A Water Town That's Going With The Flow Postmark: Broomes Island

August 15, 1993|By WAYNE HARDIN

The sky is so clear on this morning that you can see the Gov. Thomas Johnson Bridge sparkling over the river at Solomons, nine miles away. Here, on Broomes Island, a slow breeze rustles the pink and yellow and red roses along Church and Oyster House roads. Tobacco plants grow in straight rows in the sandy soil near Broomes Island Road.

Christine Sonnabend, 23, of Laurel, her fiance and their parents are visiting this Calvert County town, taking their boat out on the Patuxent River to run a trotline. They pronounce the crabbing "good."

It's fairly common today but recreational crabbing would have been out of place during Broomes Island's days of glory, when the community's commercial life was crabbing and fishing and oystering on the Patuxent. As the era of watermen has waned, Broomes Island, population about 300, has geared down, varied its course and kept on going.

"People here have a variety of jobs now," says Lori Denton, 32, president of the Broomes Island Civic League. "Some still work ++ the water, some work at Calvert Cliffs [nuclear plant], some commute to Washington or Prince George's County; a few are retirees."

Oysters, fish, crabs and clams were abundant in the river into the 1950s, when development up-river brought pollution, says state Sen. Bernard Fowler, 69, an island native who now lives in Dares Beach, northeast of Broomes Island. The senator recalls when 75 to 100 oyster boats went out daily from Broomes Island; when up to 100 people worked in the local packinghouse; when there were a dozen five-man, seine-hauling commercial fishing crews on the Patuxent River catching perch, rock, spot, trout and catfish.

Today, the biggest employer here still is seafood-related but the island contributes only a small part of the catch.

"Only 15 to 20 percent of what we pack comes from the river," says Norman Dorrell, owner of Warren Denton Seafood, a packinghouse that employs about 100 people to handle clams, oysters and crabs. "Everything else comes from other parts of the state."

The 50-year-old packinghouse provides a link with Broomes Island's heritage, and with people like lifelong waterman Claude Mister, 73, who sells his catches to Denton Seafood.

Misters have been in the "water business" around Broomes Island since Claude Mister's grandfather came here from the Eastern Shore. Claude Mister's father was a waterman here and now his son, Marty Mister, 36, carries on the family tradition.

Claude Mister rests in a chair on his shady screen porch on Church Road. His waterman's workday, begun when he went out crabbing at 4 a.m., is done at midmorning.

"You can't tell from one day to another about crabs," Mr. Mister says. "But I believe we're going to have a few this year. Yes, indeedy."

His friend, H. C. "Duck" Elliott, a 65-year-old former waterman, lives a couple of streets over on Nan's Cove. Outside his two-story white house, 18 mallards putter in two pens. Ducks are his hobby; the water is still his life.

"They call me Duck because I've always raised ducks and I hunted ducks."

He sits in a chair under the overhang of a refrigerated shed where he stores the crabs caught for him by independent watermen. He sells some retail to local folks; to Stoney's, a Broomes Island restaurant; and to Baltimore wholesalers.

"The water business is playing out bad," Mr. Elliott says. "But I still love being on the water."

As the number of watermen like Mr. Mister and Mr. Elliott $H dwindles, people like Ms. Sonnabend, her fiance and their parents are beginning to discover Broomes Island.

Named for a family that came to the area in 1650, Broomes Island is actually a peninsula on the Patuxent. Its marshes and fields and white homes on big lots cover the land between the river and Island Creek. Boats tied in the creek marinas appear comfortable but hardly the huge yachts of Solomons.

"It has been kind of sitting there, sleeping," says Donald Rogers, a resident all his 50 years. "But in the last few years, the island has been waking up a bit and people are coming here now. I think it's ready to start booming. Maybe it will be a mini-Solomons."

By becoming a small version of tonier Solomons, Broomes Island might attract more pleasure boats and tourists -- and the kind of attention that would boost the island's economy.

Mr. Rogers, who runs an electrical supply business in Huntingtown, credits much of the village's new popularity to Stoney's, on Island Creek between two small marinas and reachable by land and water.

Phillip Stone, 43, says he started Stoney's four years ago because "there was no crab house on this side of the river in Calvert County." Stoney's backfin crab cake sandwich, which is on the substantial side, holds near-legend status in these parts.

"Most of our clientele are from out of the area, word-of-mouth," Mr. Stone says.

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