By Ryan Cornell
FRONT ROYAL -- If a tree falls in Warren County and it doesn't make a sound, there's a pretty good chance it was cut down by Tony Smith.
A Front Royal lifer who owns Smitty's Tree Service, Smith has been climbing old trees and tearing them down since he started working for Asplundh at age 18. Today, Smitty's is the county's oldest tree removal and trimming company at 28 years in business.
This week, Smith and his crew removed two large spruce trees and two holly bushes from the front of the Warren County Courthouse. He said evergreens, like the spruces, have a shallow root system and can easily uproot during a storm, causing damage to buildings nearby.
Within 30 minutes, Smith had cut down the tree -- as tall as the courthouse's flagpole -- packed away the portions of its trunk and was nearly finished grinding the stump left behind.
Smith has removed trees from Belle Grove Plantation and has maintained and trimmed the trees at The Inn at Little Washington.
Last week, he said he cut down a white oak next to Boggs Chapel at Randolph Macon Academy that measured 10 feet across its stump.
Smitty's coverage area stretches anywhere from West Virginia to the Capitol Beltway, but Smith said he's traveled to North Carolina for the hurricane season and Vermont during a massive ice storm.
"You could stand at the edge of the woods and, for as far as you could see, it was like 20-foot stubs, all the limbs off the trees, all the tops broken off," he recalled. "It was incredible. Never seen anything like it. It was so bad we had to take sledgehammers and knock the ice off the trees before we climbed them."
Two or three times a year, he rescues cats that have wandered up trees. He will use his bucket truck, but if it's on a branch too high, he will have to climb after it himself.
He recalled the time he once saved someone's parakeet.
"It just had its wings clipped and it flew off the deck into a 120-foot poplar tree," he said. "Every tree I went up, the bird would fly to another one. I would climb up and come down. My eighth tree, when I came down, the bird flew out and landed on its owner's shoulder."
Typically, he said he would've charged the owner $100 per tree, totaling $800. But when he climbed down from the eighth tree, he asked for only $100.
As far as tree removal is concerned, Smith said the price depends on many variables, including its location, how close it is to a house and how much time is involved in taking it down.
"It varies so widely," he said. "I can't give anybody an estimate until I see the tree."
In a report published in April by CareerCast.com of the "worst jobs of 2013," lumberjack ranked second worst job, topped only by newspaper reporter. Danger, low pay and poor job prospects were some of the factors the site listed in its assessment.
"They [lumberjacks] don't have to climb as many trees," Smith said. "They're in the mountains, so they can cut them. But it's a pretty hazardous job."
Smith has had his scares on the job. He's torn a ligament while climbing a tree. When he was working for Asplundh, he cut his leg with a chainsaw and ended up with 14 stitches. He was clearing brush underneath a power line when a vine grabbed his saw and pulled it down toward his leg before he could stop it.
Although, for all the inherent danger involved, he has yet to make a claim on his company's insurance.
The recession has impacted many local businesses. In Smith's line of work, the recession has created a glut of unskilled competitors.
"You got a lot of guys running around in pickup trucks with chainsaws, trying to make a living, but they're not insured," he said. "They don't have a business license. And if something happens, it's all on the homeowners. Because it's the homeowners' responsibility to verify if the contractor is licensed and insured."
He said senior citizens are especially vulnerable to scammers, who will overcharge elderly customers to cut down a tree, take a deposit and leave without doing any work or tell them they need to remove a tree that doesn't need to be cut down.
"The average homeowner is not educated about trees," he said. "And there's a lot of people who take advantage of that."
Smith said homeowners should always ask to see a business license and certificate of insurance, and should get multiple estimates.
"The main thing is that people be aware of who they're using to do their trees," he said. "It only takes one guy who doesn't know what he's doing to screw up a tree. That's all it takes."
Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org