Elizabeth Beall Banks has fought off land dealers, Montgomery County planners and even the federal government, holding true to the will of her ancestors, single-handedly running the farm that has been in her family for generations.
But now the forces that so thoroughly transformed what were once rolling hills of neighboring farms along Rte. 28 into blankets of suburban houses threaten to encroach not only on Banks' farm, but possibly on her ancestors' gravesites.
Across Muddy Branch Road from her farm, on land that is now the Washingtonian Country Club golf course, stands a lone group of trees where, Banks believes, members of the Garrett family, early settlers to the Gaithersburg area, may be buried.
"I can't believe what the county has done to my people," Banks said of vandals, traffic conjestion and land condemnation that came with development. "They won't even let them rest."
Jay Alfandre, a developer who wants to put 710 houses and townhouses on the parcel, said he heard stories of a cemetery once there, but since land records list no burial site, he cannot assume there is one. And unless someone can prove otherwise, he said, he will go ahead with the project as planned.
The entire golf course was listed on the county Atlas of Historic Places for the sake of the cemetery, and so would be protected from development. But the planning board recently announced that, in light of Alfandre's proposal, the county's Historic Preservation Commission has recommended the Garrett Cemetery listing be striken because "they couldn't find it," Commissioner Robert E. Brennan said.
The county Planning Board recommended Thursday that the city of Gaithersburg go ahead and grant Alfandre's proposal to annex the land into the city, and grant the zoning that would allow Alfandre to construct, beginning in about a year, garden apartments, town houses and single-family residences. The board's action leaves Gaithersburg with the decision of whether to preserve the site's historic status, county officials said.
Alfandre said he would talk to Banks this week, and, "If she can show me, or prove to me where it is, I'll be happy to deal with it."
Alfandre said if he knew certainly where any graves were, it "would be no problem. We've had them before" in other developments, where, he said, the site is left untouched, and houses go up around the spot, which is preserved as "green space."
Banks said her uncle, Alexander (Sandy) Garrett, decided in the early 1900s to move the graves to a cemetery in Gaithersburg, and some of them were. "But I don't know if everybody was taken there or not. My grandmother always said not all of them were removed."
Banks, who keeps her age a secret except to say she's in her 60s, said her grandmother told her that some of the graves were older than others, and that markers once laid had been lost. Because of that, Banks said her grandmother suspected that not all the graves were transferred.
Russell Roberts, who built the golf course for the late Samuel Eig in 1965, said his crew built around a cluster of trees that stands next to a tee near the intersection of the roads. Banks pointed to the trees as the spot where, she was told always, the graves were.
"There was a cemetery there, and we watched out for it," Roberts said. "We left those trees, and shaped around it."
State law forbids construction over a gravesite, and makes it illegal to exhume and transfer buried remains without permission from the state's attorney, said Eileen McGuckian, director of the county's Historic Preservation Commission. But she said there is always a problem identifying older cemeteries because family descendants, like the crude wooden grave markers, are often long-gone.
Michael F. Dwyer, a historian for the National-Capital Park and Planning Commission, said land records commonly make no mention of gravesites, and those that do tend not to give the exact locations. For that reason, he said, when it comes to old family cemeteries, a family's folk history is more accurate than crumbling, 19th-century deeds.
"If somebody alive knows a specific location, it would seem reasonable to assume that there is or was a family burial ground at that spot if there is not a specific reference in the deed or plat, which usually there is not," he said.
Dwyer said he visited Banks' aging aunt, Katherine Ward, in 1974 when he was gathering details of the historic sites in the area. (Banks' own home was converted from the area's first post office, which her grandfather, Ignatius Beall Ward, postmaster from 1872 to 1893, operated in conjunction with his general store. He had married Banks' grandmother, Elizabeth Frances Garrett.)
Dwyer said during his interview with Katherine Ward, who since died, she mentioned two gravesites, one currently preserved on the south side of Rte. 28 where Ward family members are buried, and another on the golf course, where the Garretts were buried. She, too, had noted that the clump of trees marked the spot, Dwyer said.
Often, Dwyer added, when family cemeteries are moved, some graves are left behind. He noted that two graves were discovered on a farm just before the the Laytonsville landfill was constructed on it. The Riggs family was thought to have transferred all of their buried kin from the spot, but a few descendents thought some bodies remained. Just before construction, state archeologists found their memories were correct, and the remains were sent to Rockville.
Banks said she has been trying to carry on a family vow to sell not an inch of the farm. Since 1958, when she found herself the only one left to run it, she has had to battle the House and Senate Appropriatins Committees in 1962, when the federal government wanted to build an Environmental Health Center on her farms and adjoining ones. She opposed a plan the county had a few years later that would have run an outer beltway loop over her property, and currently, she is fending off a road project that would trim 800 feet, or about 2 1/2 acres, off her pastures.
Ironically, many of her new neighbors, who greet her at the grocery store, bubble about her meticulously kept farmhouse and weedless green pastures, and beg her never to allow it to become a subdivision.
She appreciates the sentiment, though, for if she died today, she said, the land would go to relatives who are not farmers.
"People have said, nobody owned that land but the Garretts and the Indians," Banks said. "I can't prove what it is now, but it was a cemetery, and in my estimation they should at least leave a little plaque there. That's not going to kill anybody."