When chill fills air, he strikes responsive cord

Fireplace owners come from far, wide to get wood at John Holbrook's shop

Maryland Journal

November 13, 2006|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

Each year when the air turns crisp, a few loyal customers head west on Liberty Road until fast-food restaurants give way to horse farms. Turning onto a long driveway, they pull past a jumble of tables tangled with vines to park by a turnip patch. Then they follow the instructions painted on a wooden sign in green and red letters: "For wood blow horn here."

After a few moments, John Holbrook opens the door to his house and shuffles down the steps. At 81, he doesn't pull out his chainsaw so much anymore, but he still sells the logs he split a few years ago. It's good wood, he says, mostly long-burning locust, well aged by wind and sun.

For folks who like to keep the home fires burning all winter long, buying pricey little bundles of wood at the gas station or grocery store is not an option. So they scout bulletin boards and classified ads. The search can take them down country roads to get to independent sellers like Holbrook.

It seems to be getting harder to find good wood, fireplace fanatics say. Higher fuel prices have driven up demand and development has cut down much of the supply, one wood seller explains.

Scott Mogol, an audio engineer from Owings Mills, knows just how hard it can be to find firewood. Last year, he asked around until a relative tipped him off to a supplier. This year, he posted a message on the online bulletin board Craigslist. After a week, only one person wrote back offering wood.

Mogol, his wife and two children light fires about three times a week during the winter months.

The fire brings the family together, he says, adding, "It's something to watch other than television."

For Gilles Stucker, a Bethesda attorney, who has also been seeking wood this fall, fires bring back memories of his boyhood in Ohio, when his mother sent him out to split wood.

Last year, Stucker picked up a winter's worth of pear wood from a contact he met on Craigslist. It was he and his wife's first year together in a home with a fireplace.

"It saves some money for us to turn the heat off and just light a small fire in the morning," he says. "It's a nice warm spot, and it makes my wife happy."

Only a handful of larger firewood suppliers still do business in the area, says Ben Cole, owner of Blue Moon Farms, which is located just a half-mile away from Holbrook. He and his father converted their sheep farm to a wood business about 15 years ago when Cole was still in high school. He used to park a truck full of wood in front of his school.

Today, tractor-trailers from Pennsylvania dump oak logs onto a 30-foot tall pile at Blue Moon each week. Dump trucks carry cords of wood - 4-foot-by-4-foot- by-8-foot stacks that cost $200 - to at least 10 or 12 customers each day, says Cole.

For an extra $70, workers will stack the wood for the buyer.

"The people in the old houses, they're the firewood people," he says, adding that his best clients live in Roland Park, Timonium, Columbia and Hunt Valley. In addition to regular customers who burn every day, Cole's business picks up when snow is in the forecast.

"If they're calling for snow tomorrow, this place is frantic," he says. "You can't even get in here."

Sometimes, Cole and his wife are awakened in their Mays Chapel home (which doesn't have a fireplace) by a desperate phone call from a client whose furnace is on the fritz.

Smaller suppliers like Holbrook struggle to scrounge up wood to keep their customers warm.

This will probably be the last winter that he sells wood, Holbrook says. After Tropical Storm Isabel, he cut up the fallen trees on his 39-acre property and stacked piles of logs around his house. He has been selling the wood ever since. Now his health makes it hard for him to hack through tree trunks.

"The doctor - and my cousin, too - tell me to stay out of the woods with my chainsaw, 'cause I stumble," he says.

Wearing mud-smudged jeans and work boots, Holbrook straightens a wooden ladder that he has rigged to protect his turnips from the deer. He talks about his childhood on this property, which he calls "the Homeplace."

He says he was born in the two-story farmhouse where his grandparents and great-grandparents once lived and where his niece lives now. His parents managed a small farm here and relatives lived up and down the street. This neighborhood on the western edge of Randallstown near Liberty Reservoir is marked "Holbrook" on maps in honor of his ancestors, he says.

When Holbrook was growing up, his father tended three fires to keep the house warm all winter. His mother would take a soapstone out of the cook stove at the end of the day, wrap it in newspaper and put it in his bed to keep his feet warm at night.

Now Holbrook, who never married, lives in a small house that he built himself next to his niece's farmhouse. He doesn't have a fireplace, just central heating, but his calico cat, Nuisance, sleeps on his bed to warm his feet.

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