Oden Bowie once woke up to the sound of livestock and birds. From his ancestral home, Fairview, he could see an endless expanse of emerald grass and rolling hills that stretched to Church Road. His neighbors were close friends with whom he hunted quail and rabbits.
Today "the sounds of cows and woodpeckers have been replaced by nail guns and trucks going, beep, beep, beep when they back out at 6:30 in the morning," his daughter Ambler Bowie Slabe says, shaking her head.
From his porch, Bowie, who is 90, now sees an endless expanse of housing subdivisions in various stages of construction. A descendant of the family after whom the city is named, he watches trucks come with cement and lumber, and armies of workmen marching in jeans and hard hats. He doesn't know any of his new neighbors, who spend their lives inside their mini-mansions or at work.
And what about the hunting? That's nearly gone, too.
In fact, about the only thing the newcomers on Church Road hunt for today is a pocket of land that hasn't been developed.
The transformation of Church Road and the areas that flank it is a story of Prince George's County itself.
As new home construction soars throughout the region, fueled by an economic boom, population growth and rising real estate prices, rural stretches across Prince George's are changing at breathtaking speed.
Some worry that county services can't keep up with the pace of home building, while others welcome the changes as long-overdue progress. Those who have lived on Church Road and those who study the county's history feel a sense of loss -- for a way of life they know is disappearing.
"It was its own little tiny universe," said Stephen Patrick, the City of Bowie's museum director. "Now, with all the development coming, this is getting lost."
From Trees to Tracts
Take a drive on Church Road and you can see it vanishing. It's a seven-mile stretch of two lanes that snakes wickedly between Annapolis Road and Oak Grove Road. It runs mostly through Mitchellville, boring into was once called "the Forest" of Prince George's County. In the early 18th century, Church Road was built to connect two churches -- St. Barnabas' Church on Oak Grove Road and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Annapolis Road.
Today, the road connects real estate gold mines. Majestic trees now appear to be the dividing lines between subdivisions. Yellow bulldozers plow the fields where tobacco once grew, preparing the land for a new breed of well-heeled suburban settlers. Turf farms are now carved into sprawling housing tracts.
"It's going to be millionaires' row," said Gail Booker Jones, a Bowie City Council member whose district encompasses part of Church Road.
But, in a way, it's also poorer as history clashes with the modern on every mile of the road.
Signs for new $700,000-plus homes butt against a 200-year-old-cemetery with pretty purple flowers that sway in the breeze. The new, gargantuan Evangel Church, a so-called mega-church that sits on Central Avenue, a quarter-mile off the road, overshadows smaller, older sanctuaries.
The sparkling subdivisions have been given familiar names and images of a bygone era, as if to evoke their memories -- Woodmore, Collington, The Hamptons at Woodmore, The Sycamore Club, Fairwood and so on. The homes range from luxury townhouses starting at $300,000, to 5,000-square-foot Colonials with two- and three-car garages on lots big and small.
And at the junction of Oak Grove and Church roads, the red-brick St. Barnabas' Church, erected in 1774, now faces a large green-and-white sign that reads: Oak Creek, A Private Guard Gated Country Club Community.
An arrow points down Church Road.
"I have mixed feelings," said Susan Pearl, a historian with the Prince George's County Historical Society. "I would much rather look at turf than a lot of plastic houses."
Moments later, she recalled the shock of people who once lived along Church Road and the perplexing question they always seem to ask: "They would come home and say: How can you stand to live here with all these changes?" Pearl said.
A Distinctly 'Country' Culture
Oden Bowie copes by turning to his memories. His family has lived in Prince George's County for more than 200 years. His grandfather and namesake was a former Maryland governor for whom Bowie is named. His family's blood is as blue as it gets in Prince George's.
Bowie remembers when Church Road was nothing more than gravel. He would walk up and down it, an ocean of grass fields surrounding him.
"We couldn't see any buildings," Bowie recalled. He is tall and slim, his back hunched with age.
Every day he would get up, have breakfast and head to work in the fields. The family raised tobacco and cattle and bred horses. On free days, if the weather was clear, he would take the dogs and head out into the woods for a day of hunting.
Or simply hang out with his cows. "I had as many as 100," Bowie said with pride.
It was an uncomplicated life, in which the mailman knew everyone's name, checks were cashed at the country store and neighbors visited each other without phoning.
One of Bowie's treasured memories, still vivid even in his old age, is the time one of his rams won the $15 grand prize at the state fair -- a hefty sum during the Great Depression.
"Didn't have any competition," Bowie said, a smile spreading across his face.
By most accounts, Church Road was also a nook of Prince George's County where blacks and whites lived harmoniously, if separately. While they seldom mixed socially, they had a healthy respect for one another. Long after they were freed, many blacks stayed to work on the white-owned farms.
There were separate schools for blacks and whites, but not the sort of raging discrimination seen in the deep South.
"We didn't experience that kind of racism," said Anna Holmes, a retired schoolteacher who's now working to preserve African American history in Prince George's County.
Every weekend and during the summers, Holmes, 79, used to visit her grandmother, who lived on Church Road not far from the Bowie farm.
"We called it 'the country' back then," Holmes recalled. "Some of the fondest memories I have are from there."
Holmes remembers large holiday dinners of chicken, turkey and geese, all meals cooked on big wood-burning stoves. She recalls picking blackberries and heading to the county store to buy Popsicles from its white owner.
"Everybody in the neighborhood knew everybody on that one stretch of road," Holmes said. "It was a close-knit village."
Bowie, too, recalls helping some of his black neighbors plow their fields. Blacks and whites, he said, "got along fine. There were no problems. One would help the other."
As the years and decades passed, and as Washingtonians spread out into suburbia, the farms began to shrink as families sold chunks of their land to developers. In recent years, the pace has hit rocket speed as landowners and developers alike want to capitalize on the region's housing boom. And more subdivisions are planned for Church Road.
Pains and Payoffs
On a recent afternoon, Booker Jones, the Bowie City Council member, pulled out a black and white map of Church Road and began to count the existing and planned subdivisions.
She counted 15.
The surge in housing, as in other nooks of suburbia, is increasing the population, the number of vehicles on the road and school enrollment in the area. The result is new traffic problems along Church Road, she said. The subdivisions will require more manpower to police and to provide emergency fire and medical assistance, at a time when such resources are stretched across the county, she added.
"The growth has been overwhelming for Church Road," said Booker Jones, who lives nearby. "If you add 2,000 more units to Church Road, that increases the problems. We are not adequately prepared to meet the challenges brought on by these developments in this area."
County officials are trying, however.
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission has endorsed a plan to realign and widen parts of Church Road so that traffic can flow more smoothly. The proposal could go before the County Council for final approval as early as this fall.
The county has also launched smaller projects to improve the traffic where Church Road crosses Mount Oak and Woodmore roads.
For Stanley Rodenhauser, that's welcome news. His family has owned Freeway Airport off Church Road since the early 1900s, when the road was gravel, he said. He used to be able to pull alongside his mailbox on Church Road and grab mail. Now he has to pull into his driveway.
"When traffic lights come to Church Road, it's going to change the way we drive," Rodenhauser said. "If anything, there's some positive things. With new developments comes road work."
So far, his new neighbors in the subdivisions mushrooming around the airport haven't complained about planes flying overhead, he said. Before buying their homes, they had to sign documents acknowledging they were aware of the airport's presence, he said.
Gwen Ocasio, 42, moved into a large house in the neighborhood in July from Norfolk. She said she tries to avoid Church Road and never even contemplates riding her bicycle on it because "it's too narrow." Still, she doesn't mind all the "McMansions" cropping up around her.
"That's fine. There's nothing wrong with development," she said, standing at her front door. "But the streets have to keep up with it. . . . I like it here."
Nobody thinks the developers will stop their march across Church Road.
"I don't like seeing landscapes destroyed," said Pearl, the county historian. "All you can do is apply the law. When the developers adhere to all the regulations, you can't stop it."
That's partly why Pearl decided to work with a developer who wants to renovate and sell Bowieville, an elegant historic mansion that sits off Church Road. It was built in 1819 by one of Bowie's ancestors. She's making sure, among other things, that the renovations are true to Bowieville's roots.
Bowie and his family have sold much of the 360 acres they owned. Today, to get to Fairview, the Bowie ancestral home, they must pass through several subdivisions and street signs that immortalize the Bowie name. There's Oden's Bequest Drive, here's Fairview Vista Drive.
History, Hemmed In
Bowie spends part of his days watching the construction crews building a subdivision in his back yard. He's fascinated by the way they build houses today, although they are shrinking his world.
"Everything is prefabricated," he said with a touch of awe. "Everything is just brought on trucks and assembled here."
Yet Bowie also feels conflicted about the transformation of a corner of Prince George's that his ancestors built and nurtured for more than 200 years.
On one hand, he sees it as the sign of the times. "It's progress," he said. "It was probably inevitable." On the other, he feels a sense of loss. Minutes after he talked about his farm, his land, his animals, the elements that he called his "lifeblood," he slumps his shoulders and stares down at the wood floor of his porch.
"I liked it the way it was," he said, his voice disappearing in the breeze.
As Church Road is given over to new construction, a developer wants to renovate and sell the Bowieville mansion, built in 1819. Anna Holmes used to visit her grandmother on Church Road, in "the country."