Smith Island breaks tradition with tourism center

August 30, 1994|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,Sun Staff Writer

SMITH ISLAND -- Jennings Evans isn't particularly fond of tourists, but he knows that his community needs the money.

"I'm not begging for them to come, but they can be a real help to a lot of people," said the 63-year-old waterman, a native of Smith Island.

With today's scheduled ground breaking for The Center, a 4,000-square-foot building, Smith Island will formally accept tourism. After it is completed, thousands of sightseers are expected to visit The Center to pick up cultural, social and historical information about Smith Island -- where the natives are struggling to hold on to their traditions in the face of growing contact with tourists.

When visitors come to Maryland's only inhabited offshore island these days, the only ways for them to learn about the history is to follow a walking tour prepared by Somerset County's tourism department or to ask questions of the residents they see on the streets.

"The problem is that people don't have the time to talk because they are trying to get their crabs ready to go back to the mainland on the boat," said Marian "Midge" Patterson, executive director of the Crisfield and Smith Island Cultural Alliance.

"Now, tourists have a nice boat ride and a good meal, but they leave without a whole lot of knowledge about the island," Mrs. Patterson said. "We want to change that."

After four years of work, the nonprofit alliance has secured a $320,000 grant from the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce and $200,000 from a community development block grant to construct the center on the site of a former restaurant in Ewell, across the street from the Ewell United Methodist Church.

The group is still working to raise enough money to fill the center with exhibits by its opening date, which is sometime next spring.

With the shrinking number of crabs and oysters in the Chesapeake Bay -- the island's traditional source of income -- many of the approximately 420 island residents are looking forward to the possibility of more people lunching at local restaurants and purchasing arts and crafts.

"It's going to great. People need the money," said Orion Evans, 78, an island native.

In addition to the revenue for the local businesses that cater to tourists, the center will likely mean new jobs on the island. The building contractor is expected to hire residents, and several people will be needed to operate it.

The question for island natives, however, is whether they will lose their history when they embrace tourism.

The island -- located 12 miles offshore from Crisfield -- was first settled by the English in 1657, and many of the natives have retained their ancestors' Elizabethan/Cornwall dialect. There are no full-time police on the island, no government except for the Methodist Church, and alcohol is still prohibited from being sold.

But most residents say the tourists will continue to visit, and the island may as well make an effort to benefit from them.

"I don't see anything wrong with tourists," said lifelong resident Frances Kitching, 76, as she watched workers erect a tent for today's ceremony. "We're not going to lose anything.

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