Gaithersburg Then and Now

Farm tools, antiques auctioned at Crown Farm

By Andrew Moisan
The Gazette
Wednesday, May 3, 2006


James "Kenny" Crown, a panorama of green encircling him under a cloudless Saturday sky, climbed atop a green John Deere lawnmower, started it and let it hum awhile before shutting it off and hopping back down to the sun-baked earth.

Minutes later, as he stood silently by, the lawnmower was sold for $825. Then an old, faded green truck went for $35, and another, upon whose mud-caked side window someone had scrawled "Wash Me Jim Please," brought $220. A forklift fetched $3,700. A combine $325.

So it went that morning, as clouds of dirt and pipe tobacco mingled with men in shopworn blue jeans and overalls who'd come to a public auction at the Crown Farm near Gaithersburg to witness -- and participate in -- what some say is the end of an era.

Days after the county approved a request by Gaithersburg to annex the 183-acre expanse, purchased last year by local developers, the Crowns, who had owned it since the early 1900s, auctioned tools that once helped run the farm along with many of the antiques that had helped define it.

Developers plan to transform the land, the last working farm in a swiftly expanding area on Fields Road near Washingtonian Center, into a hub for homes, businesses and a new high school, much to the chagrin of some who, while accepting it, regard the change with some melancholy.

"It's an emotional thing," said Crown, standing near a clutch of onlookers as auctioneers rapidly rattled off bids in sometimes-melodious chants that blared through a small amplifier strapped over their shoulders. "It had to happen."

The family sold the property for $137 million last September to a team led by Gaithersburg businessman Aris Mardirossian after a family member died in 2004 and the federal estate taxes became an untenable expense.

Developers also want to build up to 320,000 square feet of commercial space, which, in addition to the homes and a 30-acre site for a school to relieve overcrowding, is expected to change the now rural expanse into something more like the nearby Lakelands and Kentlands communities.

But before any of that, the Crowns, who have stopped actively farming the land, knew they would need to rid of a century's worth of memories both practical and sentimental.

"The comment was that, 'If we'd sold our land for this kind of money, we would have just called in somebody to move it on out and not go through this,'" said the Rev. Janet Cornelius, a longtime friend of the family, quoting a remark someone had made to her. "And my return to him was, 'But that's not the old farm way.'"

Among the myriad items available to more than 100 prospective bidders were pieces of farm equipment from drill bits and rusty saws to more modern electrical tools.

Also there was a slew of antiques capturing a different side of the same bygone era, including old lamps, bird cages, rocking chairs, paintings with splintered frames and other items — in a box, a 1923 copy of "Robin Hood"; nearby, a "Buckeye" egg incubator.

It was unclear Tuesday how much had been netted in total from the auction, but the family's attorney, Frank S. Cornelius, said most of the hundreds of items from the estate had been sold.

Garner W. Duvall said he spent about $200 on a feed cart, a milk can, a milk stool and other farm artifacts for use at the King Farm Dairy Mooseum in Boyds, where he is vice president.

"This is a end of an era right here in this community," Duvall said. "It just sort of takes away from the landscape around here."

Some, however, while admiring the Crowns and what they had done on the land, said they supported the arrival of more development in the area.

Robert Johnson of Germantown, who spent about $400 on a well-drilling machine and some other items, said he welcomes the developers' plans because he wants to see money stay in the community.

"I'm sure that the county and the city of Gaithersburg are going watch them very closely and make sure that what they do here is in line with what the people in the community want," Johnson said. "They certainly need housing and business in here, as well."

But many guests uttered the word "sad" as they explored spider web-laden flatbeds and other weathered tools that seemed to grow like tattered gravestones from patches of unkempt grass. Eddie Moreland came to the auction from his home in Emmitsburg and eyed the Crowns' farm equipment with a mix of interest and nostalgia.

"It's very sad," said Moreland, who wore a T-shirt that said "Kiss My Bass." "I knew Kenny and his family real well. We'd come over and help him butcher. It is a sad thing to see."


James Kenny Crown and his tractor


Crown Farm: Then and Now