Building a solid life

When milk production ceased, farmer turned to construction

October 22, 2006|By Mary Ellen Graybill | Mary Ellen Graybill,Special to The Sun

From high on a hill on Jolly Acres Road near Norrisville, 70-year-old C. Darrel Comer, a community activist and farmer who founded Comer View Construction can look down on his pond and, on the horizon in every direction, see the results of his lifetime of work in the county.

Life was not always a paved road for Comer, youngest son of George and Lona Comer. His father, one of 11 children, believed in working hard on the farm instead of attending school.

"Dad left an impression," Comer said. He always had to have money to buy something before he bought it. "That was his theory."

His father, who died in 1984 at age 84, went to school only two days, Comer said. "The first day he went and the second went back to get his cap. When I asked him why he didn't go to school more, he said, `I was the only one to get firewood.'"

Darrel Comer's educational career was longer than his father's.

Comer was a fine student at the early Carea School, said Pauline Carico, who taught at the school from 1935 to 1950. Those were the days when a dirt road led to a two-room schoolhouse, where a coal stove warmed the room and many grades assembled.

"My job was to start the coal stove on Sunday evening, so everyone had a warm room on Monday morning," Comer said.

In 1954, Darrel Comer graduated from North Harford High School, where he was active in the Future Farmers of America and also was a star soccer player for the Hawks.

He got started on Jolly Acres Road by taking over his father's farm and equipment. He now has 150 acres in agricultural land preservation.

"I bought out the farming operation by buying one-third, and then bought it all. Later, I bought the barn and adjoining properties," he said.

He married Bonnie in 1955, when he was 19. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last year with a trip to Alaska.

While in high school, Comer had already started a herd of cows and taken an agricultural leadership role with the FFA.

He had always been a Holstein man, said his daughter, Lisa Wilson, and he started farming with hogs, chickens and cows. Wilson recalled riding in the motorized manure scrapers through the milking parlor of a barn before her father built a new dairy setup - a free-stall housing operation.

"Free-stall housing is a system of housing dairy cattle without restraint in stalls designed to direct manure away from the space where cows lay. Since its introduction some 45 years ago, this system has lead to improved cow comfort and cleanliness while reducing labor for the dairy farmer. It is by far the most popular housing system for dairy cattle in North America today," according to Jack Rodenburg, dairy production systems program leader for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

Comer said, "It was my own design. Nobody around designed their cow barns like that in the '60s. It wasn't new, but we had open free stalls, which was very uncommon." Normally, the cows would be housed in a covered building. But with open free stalls, where there was a roof only over the cows' bedding, drainage was easier to manage.

"It was a system that if you had hard rain, it more or less flushed itself clean," Comer said.

The cows were not milked there, nor did they eat there, but it was their open-air comfort station where they could rest during the day or sleep at night. Today's cows enjoy fancier bedding, fans and mist, but the same open-stall system is used so the cows have a place to come in and rest.

When people in the dairy business saw the new stall setup and feeding system for the cows, they asked Comer to build it for them.

Comer's inventions sometimes required an investment, so his financial theory differed from his father's. "My theory was `buy it and let it pay for itself,' " Comer said.

In 1985, Comer took a buyout from the federal government to cease production of milk. His farm was one of 18 in the county to accept a buyout program designed to cut surplus milk production and boost prices. Ceasing to market milk meant he had to turn to something else to make a living, so he founded Comer Construction.

His reputation as a builder began when he started with barns, pole barns and outbuildings for others. He got his contractor's license in Baltimore, then began getting supplies from nearby Delta Lumber in Whiteford. Remodeling and building requests began to pour in.

What started as a part-time venture to fill up his time then grew to include all the immediate family members - Randy, Keith, Lisa, Bonnie and some of the grandchildren - especially in the summer.

Marcanne Sanerman lives in one of the first houses built by Darrel Comer's business 20 years ago, said, "The Comers are a good family to work with. I trust them. And they're flexible."

Hank Marindin of Troyer Road in White Hall agreed.

During a trip to California with his wife, Debbie, Marindin received a call from Darrel's son, Randy Comer, working on a renovation project at Marindin's house. Comer had found some valuable and historic old beams in the ceiling. Marindin was pleased that he could save the old beams.

Comer Construction also built the additions to the Norrisville firehouse and has remodeled buildings over a 10-mile radius of the area surrounding Norrisville.

Comer's sons, Randy and Keith, have gradually taken over the management of Comer Construction, with their sister, Lisa Wilson, office manager. Their father retired in August 2005, but he still lends a hand when needed.

These days, Comer mostly favors cultivating a patch of gourds above his pond.

"I've got plenty I want to do. I like crafts. Right now, I'm in the process of making a cedar chest for my granddaughter. She's graduating, and I want to get that done. I got one more to make. I'm making bookcases for my grandson," he said.

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