In the hamlet of Barnesville, a community of 165 souls perched on a ridge 35 miles northwest of Washington, lives a country gentleman named William C. Hilton who is a fourth-generation mortician.
And a third-generation water well digger.
And a first-generation purveyor of carpet, kitchen flooring and furniture.
From the nerve center of Hilton's rambling compound, his office at the Hilton Funeral Home, he keeps a close rein on the capital assets of a modest empire straddling the two-lane road to Beallsville.
There is, first of all, the apartment over the funeral home where son William D. (Woody) Hilton and his wife reside. The younger Hilton is being groomed as a fifth-generation mortician. There is also, of course, the funeral home itself downstairs, which on a recent weekday was home to the body of a elderly gentleman who had emerged, well-dressed, from the embalming room and was resting in an open casket in the visiting room.
Next door a comfortable home occupies a small knoll where Hilton resides with his wife, Shirley, who assists him in the operation of the various Hilton enterprises ("When my wife answers the phone," he said, "she just says 'Hilton's.' That covers it.").
A short distance south is the former residence of Hilton's father, the deceased third-generation mortician and second-generation well digger, which now is home to Hilton's son's father-in-law.
Across the street, well-digging equipment is parked in and alongside a shed. There are two machines -- hydraulic well diggers -- each about the size of a dump truck. One of them says on the front doors, "Hilton Well Drilling -- Down to Earth Prices."
Adjacent to the trucks is a ramshackle former Episopal chapel, serving as a storage shed and woodworking shop. Next to it is the most modern, and the most obviously mercantile, structure, the Hilton Furniture and Carpet store.
It is midmorning and Hilton, who has shed the greasy well-digging work clothes of the day before, is a portrait of solemn mortuary dignity in a black, pin-striped suit. At 47 years, he is a healthy-looking man with just enough flesh to connote well-being and not quite enough to justify a description of him as a "potbellied country undertaker," a phrase once used by a newspaper feature writer.
He is helping pallbearers place the casket of a Rockville woman, formerly of Barnesville, into the Hilton Funeral Home hearse for the long ride to the county seat, where she will repose at Parklawn Memorial Park.
The mourners wend their way through a tableau of farmland and rural homesteads that are interrupted by only a few suburban-style residences. This corner of northwestern Montgomery County, safely distanced from the spreading maw of commercial development, looks much the way it must have in 1890 when W.T. Hilton was making his fine carriages, cabinets and horse-drawn hearses.
As a builder of hearses, W.T. was sometimes called on to carry the deceased, in caskets he had built, to their final resting ground. Eventually, the cabinetmaker became an undertaker. The science, in that time and place, did not require a knowledge of embalming.
W.T.'s son, Claggett Hilton, expanded the family business to include digging water wells, a skill that was much in demand after the turn of the century when Montgomery County's population began to grow. In the less-developed areas of the county, well diggers like Hilton still do business.
For William C. Hilton, the combination of profitable enterprises sustains a comfortable, rural way of life. He "changes hats" at the drop of a hat and likes it that way. At Parklawn Memorial Park, Hilton attends the grieving family while a Baptist minister speaks the words of burial rites. The next day he will do the same for the family of the elderly man in the visiting room. The day after, there is another well-digging job. Meanwhile, a carpet customer is likely to come calling at any time.
"It's not boring," Hilton said of his multiple occupations. "It's very diversified . . . . I get a lot of people saying, we saw your brother the other day, looks just like you, except all dirty and digging a well. I say, there isn't any brother. I'm the only one."
The furniture and carpet business is not an extension of the cabinetmaking enterprise of W.T. and Claggett Hilton. They were craftsmen. William C. Hilton admits that he is no craftsman. Instead, his furniture business came into being when he and Shirley, as newlyweds, attempted to furnish their home and discovered the high cost of the bedroom suite (which Hilton pronounces the same as the pin-striped variety). A few phone calls led to a new business enterprise.
But the center continues to hold. Mortuary science is Hilton's main line and he hopes it will remain so.
He remembers his own squeamishness about embalming and the middle-of-the-night calls that meant he and his father would have to go to a neighbor's home to pick up a body. But he got over that. And so did Shirley Hilton, who puts the makeup on the deceased. Hilton hopes his son Woody will get over it, too.
"He's on the right track," Hilton said. "Now if we can just get him in that embalming room . . . . "