By Danielle Nadler, Americas Routes
“Most call me Farmer Brown,” he starts. His clean plaid shirt tucked into beat-up jeans. His gray facial hair freshly shaven. He pours steaming Folgers into a John Deere mug and, with a “hush now,” directed at his border collie, he takes you back there.
Back there. When Loudoun County’s cattle outnumbered its breweries and wineries. When the nation’s capital felt a world away, rather than a daily destination for half your neighbors. And when the gravel roads were main thoroughfares rather than the place for Sunday drives.
Russell Brown starts with the early years. The late 30s, early 40s, when he cut his teeth working on “Grandpap’s farm” near Lovettsville. As he begins, you can almost taste the fresh cream from hand-milked cows, see the gold dust set free by cropped hay, and feel the rough terrain of Old Waterford Road beneath your feet.
“This county has changed some since then,” the old farmer says dryly, with a trouble-making smile.
With some prodding, he slows down and gives up more details.
He was born in 1927, in a little house in Wheatland. He wasn’t raised on a farm, but he knew early on that farming was what he wanted to do with his life. At 9 years old, he went to live on his grandparents’ farm, a property on Quarter Branch Road. He spent three years there and, as far as he can remember, he worked every minute of it. He got up before sunrise to milk seven cows by hand. Then, he hurried the jars of milk inside, before catching the bus to school. In the evenings, he picked up where he’d left off, mucking stalls, processing hogs, preparing the fields for planting—whatever needed to be done.
Grandpap wasn’t too keen on paying his grandson for his help on the farm, so Russell relied on trapping to make enough cash for occasional sodas and candy bars from the general store. He caught muskrats, racoons, and skunks—and anything else that found its way to one of his traps.
One morning before school, he hurried down to the creek to check his trap. Sure enough, a skunk was waiting for him. Before Russell could take the thing out, the skunk soaked him. The boy, clinching his nose, waded into the creek to try to rinse off the stench, before hoofing it to the bus stop.
“Well, I wasn’t at school two minutes before the teacher said, ‘Russell, go home. Come back when you’re smellin’ better.’ My Grandpap was just fine with that because then I could work for him. He expected a lot out of yeh and he never gave you nothin’.”
Russell went on to work odd jobs, sawing wood and bailing hay. At 15, he even took a job at a bowling alley just over the river in Brunswick, MD, where he’d set up pins for a penny a game. After high school, he served two years in the U.S. Army just as the nation was cleaning up from World War II.
He took jobs as they came, but he always found his way back to farming.
It was 1948 when he started working for Albert D. Lueters, on a property known as Rogues’ Hollow. The name sounded like something out of an adventure novel, but Russell thought it suited the place—more than 300 acres of rolling hills that seemed to glow emerald green nearly half the year.
You could say the year he started working at Rogues’ Hollow was the year Russell became Farmer Brown. He was 21 years old, skinny but strong, and eager to work. He and Mr. Lueters not only had a love of farming in common, but also military service. Lueters had recently retired as an Army captain, so he helped his new farm hand get into government-sponsored classes on the agriculture business.
“They held the classes up there in Lincoln,” Russell recalls, “and the government paid you 93 dollars a month to learn farming. It was really somethin’.”
It didn’t take long for Farmer Brown to consider the farm more than his place of employment, but his home. He moved into a small tenant house on the property and got to work.
“At first, I put out twenty acres of corn. I cut it and shucked it by hand, then shoveled it into the corn crib. Everything was done by hand at first. Nothing was easy,” he recalls. “I used horses to cut the hay, rack the hay. … The cows were milked by hand. It was nothing how you picture farming today. Eventually—thankfully—that all improved.”
By 1950, machines changed the pace of the work for most farmers in Loudoun County—and made Farmer Brown’s life a lot easier. Decades later, the farmer still talks about the day an M International Tractor arrived at Rogues’ Hollow. It was the day everything changed.
“Oh hell, with the horses, you had to keep ’em clean, keep ’em fed, keep ’em healthy. This tractor, aside from maintenance every once in a while, I basically just turned it on in the morning and turned it off at night.”
That tractor became his calling card. Anyone who lived or regularly drove along Old Waterford Road got to know Farmer Brown, always atop the M International, dressed in a plaid shirt, baseball cap, with a border collie at his side.
The property was bought and sold over the years—Mr. Lueters sold it to Leonard Dyke, who later sold it to Neil Nichols—but for nearly 70 years, the farmer, with his border collie and tractor, remained a constant. In the winters, Farmer Brown and his tractor pushed snow off Old Waterford and the other narrow roads that split off into farmland and horse pastures. The man-and-machine duo spent warmer months haying the properties between Waterford and Leesburg. At first, they hayed just Rogues’ Hollow. Then, hayed neighboring farms. When those open fields were replaced with master-planned housing, many of the new homeowners decided to keep small hay fields, mostly to qualify for a tax cut. But still, Farmer Brown and his tractor kept up their work, haying the sloped fields that surrounded the new homes.
Farmer Brown eventually, and reluctantly, left Rogues’ Hollow. It was 2017. He, and his canine companion, now live in a small home near Lucketts. The farm now operates under a new owner and new name, but if you drive by slowly, you can almost spot the tracks from Farmer Brown’s M International carved into the course gravel of Old Waterford Road.
This story was originally published by America’s Routes, an organization dedicated to capturing the images and stories of Loudoun County’s historic gravel roads, with the ultimate goal of preserving them. See more of the group’s work at AmericasRoutes.com.