Outside of Washington, D.C. there is Sam Eig Highway and many of the folks who have been here long enough know the story of Sam Eig and how he bought all this land outside of D.C. and everyone thought he was crazy... crazy like a fox. He made millions in real estate over the years. But... what many folks don't know is the money he got to buy all that land... came from his liquor business OR that he came from... Minsk...
LEGENDS OF THE VICTORY GARDEN
September 1947, Kensington. Mud everywhere. I stood on my new porch looking up and down the street, and it was all mud. Red houses stood up in it. The windows of the houses looked like giant square eyes and the doorways like long square mouths. In the mud of the street stood up what looked like giant anthills.
This was not the house I thought we were moving into. I had realized that last night, waking up at the end of the ride, when we turned down the hill instead of stopping at the top in front of the house with the long sidewalk I was told my bulldozer could crawl all the way to the curb. The sidewalk from this porch to the car was broken by steps; the bulldozer would fall.
Boards in the mud led around from the steps toward the back yard. I walked carefully because I didn't have galoshes on. But there was nobody in back either. Everybody on the street was still asleep.
MR. MONTGOMERY COUNTY
Five years earlier, in the spring of the War, and about five miles to the southeast, another hill of mud was where the post-War began. Thirteen thousand miles to its southwest General Wainwright ordered 3,500 of his men to withdraw from Bataan to Corregidor, and ten thousand miles further to the southeast British tanks held a line against Rommel at Gazala while both sides gathered reinforcements. Work on the mud hill had to be accelerated because in April 1942 a building moratorium would descend.
Sam Eig had started clearing this hill back in '38. Old Man Grubb, the tenant farmer, had hitched up his horse and ploughed foundations for the first two houses. Sam Eig still had to count his change carefully, but the whiskey let him count each time a little more. He saved on streets. Old Grubb's horse strapped to pulleys tore out the sycamore and oak and pine roots and broke the soil of Lots 20 & 21. Washington Avenue was a horse path. On the other side of Lots 20 & 21 Eig's men were felling trees for Blaine Drive. Blaine was his first son, pre-medical student. It took the horse a week to dig a street half a block, Larry Place, Larry was his second son. Mr. Eig saved his money for a one day roller job, to bury and bury gravel shoveled on the dirt.
Early '39, with three or four footings laid, two blocks of Blaine Drive cleared and graveled, he had to hold up. He had thrown all his money into one last grab of Kentucky barreled bourbon, thousands of gallons at only $1.22 a gallon, and then Hitler ran his tanks into Poland. He'd seen it coming. He'd been telling them for years about that Hitler. Mr. Eig had faith in Mr. Roosevelt, though; and when America made up its mind to put a stop to Hitler, all new alcohol would go for artillery.
But the Eig family would be safe.
He had grown up in a little village outside Minsk in Russia. His father was a rich man, a butcher, and so when the War started, the first War -- he was just a boy, fourteen -- his father had put him on the Trans-Siberian Railway with a chaperone. He never saw his family again. After two years he arrived in New York, without a penny, but through cousins he got jobs. After another two years, busing tables, he had saved up some money. He bought a new pair of shoes and the goodbyes were easier; there was no family to leave this time. He got on a train for Chicago and met four Irish boys. They asked him where he was going and he told them Nebraska, to be a cowboy. They laughed. They asked to see his ticket and laughed again. He couldn't go to Nebraska, they said; the ticket was only good to Washington. It so happened that they were getting off in Washington too; they had construction jobs, new government buildings were going up. They told him they'd get him a job and he could make the fare to take him the rest of the way west. So off he got with them in Washington, but hauling tar buckets made him sick and after two weeks of it he quit and got a job cutting meat in Union Station. That was how Sam Eig came to the Nation's Capital. Fifty years later he had not been to Nebraska yet.
In Washington he made a new family. He became a butcher in a little grocery store on N Street and worked hard. He married the boss' daughter and opened his own grocery. After expenses and a little savings deposit he put every extra nickel into real estate. His father-in-law had told him: The city is moving up the Potomac. Wherever you go, go northwest.
So when his first grocery store failed Sam Eig opened a new one on 7th Street, and when that one failed he moved up 7th onto Georgia Avenue, and the third time he survived; and when repeal of the Volstead Act came through he started stocking the store with liquor. He knew no more about the liquor business than he had known about real estate. But he had asked and listened, bought and sold lots, subcontracting to builders and watching how they worked; and now he talked with distillers in Kentucky and began buying, accumulating barrels of whiskey there, not selling, letting it age.
By 1935 Sam and Esther Eig had survived the worst of the Depression, and indeed had prospered. They had two fine sons, growing strong. He sold the grocery and further up Georgia Avenue -- moving northwest -- he opened Eig's Liquors. He deposited in two suburban banks in the little crossroads, Silver Spring, and in Takoma Park. He continued to make payments on some half-forgotten wood lots just over the District Line west of Silver Spring, and continued to improve lots on the District side of Takoma. By 1937 he was President, National Liquor Stores Association, fifty-four stores in the Nation's Capital. By 1939 he was a major stockholder in the Silver Spring bank, the Suburban National. Then in late 1938 the bottom dropped out of the bulk whiskey market, plummeting prices from $1.25 to $.50 a gallon, and forcing Sam Eig, in the sudden face of bankruptcy, to make a Solomon's choice to save everything he and Esther had worked hard for eighteen years to build. In Europe, though, any man with eyes could see a war was coming. So instead of his whiskey holdings, he sold off all his real estate -- all the real estate he owned, that is, except the woods in Silver Spring, which remained virgin. Instead of selling whiskey he used the real estate proceeds to buy. He bought up all the Kentucky whiskey he could find, and kept it in the warehouses, and let it age.
Not twelve months after the whiskey market collapsed, Hitler invaded Poland. It was only a matter of time, then, before America was in.
After Pearl Harbor, all newly distilled alcohol was ordered diverted to war production.
The Eig family survived. Sam Eig owned hundreds of thousands of gallons of aged whiskey, distilled years before.
Now he began bottling.
In Washington, D.C., during the War, Eig's Hour became famous. Most of the day Eig's Liquors sold wine and beer, but from 11 a.m. to 12 noon, or sometimes from 5 to 6 p.m., the lines would stretch around the block. For one hour a day the whiskey came out -- Seagram's 7, Hiram Walker, Paul Jones, Four Roses -- and the popular new label that never ran out, Eig's Bourbon and Mammoth Cave Whiskey. The rule was one fifth to a customer, a sharp eye kept out for repeaters and known bootleggers. Midway through the War Eig's Liquors still had a quarter of a million bottles of its own brand aging in Kentucky. It was the only store in the city which always had whiskey, and not even rumor involved it in the heavy black market in wartime whiskey.
A Senate investigating committee called Sam Eig up to the Hill to explain why not.
The whiskey profits went into the woods above Rock Creek on the second hill west of Silver Spring.
Fifteen years earlier his friends had said, Sam, you're crazy! Silver Spring is the woods! Now he had shown them how crazy. Eleven days after Pearl Harbor, he bought the rest of the woods. Four days before D-Day he bought the adjoining meadow. He renamed them all Rock Creek Forest. As the Allies pushed from France through Belgium in November of 1944, Sam Eig bought Old Man Grubb's farm on the north side of East-West Highway, and then he owned the whole hill.
March 1942, the war only four months old, Mr. Eig was so busy with the Hillside Terrace apartments in Southeast Washington, he could spare for his Silver Spring operation only one bulldozer. It went into the clearing across from the County road through the old Ray property and left it a battlefield of roots and broken quartz. One boulder near the Highway the men tried to dig out and pull out but it was no use. So Mr. Eig laughed, Keep it there. That was the Rock in Rock Creek Forest.
On an April morning shortly before the home construction ban came down, two bulldozers and an earthmover began their work. They started down the horse path from the battlefield to Blaine Drive, and up another horse path from the Creek. Mr. Eig kept them working overtime; two shifts a day, six days a week. He personally supervised, down in the mud himself, unmistakable every morning in his white helmet and dark suit and tie, cigar in his fingers, a little egg of a man with a brow like a muscle, giving strict instructions to be careful of the dogwoods and the tulip-poplars. He kept all the trees that could be kept, hickories, pines. He had cherry trees planted. He paid a lot of money for Rock Creek Forest, he didn't buy it to make a baseball field. People liked shade, they liked cherry trees, at any rate that was the kind of people he wanted in this community, he was going to live here too.
The more houses started . . . .
The War Production Board's housing construction moratorium of April 1942 succeeded in halting some of the activity Sam Eig had been able to start in Rock Creek Forest. But as early as summer 1942 lots were selling like Eig's Bourbon.
By 1946 the woods were full of red houses.
For twenty years he had done what everybody else did, building a house here and there for a lot-owner, in the District, Takoma Park. But you couldn't do that any more. He had seen that before the War. There were too many people coming to Washington even then, and now so many more, and all the boys coming home. They didn't want a house in a horse pasture, they wanted a community. They wanted a place for families to grow. They wanted a church, they wanted a school, a little shopping center -- grocery store, beauty shop, a bank, a hardware store. They wanted a playground for the kids. They wanted trees and quiet. You didn't need the Government to give them that. You didn't have to be Greenbelt to do that. You didn't have to be a co-op. You needed eyes and a brain, that was all, guts and integrity.
Rock Creek Forest became the first tract community built in Montgomery County, Maryland. It opened the rich farmland north and west of the Nation's Capital to the postwar suburban development boom. Sam Eig built his own house in Rock Creek Forest; he wouldn't build a community he wouldn't live in himself. He was the first Jewish businessman to make a success in the County. He had been making friends there since the 'Twenties, depositing in the Takoma Park Bank and Suburban National. When he was about to open the Forest one of his Christian banker friends took him aside. "You know us, Ben. We're friends," he said. "We're not anti-Semitic. Be smart. Keep it restricted. You'll make a fortune!" He would make a fortune, all right. First thing he did, he gave deeds to three churches, Catholic, Methodist, and a Jewish congregation.
The secret was always to move northwest -- that was where the open land lay. Never necessary to buy a lot of land -- only the choice piece.
January 1952, FORTUNE named Sam Eig and nine others from across the country as the vanguard of the postwar millionaires. There was a bumper crop, said FORTUNE. 15,000 new millionaires since 1945. They were church builders, restaurateurs, used car dealers. Twenty years later Sam Eig could look back on them and, if he fancied, see a national Montgomery County of millionaires, for they were a phenomenon marked, said FORTUNE, less by the size of the fortunes made than by the profusion of the makers. The 1960 census would show Montgomery County had surpassed Westchester County, New York, and now enjoyed the highest median family income in the United States.
"The opp'tunities for a young man in America!" Mr. Eig would say, waving his cigar. "Just look at dat keed with no papa, no mama, Sam Eig! He made Mon'gomery a land of femilies."
He made it a place for his own family to grow -- his sons, his grandsons. By the Twenty-first Century, he'd boast, there would be more Eigs in Montgomery than cowboys in Nebraska!
But he could not stand still, either. He could not settle. Ten years after the War ended, Rock Creek Forest built and sold, Sam Eig sold all his Silver Spring holdings -- his shopping center, the building with his name on it -- even the old liquor store. He sold his house and with Esther moved again northwest and closer to bankruptcy than ever before, to a pasture near Gaithersburg at the dead-end of an Interstate Highway that would not be complete for another ten years. He built a motel, but a motel to beat any hotel on Miami Beach. The Washingtonian Motel -- with an elegant dining room, reception rooms, an Olympic swimming pool, a golf course -- a motel that was also a country club. Not just a place for travelers to spend the night before venturing into the Nation's Capital, but a vacation resort for the whole family.
He lost millions of dollars.
At night he and Esther would walk out along the unfinished Highway embankment, in evening clothes, peering for guests. The buffet in the Maryland Room got cold.
At banquets now, testimonials, he was being toasted as Mr. Montgomery County. It was very nice, it was just. But he was not dead yet.