In an 80-year-old white-frame building off Old River Road in Seneca, Raymond and Frances (Billy) Poole preside over the hubbub of a Montgomery County landmark -- Poole's General Store. Bantering and joking, they dispense neighborly warmth along with iron pots, canned goods, harnesses and fresh eggs. The store keeps the Pooles and their six children busy 12 hours a day.
At Poole's, "You get good food and good company," says Susan Bachrach, a neighbor and regular customer. "We come to catch up on local gossip, find an electrician, cash a check or drop off the mail. And before Christmas, everybody tells the stores to send their packages to Poole's, because somebody's always here," she says.
Inside, customers shop for flannel shirts, peanuts, bullets and local produce like pumpkins, cider or tomatoes. "My family used to shop for all their groceries here," says Mary Foster, a school bus driver whose family has lived in the area for 100 years. "But I get food for my pig and pet skunk, or maybe jar lids. The Safeway's seven miles from here, but they don't always have what I need."
Billy Poole, 50, feels comfortable in the store. Smiling all the while, she makes hot dogs (60 cents) and ham sandwiches (90 cents) for her customers on an old butcher block. She started working in her father's general store in Poolesville when she was 15. "Mr. Poole came in every day for two years and bought grapes from me, and when I turned 17, we got married. He was 21."
Raymond Poole, who was born on a farm nearby, likes fresh air and a quiet life. He sells hogs, chicken and horse feed from his warehouse, and says his weekly trip to Baltimore for supplies is enough city life for him. "I used to sell everything you needed to run a farm, but now the land's so valauble the farmers sell out, so most of my customers are horse people now."
Poole's is also a checking station, and on Nov. 29, when the firearm season begins, 300 hunters arrive at the store, most of them with deer snug in the back of their vehicles. The unlucky hunters come to watch Raymond Poole weigh deer on a scale in his warehouse.
"We've been checking deer for 20 years," says Poole as he arranges the scale weights and checks a hunter's license. "I see faces I don't see all year, but I won't be sorry to see the day end. I'll probably weigh 100 deer."
The state pays Poole 50 cents for each animal. He doesn't sell the venison, but the hunters bring in a lot of business. In their camouflage hats and vests they stomp into the store to buy coffee and steaming hot dogs to recover from the gray, damp day. The Pooles sell 150 sandwiches by 1 o'clock.
Outside, hunters mill around the warehouse where Janet McKegg, a biologist with the Maryland Wildlife Administration, cracks a deer's jawbone with pruning shears and yanks half of it out with a long pliers. She counts the teeth to determine the animal's age, while two conservation aids work on the other deer.
"The hunters call us lousy dentists," says McKegg, "but we need the information to evaluate the herd sizes. This year we're getting a lot of young deer, which means the population is healthy and they're reproducing well. The other predators are gone,so hunters help control the numbers."
Statistics on the number of deer in each age group determine the deer harvest regulations. This year hunters could go after buck or doe.
As the conservation aids hoist Dubby Reagan's deer onto the scale, Reagan grins modestly.
"I never shot one before," said the 16-year-old who has been hunting for five years, "and I couldn't have got this one if he'd been running. But he jumped out of the bushes and stopped for a second."
Standing nearby, Mike Hickman jokes with his old fishing, drinking and hunting partner, Manny Alahouzos. "The Greek shot the deer," admits Hickman, "I'll do the butchering, after I hang the carcass from a tree in my backyard for a couple of days. Venison has to age -- like beef."
Hickman will show up on Alahouzos's doorstep the minute the Yankee pot roast is done.
Raymond Poole, tired and cold, takes a break. Even though the hunters talk about the deer burgers and chili he can make, he refuses their offers of meat.
"Just looking at those animals all day is enough," he says, "and we're lucky it's not hot, because when it is, the smell turns you around."
Everybody knows Poole's is a local treasure. One customer calls the store an oasis in the desert. The Pooles realize what they have, too. Says Billy, "Honey child, we're the only ones around."