It was from the land and the things that grew and walked on it that Wilbur Hines took his sustenance and his being. He trimmed trees, grew fruit and vegetables, raised dairy and beef cattle, hogs, chickens and a pony or two. He did this to earn a living, but over the 83 years of his life, it would help define the man that he was.
He was a farmer, a tree surgeon and a businessman, and in Montgomery County, where he died of heart disease Dec. 2, he was part of a dwindling rear guard of a vanishing breed. In 1921, his parents bought a 72-acre farm off Strawberry Knoll Road in Gaithersburg, and he would live there for the rest of his life. He was married in the front parlor of the old farmhouse, and he died in the building that replaced it, a modern suburban-style bungalow that had been his home since 1984.
By the time he died, all but five acres of the old farm had been sold for development as a residential subdivision, as had most of the other farmland in the area. The smokehouse, the slaughterhouse, the workshop and the chicken coop were all gone. So were the cows, chickens and hogs. Only a part of the barn remained, along with some fruit trees and flower beds.
Hines never went past eighth grade in school, but he had an innate sense of how to get something done. He figured out for himself how to do plumbing and electrical wiring and then installed indoor plumbing and wiring for the old family farmhouse, which had neither when his father bought the place. With his son, Norman, he built an addition to the barn with no written plans or drawings, just an idea in his head.
"I might not know how to do it, but we can figure it out," he always said.
It was in the early 1940s, just after his father died, that Hines and his bride, Vada, took over the farming operation. For almost 40 years, he would, in effect, work three jobs. He was a foreman with the Asplundh Tree Expert Co., which trims tree limbs that interfere with Pepco's power lines. In ice storms such as one Washington experienced this month, he sometimes worked 48 hours or more nonstop. He also had his own tree trimming and tree removal business, Hines Tree Service, and he had ongoing contracts to do the tree work for the city of Gaithersburg, American University and other individuals and institutions.
And he had the farm. His daughter Margaret Stinson remembers at busy times of the year seeing his tractor lights moving in straight lines back and forth across the fields long after dark, sometimes as late as 11 p.m. In late May and early June, he hired neighborhood children to pick strawberries. The pay in those days was a nickel a box. "You didn't have to pay for the ones you ate," Norman Hines recalled. Each morning, Wilbur Hines would gather the boxes of strawberries picked the previous day, drive to the Farmers Market in Northeast Washington with them, then drive back out to Silver Spring to punch in at his tree-trimming job with Asplundh.
Vada Hines had a dairy route, making weekly deliveries of milk, cream and eggs to regular customers in the region, and in the late summers she always canned enough fruits and vegetables from their orchards and fields to last through the winter. She died in 1993 after a marriage of 53 years.
In the early years, most of the Hines farm produce was trucked into Washington for sale at retail outlets, but as suburbia expanded into western Montgomery County, farming operations were cut back. Hines began producing commercial sod to provide instant lawns for instant subdivisions. The dairy cows went by the boards in the 1960s, but Black Angus beef cattle and some grain crops remained for a few more years. In the late 1970s, Hines sold all but the five acres of the farm. He kept a line of trees between the five acres and the rest of the property so he wouldn't have to look at his farm being turned into a subdivision.
As a farmer and a tree surgeon, Hines was a man of paradoxes. He climbed trees for a living, but he hated heights. He didn't ride on airplanes. On a car trip to Colorado, he wouldn't go to the summit of Pikes Peak with the rest of his family. But four years ago, at age 79, he was nimble and fearless enough to strap on his safety belt and climb to the top of a tree in the Mount Airy back yard of one of his daughters to do some tree surgery.
Like farmers everywhere, he had to control pests, among the most noxious of which were groundhogs. But he didn't like killing them. Instead, he trapped them alive and then drove them to a park, where he released them.
In addition to his family and working the land, his joy and passion was fishing. As a young man, he caught smallmouth bass in Seneca Creek. He netted shad and herring in the Potomac River in the spring. In the later decades of his life, he fished the Chesapeake Bay in a powerboat he named Hey Beep.
His family buried him in Norbeck Memorial Park in Olney in his fishing outfit, the shirt, trousers and hat he always wore. In his pockets, they placed the rolls of mints and LifeSavers he always carried. His favorite fishing pole was in the coffin with him when it was lowered into the ground.