Crisfield is trying to cast off its old shell


December 11, 1993|By TOM HORTON

CRISFIELD -- When times were good here, at the end of this low, broad peninsula between the Annemessex and Pocomoke rivers, they were very good indeed.

In 1867, the same year the railroad reached Abilene, Kan., to ship the West's beef East, it was extended to Crisfield to carry out the oysters, fish and crabs.

In the spring of 1922, during three weeks in March and April, the town's seafood packers shipped 150 boxcar loads of shad, netted on their annual spawning run.

A single oyster house here once had 300 shuckers going hard for 12 hours a day. Such a crew could have shucked in a week or so the bay-wide harvest for last year's whole six-month season.

As recently as 1960 the Crisfield Times ran a picture of three happy anglers. Two had covered the other, except for his head, in a pile of rockfish caught in a few hours of trolling.

Nowadays shad fishing is banned. Rockfishing is restricted, oystering is moribund and even the blue crab is stressed. And it is tempting to consign Crisfield to the list of America's faded boom towns, its natural resources played out like the gold and silver and coal elsewhere.

Recent attempts at an industrial park, a port and a downtown redevelopment all have stalled. Potential for geothermal power turned out to be . . . lukewarm. The trains call here no more, and some days Crisfield's 16-mile, two-lane connection to busy U.S. 13 seems like just one of Maryland's longer dead ends.

But there are some new and intriguing stirrings down in the town that once called itself "Seafood Capital of the World," and now is happy to settle for "Crab Capital."

"This was a jumpin' place right here," says Grant "Hon" Lawson, "and I think it can be a big drawing card again." Hon is talking from the dock of his old, barn-red crab shanty on the bank of Jenkins Creek, gesturing across 300 acres of tidal salt marsh that sweep north to the Crisfield skyline. He is 57, the 11th generation of Lawsons to work the bay's waters, and the subject of a lovely 1988 book, "The Last Waterman," by his brother Glenn.

Even as Hon's watering days were winding down, his shanty, which he never built with an eye toward anything but function, was becoming the darling of artists from all over the eastern United States. "I can't tell you the photographs, the paintings, calendars, even needlepoint I have gotten, showing this shanty and this creek," he says.

He finally started an art gallery in Crisfield, where he now makes his living mounting and framing the ducks and shanties and waterman scenes that record the life he once lived. And if it ended there, Hon's story would make a tidy enough cycle, from life to art, from tonging oysters to selling pictures of oyster tongers. But he's only the family's last waterman, not the last of the family. A son runs the little airport here; a daughter married a Crisfield crabber; a small grandson and granddaughter are growing up; and none of these seem inclined to uproot, if Crisfield can somehow thrive.

So it is that Hon's talking to anyone who'll listen these days

about his and other citizens' vision of the Jenkins Creek Environmental Research Center. It would be a focal point of hTC environmental tourism, education and university research. Salisbury State University, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and the Johns Hopkins University are backing it. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Jay Tawes, a Crisfield businessman and grandson of the late Gov. Millard Tawes, have promised to loan $32,000 needed to buy the marsh.

Nothing here comes easy, of course. The purchase is on hold pending certification that an old landfill nearby isn't a toxic hazard. The Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay office, another promoter of the project, is trying to get a mobile laboratory to run the necessary tests quicker and cheaper.

Hon will donate his shanty, and perhaps just as important, lend his personality to the cause. He's got a feel for the region, and a way of expressing it that an army of researchers and educators couldn't duplicate.

He can recount how the "Down Neckers" on the south side of Jenkins Creek opposite his shanty were "so rough we'd pole our skiffs down the [north] side, even though it was soft mud there, and firm sand on the Down Neck side."

"You think this bay doesn't want to live?" I heard Hon tell a group one time: "Feel how hard a big rockfish tugs on your line to get free; try to pry apart an oyster's shell, or see how hard an old jimmy [male] crab can bite . . . plenty of life there, if we quit abusing it."

To realize the significance of the Jenkins Creek project, you need to know about another tract of marsh just on the other side of Crisfield. For years it was a bitter battleground: Crisfield wanted to pave it for an industrial park; but EPA, the

Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other environmental interests said this would ruin a productive wetland in the highly uncertain hope of attracting economic development.

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