On Saturday, we gathered with the family – what is left of it – in Southern Maryland. A cousin took us on a little tour and kept up a lively monologue:
“Yeah…things have changed around here. But not necessarily as you would expect.
“My business is doing so well I can barely keep up with it. Of course, that’s because the state decided to protect the Chesapeake Bay by paying people to put in new septic tanks. They’ve got a new device that is supposed to aerate the water in the tank to that it puts out less nitrogen. It looks like it should cost about $100…so the state pays about $2,000 for it. And then, they’ll pay the entire cost of replacing the old septic tanks. My guess is that it does very little good. But I’m putting in these new tanks all over the place…
“Housing speculators are getting hurt…but we haven’t seen any major bankruptcies.
“When the market was hot they were putting up these huge boxes,” he continued…pointing to a group of what looked like brick McMansions. “They just staked out the lots and plopped these monster houses down on them and sold them for $1.2 million each. These houses are huge…7,000…8,000 square feet…but they have no charm at all. Just big brick boxes with plastic windows. No view. No gardens. No trees to speak of…
“This fellow here built a 10,000 square foot house…look at it. It’s meant to look like an English manor house, I guess. It’s even got a little cupola on the roof…I think you can go up into it. I know the fellow so I went over and he gave me a tour of it. Every time we came to a window he said ‘look at that view…’ There’s a beautiful horse farm in the distance. But between the horse farm and his house there are these huge power lines. So, when I looked out the window all I saw was the power lines.
“He was trying to sell the place for $4 million. I doubt if he’ll get $1 million for it now.”
We drove up to Parole, an out-cropping from Annapolis. It got the name during the Civil War when it was the site of a Union prison camp.
“And look what they’ve done to this…it used to be a shopping mall…but that went out of business when they built the new mall down the road, so they developed this into upscale apartments with shopping beneath them. I think they sold about half of them before the bottom fell out of the market.”
Near the apartments was an immense Fresh Fields store. It was the first time your editor had ever seen the inside of one. The array of food – all of it very well presented – was staggering. We had never seen so many varieties of things we didn’t even know existed. Shoppers are said to be scaling back and moving down-market. They’re supposed to be giving up Fresh Fields and going to the Safeway. But we saw no obvious signs of it. There were hundreds of shoppers. Still, the cost of laying out so much food, much of which must go to waste, is probably as staggering as the display. There were dozens of clerks in red frocks. And thousands of square feet of space. The whole thing seemed like a relic of the Bubble Époque.
“Let’s go back down the road,” our cousin continued. “Let’s go look at the old family farm…and we’ll stop in and take a look at the Lansdowne place too. Old John died a couple years ago. The house was empty. Then it burned down. Too bad. That house had been there for more than 200 years. You know, John had spent his career in the army. He must have moved around a lot. And he had five daughters. I guess the daughters never got attached to the place, because when John died none of them wanted it. Kind of sad…because it had been in the same family since the Revolution and it’s a wonderful farm.”
We drove in the driveway…past a sign that said ‘No Trespassing Any Time’…then down a long gravel road lined by old oak trees. Finally, we came to the house site. There was nothing there but a patch of brown dirt with a few broken bricks…where the ruins had been bulldozed to the ground. As we stood there…looking at the bits of brick and tableware…and then down the lawn…the sweet smells of the locust trees in bloom were intoxicating.
“What a great place for a house. It looks down the hill and then through the gate down the long driveway with those old trees. Makes me kind of sad every time I come here. More than two centuries of family history…and there’s nothing left of it…just these cinders in the dirt. Those girls have all left the area. I’m just glad John was already dead. Maybe he won’t know…”
Later, we drove to our own farm. There, we saw signs of neglect. Trees need to be pruned. Fences need to be repaired. Shutters need to be built. Even when it is under the eaves and painted, wood seems to rot.
“It’s not the same wood they used to use,” our cousin explained. “They used to use heartwood of oak. Now, all you get is pine. Get it wet, even a little bit wet, and it will soon be punky.
“Things are always going wrong. I was just thinking of John. He must have kept having children, hoping to have a boy who’d want to keep the farm…and every time he got another girl.
“Then, those poor developers…they probably knew the end of the boom was coming…but they kept building…hoping to get things old before the boom ended.
“And then, it seems there are always family problems. You know Dennis? He took over the family’s construction company. The other boys became accountants or lawyers…or something. It’s always a story of the outsiders against the insiders. Dennis ran the business. But the other brothers wanted money from it. And Dennis is having a hard time now that people aren’t building so much. So when the time came to renew the lease on the headquarters building all hell broke loose. The brothers who weren’t in the business thought Dennis was living too high on the hog. I don’t know about that. He was always driving around in that old company pick-up truck every time I saw him. But the brothers wanted a lot more rent; the building…and the land is still owned by the family. Dennis only had a lease on it. But Dennis got mad and moved out. He took the whole company and rented a space across town. Now, the family’s got an empty building and no rent.
“This has nothing to do with it, I guess it’s just another story about things going wrong…but remember Paul Holland? He and Mimi were getting ready to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. As far as we knew they were happy together. They had children and grandchildren. But then, just before their 50th anniversary, Paul said he had fallen in love with a much younger woman and moved out. Of course, Mimi was floored.
“Can you imagine that? He must have thought it was his last chance for love. But you wonder what had he been doing…thinking…all those years? He’s over 70…and now, he’s starting out all over again. I can’t imagine it. Much too much trouble…
“Reminds me of a story…about a conversation that took a bad turn.
“A man and his wife were preparing their wills… The woman asks her husband if he would get married again, if she died first.
“‘No, I wouldn’t want to marry again,’ he said.
“‘Well, why not?’ she answered. ‘Don’t you like being married?’
“‘Then why wouldn’t you want to get remarried?’
“‘Well…okay…maybe I would get remarried.’
“‘But where would you live…would you bring your new wife to our house?’
“‘I guess so…it’s a nice house…I wouldn’t want to move.’
“‘You mean…you’d let her drive my car and sleep in my bed?’
“‘I don’t know…I hadn’t thought about it…but, yes…I guess so…why not?’
“‘And I suppose you’d even let her use my golf clubs?’
“‘Oh no, I wouldn’t do that. She’s left handed.'”
Until next time,
for The Daily Reckoning Australia