As a boy on the Prince George's farm that has been in his family since the 1880s, Duane Dickerson hoed tobacco and razed hay. Central Avenue had two lanes, and Capitol Heights was a hilly, rural enclave just east of the District line.
Six decades later, he sleeps with a loaded shotgun at arm's length, ready for what he calls "nocturnal visitors" from the dicey Central corridor -- often homeless people who jump his fences to find shelter. The barn his father built in 1939 to store tractors and tools burned to ashes last month. One night a few weeks ago, apparently just for grins, someone unloaded about 11 gunshots into a dirt bank.
And so Dickerson, who turns 63 next week, is letting go. He has sold his 35 acres to a North Carolina developer who is reported to be planning a strip mall with a Giant supermarket. When Dickerson leaves, it will be the end of what officials believe is the last working family farm inside the Beltway.
One recent cloudy morning, Dickerson roamed the property and told his story, cautioning visitors to beware of the "road apples," or manure, as they passed the horses and llamas gnawing at the grass. He wore a Budweiser T-shirt and cutoff jeans over his stout frame, exposing the knee braces that he wears to alleviate his arthritis. Just over the fence, cars and trucks rushed down Central Avenue. Beyond his other boundaries sit a 7-Eleven, two churches and a small shopping strip.
"It was just like those farms they have on the old TV shows," he said of the time when the family raised its own beef, pork and chicken. "This used to be the country and years ago even the family name was on the old road maps, the area was so sparse. This was all farms -- close to D.C., but it was all farms."
It's not just the relentless advance of the city that is driving Dickerson away. Farming has grown less and less profitable. The tobacco is long gone; all that's left is the horses, livestock and a few dogs.
To be sure, many family-owned farms still exist just a few miles beyond the Beltway. But the sale of the Dickerson property has piqued some local nostalgia for a time when the District was surrounded by countryside.
"I have many memories of this specific farm when I was a kid," said M.H. Jim Estepp, a former Prince George's County Council member who went to high school with Dickerson and rode horses on the farm. "It's sad in a way to see the passing of an era."
As the area has grown more densely populated over the last quarter-century, Dickerson said, crime from the District has seeped into Capitol Heights and onto his farm. Drug dealers selling cocaine packed in tennis balls hole up on his property. He's had break-ins at the white house on top of a small hill overlooking the farm, where he cooks and sleeps.
There was the time someone shot and killed one of his llamas, the time a horse was left with a vicious nine-inch cut across its neck, the times he's found stolen cars torched and abandoned.
He was lucky to have pulled his late mother's blue-and-white 1968 Cadillac out of the barn just days before the fire. Dickerson said the county fire investigator told him the blaze was caused by electrical problems, but he believes it was burned down intentionally by two teenagers who were seen running away just after it erupted in flames.
"It don't make any difference -- it burned down," Dickerson said. "It's like if a tree falls on you, it don't matter if it's a pine tree or an oak. If something happens, it happens."
Pieces of his life are still visible in the charred rubble: the electric welder his father bought him, the jail cell Dickerson bought from the Baltimore City Jail to lock up his tools, bleachers where guests would sit for nighttime horse and pony shows.
He recalled the day about 20 years ago when one of his horses gave birth, and neighbors packed the farm to watch as Dickerson explained what was happening between colt and mother. "Here I am, the tour guide at Disney World for a second," he said.
Some see the sale of Dickerson's farm as a signal of progress in Prince George's.
"I think that the project will enhance that corridor because the community don't have access to food stores and other types of businesses that would be put in the [shopping] center," said County Council Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville), whose district includes the property.
Dickerson hasn't given up on farming entirely. He is packing his possessions onto tractor-trailers as he moves to his new property, a 22-acre farm he purchased in Emmitsburg, about 13 miles south of Gettysburg, Pa.
Over the years, he has collected truckloads of equipment for the stable and amusement business he ran out of his farm, renting out ponies, moon bounces and the like for special events.
"There's an old saying, 'He who dies with the most toys wins,' " he said. "But I'm still trying to decide what you win. A grave?"