The Rise and Fall of Delmarva, the 51st State

February 25, 1998|By William L. Thompson | William L. Thompson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CRAPO — Earlier this month, two Republican senators, frustrated by government regulation and big-city "bullies," introduced in the General Assembly a bill to let the Eastern Shore hold a straw ballot on secession. The bill is slated for a hearing March 5 in the Economic and Environmental Matters committee. Secession has been proposed off and on since the 1830s and never gets very far. But what if this time ... (A satire)

CRAPO, June 24, 1999 -- There's not much left of Delmarva, the Union's improbable 51st state, created back in 1998. Not long after a band of Eastern Shore partisans broke away from the Maryland main to set up their own political entity, Delmarva is little more than a tiny plot of African violets withering from a diet of brackish swamp water and chicken droppings.

Talk of secession is nothing new in the history of the United States. After all, the South tried it once. But Delmarva was the first state founded on the principle that no government can tell an individual what to do with his or her chicken manure.

The rogue state's Founding Fathers -- they called themselves "seshers" -- had envisioned a unified peninsula comprising the nine counties of Maryland's Eastern Shore, the two counties of Virginia's Eastern Shore and the whole of Delaware.

The common enemy was government meddling. But if distrust of government was the magnet that drew the seshers together, it was also the powder that eventually blew them apart.

Leaders from the Eastern Shore of Maryland had long harbored grudges against the rest of the state. Sesh talk cropped up now and then, usually during an election year when a Shore legislator wanted free publicity.

Few on either side of the Chesapeake Bay ever took the threats seriously, even in 1933 when Gov. Albert C. Ritchie ordered Maryland National Guardsmen onto the Shore to arrest the ringleaders of a lynch mob.

Howling over the invasion by Ritchie and his bullies, Shore folks proposed that they secede. But that year there was a bumper harvest of muskrats and catfish, and they quickly forgot the issue.

Then two Eastern Shore legislators, Republican Sens. Richard F. Colburn and J. Lowell Stoltzfus, reintroduced the subject during the 1998 General Assembly when Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposed mandatory manure controls to combat toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks in the Shore's tidal waters.

To humor the two senators, lawmakers passed a bill that let Shore residents decide whether they wanted to secede. To the astonishment of the rest of Maryland, Shore voters embraced the idea.

Delegates in the provisional capital of Salisbury set about

organizing the new state. Property rights became the lynchpin of the new constitution. Zoning restrictions were outlawed. Land taxes were rolled back completely. Off-track betting was named the official state sport and slot machines were made legal in any public place. Most gun laws were abandoned and hunting seasons were expanded on all migratory waterfowl.

The common chicken was given uncommon status as the state bird. Indeed, the new state even resembled a chicken with its head (the Virginia counties) pecking the ground while a brisk westerly breeze ruffled its stern feathers.

Splitsville, Delmarva

The first sign of disharmony came from Delaware. First Staters had cautiously gone along with the scheme to join a new state. Yet when faced with the prospects of having to adopt a sales tax like Maryland's and to repair its roads, they pulled out.

Cecil County provided the next blow. Bonded closely to Delaware through family and job ties and not very fond of chickens, Cecil County dropped out of the new state as well as Maryland and joined Delaware.

Only mildly perturbed by the departure of Cecil County, the remaining seshers continued fashioning their new state. Colburn, who was never able to get his veggie libel bill through the Maryland legislature, had better luck with the Delmarvans.

Colburn's move to ban all criticism of perishable agricultural products was so popular that the measure was broadened to include any product made or grown in Delmarva -- including scrapple.

Ocean City posed the next problem. The resort town relies upon Maryland for beach replenishment funding and had no intention of giving up its sand dollars.

Ocean City and Worcester County opted to stay part of Maryland, almost derailing the most surprising political development of Delmarva's early days -- the appointment of William Donald Schaefer as governor.

Anticipating Ocean City's refusal to join Delmarva, the former Maryland governor swapped his resort property for a plot of soggy soil and a mobile home in the remote Dorchester County hamlet of Crapo. As a land owner in the new state, he was qualified to be its first head. The land, Schaefer thought, was perfect for growing African violets, his favorite flower.

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