Gilbert Byron, the Eastern Shore author and poet known as the "Chesapeake Thoreau," died yesterday after a long illness at a nursing home in Easton.
Byron, who would have been 88 July 12 (also Henry David Thoreau's birthday), had lived alone in a waterside cottage near St. Michaels for most of the past half-century.
Writing daily in his "cabin," as he called it, on Old House Cove, he produced a torrent of novels, essays, articles, poems and short stories, many of which have never been published. His most recent book, "Done Crabbin': Noah Leaves the River," was published last year by Johns Hopkins Press.
Byron also wrote for several Maryland and Delaware newspapers, including The Evening Sun, which published on its Other Voices page dozens of his reminiscences and observations of the natural life in his cove. In recent years, with his eyesight nearly gone, Byron wrote of the sounds of Old House Cove, producing one essay for each of the seasons.
Most recently, Byron dictated an essay April 16 on the great blue heron. It was accompanied by an untitled poem:
I'm going to wander away, away
Where there are islands
I'm going to sail on down the Bay
Without a thought for the night.
"He worked as hard as a man could work until the end," said Jim Dawson, whose Unicorn Bookshop in Trappe published three of Byron's books. "He once told me that he found it as much trouble writing an article as raising children."
The son of a Kent County seamstress and a waterman, Byron taught school in three states for 33 years. His first novel, "The Lord's Oyster," published in 1957, was a simply told story of a small town (Chestertown), a river and the Eastern Shore as seen through the eyes of a small boy around the turn of the century. Other published books of Byron's are "Delaware Poems," "Chesapeake Cove," "Chesapeake Duke" and "Cove Dweller."
Byron was an avid sailor who cruised the Chesapeake in the summer of 1941 in his sailboat, Avalon. He drew on this experience for his first published book of poems, "These Chesapeake Men," in 1942.
At age 70, he received a presidential citation for bicycling 650 miles. He was a lifetime member of the Maryland Parent-Teachers Association, a member of the H.L. Mencken Society and the recipient of the Washington College Distinguished Alumni Award. Byron received a bachelor's degree in history from Washington College in 1923.
A Byron letter to The Sun in 1962, suggesting a museum to preserve samples of bay sailing craft, led to the establishment of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. From 1981 until his sight failed at the end of the decade, Byron was a "visiting poet" at Hollywood Elementary School in St. Mary's County. He also lectured at Eastern Shore colleges, museums and historical societies.
Though Byron lived alone for decades, he had dozens of friends. Writers, aspiring poets and former students would stop by his cottage to chat or examine a recent manuscript. "He taught us more after we left school than while we were in it," said Jacques Baker, whose class of 1964 at Easton High School dedicated its yearbook to Byron. "He taught us to survive, really."
Baker, who had been caring for Byron in recent years as a "surrogate son," said Byron was influenced by Walt Whitman and Robert Frost "but most profoundly by Thoreau, particularly by 'Walden,' " the American naturalist's greatest work. Thoreau and Byron had another thing in common besides a birthday: Neither earned a great deal of money from his literary labors. "He [Thoreau] wrote better than I do," Byron told Evening Sun reporter William Thompson four years ago. "I've stayed in my cabin much longer than he stayed in his."
At his request, Byron's ashes will be mingled at Old House Cove with those of his dog, Happy, a long-time companion adopted by the author in 1972. A memorial service, as yet unscheduled, will be held in the cove next month.
A fund has been established to support Byron's literary efforts on the Shore. Contributors may address the Gilbert Byron Fund, Chesapeake Room, Chesapeake College, P.O. Box 8, Wye Mills 21679.