They're proud of their size in Port Tobacco: 8 houses, 28 people and a pooch named Prissy One-Dog Town

September 17, 1995|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

Port Tobacco teetered on overcrowding. The Census Bureau said the town's population was 36. But folks say the number is really lower because some of the Volman and Wade kids left for college since the 1990 census was taken.

"Nowhere near 36 people anymore, more like 28," says Kay Volman, owner of the town dog. Prissy is "the queen of Port Tobacco," a good ol' Lab, a born chewer and retriever and welcome anywhere. Two cats, her only potential competition, are now deceased.

An inventory of Port Tobacco finds eight houses, owned by a retired chemical engineer, a lawyer, an owner of a rare book store, and others in the tobacco and education fields. There's a Board of Commissioners, and town treasurer Jerry Volman mails the tax bills so the town can cover its major expenses: street lighting and mosquito control. Four street lights, many more mosquitoes. One landowner receives a bill for 16 cents; it costs twice as much to mail it to him.

There is no Main Street or white picket fences. The town finally got cable -- "by the grace of God," Mrs. Volman says. No water or sewer utilities here, though. Or crime, knock wood.

And every year, a high school girl from the area is picked to be Queen Nicotina for the fair. This is tobacco country, after all. Was tobacco country. The town is short on is.

Port Tobacco, Maryland's smallest incorporated town, is a 60-acre museum piece. In the smallest of towns, everyone is a historian. Visitors follow their Triple A maps here and stop to listen to the stories about Capt. John Smith looking out and John Wilkes Booth hiding out. The residents are die-hard tour guides trying to keep the town alive.

But it's tiring work.

"I try to do what I can," says Robert Barbour, 84.

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Port Tobacco is three miles from La Plata in Charles County, down and off Washington's right hip. Take the sly left at the Port Tobacco post office ("Serving The Community Since 1792"), past the shuttered, one-room Port Tobacco School (established 1878) and its outhouse (Buoys and Gulls), and just past a tobacco barn strung with leaf carcasses. Footsteps away is loud-mouthed Port Tobacco.

Minnows are flipping out of the muddy waters of Port Tobacco River. Crickets trill in the marshes, and some country man's wind chime won't shut up. One more sound: four radials digging gravel. This man, Dennis Kitchen, drove by here last year and took almost everybody's picture for his book about the smallest towns in America. And in Maryland, Port Tobacco wins by edging Eagle Harbor (pop. 38) in Prince George's County.

Garrison Keillor wrote about small towns in the introduction to Mr. Kitchen's book, "Big Falls, Blue Eye, Bonanza & Beyond": "It may be a one-dog town, and the dog is thinking about leaving, because it is too slow for him there." For a fact, Prissy isn't thinking about leaving Port Tobacco.

"Those who live here seem to like it," Mr. Barbour says.

The land beckons

In the smallest towns, you first meet the land: shade trees, tobacco fields, one stagnant pond, pillowy hills, stockpiles of beaver dams, dry sod and wet marsh. The air smells of crops and grass and the acrid punch from a dead skunk.

In the smallest towns, you meet signs before people: "Port Tobacco Indian Village of Potobac Visited in 1608 by Capt. John Smith. County Seat 1658-1895" is posted on the "outskirts" of town. Inside the courthouse, there's a portrait of John Hanson, "First Elected President of the U.S. in Congress Assembled. 1781-1782."

If they had the money, the town folks would pay somebody to dredge the pond behind the courthouse. They believe John Hanson, a Charles County native son, might be buried underneath the fat cattails.

In the smallest towns, you meet the dead before the living: In Port Tobacco's shoe-box cemetery, graying headstones say William Croft and his wife, Fannie, are buried here. Co-founders of the Port Tobacco Baptist Church. The Twifords are also here, including "Our beloved baby Rena B. Died March 25, 1896. Aged 11 months." Their son, Cleveland, died in 1906. He was 14. Thomas and Lorena Twiford buried two young children within 10 years. The fact remains freshly grave.

The Twifords' grandchildren, Robert Barbour and brother James, live next door. Robert is the official town historian. He and his wife, Dorothy, open the courthouse and gift shop on weekends for tourists.

"One day we'd like to see the town restored like Williamsburg," Mrs. Barbour says. "But it won't happen in my day or yours -- surely not in my day."

Mrs. Barbour, 79, lived in New York and San Francisco before settling in the 200-year-old Stag House, which has been in the Barbour family for half that time. In Port Tobacco, calling anything old is redundant. The entire town is registered as a national historic district.

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