The Maryland Weekly reported last week on the sand and gravel industry in Prince George's County. The following is a profile of one of the industry's pioneers.
I started out with a couple of billy goats, hauling sand and gravel out of the Northeast Branch," said Alfred H. Smith, the 74-year-old dean of Prince George'sf County sand and gravel producers and the quintessential self-made man.
Smith's business may be the largest sole proprietorship in the state, and his business property is all that is left of Branchville, Md.
Born in 1907 in then-rural Riverdale, Smith began his goat-powered gravel business in the eigth grade. The owners of the land along the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia River charged him 25 cents per cubic yard of material and he resold it at $2.
People in Riverdale needed gravel to turn the mudpaths in front of their homes into sidewalks, and Smith had no shortage of customers.
"It was a nice little business when I was in the eight grade. I made more money than the teachers, but I nver dreamed it would be all this," he said.
All this, in good years, is a $36 million dollar sand and gravel, concrete, asphalt and heavy construction business employing 1,100 people and using 1,200 pieces of heavy equipment on more than 4,000 acres of land throughout Prince George's County.
In the World War I era most young boys in Riverdale had riding horses. Smith used to board his gray mare Sahara on one of the many farms in the Prince George's countryside. The farmers taught him a respect for the richness of the land and the rustic grandeur of a large and well-run farm.
Blythwood, Smithhs own 1,000-acre farm, perpetuates that grandeur. Less than a mile from the Beltway at Pennsylvania Avenue, in a valley hidden by the dips and turns of Melwood Road, Blythwood's fields of grain and pastures for sheep, cattle and horses appear suddenly from the crest of the road. The sight can leave a first-time visitor in awe.
"Everytime I made some money I put it into land," said Smith, sitting on veranda of the white, plantation-style farmhouse, built with wooden pegs and homemade nails in 1727. "I wasn't stock man," he said, recalling his aversion to Wall Street's paper wealth.
And just as well.
After three years at Washington's Technical High School, Smith dropped out to devote his time to managing a fleet of five dump trucks. By 1929, at the age of 22, Smith had moved his sand and gravel operation to a 400-acre site in Branchville. He had also leased the Northeast Branch from Riverdale to Bladensburg and was slowly buying more land for mining throughout Prince George's.
Smith recalls the hardships of the depression years: "You would have doctors and lawyers on the corner selling apples for 5 cents, selling three or four a day," he said. "And they were glad for the 20 cents."
Beginning in the late 1930s, most of Branchville, then a large unincorporated area south of Greenbelt, east of what is now College Park and north of Berwyn Heights, was steadily being swallowed by the three municipalities. But Smith held onto Branchville's last 400 acres, where his asphalt, concrete and processing plants still stand . . . and the business mailing address remains.
When the Postal Service decided to eliminate the Branchville postmark 12 years ago, Smith protested.
"I said, 'Hey, I've got an investment in stationery, and I'm going to fight you.' So they made a deal," Smith recalled, explaining how the post office let him keep the name Branchville for himself.
So to this day, A. H. Smith can be reached simply at "Branchville, Md., 20740."
And that is not "A. H. Smith Inc.," but A. H. Smith, the man. All $36 million in revenue is reported to the IRS on Smith's personal income tax return, he says. As a corporation his liability to creditors and anyone else with a claim against the company would be limited to the value of the stock, but as an individual it all rests on his aging but still firm shoulders.
"I never incorporated because I never wanted to pay two taxes," said Smith. "I have always operated as an individual. I figured we wouldn't need it, we didn't hide behind anybody's skirts."
Smith's business is now diversified, though it still based on sand and gravel as raw materials. His heavy construction business, for example, built 129 percent of the Maryland portion of the Beltway. He also owns 12 farms besides Blythwood.
Smith still begins his day the old-fashioned way, up at 5 inspecting his farm and in the office by 8 a.m. His business style is as brisk as that of men half his age. During an interview he asked his secretary to get him the phone number for the architects who are going to turn a 30-acre eyesore of a former Smith mine near Powder Mill Road into a splashy new development with two hotels and an office building. In 15 seconds she had not moved fast enough, so he got the number himself.
"They used to say, 'Mr. Smith, what would these people around here do if they worked for you when you were a young men?" said Smith, recalling the comments of his longtime workers.
But the cares of his day always end where they begin -- on the farm. He has never been to Europe, has visited the Carribean only once, on a junket with his bankers. He said he has not taken more than a few days away from his land in more years than he can remember.
"It's much better for me than going to the theater or taking a trip," he said, relaxing in the cool shade of a great oak as he watched the sun setting on a sheep pasture below.
"The cattle come down, the sheep move; you get a different picture every hour. Then the moon comes up and the sun goes down -- it's the prettiest sight in the world."