Waves Of Change Deal Islanders Are Struggling With Fallen Profits, An Influx Of Foreigners, And A Loss Of Thier Close-knit Ways

December 01, 1991|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,LIZ BOWIE is The Sun's environmental reporter.

Follow the road through golden brown marshland dotted with white pine and decaying wooden boats. Keep on past yards with rusting, wire mesh crab pots piled high, and there among the clutter of a fishing village is the future of Deal Island: modern gray town houses. They perch irreverently on the very tip of this Chesapeake Bay island, testing the wind and water.

A stone's throw away on Wenona harbor is another sign of the changing times. Stanley Daniels is nudging his rotting skipjack out of the harbor, relying on faith that she won't sink to the muddy bottom as she did last winter. He would like to do more than just patch up this aging lady, but the past few years have brought poor harvests and little money.

Becky Webster could see that skipjack passing by the front of her crab shack as she plucked soft-shell crabs up from a tank that crawled with claws this summer. But she had her own worries about getting by.

Deal Islanders are learning they can't depend on the Chesapeake Bay to be their great provider anymore. Gone are the good harvests. Today Deal Island, like a dozen villages around the bay, is on the verge of economic collapse. The quirky, intimate cultures that sustained themselves for two centuries are now being lost. And a band of "foreigners" from the cities has invaded with different ideas and values.

The communities of greater Deal Island form a spine down its center: Dames Quarter, Chance, Deal and Wenona, the center of commerce. These tiny towns are a jumbled assortment of tidy brick ranchers, Gothic farmhouses, trailer homes and vegetable gardens snuggled together on the few bits of dry land left. Like a western prairie, vast acres of grass spread out between the villages, throwing off the brackish, slightly rotten smell of marsh.

In the middle of the night, the harbor begins to buzz with the chatter on the citizens band radios -- the island's private broadcasting network -- as watermen head out on their wooden work boats to haul crabs from pots at the bottom of Tangier Sound. Once the sound also produced oysters, the staple of Maryland's water economy. But this winter, Deal Islanders are leaving home five days a week to work the remaining productive oyster bars, near Cambridge and Rock Hall.

Over the past two decades, the island has lost a dozen or so skipjacks, its sailmaker, six or seven stores and three packing houses that shucked oysters or picked crabs. Only one packing house remains.

From the big cities of Washington and Baltimore, three hours away, comes a stream of retirees in search of solitude and beauty across the short, high bridge from the Somerset County mainland. Traffic is heavy in the opposite direction, as the island's women and young people leave to take jobs in nearby Princess Anne or Salisbury, an hour away.

Becky and Stan aren't related, but they might as well be. Their community of 1,200 has one school, eight churches, three small stores and about five last names: Abbott, Daniels, Horner, Webster or Benton. Like others born here, Becky and Stan have shared more on this 3-mile-long island than many brothers and sisters. They also feel they are losing more.

"The greatest loss is the caring and doing for each other that we enjoyed," says Jeannie Abbott, the wife of a Deal Island waterman. "We don't have the time to care for each other, not only in the family but in the community."

THE STRUGGLE FOR ECONOMIC SURVIVAL

Becky's life is determined by the rhythm of shedding crabs and the whims of the market.

Just after dawn on an oppressively hot day, Becky is covered in straw and saltwater mist, packing up soft crabs in the family's crab shanty on Wenona harbor.

Like a shower that is never turned off, 20 sprinklers hiss in the background, keeping hundreds of crabs alive in long, low wooden boxes called floats. At 3 a.m., Becky starts checking the floats for any "peelers" that have shed their shells. It is a chore that must be done several times a day during crab season from May 1 to Oct. 1. Becky, a young-looking 33-year-old, will work until 9 p.m. when she will fish the floats one last time, return home, check on her three children, take a shower, fold some laundry and flop into bed.

She is running a race to keep her checkbook balanced.

Crabs were plentiful this year, but the market was flooded and the price she was getting from New York wholesalers was low. "We lost $4,000 the first week and a half," she says. "What we make in the first part of the summer is what you make."

By September, she says in an uncharacteristically disheartened voice, "We broke even. We didn't make anything and we didn't lose anything."

Last spring she and her husband, David, borrowed $20,000 from the bank to get the crab shedding operation going for the ninth year. The business bought crabs from about 10 watermen, including David, then sold the soft shells. The family was able to survive on what David was paid for the crabs he caught. "We will be all right till Christmas," she says.

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