HANCOCK, Md. (AP) _ One step inside the rustic, stone lodge of the 125-year-old Woodmont Rod and Gun Club, and it's clear the club is rooted in an earlier era.

It was a time when presidents, entertainers and sports legends came to hunt deer and turkey in the western Maryland hills, and then dine on traditional lunches of venison, fried apples and potatoes.

The club's heyday has long past and, faced with aging shareholders, declining membership, money woes and changing tax laws, Woodmont was put up for sale a few years ago.

The final chapter of Woodmont, one of the nation's premier hunting clubs, will be written this fall when the state buys the 3,420-acre hunting preserve _ Maryland's largest land acquisition in 20 years.

``It can't go on as it is,'' said Henry Roemer, the club's vice president and general manager who lives at the lodge. ``It's sad, but I'd rather have the state buy it than have a developer come in and ruin it.''

The state Board of Public Works in July approved the purchase of the club from the Conservation Fund, a national land trust that is buying stock in the club from 30 shareholders. State agencies, unable to buy stock in private corporations, asked the Conservation Fund to handle the transaction and then sell Woodmont to the state.

The land and improvements at Woodmont, excluding its historic wildlife prints and other artifacts, have been appraised at $4.1 million, said Jack Lynn, a spokesman for the Arlington, Va.-based land trust.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources will pay the Conservation Fund $3.09 million for Woodmont, Lynn said. That includes $2.65 million that goes to the shareholders and $443,400 to pay for appraisals, administrative, legal and maintenance fees.

After the state completes the deal, the public will have access to the five-square-mile tree-covered tract with its two manmade lakes for hunting, wildlife observation, hiking, environmental education courses and summer camps, said DNR Secretary John Griffin.

The property's southern border adjoins the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and Potomac River and DNR's Western Maryland Rail Trail, which will connect Fort Frederick State Park to Sideling Hill. On the west, Woodmont's property borders the state's 2,100-acre Sideling Hill Wildlife Management Area.

The story of Woodmont begins with Robert Lee Hill, who left his Virginia home to avoid the Civil War and settled in the Sideling Hill area of western Maryland. He hunted the nearby woods where he found an abundance of deer, turkey, ducks, pheasant, grouse, squirrels and quail.

About five years after the war, Hill visited Washington and struck up a conversation about hunting and fishing with Rear Adm. Robley D. Evans, who accepted an invitation to go hunting.

When Evans and his hunting buddies returned, they held a dinner for elite guests that included congressmen and senators and Army and Navy officers. At the dinner in 1870, they organized the Woodmont Rod and Gun Club of Washington, D.C., and agreed to buy land at the site.

The club was reorganized in 1908 by Henry P. Bridges, a lawyer with roots in Hancock who was instrumental in Woodmont's history of raising thousands of turkeys and pheasant.

The reorganized club had members such as Delaware industrialist Eugene DuPont and naturalist Richard K. Mellon. Their guests included railroad executives; Adm. Cary Grayson, a close friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt and director of the American Red Cross; Babe Ruth; heavyweight champion Gene Tunney; Robert Woods, president of Sears & Roebuck; and the entertainers Amos and Andy.

``The hunter who takes up a rifle and moves through Woodmont's deep, winter-swept woods is not asking himself `Will I see a deer?' but rather `Will I hit the deer when I see him?''' Bridges wrote in his book ``The Woodmont Story'' published in 1953.

On the library wall is a framed letter that Amos and Andy wrote to Bridges on Nov. 25, 1935.

``Frankly, I think that our day with you was one of the high spots in our outdoor life,'' they wrote.

Also in the library is a cane-seated rocker carved from hickory that was used by visiting Presidents James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who fished from his wheelchair atop a dam.

``Most people are taken by the chair. I am taken by it all. I could spend a whole day and whole night walking through the lodge,'' said Richard Erdmann, general counsel for the Conservation Fund who has been involved with the purchase of several hunting clubs in the United States.

``You really feel like you're back in the early 1900s,'' he said. ``Woodmont is definitely a premier hunting club. It's probably in the top two or three in the country.''

The spacious lodge is a taxidermist's dream, filled with stuffed bison, owl, caribou, deer, coyote and wild boar. Wildlife pictures, some done by James Audubon, adorn the dark brown wainscotted walls.

``There is a lot of nostalgia and sadness with the purchase,'' said Peter Mortensen, the chairman of the First National Bank of Pennsylvania in Hermitage, Pa., who has hunted at Woodmont for 20 years and has been a member for about 10 years. ``The essence of the club has always been tradition. The valuables need to be protected and preserved.''

Roemer, whose father was a former president of the club, said the artifacts are treasured by the members, but it's the people and camaraderie he will miss the most.

``I'm sad. I'll miss it. It's truly a piece of me,'' said Roemer, whose first visit to Woodmont was in his mother's arms. ``This is just an empty building. When you fill it up with lots of people, you've got a wonderful place.''

End Adv For Weekend Editions Sept. 16-17