A Tranquil Island Town, Despite Wave Of Tourists

POSTMARK: EWELL

November 22, 1992|By GREG TASKER

When you step off one of the mail boats that bring tourists to Ewell, chances are you'll run into the Rev. Edward M. Gladden.

The pastor of Smith Island United Methodist Church is everywhere, tending to the spiritual, social and civic needs of the village's 245 inhabitants.

"We have no form of government here, you see," says the pastor, who serves the island's three towns. "We're not a municipality. We're a theocracy. The church is the leading force of the community."

Occasionally, Mr. Gladden also tends to the needs of hungry tourists, directing them to Ruke's Seafood Deck for "the best crab cakes on the island."

Tourists, though, can also find crab cakes at the Bayside Inn and at the Harbor Side Restaurant, which, along with Ruke's, comprise the town's three restaurants.

But Ewell, the largest of the Smith Island towns, has more than just restaurants.

Clustered along the village's narrow, worn paved roads are dozens of frame and brick houses, a few commercial buildings, a post office, a church and countless crab shanties.

"It's a very safe, peaceful, secure place to live," Mr. Gladden says.

Eighty-four-year-old Otis Tyler can attest to that.

"We don't have no crime," says Mr. Tyler, a retired waterman and a lifelong resident of Ewell. "We've never had a murder or a rape case. A doctor here committed suicide once. Nobody knows why. When you commit suicide, you just have something on your mind."

Ewell and Smith Island, Maryland's only inhabited island not accessible by bridge, attract 5,000 tourists a year. They come by boat from Crisfield, 12 miles away on the lower Chesapeake Bay, step off at the docks at Ewell, looking for an idyllic lifestyle.

"People want us to be in long dresses and be quaint," says Jennifer Dize, director of the town's senior center. "But we're pretty up-to-date."

Indeed. Ewell residents, like their counterparts in the towns of Tylerton and Rhodes Point, possess modern conveniences: telephones, electricity, indoor plumbing and cars.

Street signs and house numbers are the most recent signs of progress. They came about a year ago when Somerset County upgraded its 911 emergency response system.

Other amenities include a public library; the Smith Island Motel, operated by Frances Kitching and made famous by a Smith Island cookbook; a firehouse; and an elementary school.

Ewell boasts a general store -- run by Charlie Evans -- that rents the latest videos and sells "patent medicines and waterman supplies." What groceries residents can't find there, they shop for in Crisfield. Other shopping is done in Salisbury.

The town has a doctor's house but no doctor. Residents -- most of whom have boats and cars -- travel to the mainland for health care. A dentist visits once a month.

High school students must travel by boat to the mainland for school. Boats leave the island for Crisfield daily at 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. and return at 12:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Residents shrug off the inconveniences.

"It's a way of life," Ms. Dize says. "We're accustomed to it. We don't pay any attention to having to take a boat to the mainland. You get used to it."

Except for when the tourists come, things are quiet in the summer.

Watermen are out on the bay crabbing during the day.

"It's the penalty you pay for living here -- you live from the water," says Jennings Evans, a longtime waterman and a descendant of the island's first inhabitants. "You're not going to live here unless you make a living from the water, especially if you're a young man."

Many assume crabbing and oystering have been a way of life since the island was settled three centuries ago. But Mr. Evans says crabbing has been the livelihood for islanders only since the turn of the century. Oystering preceded crabbing by several decades.

Mr. Evans hopes the town can dispel some of the myths about its history when a visitor's center opens in a former restaurant next year.

Among the myths, he says, are claims that dissidents from St. Mary's County settled the island. The first settlers came from the Jamestown Colony to raise cattle or farm, he says.

Capt. John Smith, who chartered the island in 1608, probably never stepped foot on the place, he says.

The island is named after Henry Smith, one of the first settlers. Ewell is named after a dentist who helped the village get a post office -- in 1895. The visitor's center will tell tourists more about these kinds of things.

"It's something we need," Mr. Evans says. "People are interested in our history."

EWELL AT A GLANCE

Number of restaurants: 3.

Number of high schools: 0.

Current population: 245.

Largest recorded population: 400.

Most recent signs of progress: Street signs and house numbers. Smith Island residents obtained their first automobiles in 1923; first paved road in 1937; and first telephones in 1951.

Most-famous non-resident: Capt. John Smith.

Number of miles to mainland: 12.

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