Alcohol taboo on Smith Island may end

June 22, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

PRINCESS ANNE -- Beaten in a battle of the "wets" and the "drys" six years ago, the owner of a general store in the village of Ewell is again challenging a centuries-old tradition that bans selling alcohol on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay.

Charles B. Evans' renewed attempt to sell alcoholic beverages legally across his store counter is pitting neighbor against neighbor and cousin against cousin in this close-knit community of watermen and their families.

Mr. Evans, whose family has run a small store on the island for nearly 35 years, said his economic livelihood may hinge on whether the Somerset County Board of License Commissioners accepts or rejects his application for a permit to sell beer and wine.

Boatloads of islanders with strong views about strong drink are expected to travel across Tangier Sound, then board buses for the ride to Princess Anne for a public hearing tonight on Mr. Evans' application.

Although his request for a license was turned down in 1988, changing times and politics might give Mr. Evans what he wants this time.

"Unless something comes up, we're leaning toward granting it," said Van B. Muir, one of two members on the license panel.

"Legally, I don't see how we can turn it down," said Mr. Muir's colleague, Howard L. Riggin, who is in his first year on the commission.

A third member resigned this spring to move out of the state. No successor has been appointed.

Many island residents take seriously the question of sanctioning alcohol sales and consumption on Smith Island. Teetotalers on the island began singing "Amazing Grace" in 1988 when the license panel announced at a meeting that it had refused a similar request by Mr. Evans.

Unofficially, the marshy island surrounded by the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and Tangier Sound has been "dry" since English settlers arrived there in 1657 to harvest bay seafood.

Although no Somerset County laws specifically prohibit drinking or licensed sales of alcohol on the island, tradition and a strong Methodist church presence has kept most imbibing out of sight.

"Any Christian should be against it," said Elmer L. Evans, 76, a distant cousin of the store's owner and a leading opponent of alcohol sales.

"Part of the reason I'm against it is tradition," he said, "and part is because you got young children coming up here, and it's not good for them to get beer anytime they want."

Many islanders, however, say alcohol already is available to anyone who wants it, and they call the taboo against buying and selling it on the island hypocrisy.

"We got people going to Crisfield and coming back with cases of beer all the time," said Mr. Evans, 50, the store owner. "I'm not trying to put something on the island that's not already been here for 75 years."

Mr. Evans said his store's profits would increase if he were able to sell carryout beer and wine to islanders and the tourists who come to the island in large numbers in the summer.

"I'm just trying to keep my business going," he said, noting that stores in the nearby villages of Tylerton and Rhodes Point have closed.

Mr. Evans said the population of Smith Island was nearly 900 when he was growing up there. Today, because of a declining Chesapeake seafood industry and the lure of jobs on the mainland, the population has dropped to about 420 year-round residents.

R. Patrick Hayman, a Princess Anne lawyer who is representing the anti-alcohol islanders at no cost, said Mr. Evans' attempt to make Smith Island history poses more than a threat to tradition.

Smith Island has no local government and no full-time police protection.

"Who's going to provide law enforcement if he gets the license?" asked Mr. Hayman. "Is the county going to have to come up with the money to have a sheriff's deputy out there all the time?"

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