Pyrates and watermenne

February 07, 1996|By Helen Chappell

OYSTERBACK, Maryland -- From Professor Shepherd's ''History of Oysterback:''

On the Widgeon Marsh Causeway from Wallopsville, you will come to the town of Oysterback, which lies on high ground in the middle of Great Santimoke Marsh at the mouth of the Devanaux River. Oysterback was named for the oyster-shell midden on which the town was built. According to Native American legend, it means the Dwelling Place of Misty, Spirit of Planked Shad.

The village was settled in the mid-1600s by runaway indentured servants, escaped slaves, accused witches and outcast Native Americans from the Santimoke Confederacy. This varied assortment of political and religious pariahs prized its marshy isolation and the fact that no one else wanted the place.

Universal suffrage seems to have been de facto from the inception of the town. In early records, Fauntleroy Calvert, appointed overseer of the West Hundred by relatives in London, described the Oysterback population as ''Heathen pyrates, wytches, watermenne and Dissenters of ev'ry Persuasion, Sexxe and colore who declaire themselves to answer to No Authoritie save ye Lord Godde Jehovah and theyre own Zoning Boarde.''

He suggested mounting an armed expedition to wipe out these dangerous radicals, but London, occupied at the time with the bubonic plague and the Great Fire, never responded, and Fauntleroy, who married Longsuffering Baldwin, daughter of the planter Odor-of-Sanctity Baldwin of Gloom Hill, contented himself with building the singularly ugly brick manor at Mount Boredom (open M-Tu-W, 10-4; restored in 1954 by the West Hundred Historical Society).

Oysterback retained its reputation for tough-minded independence and occasional piracy until the Revolutionary War, when several Hessians, having lost their way during the Battle of Pinworm Point, stumbled into town with some month-old broadsheets, accidentally rallying the population to the Rebel cause.

The first brewery

The Hessian conscripts, liking Oysterback, started the first brewery on the Eastern Shore at what is now Doreen's Curl Up and Dye Salon de Beaute. (Historical Marker 4012). Auld Elektor's Jungenbrau, a local favorite for nearly a century, was said to owe its taste to the use of tuckahoe flavoring in the barley mash. The brewery building collapsed during Hurricane Wanda in 1942.

Thomas Jefferson accidentally blew into Oysterback during a stormy trip across the Chesapeake. He described his visit in a letter to Maria Cosway: ''Although rec'd. with warm hospitality, good crabcakes and beer . . . I cd. not shake the sensation that I was a visitor to another, albeit greatly democratic, planet . . . ''

It was not to be expected that Oysterback would escape the Great Awakening led by Joshua Thomas, the Parson of the Islands. As with other waterman's communities on the Shore, the town embraced Methodism with enthusiasm about the time of the War of 1812. Characteristically, Oysterback eventually chose to go its own way. Oysterback Hardshell Methodist Church (building ca. 1826) broke from the West Hundred Charge over the ''God is a Waterman'' Doctrine of 1857. ''The story that baseball is an organized religion in Oysterback is not true,'' says local historian Ferrus T. Buckett, ''But a good World Series, that's another thing.''

Distracted by the enormous amount of paperwork caused by the War Between the States, Abraham Lincoln lost the Declaration of Secession sent to him by Oysterback, which, disgusted with events, voted to detach itself from Maryland, the United States and the Confederacy.

In the 1880s oyster boom, Oysterback had a renowned skipjack fleet. Alas, most of it sank in a territorial dispute with the rival fleet from Wingo, Virginia. The pilings of Long Wharf where the steamboat Millard Fillmore and the floating theater John Wilkes Booth once put in are still visible at Log Cabin Point.

Local legend has it there was a game warden around Oysterback during the Great Depression, but no one seems to know what happened to him, just as the more recent and highly publicized disappearance of powerful wetlands real-estate developer J. Snidely Grubb also remains a mystery.

Today, Oysterback is best known for its Mosquito Festival, which attracts Musca lovers from three continents (second weekend in August; call 410-555-5678 for details), and as the hometown of Orioles outfielder Hooley Legume, lauded thus by Cal Ripken: ''Well, if they traded Legume, they might get someone worse. Y'know?''

Helen Chappell will be reading from her ''Oysterback Tales'' February 28 at Barnes and Noble book store in Annapolis.

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