Bill Offutt is an amateur historian but a professional curmudgeon. He has lived his whole life, all 78 years, within a few miles of where he lives now, in a neat brick bungalow on Irvington Avenue near Suburban Hospital. And he resents many of the changes he has seen over that time. “I liked Bethesda when it was a small town, when I knew most of the store owners,” he told me one sunny morning in his book-stuffed, second-floor study. “We had two movie theaters, three bowling alleys, two pool halls and a Chinese laundry. What else could you want?”

He was just getting warmed up: “It was a neat little town; it wasn’t much, but it was friendly, and now there’s no place to park without getting a ticket. I don’t like that; I don’t think it’s an improvement. We have 200 restaurants, ain’t that wonderful? No, it’s not wonderful. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Friendship Heights and Bethesda that a good earthquake and fire wouldn’t cure.”

That’s Bill being Bill. But his bluster can’t hide the pride he takes in a place his ancestors first settled more than 300 years ago. He’s so proud, in fact, that he wrote and published a 783-page book, Bethesda: A Social History, in 1995. And today, 20 years after retiring from the Montgomery County school system, he still writes articles for local outlets (including Bethesda Magazine) and research papers for the county’s historical society. He prefers history to contemporary subjects for a simple reason: “Dead people can’t sue ya!”

Bill told me his first forebear arrived here in 1715, but a quick Web search revealed that a man named William Offutt acquired his initial tract of land in 1694, the year before he married Mary Brock, the daughter of a wealthy neighbor. When I e-mailed Bill with a follow-up question—can I assume this is your ancestor?—he replied expansively, “Yep.”

Even then, long before the capital moved to Washington, D.C., political connections mattered. Offutt was a Presbyterian, so was King William III of England, and through the patronage of the monarch and his local emissaries, the enterprising young man accumulated vast holdings in what are now Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. In fact, the original name of Potomac was Offutt’s Crossroads (it was changed in 1880), and an island in the Potomac River near Old Angler’s Inn still bears the family name.

Maryland first developed along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, and Montgomery County, Bill notes, “wasn’t really heavily settled until the middle of the 18th century. This was the frontier. Everybody was a tobacco farmer. In the early days, that was the money crop.” The Offutts eventually branched out, running stores, taverns and banks. As Bill likes to say, “The county’s history is my family’s history, as well.” In May of 1778, for example, county records show 19 men named Offutt signed an oath supporting the Revolution. In 1860, Bill’s great-grandfather bought a farm in what is now downtown Bethesda and built a house at the corner of Wisconsin and Bradley. (No wonder he complains about parking; it’s easier to find a spot when your family owns the whole area.) His ancestor “invested in every land development scheme that came along and eventually lost everything.” Bill’s grandfather moved out Rockville Pike and settled on land that is now Georgetown Prep. “Along came the Jesuits and said, ‘We want to buy it,’” Bill recounts, “so he sold it, quit working, and just sat there and smiled a lot.”

The family retained the property just north of the school, and Bill’s Uncle Ed ran Offutt’s Store in the building that is now Dietle’s Tavern. The family lived in what is now Addie’s Restaurant. (“My cousin, Mary, Uncle Ed’s daughter, went to lunch at Addie’s and said, ‘It was very strange eating in your bedroom.’”) But the family lost its wealth during the Depression, Bill notes, “so when I was born in 1931, we weren’t rich anymore.”

He grew up in rented houses, attended local schools (including Bethesda Elementary), joined the Veterans Administration and was heading nowhere fast until his girlfriend, Eda Schrader, urged him to go to college. After graduating from the University of Maryland, Bill taught history at Leland Junior High School, and when he and Eda married and started having children, he had to supplement his $3,000 salary with odd jobs. “I think I worked in every drugstore in Bethesda,” he laughs. Then came an assignment as a researcher and writer for the county school system, and Bill authored a report documenting the policy of assigning the youngest, shortest and least educated teachers to junior high schools. As he tells the story, a young reporter for the Montgomery Sentinel “knocked on my door,” asking questions about the report. His name was Bob Woodward, and when Bill played an early version of Deep Throat and confirmed the details of the unpublished document, the ensuing uproar cost him his job and he reluctantly went back to teaching at Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School: “When I got the last kid out of college, I quit and retired.”

But that started Bill Offutt’s second act. He read David Brinkley’s memoir of wartime Washington and decided to do his own version, focused on folks who were younger and less wealthy than Brinkley’s crowd. “Every day I was going out and talking to a bunch of people—firemen, milkmen, boys who had paper routes as kids, housewives, bankers,” he recalls. “I interviewed over 200 people and the damn thing just grew.” No agent or publisher was interested, so Bill took $10,000 in unused sick pay from his teaching days, found a printer in Michigan and contracted “for whatever the $10,000 would buy.” One day “a big truck came up our driveway” and unloaded about 1,200 copies of Bethesda: A Social History, 10 to a box, and stacked them in the Offutts’ basement. Most local stores declined to carry the book, so Bill rented a table at the Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market and peddled them personally. The table cost $25 a day, and usually he turned a small profit. But one day, “some cat from the Post came in” and wrote a story about the author/salesman. “Then the book sold like crazy,” and Bill ordered more, but after 7,000 copies he stopped: “They came in boxes weighing 45 pounds; I was getting old and tired and I didn’t like lugging them up out of the basement.”

The author used his modest profits to self-publish a novel, Seth, a thinly veiled version of his family’s story over the last four generations. But it’s history that Bill cares about most. He wants to remind residents that the “frilly, gilded” image the county enjoys today does not completely reflect its past, when Jews and blacks were barred from living in many neighborhoods. And he has harsh words for developers who have turned farms into town houses in the northern part of the county: “They’ve really abused the land, the way they’ve built them.”

But Bill Offutt cannot stay angry. He showed me a painting, done in 1940, of a roadside theater set in a barn on the family property out Rockville Pike. He pointed to a shack near the barn and explained: “The interesting thing is that Marjorie Hendricks, who later owned Normandy Farm, ran a hot dog stand at intermission.” Then he paused and added: “We’re just full of history here.”

Steve Roberts’ new book is From Every End of This Earth.