capital. Congress was impressed, the Capper-Cramton Act was passed, and soon, with the Federal Government paying half the cost and loaning the rest interest-free, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission began buying up Sligo Creek in the Eastern County, Rock Creek and Cabin John Creek in the middle and Western County, other creeks and tributaries, and creeks in Prince Georges County. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad would not sell the shores and islands of Great Falls. But the Depression soon left it in arrears in its Federal taxes and with little choice. An honest broker -- he owned no B.&O. stock -- Major Lee used his contacts in the Roosevelt Administration to bring the B.&O. lawyers together with Secretaries Morgenthau and Ickes -- and the Department of the Interior took over the Falls and the antique Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that lay nearby.
There had been no such difficulty in the buying of Sligo Creek, nor had it been a secret to whom Sligo Creek belonged. The Major did not realize much on the sale -- for development purposes, the creek valleys in fact were worthless. But when the housing market collapsed in 1933, thanks to the Sligo Creek sale, the Lee family did not.
He survived very severe reverses in the mid-'Thirties. With the collapse of the housing market in 1933-34 Major Lee was left with uncollectible mortgages and unsellable properties and debts in four Counties of upwards of a million dollars. He resigned from everything -- including chairmanship of the Democratic Organization and even chairmanship of his home precinct -- and set about, once again, to rebuild the family fortune. Finally, his wife divorced him, on uncontested grounds of desertion. But his creditors were also his friends, and his political disciples and clients. Behind his leadership they had prospered. There was no one else on the scene who could take over from him and accomplish as much: so they believed. No one else had had his political advantages or his experience or the respect and influence which had accrued to him over 15 years at all levels of the State government. Simply, they knew him and his ability too well to believe the reverses of 1934 more than temporary; and they needed him. So they did not so much as call him before a creditors' committee. He received a free hand to sell all he could, and he did not have to pay them until he did.
And promptly after the divorce became final, Major Lee remarried. His new bride was an heiress from Providence, Rhode Island.
It took only four years to get the family finances back into a healthy state of growth. Before the end of the 'Thirties Brooke Lee was once again in command of the Montgomery Democratic Organization.
But he had lost command of the County.
Taking advantage of his absence, a Home Rule movement had sprung up in the civic associations of the Montgomery suburbs, a non-partisan coalition of old Republican and Democratic enemies of Lee and new immigrants, Federal employees and young professionals with no stake in the Organization nor any debt to it. The very people whose residence and business the Major had worked so long to bring in.
Challenges to the Organization had erupted and sputtered since the early 'Thirties, cries of one-man rule, favoritism in contracts, inefficiency in services and tax collection. In 1934, when the Major was at his weakest, a Fusion ticket of Bethesda Democrats and the County's vestigial Republican Party won three of the five seats on the Board of County Commissioners, and also places in the Delegation to Annapolis, where the real power lay. The significance of the victory was more important than the immediate results, since the ad hoc Fusion disintegrated almost immediately; but not the inchoate movement that elected it. Fusion had won by seizing on East West Highway as the symbol of what was only then emerging as the fundamental political struggle of Suburban America in the Twentieth Century. It was not a question of whether minorities or the poor would be permitted to move in (although thirty years later this question would fight its way to the center of the controversy). The fundamental question was: Who shall govern the growth of this green and pleasant County: the property sellers or the property buyers? The Developers or the Homeowners? The Mortgagees or the Mortgagors?
"Brooke Lee used our hard earned tax money to build that crazy road
so we'd have to pay him even more money
to buy a house along it!"
Although false as to the specifics of the case, as a general insight the charge was true enough. More to the point, Lee was Vice President of two banks where the County left its funds, left them to run up interest; and instead of using them to pay off debts the County borrowed from these banks and others, deepening the public debt. Or the County would issue bonds, for instance to finance its share of highway construction (e.g., East-West); which bonds Lee's banks readily purchased, presumably with the County cash already deposited. There were no laws against it, but the Fusion had hoped to legislate some.
It failed; but what was revolutionary about the movement that continued to grow was that it did not seek merely a change of executives in the Delegation to Annapolis. What the remains of the Fusion were strong enough to do, when the Major returned to leadership, was dare the Lee men on the County Board to commission the Brookings Institution, in downtown Washington, to study how the County government might be improved. The Major went along, in order to neutralize the challenge as an issue in the '38 election. The finesse seemed to succeed, because the Lee Organization recaptured the County machinery.
But the final study, eight hundred pages thick, coming out in 1941, called for County independence from Annapolis, for the elimination of patronage (the Organization's life-blood), the installation of a civil service, a total reorganization of County government along modern corporate lines, and the non partisan election of a County Council enjoying both legislative and executive power (thus robbing the Delegation to Annapolis of its unique power) and the authority to appoint a professional County Manager. It also urged that the Montgomery half of the Park and Planning Commission be removed from the State to the County, and the planning made central. Finally the Brookings Report called for a written charter -- and for what the Major clearly saw as the destruction of his Organization.
The anti-Lee movement became the Charter Movement.
Even more decisive than what was revolutionary about the Charter Movement, however, was what was new. The officers of the Home Rule movement, like the officers of the Organization, were men -- but the troops were women. They were college-educated women of a newly formed Montgomery chapter of the League of Women Voters. It was too late when Brooke Lee realized that charm was not enough to charm them. The Colonel had failed to properly estimate his adversary.
There followed a ten-year war of attrition for which 1918 was no training and fifteen years in Annapolis experience sufficient only to bring off tactical victories. Twenty years as the only political organization in the County had left the Organization exposed at the flanks. But the victories were not all pyrrhic. The Colonel was able to get a law sneaked through the legislature banning non-partisan elections in Counties with a council-manager form of government, and he stymied all legislative efforts to break up the bi-County Park and Planning Commission. Such small successes, however, cost him election, in 1942, to the U. S. House of Representatives; but for the Home Rule movement, E. Brooke Lee would surely have been the first Sixth District Democrat elected to Congress from Montgomery County.
His consolation was appointment to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission as Vice Chairman and Parks Commissioner. This gave him direct political control of the residential and commercial development of his County, and by 1947 the U. S. Census Bureau listed Silver Spring as "The Fastest Growing Community in Post War America."
But the rear-guard victories merely postponed and softened the strategic defeat. In desperation near the end he even proposed that the Organization join the Home Rule movement -- to detour it into Harmony -- only to be surprised by a rank-and-file revolt by County employees shouting, "Sell out!" They were the ones who'd lose their jobs to the civil service reform. The old man had his farm to go back to.
We kept out organized gambling, the Colonel liked to recite in his vivid grainy voice. We kept out the saloons and the sporting districts and the ghettoes. We had a tight law on billboards. We kept out the cemeteries, they stifled growth. They wanted to bury D.C. people, not our people. We created the first County police force. It was incorruptible and reasonably efficient. We moved the loafers along when it was dusk and time for them to go back to D.C. We had the greatest expert on elementary education, Dr. Edwin Broome, and we gave him all the money that he said he had to have. We insisted on large school sites. We got Federal money and saved the valley stream parks. . . .
With the Park and Planning Commission they had brought in zoning -- not to restrict Growth but to enhance it, to attract the Higher Grade of Citizen and Entrepreneur to the lovely hills and fields of Montgomery County.
By 1947 it was all over but the final siege. A second Charter Board had been elected, by the Higher Grade of Citizen if not by the Entrepreneur, to write a revised charter certain to pass in 1948 (the original having failed narrowly in 1944), despite everything the Organization and its leadership, dutifully going through the motions, could effect.
The story of how the non partisan Charter Movement, composed largely of housewives, destroyed the political monopoly of Colonel E. Brooke Lee is the story of Montgomery County, Maryland, politics in the mid-Twentieth Century. But as such it is not pertinent to this story. By the time Charter won, the suburbs were essentially built. All the growth that followed merely developed what Lee and his people had established. The struggle of real estate interests against homeowner interests continued, with the real estate interests, even in the reformed government, still the ascendant force. As Montgomery County became, in the 1960 Census and again in 1970, the most affluent County in the United States per median family income, it became what Lee had meant it to be: the greenest plateau which the American middle class had yet cultivated as a home and a school for its children.
And so in '47-'48 the real strategy, now, was like Sam Eig's in March 1942, to beat the home construction moratorium: start as much as could be started before the Charterites and the Central Planners took over and applied brakes.
In late 1946 Mr. Sam Eig had petitioned the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission for a special exception to the zoning regulations to allow him to build garden apartments in Rock Creek Forest.
Colonel Lee had first met Mr. Eig in the late 'Twenties when he was Major Lee and Mr. Eig was running a grocery store in the District. Mr. Eig made deposits with the Takoma Park Bank, of which Major Lee was a director and vice president, taking small loans and repaying them on time to the penny.
I tell you a story, Sam Eig chuckled fifty years later. Ceptain Hewitt, Conel Lee, some others were tryin to track down ownas of lots people inherited, dey were lots sold by speculatas aft d Civil War and dese people lived all ove dcountry. I vas just a keed, I kept at Ceptain Hewitt, "Give me a list." Says, "Vot makes you tink you can get dese people, you're just a keed!" But he gave me the names, I wrote to San Diego, New York, Tennessee, sold 'em a bill of goods, showed 'em plats of subdivisions. He laughed. Told 'em I'd make 'em reech if dey give me an option to develop. After a few years dey wrote back, "Hey I tought you were gonna make us reech!" He laughed again. All I was doin is buyin all dland I can. Just a little bit. I had no money. I's raisin a femily and a small little business. But at the same time when I made a dolla I gave to charity and fifty cents I invest. It vas dvoods, Silva Springk! People told me, you're crazy to buy in Silva Spring dere's notin out dere. But I liked dplace I bought fi farms. Dose farms are now Easvess Highway, Easvess Highway's my farm. One of those lots, about ten feet over the D.C. line into the Maryland woods, was likely the first piece of County land he bought, age 29, on June 20, 1927.
The Major's friends, some of them, expressed worry privately about what encouraging the Sam Eigs of Washington to invest in Silver Spring might do to property values.
--Colonel, when Sam Eig began to build Rock Creek Forest, some of his "Christian friends" called him and suggested that he keep it restricted, keep Jews out and he'd make a lot of money. He ignored them, and he made a lot more money. But here he was, an immigrant Russian Jew, and here you were, member of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant family which went back on the Lee side to the Revolution and before, one of the oldest families in the country. And yet you worked so well together.
The Colonel cleared his throat.
--We've always had a policy here of helping these builders from the outside, because we wanted the County to grow, and they were the most capable people that appeared to help it grow. And we used to tell them at the Planning Commission, "If you can make us understand this proposal of yours, if we think it's right we'll vote for it, we'll help you to do it. Our staff will help you work it out. We're in favor of you're coming in here with every opportunity." And that included people like Abe Kay, who had the golf course at Four Corners (his son and son-in-law still have the Indian Spring Club); a man named Milestone, Mr. Eig, and a half dozen other very capable Jewish fynanciers and builders. They had to have money, they had to have ability, they had to have the promotive genes and genius. Great many of their attributes were not sufficiently present in the local situation and we were happy to see them. The hearing was reported in the local papers. Although Rockville was the County seat, a County Building had been built in Silver Spring to take care of Eastern County business. The Park and Planning Commission had use of its plain hearing room to take testimony.
We can imagine Parks Commissioner Lee not only presiding but listening intently and with every show of courtesy. The intent listening would probably be for the future political weight the witness might register. But however much he enjoyed charming enemies into Harmony, or at least entertaining them into frustration, we can also imagine the Commissioner bored with the tedium of the process -- his mind made up, no doubt, even before Mr. Eig had presented the petition -- as even the witnesses, to their waxing anger, knew; his fancy elsewhere. Perhaps out the window, where only weeks ago, in the leafy quiet of Woodside (here in the East) and of Chevy Chase (midway) and of Edgemoor (in the West), doors had opened and the lady of the house had been surprised to find another woman, with the bright, fine smile of a sorority sister, handing a brochure and explaining how County services would be improved by Home Rule.
At the witness table resident after resident testifies against the apartments Mr. Eig wishes to build. Some say Mr. Eig had expressly promised, when they bought their houses from him, that no apartments would ever be built. Then Mr. Eig takes the table, and the Commissioner smiles, fancy re-engaged. He has not planned to build apartments, Mr. Eig declares. But it is an emergency. The boys overseas are coming home, they cannot find houses, their families are living on park benches downtown, materials are short, strikes are tying up the country. He lives in Rock Creek Forest himself, he doesn't want apartments next door, he can make more money building more houses, but families, little babies are sleeping on benches! It is a sacrifice for America, but he will make it.
Howls from the seats.
The Commissioner gavels order. But also, testimony concluded, with fatherly smile, he thanks all the citizens for voicing their concerns, and promises they will be taken into consideration.
Then abruptly he rises and gavels the hearing adjourned -- his eye gay and shrewd, and his belly dancing like a battering ram. ....