Again in the year 2002, were making our way around Virginia, each
issue visiting a small town and meeting some of the folks who make up the heart of
electric co-op country. On this years
eighth stop, well be...
Down Home in Smith Island By Marge Stickevers, Contributing Writer
These Marylanders strive to lead a simple life on
their beautiful island.
In 1994, cable TV finally reached Smith Island,
Maryland’s only inhabited offshore island in the Chesapeake Bay. Smith
island is located in Somerset County, 13 miles west of Crisfield, and is
accessible by passenger ferry (no cars). The population of 310 people,
devoted to family, religion, hard work and the bay make a living primarily
from crabbing. Upon first sight, the primitive natural beauty of land and
water of the island strikes the visitor with its simplicity.
(above) who works at the Smith Island Center Museum & Gift Shop
(inset), feels the island is a wonderful place to raise children, but
admits that making a living can be a challenge.
Over 4,000 acres of marshland on the island are
managed by the Martin National Wildlife Refuge. Wildlife include muskrat,
mink, red foxes, otter, egrets, osprey, blue heron, diamondback terrapin
and wild fowl. The island has three communities, each with a rustic
working harbor. In Ewell, the largest of the three, a museum is open daily
from 12 to 4, April through October. The main street embraces white
clapboard houses with green or red shutters. There are restaurants, a fire
department, gas pumps, a ballpark, an elementary school and a post office.
One of three Methodist churches stands next to the parsonage and cemetery.
Tylerton, a cozy village with shade and fruit trees, and Rhodes Point —
formerly known as Rogue’s Point for the pirates who frequented there —
are the other two communities.
a 43-year-old writer, grew up in Ewell, tonged oysters and crabbed with
his dad for seven years before leaving for college when he was 25 to study
history, literature and philosophy. After graduation he returned to write
and work as the editor of the Crisfield
News. He decided to stay, write a novel and share the bay’s fate.
Along with Rene Tyler and Rick Edmund, he maintains an ambulance service and works as a
medical technician. Perhaps Chris, who recently had to start chemotherapy,
describes his hometown best when he says, “Nowhere else could I have
found the care and compassion shown me. I have no health insurance and
these people raised money and even brought us food.”
graveyards evidence the fact that many of the island’s inhabitants are
descendants of the original colonists.
A central figure in the community is the Rev.
Rick Edmund from York, Pa., who feels God had a tremendous part in
sending him to Smith Island. Rick observes that his parishioners have deep
religious feelings. On Sundays he conducts services at the island’s
three churches, hopping from one to the other in golf cart or boat. In the
winter and on stormy days, Sunday is a transportation adventure for the
Descendants of Colonists
For generations, the people of Smith Island have
crabbed the island’s waters, six days a week from 3 a.m. to at least 6
p.m., April through December. It is possible to read the names on the
tombstones next to the church in the middle of town and prove that the
present inhabitants are direct descendants of British colonists who first
settled the island in the late 1600s.
Otis Tyler is fire chief and captain of the Island Belle, official mail boat
of Smith Island.
Smith Island was originally populated in 1657 and
named the Russell Isles by Captain John Smith in honor of Smith’s ship
doctor, Walter Russell. Later, Captain Henry Smith, a prominent landowner
and families named Evans and Tyler settled on the island. Population
peaked at 800 during the early 20th century, but slipped to present number
levels due to young people leaving the island for jobs other than fishing.
Today the prison on the Eastern Shore in Princess Anne employs some of the
younger generation. The island recently welcomed its first newborn in more
than 18 months.
Inhabitants of Smith Island have a distinctive accent
reminiscent of their British forebears and preserved by isolation. One
noted custom is that islanders in cars and trucks honk their horns and
wave. Although cars are few, there are bicycles (allowed on the ferry) and
golf carts can be rented. The islanders also feed a large number of cats
who live outdoors.
a 30-year-old mother of two, says Smith Island is the best place to raise
children. “I’ve never seen kids come here who didn’t love it. They
can run free.” Janet has worked in the museum for three years. She
enjoys living on Smith Island, but admits that the biggest challenge is
making a living.
Chris Parks, pictured here with his daughter Kate, returned to his childhood home and decided to write a novel to
share the bay’s fate.
Janet’s father-in-law, Otis
Tyler, is the captain of the Island Belle, the 42-foot mail boat that
crosses the water twice a day, ferrying passengers and mail. Otis has
performed this job for 18 years. He likes to meet different people and he
thinks every day is unique. Although crabbing has been in his family for
over 100 years, (his grandparents were Whitelocks) he prefers the
independence of being a boat captain. He also wears the hat of fire chief.
Otis remembers the winter of 1976-’77 when the Bay was frozen for a
13-week period. The National Guard flew the mail in.
A Precarious Compromise
For many, the Chesapeake Bay is synonymous with the
blue crab. Watermen explain that the Chesapeake has provided more crabs
for human consumption than any body of water in the world. The difficulty
in catching these tasty crustaceans is due in part to their interesting
and complex biology. Their mating is indeed a beautiful tale. This
knowledge is handed down from the older, crustier fishermen to the younger
generation. Most of it is gleaned from experience. The women finish the
crab-harvesting operation, using their skills as pickers. Make no mistake,
the process is complicated and the Smith Island watermen would prefer to
be left alone to work their trade as they have done in the past. But the
Environmental Protection Agency has vowed to protect the waters and the
environment. The compromise between watermen and environmental protectors
is precarious. Both sides must strive to understand the other’s
The Rev. Rick
Edmund, pastor of the United Methodist Church and minister of three
churches, feels that God played a tremendous part in sending him to Smith
The state health department has in recent years began
enforcing regulations for facilities used in picking crab meat. The
changes and financial burdens disturb people who have accomplished tasks
safely by their own methods. It is a delicate balance between progress and
In contrast to the crabbing and oystering industries
that have been on the island for hundreds of years, there are several
recent structural additions. The Center, in conjunction with Crisfield and
Smith Island Cultural Alliance, offers visitors an overview 20-minute film
and a variety of exhibits. It is a bright, cheery building with museum,
gift shop and rest rooms. On the wall is a 30-foot mural of sunset at
Rhodes Point by local artist, Reuben
Becker. L. Marsh Boatyard, which has built and repaired boats for 50
years, exhibits a work boat. Other exhibits display the roles of women in
the community. There is also an interactive audio tape.
On the water in Tylerton, an ex-theologian and his
wife opened their Inn of Silent Music. Leroy
Friesen and Sharryl Lindberg
offer guests serenity, prayer and a place to unwind from the chaos of
ordinary living. In addition, in Ewell there is one motel with eight rooms
and two other bed and breakfasts. However, what is missing on Smith Island
are sidewalks, beaches, convenience stores, boat rentals, movie theatres,
liquor stores, bars, fast-food chains, boutiques, amusement parks,
laundromats and taxis. Unfortunately, there is no doctor. A visiting nurse
comes once a week. In the interim, the islanders concern themselves with
family, church, work and nature.
There are no
taxis, but tourists can travel in rented golf carts.
Chris Parks, the writer, speaks of his childhood with
awe. He played out on the marshes, climbing and building treehouses. There
he watched wild goats and eagles. At the local dump, he discovered
treasure and he had a skiff like all the other kids. The best time was at
Christmas when everyone returned to the island. There were pageants and
church activities that bound people together. After seventh grade, he rode
the boat to high school with his contemporaries.
As children mature, the lure of the crab pot with its
hard physical labor dims and an outside world beckons. But no matter how
long or how far the child travels from Smith Island, there remains that
strong bond to family and to nature. Nowhere else can native sons practice
allegiance to home, church and work in exactly the same way. Nowhere else
affords that intense freedom to live a serene life. As pollution and the
decline of shellfish threaten the Chesapeake, and as erosion causes the
island to diminish, we salute the watermen and families of Smith Island in
their battle with nature. Like their ancestors before them, they strive to
live a simple life in peace on their interesting island.
A cruise package on the Captain Tyler
II includes an optional seafood luncheon at the Bayside Inn
Passenger ferry boats depart year round from
Crisfield, Maryland. During the summer they also leave from Point Lookout,
Maryland, and Reedville, Virginia. In Crisfield, leave car in lot on W.
Main Street, just before the city dock. There are public rest rooms.
I and II – (410) 425-5931. Captain Tyler
II – (410) 425-2771. Optional seafood luncheon in Ewell at
Inn when you purchase package cruise. Island Belle
II (Mail Boat) – (410) 968-1118. Spirit of
Chesapeake – (804) 453-3430.
Overnight docking available for boats with a draft
under three feet. Call Ruke’s Store – (410) 425-2111.
Be sure to
pick up a souvenir at one of the island’s unique gift shops
Motel: Smith Island
Motel – (410) 425-3321.
Guy’s – (410) 968-2990. Ewell Tide Inn
– (410) 425-2141. Inn of Silent
Music – (410) 425-3541.
Derby takes place on Labor Day weekend, Friday, Saturday and Sunday
with fireworks on Sunday at 9 p.m. The Derby is a fair and festival with
prizes, games, food and crafts. There are crab races, crab-picking and
crab-cooking contests, boat race and boat-docking contest. For
information, contact: Visitors Center and Museum, Crisfield Heritage
Foundation, (410) 968-2501.