Rural And Remote -- Just The Way Residents Like It

POSTMARK: TUNIS MILLS

June 25, 1995|By BOB ALLEN

To an outsider, Tunis Mills seems little more than a half-forgotten bend in the road. It's a drowsy, unimposing community on Talbot County's Lower Miles River Peninsula, a half-dozen or so miles from Easton.

There's just a cluster of houses -- few of them less than 30 years old, many of them much older. There's a little wooden bridge across Leeds Creek, there's the tiny All Faith Episcopal Church, and there are fading memories of a long-gone timber mill that was once the village's lifeblood.

The countryside surrounding Tunis Mills is one of those ever-scarcer locales on Maryland's Eastern Shore that still conjures up the word remote. On a rainy morning geese rise out of the flat fields and tall stands of pine, oak and beech trees. Back off the road are some of the Eastern Shore's finest 18th- and 19th-century plantation houses -- more of them, according to the Maryland Environmental Trust's Rural Historic Village Protection Program, than anywhere else in the state.

Yet Tunis Mills itself has little to do with these gilded manors. Though today many of the village's residents commute to jobs in bTC places like Easton and Annapolis, Tunis Mills was for more than a century a thriving blue-collar community of Chesapeake Bay watermen and sawmill workers and their families.

Tunis Mills came into being in the mid-19th century when W. W. Tunis began his sawmilling operation near a landing on Leeds Creek that was accessible to bay-going steamboats. By 1878, the mill was in full swing, and Tunis Mills was a thriving community. In its heyday the town had several stores, butcher and blacksmith shops and even its own post office.

Eventually, though, the economic tides shifted and the mill shut down. By World War I, only ruins remained. There is no trace of the mill left today.

"I do vaguely remember the mill," says Cecilia Soulsby, 86, a lifelong Tunis Mills resident. "They say it was one of the finest sawmills south of New York."

Back in the 1860s, Mrs. Soulsby's grandfather, Philip Alvatar, came to Tunis Mills as superintendent of the newly opened mill. The house he built, next to the little wooden bridge, is where his granddaughter lives today.

"The sunsets here along the creek are beautiful," says Mrs. Soulsby, who was born on a nearby farm and has lived in the house by the creek since 1936. "It's also a great place to watch birds."

Charles Banning, 86, a retired waterman and carpenter who lives across the creek from Mrs. Soulsby, shares her affection for Tunis Mills. "I was born right here in this village, and I've never been away except when I was in the Army," he says with quiet pride. "I started workin' on the water when I was 14. I've still got a rowboat, and I still enjoy goin' out there now and then."

Lifelong denizens like Mrs. Soulsby and Mr. Banning are, of course, anchored to Tunis Mills by family ties and convenience. Yet those who grew up here also share indelible memories. They speak nostalgically of the old mill, and of oddities like the Pink Castle. This nearby estate was purchased during Prohibition by a wealthy Pittsburgh man and his showgirl wife. They caused quite a stir with their chauffeured Duesenberg and their alleged bootlegging activities.

Yet the older residents' most cherished memories are often more mundane: ice-skating by moonlight on the creek, or taking boats across the Miles River to nearby St. Michaels to do their grocery shopping.

"This was really a wonderful place to grow up," says Mary Jane Mielke, whose family goes back five generations in Tunis Mills. She and her husband, Gus, live in a house they built in 1953.

"I'll never forget this farmer up the road who had lots of children and loved children," Mrs. Mielke says. "One morning it snowed, and he came up with this sleigh with bells on it and everything. He tucked all us kids under a plaid blanket and drove us all around. It was the most wonderful thing!"

Adds Mrs. Mielke's son, David, 42: "Even when I was a kid, it was still wild enough here that you could grab a gun and go out in the bushes. Most of us boys had boats and you could swim right off the [Leeds Creek] bridge, until the water got too dirty in the '70s."

Despite the rural peacefulness of Tunis Mills typified by the swans and geese that live under the bridge and the dogs that occasionally sleep in the streets, there is mild unease among Tunis Mills' permanent residents. Every year they see more and more family homes converted into summer-vacation houses that stand empty much of the year.

"It used to be the watermen who lived along the water," says Gus Mielke. "Nowadays, the few of them that are left can't afford it. It seems like these new people move here because they like Tunis Mills the way it is, but as soon as they get here they start trying to change it."

But there are limits to what can be changed. Nearly 14,000 acres surrounding Tunis Mills have been permanently protected through private land donations to organizations such as the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and the Maryland Environmental Trust's Rural Historic Village Protection Program.

Though change is inevitable as increased development puts pressure on all of the Eastern Shore's remaining open spaces, folks around Tunis Mills acknowledge that, at least for the time being, they've got a good thing.

"My daughter lives up in Cecil County, and I go up to visit her sometimes," says Charles Banning. "It's nice up there, but there's just too much traffic for me. I just can't wait to get back home to Tunis Mills."

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