A Center for Smith Island

August 28, 1994

There's nothing quite like it anywhere else in Maryland. Or in the rest of the country. Smith Island is a direct link to Elizabethan England and to a way of life that is struggling to survive.

The island has been inhabited for well over 300 years. Most of the 420 year-round residents are direct descendants of British colonists. Many still speak with an Elizabethan/Cornwall dialect.

But Smith Island is slowly vanishing. Despite the marshes surrounding it, the island is relentlessly under attack from the Chesapeake Bay. Erosion is winning. Meanwhile, the declining seafood industry and the lure of stable jobs on the mainland are robbing the island of its young adults.

And yet there is hope. A battle with the state over the hygienic deficiencies of island crab pickers has finally been resolved. The result: a crab processing plant should be ready to go into operation late this fall. A campaign to bring liquor sales to Smith Island was rejected, keeping the towns of Ewell, Tylerton and Rhodes Point dry -- as the island has been since 1657, when English settlers came to harvest the bay's bounties.

The most hopeful sign occurs this week when officials break ground on a $600,000 cultural center and museum near the boat dock at Ewell. It is an effort to preserve Smith Island's history.

Exhibits will tell the story of the heritage and culture. Seasonal themes will feature live demonstrations. Guides will embark on walking tours to explain the way of life on the island. Computers will let visitors delve into the genealogy of islanders -- and see if their heritages connect. Off-season activities will include workshops, quilting bees and a variety of lectures and classes.

The Center on Smith Island thus serves a dual purpose: enlightening visitors and drawing more tourists on the 40-minute boat ride from Crisfield while giving islanders a new focal point for their activities. This explains why islanders were so enthused. They held bake sales and other fund-raisers to do their part, though the lion's share came from Annapolis and Washington.

Once it opens next spring, this museum and cultural center could provide the needed impetus for a Smith Island resurgence. Times have been tough recently, but don't count out Smith Islanders -- not after 300 years.

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