Folks visit Arthur Stone's farm in the tiny Montgomery County hamlet of Sandy Spring for a lot of things: local gossip, tall tales, a slice of his wife's pie or a fat goose.
But what lures most visitors is lumber, the sweet-smelling poplar planks and fragrant pine fence posts that Stone, 88, turns out day after day with flicks of his wrists.
What Stone does defies all kinds of logic. Sawmills across Maryland are failing, yet he prospers with a tree-cutting business he started in 1933.
His energy and work schedule would shame a youngster half his age. And even though the lush farmland all around him is giving way to town house tracts, Stone clings to a gentler way of life in an open-air shed with a corrugated steel roof.
He says he turned walnut trees into paneling that found its way into the White House more than 50 years ago and provided similarly fancy furnishings for a couple of Georgetown estates. He spins stories of his earlier career as a Texas Ranger and as a $2-a-day police trooper chasing moonshiners in Pennsylvania.
Few of his neighbors have firsthand knowledge of that earlier, more flamboyant Stone. They know only the laconic man in denim overalls whose battered black work cap hides a thinning, white crewcut -- the salty-tongued saw operator who rises at 4 every morning to fire up the 120-horsepower diesel engine that drives his mill.
"Once this business gets into your blood, you just can't get it out," says Stone.
The milling of raw timber into finished lumber is a curious business, one that Maryland officials say has been extremely sensitive to fluctuations in the state's mining and home construction industries.
According to a spokesman for the state Department of Economic and Community Development, the number of sawmills and wood-planing mills in Maryland peaked in the years after World War II at several hundred, dropping to 98 in 1965.
By 1985, after Maryland's housing and mining markets bottomed out, that number had dropped to 57, according to the economic development agency. Officials at the Maryland Forest, Park and Wildlife Service believe the number is higher -- slightly over 100 -- but still say the sawmill industry has shrunk considerably in recent years.
"Time was, there was a sawmill behind every tree," said Terry Clark of the forest service. "There used to be 60 sawmills in southern Maryland, for instance. Now we count only about 25." Rough-sawed lumber still can be obtained at mills in Potomac and Rockville, as well as in the Prince George's County communities of Beltsville and Brandywine, according to a state industry census.
Oddly enough, as suburbs encroached on prime timberland and large lumber producers failed or moved to more lucrative Sun Belt markets, the efficient, low-tech Arthur Stones of the world have held their own.
Their overhead costs are low, their basic equipment easy to repair, and their wood can be sold for a variety of uses. A single section of tree trunk, for instance, can yield four fenceposts, four rough-sided planks for firewood or scrap, and sawdust.
On a recent morning, Stone and two assistants converted a half dozen lengths of old telephone poles into a tidy stack of sturdy, creosote-soaked posts for fencing in a matter of minutes.
One assistant rolled a log into a narrow metal carriage. Stone, standing inches from the screaming saw, then locked the log into place on the carriage, pushing another lever to slide it into the whirring blade.
Once he had four such cuts to produce a long, skinny block, Stone made two more cuts to produce four posts. The whole process took only a couple of minutes of wordless labor.
Stone has a steady stream of customers, including construction contractors, horse breeders and weekend carpenters. Recently, an acquaintance stopped by Stone's mill to say hello -- and left with the back of his pickup truck filled with freshly cut boards. Price: $20.
Last week, when the St. John's Parish School in Olney needed a sawdust jumping pit for field day activities, Lansdale knew exactly where to go. He referred the school's headmaster to Stone, who supplied the sawdust free. "Arthur's very, very good-natured," said Lansdale. "He stands out because that quality is diminishing."
Stone turns grumpy only when he talks about not working. "I've given over $100,000 to Social Security over the years -- but haven't drawn on it," he said with an exultant scowl. "I figure it's welfare, and who needs it when you're working?"