Smith Island Confronts Its Mortality

PETER A. JAY

November 11, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

EWELL — Ewell.--After the sun went down beyond the Western Shore and a raw November day came to its drizzly end, the wet streets of Ewell were empty and the town itself seemed unusually still for a Saturday night -- until you came to the school.

The school, on the occasion of the 25th annual Tangier Sound Watermen's Association dinner, was pulsing with noise and life. Several hundred hard-working people were taking a break from their pursuit of the blue crab, and the mood was festive, with food aplenty and lots of laughter.

The home-produced musical skits that constitute the after-dinner entertainment at these autumnal events have attained fame the length of the Chesapeake Bay, and as the cast of crab-boat captains who do most of their rocking and rolling on the broad waters of the Bay sang and danced their way through the evening as though born to the stage, it was easy to see why.

To brighten the mood even more, association president Glenn Evans was able to announce that the Maryland watermen have finally won a long, expensive fight in federal court against restrictively high license fees set by Virginia to bar out-of-state crabbers from its waters.

And better still, reported attorney Tom Lewis, who has represented the Marylanders in the interstate squabble from the beginning, not only did the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals hold for the plaintiffs, it also ordered Virginia to reimburse them for their legal fees. With that, he turned over a check for $10,000.

It was a happy and upbeat moment for a community that hasn't had much to cheer about for a while. Smith Island's economy has traditionally depended on crabs, oysters and fish. Today oysters are few and rockfish are protected, so all that's left of commercial value is the old blue crab. Soon the crab will be heading for deep water farther down the Bay for the winter, and on the island there will be little prospect of earning a living until spring.

Almost 20 years ago, when William Warner was doing the reporting for ''Beautiful Swimmers,'' his wonderful book on the blue crab and the human Chesapeake culture it supports, he noted that all three Smith Island towns -- Ewell, Tylerton and Rhodes Point -- were shrinking.

It was getting harder and harder to make a living as a waterman, and if a young man from Smith couldn't do that, sooner or later he'd have to leave the island. If he did, he'd marry and bring up his own children on the mainland. The long-term consequences of this trend for island life were both obvious and depressing.

Now the situation is even more acute. Enormous effort has been expended to keep Smith Island a viable community, but it's even clearer now than it was when William Warner visited that if Smith is going to survive it's going to have to change. Yet if it changes, while it may survive it will never again be what it was.

Because Smith Island is so special not only to those who live here but to many others who know it well, it's easy to forget that what's happening to it, sad though it may be, has happened elsewhere to countless other towns. Human communities aren't immortal. They spring up for particular reasons, flourish for a time, and then either change or die.

When the gold rush is over, those who filled the gold-rush towns go away. When the timber is cut, the sawmills shut down and the loggers leave. When the fish are all caught, the fishermen are out of work and the fishing villages can't survive. Towns built on natural resources are especially vulnerable, but they're not the only places buffeted by change. Company towns crumble just as sadly when the company moves away, unless another company comes along to pick up the pieces.

On Smith Island, the long-term outlook for the economy is brighter than for the traditional island culture. As in other waterfront towns where fishing has failed, there are recreational alternatives. Restaurants, dockage for pleasure boats, and charter fishing can bring in revenue. City people are already buying second homes here. More will follow.

The trouble with that process, of course, is that sooner or later it erodes the qualities that made the community distinctive. What remains, after a while, is a more affluent place, with more come-here residents and fewer from-heres. Great efforts may be taken to retain the character of generations past, but generally what survives is little more than a well-tended veneer.

If that's what's in store for the Smith Island towns, it's still not imminent. Right now, as the upbeat mood at the recent watermen's dinner demonstrates, there's hope that what happened to other once-upon-a-time watermen's communities like Rock Hall and St. Michaels doesn't have to happen here.

And maybe it doesn't. If there's any place where the proud, nitty-gritty present can hold out against the future, it's probably Smith Island. But history's against it.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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