The old bull was still heavy and strong, he had the blood of a champion, and for years, he had sired the heifers and calves that were the last pride and fame of Col. E. Brooke Lee. Most days, Lee, long past 80, and hobbled out to see the bull and usually, had brought him an apple.
Early yesterday morning, the man who built much of Montgomery County and ruled it like a king for 30 years came out once again to look over his prize polled Hereford, and say goodbye. The bull got up and pressed its huge muzzle through the bars of its pen, and Lee reached over and rubbed it. "Oh, there, I'm sorry," the colonel said.
Then E. Brooke Lee leaned on his old wooden-handled hoe and walked into the show barn of his Damascus farm to watch the auction of the bull and 550 other purebred polled Hereford cattle he has raised. He was 86, and he was giving up his last adventure.
"This is truly a historic day," said sale manager Jewett M. Fulkerson to the some 250 cattlemen from 10 states who had gathered in the bleachers around the auction ring with Lee, his son, E. Brooke Lee II, and grandsons, E. Brooke Lee III and Fred Lee. "Few men have ever contributed so much to the breeding of cattle "(Col Lee) has been a pillar of strength in this industry."
The sale was certainly historic, but not only from a cattle breeder's point of view. It also marked the end of the active career of a man whose political career began before World War I and whose backyard once included most of present-day Silver Spring.
The son of Sen. Francis Preston Blair Lee and the father of Acting Gov. Blair Lee III, E. Brooke Lee devoted himself to cattle only at the age of 62, after careers as a soldier, real estate speculator and political boss that spanned nearly 40 years.
He was state comptroller, speaker of the state legislature, father of two early water and planning agencies, and chairman of the Montgomery Democratic Party during the county's boom decades.
Lee rammed funds for suburban roads and schools and sewers through state and local agencies while he subdivided his vast landholdings into subdivisions in Silver Spring, Bethesda, and elsewhere.
Even now, the old colonel - a World War I hero whose rank dates from his later service in the National Guard - is embroiled in a running feud with Damascus homeowners as he steadily sells homebuilders lot after half-acre lot from the 28 farms he owns in the area.
But it was cattle the colonel was selling yesterday, and it was as a cattleman that he was remembered.
"He started me in the business seven years ago, and he's started a bunch of other guys around this room," said Cary Scates, his neighbor in Damascus.
"He had the best principles of any man in the business. He would do anything to help his neighbor out. And it's going to hurt the breeders in the state when he gets out. People came to this area for sales from all over the country because of the selection he offered."
The colonel moved to Damascus and began breeding cattle full time in the early 1950's. after his Democratic machine was finally ousted from power in Rockville. He chose to invest in polled Herefords, then a little-used breed of cattle distinguished by their lack of horns.
Within 10 years, the colonel had the largest herd of polled Herefords in the world, and for four straight years registered more of the breed than any other farmer in the country.
Now, polled Hereford's are the second most popular breed of stock cattle in the marketplace, and the colonel has a wall full of blue show ribbons and a membership in the Polled Hereford Hall of Fame to show for his work.
"The challenge and excitement of all of it kept him young," said his wife Nina yesterday. "He used to go out and make all the decisions himself, and choose which bulls were to go with which heifers."
"I had to have something to do," explains the colonel.
"I'm going to miss the cattle," he said. "But I was getting too old to move around, and these animals require constant attention."
Not all of the cattle will leave the Lee farm. About 40 old cows and "about 12 we missed," the colonel says, will stay "as sort of a scrub herb for us to watch."
Then, too, the colonel will still supervise the farming of hundreds of acres of corn, wheat and barley, on his land, and manage the development of the subdivisions that, he says, will eventually engulf his own farm, as they did in Silver Spring decades ago.
The sale went well. The colonel's old bull sold for $4,800, more than $3,000 more than he paid for it three years ago. But the old man was solemn as he left the barn for a break.
"He was too good to sell, the colonel said. "But we had to sell him." And then, turning a man who stopped to introduce himself, the colonel said, "I wish I was as young as you are."