Mordecai L.D. Lee, 83, proprietor of historic farm

October 19, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Mordecai Louis Dawson Lee, longtime proprietor of Mount Joy, the historic farm that until it was sold last year was Howard County's last large undeveloped parcel zoned for development, died of heart failure Sunday at Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville. He was 83.

Mr. Lee was a retired vice president of Universal Leaf Tobacco Co., having spent 40 years traveling throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia purchasing tobacco. He retired from the Richmond, Va.-based company in 1988.

He was born and spent nearly his entire life at Mount Joy, a 77-acre farm near Ellicott City, raising herds of cattle and sheep until failing health forced him to move in 1997 to Charlestown.

Mr. Lee was descended from the Lee family of Virginia, whose members include "Light Horse" Harry Lee, Revolutionary War figure and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee.

He was a 1939 graduate of Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., and earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Virginia. During World War II, he served with the cavalry and later an armored unit.

It was Mount Joy farm that became the lasting focus of his life.

The farm - 100 acres when purchased by his parents about 1900 - is on the rolling countryside near Route 100 and U.S. 29. Last year, it was sold to Winchester Homes for $12 million, and the developer promised to keep the historic two-story stucco manor house, which dates to 1810, and two stone outbuildings that may have been slave quarters.

For years before then, as development swirled around him, Mr. Lee was determined to preserve his land and privacy.

He had little liking for strangers and the curious who walked up the lane leading to his home. To discourage motorists, he deliberately let the road deteriorate into a rutted, overgrown path.

"It was nearly impassable, and the safest way to go over it was in a truck," said Frank Dudley of Queenstown, a lawyer and lifelong friend.

"He was a definite character. There was nobody else like him. He was the kind of guy who would sit on his steps with a shotgun across his lap and tell you to `get the hell off my land,'" Mr. Dudley said. "He could be quick-tempered and didn't like being pushed around. One minute he'd be stirred up at something and the next minute, he'd be pouring you a drink."

In business, Mr. Lee was "inscrutable," Mr. Dudley said. "He had to like you, and if he didn't, he wouldn't do anything. To him, a handshake was all you needed to buy or sell anything. That was his bond. It was gospel to him and good as gold."

Mr. Lee so loved his farm that he seldom spent a night away from it. He also didn't care to travel; if he did, it was for business or to attend a horse race.

He was an avid horseman and a familiar figure at point-to-point races from Pennsylvania to South Carolina. He was also equally known for the tailgate luncheons that emerged from the expansive trunk of his midnight-blue Buick sedan.

"We had fried chicken, ham, sandwiches and coleslaw, which was accompanied by bourbon and gin. Only in recent years did we switch to wine," said his wife of 51 years and sole survivor, the former Letitia Roberts.

"He had great joie de vivre and lived life to the fullest. He was a gregarious man who was full of great stories and good humor," said a cousin, Richard Buck of Lutherville.

Mr. Lee was a former member of the Maryland Club, Bachelors Cotillon, Howard County Hunt Club, Chevy Chase Club and Farmington Country Club.

Services were held Wednesday.

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