CHESTERTOWN — Chestertown. -- By strict geographical standards Kent County, Maryland's smallest, is a peninsula and not an island. But it retains certain insular qualities, which in the end will probably contribute to its undoing.
Time was, and not so long ago either, that islands enjoyed an extra measure of protection against whatever plagues -- warlike Native Americans, smallpox, aerobic dancing, shopping malls -- were ravaging the mainland. But that's not so now. The worst modern plagues don't stop at the water's edge, and islands are as vulnerable as anywhere else.
In the Chesapeake Bay alone, Kent Island's totally wrecked. Hart and Miller have been buried by dredged-up mud. Poole's is full of unexploded artillery shells. Poplar is eroding away. And purveyors of progress are standing on the Crisfield waterfront and looking speculatively out at Smith. The more unspoiled and isolated a place, the more threatened it is.
Yet here is the almost-island of Kent County, stuck in between the Chester and Sassafras Rivers, with the bay to the west and the dark jungles of Delaware to the east. Though it has changed over the last decade or two, it has changed much less than most of Maryland, including the rest of the Eastern Shore.
Its population of 17,000-some is still about that of Lutherville, and half that of Glen Burnie; it isn't, for the moment, experiencing any considerable growth. It's remained a farmer's and a waterman's county, unlike Queen Anne's and Talbot, now owned by the realtors. And unlike some of the other farmers' and watermen's counties farther down the Shore, it isn't miserably Third World poor.
Some of it, in fact, looks pretty prosperous. Rock Hall, once the most unvarnished of Chesapeake ports, has been given over to yachts and condominiums. Decrepit old Betterton has a new state-built marina and plans for a golf course, and Chestertown, with its red-brick houses along the river aglow in the winter sun and Washington College planning a brave new expansion, isn't showing much evidence of recession at all.
(Chestertown might not be the world's best place to be a washing-machine or a television retailer, because Eastern Shore people generally buy such big-ticket items over in sales-tax-free Delaware, but that's nothing new. In fact, it may even make it easier for merchants here to shrug off the current proposals to ratchet Maryland's tax up even higher.)
Kent only has about 2,500 children in its public schools, but it consistently spends more per capita on their education than any other counties in the state except Montgomery, Howard, Baltimore and Worcester.
Out away from town, along the smaller roads, there are subtle changes in the countryside. Since the mid-1970s, many farms have been owned by non-residents, and a significant number by foreigners. Fields are bigger than they were, the better to grow corn and beans and wheat, and many old farmhouses and barns are gone. This gives the county a lonelier look.
When it was first noticed that many farms in Kent and other
Shore counties were being bought by foreign investors, there was a mild surge of xenophobia. Legislators drafted bills that would have restricted foreign ownership. But the bills failed, the dollar got stronger after Jimmy Carter was tossed out, and the panic passed.
About a dozen years ago, I recall visiting a German who'd bought a couple of hundred acres along the Chester not far from here. He had acquired some equipment and was delightedly farming it himself, exulting in the beauty and fertility of the land and astounded at how few marks it had taken to pay for it.
Whether he's still there I don't know. The chances are, the novelty wore off and he went back to Europe, hiring local people to work the land for him. That's usually the way it works. But some like him stay on, raising children who will have as good and moral a claim on their Kent County farmland as any of their bred-on-the-Shore neighbors.
Those neighbors include two with special political muscle, Congressman Wayne Gilchrest and Speaker Clayton Mitchell of the Maryland House of Delegates. These two give Kent County's small voice a little more resonance in both Washington and Annapolis, which may or or may not be a good thing. When dealing with governments, it can be dangerous to call too much attention to yourself.
There's a feeling in Kent County right now that the present is all right, or even better than that, but that the future looks uncertain at best. It's a little like being camped by a cheerful fire in the midst of a dark and gloomy wood, wondering if the fire will last until daybreak.
Small places have no monopoly on worries of this kind. Cities and states and even nations experience them, too. In Kent County, though, the sense that maybe this is the last of the good places enjoying the last of the good times is compounded by the well-publicized ills of most of the rest of Maryland. Who's to say that what happened to Kent Island can't happen here?
The practical approach is simply to appreciate the time and the place, and enjoy both while they last. Congressman Gilchrest, a freshman who used to teach high school here, has the right idea. "If I lose the next election," the Kent County News reports him telling the Optimist Club of Chestertown recently, "I'll be in Kent County a lot more often. And that's not so bad."
Peter Jay's column appears here each Sunday.