Mountain man has hewn a happy life at his sawmill


MOUNT AIRY -- The 52-inch steel blade slices the oak timber, spewing sawdust that falls like snow onto the shoulders of Malone Gouge. The powdery cloak suits him.

Mr. Gouge, 68, has worn it since he first shoveled sawdust in his father's mill. The 60 years since then shaped a scrappy mountain boy into a hard-nosed mountain man for whom "sawmilling," as he calls it, is reason enough for living.

Once fairly common in Maryland, few small mills like his survive today. The price of timber's high. Competition from large mills is intense.

"I think we're a dying breed everywhere, not just in Maryland," Mr. Gouge says. "But I enjoy my work as good as some people enjoy going to a movie. To tell you the truth, it's about all I've ever known.

"I got no education. I educated myself in this."

His mill sits low on a hill in his front yard five miles north of Mount Airy on the Carroll-Frederick County line.

An aging, open shed, it appears unstable from nearby Buffalo Road -- just a roof on beams amid mounds of sawdust and logs.

But the mill is Mr. Gouge's foundation.

It's supplied all he's needed for survival among the trees and hills far removed from stifling cities.

"I'm a mountain man," he says. "I ain't no city man. You put me in the city, and I'd be dead in no time. I can't be hemmed in."

Short and solid with a jolly face and a crooked cap, he has cut wood in Maryland for farmers, roofers, casket makers and contractors since erecting this mill in 1955.

But his education began two decades earlier, when he was 8, in his father's sawmill in the hills of North Carolina.

"My daddy give me and another little boy the job of rolling sawdust," Mr. Gouge says.

"We'd shovel it in this old wooden wheelbarrow made out of poplar; it had an old iron wheel on it. We'd shovel it in and then roll it out and dump it.

"It was all me and the other boy could do to push it. He'd grab one handle, and I'd grab the other. It liked to killed us. . . .

"When I wasn't in school I was rolling sawdust or pulling a crosscut saw. I pulled that thing till I thought I'd die.

"You ever pulled a crosscut saw? You haven't missed nothing."

His father moved the family to Kentucky while young Malone still attended school. But Malone, the eldest of 10 children, gave up formal schooling in the fifth grade for full-time work.

"My daddy helped pull 30 million feet of virgin timber off Cloverport, Kentucky," Mr. Gouge says. "He expected me to do as much as anybody else, I guess. I never minded. I worked hard all my life."

Mr. Gouge ventured to Maryland in 1951 to work for a woodsman from Kentucky who was helping build the Liberty Dam in western Baltimore County near the Carroll County line. Mr. Gouge and another man cleared land for the project, logging out nearly all the big timber.

Then, in 1955, he bought 11 acres north of Mount Airy and built this mill. He is partners now with his son, Bill, who's 32 and began rolling sawdust when he was 12.

"It's kind of in the blood," Bill Gouge says as he sharpens the mill's big blade. "It's a lot of work and not a lot of money. Anybody with any kind of good mind would get out of it."

His father and mother, Judy, take a trip now and then, Bill Gouge says. But his father always seems glad to get back under the roof of the sawmill.

"He keeps saying he's going to buy a camper and take off traveling, but I never see it," Bill Gouge says.

"I keep trying to get him to go to Washington to see the buildings and stuff. He's never been there. He said he'd go, but he hasn't yet."

Malone Gouge shakes his head at the prospect of gazing up at the Washington Monument.

He prefers the company of trees. He and his son and a couple of young workers cut down trees for their customers or saw logs brought in.

These days, their customers tend to be farmers who want to put up a fence or a barn.

"I got more than I want to do," Mr. Gouge says, laughing. "I'm about wore out.

"We don't do half what I used to do. After five, six hours, I give out and quit.

"But I ain't going to retire, not as long as I can crawl out there. If I got to die, I'd rather die right out there in that mill than anywhere I know."

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