Winter returned gently to Avenel Farm last week where Buddy Eyler has worked the land for the last 30 years, clearing the fields, building the barns and stables and staying up nights walking sick horses for wealthy Potomac neighbors.
Fences curved like thin black snakes through white pastures where cows and horses nosed for grass underneath the snow. A giant John Deere combine stood silent, icicles on its bumper. It will not work for Avenel's fields again. Buddy Eyler is leaving.
"It's the end of an era," said Debbie Morris, the 22-year-old stablehand who has worked with Eyler for the last eight years. "Buddy's leaving. I'm leaving. It's progress, I guess. The new owners have 1,000 acres of land 12 miles from Washington and they see dollars."
Avenel Farm, one of the last large, undeveloped tracts of land in the elite suburb of Potomac, will soon be bulldozed by its owners to make way for high-priced houses and a sewage treatment plant.
When the 950-acre farm was sold in 1969 for $4 million Buddy Eyler stayed on in his original job as Avenel's caretaker. Last year, the farm was sold again, for approximately $14 million, this time to Potomac Investment Associates. When the new owners wanted to increase Eyler's rent, he decided to leave.
"It's a tragedy," said Leslie Vincent, one of the 50 people who boarded their horeses with Eyler.
After three decades, one of Potomac's last farmers is auctioning off his farm machinery and heading north to Frederick County.
Eyler, 55, stood in his orange cap and striped overalls in front of the crackling fire in his shed one afternoon as his daughters packed his belongings into boxes.
"It's the way things are," he said. "New people are moving in. They don't understand farming like the old days. But that's the only thing I know."
Gene Holloway, one of three principal partners in Potomac Investment Associates, which purchased the farm last year from another investment company, claims development is at least five years away and the firm wanted Eyler to stay. But Eyler's rent had to be increased to cover property taxes, he said. "He [Eyler] had no reaction," said Holloway. "He just said he was leaving in March." The firm plans to hire someone else to manage the farm and stables.
Some neighbors and friends said Eyler was financially forced out. The farmer shook his head. "We just didn't see eye to eye," he said quietly. "I had hoped to stay a few more years. When you clear land, you get to feel really close to it."
Eyler looked out over the bare trees and fields that sloped down to Rock Run. The farm's entrance faces Persimmon Tree Road near the Bradley Boulevard junction, six miles north of Bethesda, but its woods touch Congressional Country Club and the yards of houses near River Road.
He recalled a time when Persimmon Tree Road was a gravel path with two houses and the site of Congressional Country Club was a dairy farm. When Eyler first cleared Avenel fields, Potomac had fewer than 5,000 residents. Now, over 50,000 residents claim a mailing address in the fashionable Montgomery County community.
"From here to Rockville, it was all farmland," Eyler said. "There were farms between here and Bethesda, too."
In the 1940s, William Rapley, a wealthy Washington publisher, pieced Avenel Farm together from several parcels of ajoining land. A lawyer friend, who owned a farm in Howard County, recommended the son of his farm manager to Rapley as an overseer for Avenel.
Rapley hired young Eyler and the two men cleared the land with a Caterpiller bulldozer. Eyler set up a sawmall and built Avenel's barns, sheds and smokehouse with popular and oak uprooted from the hard soil.
Productive years followed; years in which Avenel boasted the largest registered herd of shorthorn cattle on the East Coast and champion bulls as well as pigs, chickens and sheep. Fields ripened with barley, wheat, corn and alfalfa. Both Rapley and Eyler reared their children on Avenel and farm life followed the rhythm of the seasons.
There were fertile summers of haystacks, corn roasts and picnics followed by splendid autumns when Avenel's bridle path echoed with the sound of Appaloosa hooves and apple trees dropped their fruit. In winter, Eyler butchered hogs and made scrapple and sausage for the neighbors.
"Buddy never charged for anything," said Debbie Morris. "He always gave everything away. And anything you got from Bud was the best. He gives everything he's got to people, to animals and to the land."
Horses were boarded at Avenel. People drove from Washington to board their animals with a man who stayed up nights walking a horse sick with colic and didn't charge for it. "It was a business," Eyler said, "but it was more like a family."
Even as he leaves, Eyler remains unswerving in his loyalty to Rapley, his former boss. "They were fine, fine people, the Rapleys were. They were wonderful to the help. We had everything we needed. It's something I'll never forget."
The nearby field Eyler used to grade with his own bulldozer for kids to play softball on is now the Potomac Village Shopping Center. The bulldozer is up for auction.
"I don't guess there's been one or two people run it but me," Eyler said.
In 1969, Rapley, already divested of his publishing firm, sold Avenel to a European-based investment company, Sheffield Enterprises. He kept 47 acres and the main house for himself. Eyler leased the remainder from the new owners, but life on the farm was never the same. Avenel was no longer a self-contained world, impervious to booming development.
Rapley, 81, who now lives a quiet life of retirement, looks back on Avenel and Eyler with fondness. "We all lived here happily. It was a very pleasant life. But times change. If I had been 20 years younger, I wouldn't have sold it, but I have no regrets."
Two years ago, when Montgomery County environmental planners targeted Avenel with its access to the Potomac River via Rock Run for a 20-million-gallon sewage treatment plant, Eyler knew it was time to leave.
He bought a small place in Frederick but continued to keep his seven-day-a-week, dawn-to-dusk schedule at Avenel. Then last year his father died. Eyler will now take over the Howard County farm he worked with his father when he was a boy.
"I'm going back to where I started," he said. "I got a feeling farming will stay there."
Morris shook her head sadly. "He's lived a lifetime here. Leaving is probably tearing him up but he'd never say so. He keeps a lot inside." She started for the stables where the horses waited to be watered. "Buddy's probably one of the last people in Potomac that knows when to plant crops, where the land's fertile, and -- how to fix machinery."
But what made him different from his Potomac neighbors, she said, was, "He doesn't go to parties."