The Wilmot family warmly calls it the house that Arthur Godfrey built, which seems reasonable enough, but what that doesn't tell you is that their Summit Hall farm put Gaithersburg on the map. d
The wilmots grow high-grade turf grass, and their expansive operation in Montgomery County is a textbook example of farmers adapting to and taking advantage of urban encroachment.
Public and private development, intense in the Washington area since World War II, has created a high demand for sod and turf. It has made this type of farming a multi-million-dollar business, keeping some 25 farms in Montgomery and four more in Fairfax County busy producing sod and sprigs of transplantable grass.
That, obviously, ain't hay, although the Wilmots grow some of that as well -- about which more later. The Wilmots have one of the area's largest, most successful and most mechanized sod-growing operations. So successful, in fact, that their sod has been trod by some of history's best-known figures.
They frequently put in sod at the White House (most recently this year, in the Rose Garden); they put sod at the Lincoln Memorial; they put sod at Camp David; they put it at foreign embassies and on former president Eisenhower's private putting green at Gettysburg.
That is traveling in the stratosphere of status in the sod business, but it didn't just happen. The Summit Hall story began when Bill Wilmot, who died in August, came home from World War II not much knowing what he wanted to do. He decided that good sod might have a future, and that his farmland around Gaithersburg might be a good place to plant it.
Wilmot and his sister, Frances Kellerman, planted the first grass by hand. That was mainly for golf courses. Wilmot wanted to do more, however, so he spent time at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research center at Beltsville, talking with scientists who were working on something new.
That something was a grass called zoysia, type Z-52, a variation of a tough and easy-to-maintain grass native to Korea. Wilmot planted stock from Beltsville and, leterally, sat there in Gaithersburg watching grass grow.
The Wilmot's big break came in 1954, when television entertainer Arthur Godfrey got wind of the zoysia being grown commercially by Wilmot. He openly plugged the
Wilmot zoysia on his show, saying, "I thought we could pretty up all the lawns of America with this."
Well, all hell broke loose. The oldtime telephone exchange at Gaithersburg was jammed by long-distance calls. Hundreds of checks, with the "amount" space left blank by eager buyers, flooded Summit Hall, in such a volume that the town post office was elevated to first-class status. Traffic backed up on Frederick Road outside the farm.
"That did it," recalled Bill Wilmot's widow the other day. "The business took off." She was being interviewed in her spacious home at Summit Hall, which, she said, "is what we call the house that Godfrey built."
Wilmot quickly got a stranglehold on the zoysia business. He built and patented a hydraulic machine that cuts two-inch plugs of zoysia turf from his fields -- a machine that does the work of 12 laborers -- and he got other sophisticated machinery to cut out, lift and haul strips of zoysia and bluegrass sod.
It's been ever upward for the Wilmots since then. Their zoysia success has been widely publicized; their turf plugs are sent overseas; they supply mail-order shippers all over the country, and local garden-supply centers. Buyers keep beating a path through the grass to the house that Godfrey built, looking for the ultimate answer to crabgrass, the bane of suburbia.
Others naturally, have moved into the field in which Wilmot pioneered and they have made turf farming a going enterprise here. According to the latest U.S. census of agriculture, turf and sod from 2,446 acres on 69 Maryland farms produced sales of $3.6 million in 1978. In Virginia, sales were $1.3 million from 20 farms. Put another way, 40 percent of the two states' production was in Montgomery and Fairfax counties.
Bill Wilmot's pioneering extended beyond turf and sod, however, into innovative work with alfalfa, an important food for livestock. In the early 1970s, when prices of petroleum-based fertilizer started rising, Wilmot looked for an alternative. By alternating stands of bluegrass sod with alfalfa, a crop that fixes nitrogen in the soil, he saved thousands of dollars in fertilizer cost and found a second cash crop for Summit Hall.
Thus, an important part of the Wilmot operation, now based at the Gaithersburg tract and at a 900-acre spread along the Potomac River beyond Poolesville, is the quality alfalfa coveted by farmers for its high protein. The river is the water source for the extensive irrigation needed on the vast bottomland plains of grass and alfalfa.
Wilmot's widow, his sister, a daughter-in-law, a son-in-law, sons and daughter now oversee Summit Hall operations. The do everything from sales and advertising to planting, tending and harvesting the sod, which is sliced by machine from its beds.
Wilmot's 28-years-ols son Frank, a graduate engineer, supervises the Potomac farm and, like his late father, is heavily into innovative farming. A solar alfalfa dryer that he designed and built shows promise as a device for retaining high protein in the hay. A major farm equipment firm is considering marketing the Wilmot dryer nationally.
That's for the future. Meanwhile, there's still some shaking of heads and marveling around the house that Godfrey built that grass could become a lifetime work. Said Mrs. Wilmot: "It's a fairy tale."
Color it green.