March of seasons on tiny Smith Island

December 15, 1997|By Chris Parks

WHEN THE one-room schoolhouse at Tylerton on Smith Island closed last year, it seemed to many residents that their world was coming to an end. For April Tyler, the last teacher at Maryland's last one-room schoolhouse, the world was turned upside down. She was transferred to a middle school in Crisfield, commuting daily from the island. Ms. Tyler had hoped the school board would fund a teaching position for her on the island when classes began in September. Sadly, it was not to be, and in late August, Ms. Tyler and her family left Smith Island. When she and her husband and two children boarded the ferry, Smith Island's population decreased by just a little more than 1 percent.

Prison job

A short time later, Brad Tyler (no relation to April), a fine young waterman, hung up his crab scrapes and took a job as a prison guard at Eastern Correctional Institute in Westover. In September, Henry Guy, who until his retirement maintained telephone equipment on the island for Ma Bell, left with his wife to live in Salisbury.

These are just some of the islanders who have already made the decision to leave. There are others who would like to follow Brad Tyler to the prison, and still others who are waiting for the first Social Security check to put a ''for sale'' sign in the yard.

Not long ago I took a quick and crude census of Smith Island. I counted approximately 350 people, give or take, living on the island year-round. Two hundred of them live in Ewell, home to the island's last school. Tylerton and Rhodes Point have approximately 75 residents each.

At its peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the island was home to almost 700 people. As late as 1989, the population was 445, which means that in less than 10 years, we have lost 22 percent of our residents.

Not only is the population decreasing, but also it is aging. In Ewell alone, there are 30 residents -- about 1-in-7 -- over 70. The ratio of elderly to young is higher at Tylerton and Rhodes Point. Ominously, there were no kindergarten students at Ewell School when classes began in September, and only one in pre-kindergarten.

The reasons for Smith Island's demise are many and varied. The decline of the Chesapeake Bay oyster means that most families here only have steady incomes from about April to December, the The outsiders who buy houses rarely reside year-round on the island. They are summer people who come for a while and then go.

length of the crabbing season. Winter is a time for hunkering down, relying on savings to pay bills.

Contact with the outside world has increased exponentially in the past two decades, and it is fair to say that this has had a detrimental effect on Smith Island. This past summer, the local pastor informed a group of residents that there were 40 vacant houses on the island.

Yet in spite of an excess of available property, many natives have difficulty finding a house they can afford. Asking prices for most houses now approach six figures. But outsiders have shown a willingness to pay serious money for Smith Island homes. One large property zoned for commercial development recently was listed at $500,000. Certainly, no native could imagine purchasing such an expensive piece of property.

While retired couples like Henry Guy and his wife are eager to sell, they do not sell to young couples like Brad Tyler and his fiance. Young couples like them move elsewhere to raise their families. The outsiders who buy houses rarely reside year-round on the island. They are summer people who come for awhile and then go, leaving another house dark.

Many elderly island residents are caught in a bind when they try to sell their houses at prices too steep for young watermen.

Which is not to say that Smith Island, first settled in the late 1600s, is on the verge of abandonment. The end of this unique world is not imminent. No community that survives three centuries in such a difficult place is so easily extinguished. We are a hardy and determined people who will cling to the life we have known until it is wrested from us.

Still, there is no halt to the march of seasons. Fall gives way to winter, the days grow short, the air turns chilly. Soon the crab pots will be pulled from the water, and those who remain on Maryland's last inhabited offshore island will once more pit themselves against the cold and dark, and wonder who will be left when spring returns.

Chris Parks is a waterman and writer living on Smith Island.

Pub Date: 12/15/97

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