William F. Thomas Sr.

Owner of Harford County sawmill for more than 70 years had customers all over the world

December 20, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

William Frank Thomas Sr., whose lumber was shipped to worldwide customers from the Harford County sawmill that he owned and operated for more than 70 years, died of complications from diabetes and a stroke Dec. 11 at his Fallston home. He was 91.

Mr. Thomas was born in Trade, Tenn., and moved with his family in 1919 to Jarrettsville.

After his father was killed in a hunting accident when he was 3 years old, his mother married John B. Graybeal, and the family settled in 1928 in Fallston.

Mr. Thomas attended the two-room Youths Benefit School on Pleasantville Road, and when he was 15, founded the Graybeal Sawmill with his stepfather.

It was during the depths of the Depression when Mr. Thomas and his stepfather decided to go into business.

"We had no money and my stepdad, John C. Graybeal, sensed the end of the threshing machine era in which he made a living," Mr. Thomas said in a 1989 interview with the Aegis newspaper in Harford County. "There was no money to go to school, so me and my stepbrother, Jack Graybeal, stayed at home to work."

Mr. Thomas said that his stepfather rented a portable mill.

"The sawmill was taken apart to be moved - it took us four or five trips with a team of horses and a wooden-wheeled wagon," he said in the interview.

"While we were setting up the mill, Hamilton Amoss brought in 10,000 board feet of logs to be sawed," he said. "We sawed the logs and had enough money to pay the taxes that fall - $60."

The sawmill was placed in a permanent location at Pleasantville and Fallston roads in 1943, and Mr. Thomas continued working with his stepfather in the business until Mr. Graybeal's death in 1969.

Mr. Thomas replaced the original structure in 1988 with a modern 60-by-80-foot building on the company's 51 acres.

Mr. Thomas and his two sons continued logging until 1986, when they abandoned the practice and began sawing logs that were trucked to the mill from all over Harford County.

Todd Holden, a Harford County photographer and former Aegis reporter, was a longtime customer.

"When I would do trading at his mill, his son would usually take care of making a mantel for my daughter's fireplace or working up a walnut tree that went down on my place," said Mr. Holden.

"But always there was the dad, over in the logging shed, working on a tractor or working the saw. Hard work, long work, and he did it right up to the end," Mr. Holden said. "He also lived in a modest rancher less than 50 yards from where he worked every day."

Various woods, including oak, poplar, walnut, cherry and ash, were transformed from trees into planks and dried in an on-site kiln.

Thomas A. Bachman, a semiretired Fallston dairy farmer, was a longtime friend and customer.

"We grew up in the same neighborhood and have been friends for years," Mr. Bachman recalled. "Frank was unique. He was a big, tall, easygoing kind of guy who enjoyed the rural life and had a wide knowledge of people and places because of being in the sawmill business."

Mr. Bachman enjoyed his visits to the mill.

"It was filled with a nice wood smell and the smell of fresh sawdust. It wasn't particularly noisy because Frank's saws used electric motors rather than diesels," he said. "It only got noisy when he began sawing through a board. I guess the saw blade was 5 or 6 feet in diameter."

He said that Mr. Thomas had only one lumber saw and other saws for different purposes, such as a cut-off saw to even up board ends.

Customers, Mr. Bachman said, ranged from local farmers who used boards cut in the mill for fencing or the New York City subway system that required lumber for subway construction.

"He was a local business here that served a lot of other local businesses," Mr. Bachman said.

Mr. Thomas' daughter, Jean T. Chenworth of Baldwin, said her father enjoyed talking to his many customers who became "good friends over the years," and was "proud of the fact that a small sawmill like his shipped lumber at various times to different parts of the world."

"When his farming neighbors needed help, he or his sons would come to their aid if at all possible," Mrs. Chenworth said.

Someone had set his barn on fire in 1989 and his daughter said, "He still could not understand why, ... when he had always tried to help those he could."

Mr. Thomas managed the business until suffering a fall when he was 87, but continued to handle its financial affairs, family members said.

In 1995, the Harford County Council designated Mr. Thomas and his wife, the former Margaret Poage, as Harford County Living Treasures. The couple were married for 59 years until Mrs. Thomas' death in 2000.

He was a longtime member and a former Sunday school superintendent at Fallston United Methodist Church.

Services were held Thursday.

Also surviving are his two sons, William F. "Bill" Thomas Jr. of Baldwin and Charles W. Thomas of Fallston; seven grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

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