Before the Civil War, George Washington Getty of Georgetown pastured his father's cows at what is now Connecticut Avenue and M Street NW. After his war service on behalf of the Union and later on the western frontier, General Getty retired to a 200-acre farm in the future Washington suburbs.
It was three miles from the District on Brookeville Road, a toll pike that was to become Georgia Avenue. Its post office address was Forest Glen.
Over the generations, the Gettys of Forest Glen have seen their family farm fall to the forces of regional growth. The development of the suburbs where they once grazed sheep and grew corn is as much a part of their family history as the faded obituaries of the general. The Getty story is a saga of change on the shifting farm frontier of metropolitan Washington.
The last remnant of the Getty farm is a 3.91-acre tract surrounded by suburbia and all but hidden by bushes from the view of motorists speeding by on six-lane Georgia Avenue just beyond the Beltway. A few years ago, Metro wanted to build a subway station on the property but wound up building a few blocks south.
This spring, the government finally gobbled up the remains of the Getty farm. Montgomery County contracted to buy the property at 10001 Georgia Ave. from Frederick Simpson Getty, 73, the general's grandson, his sister and other heirs. Plans call for tennis, basketball and handball courts, a playground and parking for 100 people a day. It is to be called General Getty Park. It will be landscaped, of course.
The purchase price was $600,000. A town house developer had offered Getty three times as much, but the county had other ideas. The park commission, with its powers of condemnation, made him an offer he couldn't refuse. "I'd just like to stay here the rest of my days," Getty said. But it was not to be.
He is the last farmer of Forest Glen, perched on the tractor he stores in one of several outbuildings on his property. In fact, he is more of a farmer than his grandfather, the general, or his father, who always wanted a naval career and long regretted his lot in life.
He cultivates his garden and rents plots to friends and neighbors. He also rents himself out, with his tractor, to plow private or public ground amidst urban congestion where farm machinery is as scarce as a Southern States store or grain elevator.
And yet, before his own retirement, he was a surveyor by trade, transforming the farms into subdivisions. "I staked out all these subdivisions in Montgomery," he said, casually. "Viers Mill Village. Twinbrook. I laid out all that. This one, right beside my house now, too. I can't remember the name of the damn thing now. Forest something."
His last job -- which took seven years to complete -- was mapping out Metro, including the alignment along Georgia Avenue, past the property from which he has watched the country disappear.
It still is possible to pretend, from parts of the tract planted in peas, potatoes or tomatoes, that this is the country. From the century-old tenant house, even from the front porch of the house the general's son built in 1912, it is possible -- with ear plugs -- to forget the surroundings.
It's a pretense, of course. In reality, there is the unmistakable roar of traffic rushing by at all hours until late at night, when ambulances sound their sirens and wake up Fred Getty's dogs whose barking in turn interrupts his sleep "every damn time."
When Getty was a boy, he would run to the roadside by his house to watch a single car approaching and stand there in awe as it disappeared in the dust.
"Very few people had cars and, hell, I knew everybody who came down the road," he said. "This road wasn't paved for a long time. It was a pile of stones, a mudhole. The farmers would take stones from the field, haul and dump 'em on the road to get rid of them. This was nothing but mud in the wintertime. In summertime, if there was a drought, it could get dusty as the devil."
Then, it was a two-lane macadam road. In 1952, it was widened into a dual highway, with such ceremony that the governor came to the dedication.
As cars and people came, the farms that filled the countryside became history.
George Washington Getty had passed the place marching to Antietam in 1862. After the war, and service in Texas, New Mexico, South Carolina and Virginia, he asked a relative to find him a retirement home in nearby Maryland. The Batchelor farm, which sprawled all the way to Sligo Creek, was acquired for $8,000 at a foreclosure sale. In 1883, the old soldier moved into the 22-room house, big enough to accommodate family visits from his six grown children. He prevailed on the youngest, George Graham Getty, to manage the place, although the young man's goal had been the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.
General Getty died in 1901. Soldiers came to carry his coffin to Arlington National Cemetery, where he is buried.
In turn-of-the-century Forest Glen, the rural setting remained seemingly intact. As recalled by Mildred Newbold Getty, Fred's sister and a retired D.C. school teacher who died in February at 85, life was full of Currier & Ives images for the four children of G. Graham Getty.
"We gathered chestnuts in the fall, or played in the apple orchard and ate red apples," she wrote to Fred's son in 1959. "Often Graham her brother and I rode in the four-horse wagon out to the fields with the men to bring in the hay. Or we would have great fun bringing in the corn. As we rode we could look out over the adjoining fields, and perhaps see the winter wheat being sown as the corn was being harvested.
"In July, we always went out to gather dewberries. Their vines ran along the ground in the uncultivated fields . . . . We all loved the free, outdoor life on the farm."
Their father did not. In 1911, he persuaded his mother to sell half of the land. Fifty acres went to an insurance executive for $12,000. After another transaction, the house was deeded to St. John's Catholic Church, whose hierarchy burned it down to make room for a new place of worship. The church is still there.
G. Graham Getty, meanwhile, built the house in 1912 occupied by his son Fred. He also sold half the remaining 100 acres.
With his shrunken farm, G. Graham Getty still kept a dozen dairy cows and Fred used to help him deliver milk around Silver Spring. "He didn't last long because the milk route didn't pay enough," Fred Getty said. "Then my older brother and sister took care of him and he gave up farming." At his death in 1945, his children sold all but the 3.91 acres to the developers of Forest Estates.
By that time, the farm frontier had begun to change. In 1938, Carolan Getty Armstrong, Fred's surviving sister, and her husband had built a house where she still lives, on what had been the lower part of the farm. It was the first in the subdivision that grew there after World War II.
Fred Getty, through the mist of time, remembered the neighborhood as it was. Farmer Francis Blundon, he recalled, had acquired 50 acres of the Getty farm. And across Georgia Avenue, on land now occupied by the Finmark Americana condominiums, was Blundon's home farm. Blundon's cows supplied milk to Walter Reed Army Hospital during World War I.
Above Blundon's was a Colonel McKinney, a Washingtonian who only summered on his farm, watched over by a caretaker. When Getty was in grade school, electricity came to the area, but no thanks to the colonel who, Getty said, had refused to allow the power company to erect poles on his property. "One night, we heard all this commotion. They were putting up the poles, and the law said once they were up you couldn't take them down," Getty said. Garden apartments are there now.
Below the Gettys' was Charley Heitmiller's place. He had a wholesale fruit and vegetable business down in Washington. " 'Course, he's been dead some time now," Fred Getty said. His farmland is filled with medical offices.
Fred Getty took to farming as his father never did. While he made a living at surveying subdivisions, he remained, he says, "still a country boy."
On Georgia Avenue, he grew peas, onions, spinach, sugar, corn, lima beans, cabbage, potatoes. Until a few years ago, he also raised vegetables "up-county" off Layhill Road and delivered his produce to buyers in the Silver Spring area.
He used to raise a few chickens. Then chicken feed got too expensive and impossible to find any closer than Gaithersburg.
This spring, his gait slowed by age and his vision narrowed by cataracts, he faced life without the farm. "I gotta find some other place to hang my hat," he said as the park purchase proceeded to settlement.
A week or so later, he had found his new place in the sun, six acres of cleared ground and a "typical old farmhouse" far removed from urban development pressures, across the Potomac on Virginia's Northern Neck.
"It's rich ground, sandy soil, really good for growing stuff," he beamed. "It's got two wells and a little stream, so if I want to have a couple of cattle, they can water there. It has a barn and a shed to put all my machinery, tractors and what not.
"The man said to bring the tractor on down. It's not too late to plant, so I'm going on down, do some planting right away. Potatoes. Cabbage. It's not too late."