Just as the bulldozer clanked toward a tiny vine-covered thicket on the edge of Montgomery County's expanding mansion lands, the Rev. George Arichia Windear ran from his car, arms waving.
Frantically, Windear explained to the dozer's driver that beneath the tangled growth about to be graded lay the cemetery of a church he had known as Wesley Union Methodist, one of the first free black congregations in Montgomery.
The driver climbed down and pulled back the vegetation. Among the weathered fieldstones was a marble slab marking the grave of James W. Windear, who died at 43 years of age in 1946 after coming down with what his brother recalled was "throat trouble." The driver notified the property owner.
That was how Saul Joseph, 64, a Beaver, Pa., developer with holdings in Ohio, Pennsylvania, the District and Maryland came to learn a few years ago that the county had sold him a graveyard.
"I had no idea" when he bought the 0.62-acre parcel on Piney Meetinghouse Road for $162.51 at a 1977 tax sale that it contained a cemetery, Joseph said.
Joseph was one of a number of land-buyers who come upon discoveries about their new properties after they deed it from the county--after it is too late, according to Chris Malone, an assistant county attorney who handles Montgomery's tax matters, including sales of properties whose tax bills have gone unpaid for longer than the county will tolerate.
"People come back complaining that we've sold them land that's under water or land-locked or on a flood plain," Malone said. "It's up to the buyer to be careful about what they're getting. Once we sell it, they've got it."
The last owners before Joseph were Nelson Cooper, Thomas Jenkins and Aaron Turner, trustees of the Methodist Church, who bought the land in 1873 for $25 from Ruben C. and Clara V. Creamer, according to a frayed, hand-lettered document in the county land records office that referred to the plot as "Piney Thicket."
Windear's grandfather, Alfred Harden, a child freed from slavery at the Civil War's end, helped hew the pine planks to build the one-room church, the 88-year-old clergyman said in a recent interview. The church thrived along with other rural black congregations in the region they called Brickyard, an area now speckled with the mansionettes of Potomac, one of the area's wealthiest suburbs.
Windear married his wife, Dorothy, in 1917, and, like many blacks who had grown up on farms surrounding Washington, they moved to the city for the promise of a new future. With the younger generaton leaving and the older members dying out, the Methodist Church on Piney Meetinghouse Road closed around 1919, Windear said. But for nearly 30 years after, its cemetery continued to fullfill a community need.
"All those people who lived up in that area were burried in that cemetery," Windear said. "Even after they moved to the city, they were brought back up there to be burried. They grew up there, and all their family and relatives and friends were up there. . . . "
Memebers could bury family and friends without paying a fee, Windear said. Burial records were rare; most graves were marked with fieldstones, "a big one at the head and a small one over the feet," he said.
"They would keep families together, and I imagine there were some graves on top of one another," he said. "They buried people there until they couldn't fit anymore." His brother apparantly was among the last interred on the site. The few other legible grave markers remaining show burial dates in the '40s.
The graveyard was aparantly not well-maintained in subsequent years, and the forest growth overtook it.
Shortly before 1977, the state tax assessors office placed the property back on the county tax logs, and assessed it at $1,050, according to county land records.
When no one paid the taxes, the county automatically put it up for public sale for the overdue amount, county Circuit Court records showed. Joseph won a bid on that property among a number of other properties he had bid on in the tax auction, and his attorney proceeded through the routine procedures of aquiring deed to the land.
The lawyer checked voter rolls, the county Register of Wills and certified in court records that he even "searched the local telephone directories . . . and was unable to locate a listing" for the trustees, who would each be at leat 110 today.
Three letters notifying the trustees of the sale that would claim their property went to the church--whose only trace is the rubble of its foundation--and were returned, stamped "insufficient address." Windear said that he had known two of the trustees, and that "all of them are dead in that cemetery."
The court authorized Joseph to get deed to the property in 1978. State law requires a special court decree to sell a cemetery, but court and land records offer no indication that county officials knew there was a cemetery on the parcel they sold to Joseph.
He said the land wasn't really adequate for a large house, and he had simply bid on it as a lark. Joseph said he would not disturb the cemetery, and intends to continue paying the small property tax. "I pay hundreds of thousands in property taxes. This one is of no consequence," he said.
County attorney Malone said the county would take back a piece of land only if the new owner could prove either that it didn't exist or its listed boundaries were substantially wrong.
Which is not to say Joseph is stuck with a useless property, Malone offered. "If he's looking for a place to bury his friends or family, he can do it."