Island of temperance

Alcohol: A newcomer takes on Smith Island's Methodists and a 300-year-old ban on liquor sales.

July 02, 1999|By CHRIS GUY | CHRIS GUY,SUN STAFF

SMITH ISLAND -- For Elmer Evans and more than 100 of his neighbors, the issue is as clear as the heads of churchgoers on Sunday mornings -- there's no reason to change this island's 300-year-old ban on alcohol sales.

For the third time in a dozen years, almost one-third of the citizenry of this remote Chesapeake Bay community, most of them tee-totaling Methodists, piled into two ferryboats this week to attend a hearing at the Somerset County Courthouse. There, they pleaded with the county liquor board to reject newcomer Stephen Eades' plans for beer and wine sales at one of the island's two small grocery stores.

"I'm a lifelong resident, born and raised on the island, as was my father, his father before him and his father before him," said Evans. "As far back as it goes, our families have been opposed to the sale of alcohol. It's a way of life, it's unique; we've been raised that way."

Islanders, who circulated petitions in the weeks before the Wednesday night hearing, insist that the religious principles that have guided generations in the island's three villages of Rhodes Point, Tylerton and Ewell form a bulwark against the outside world -- creating a place where crime is still rare, doors are hardly ever locked and there are no police.

Eades, a former Teamster truck driver from Ohio who retired early and opened a bed and breakfast on Smith Island before buying the Driftwood General Store two years ago, has forged a cordial relationship with the locals. He has stepped lightly around Smith's religious sensibilities, but says he needs a liquor license in order to expand -- especially if he is to open an outdoor dockside seafood restaurant he hopes would attract tourists.

"I keep a nice clean store, and I try to provide what the customers want," Eades said. "I'm not trying to offend anybody's religious heritage. It's good that people have strong beliefs. But they don't have to buy it. This is a business decision."

The irony, as Eades and his wife, Theresa Siejack, see it, is that Smith Islanders long ago established a "don't ask, don't tell" accommodation for those jokingly referred to as the island's "sinners" -- those who like a drink now and then.

Smith Island is the only part of Somerset County where beer and wine aren't sold at grocery, convenience or beverage stores. As in its Lower Shore neighbors of Wicomico and Worcester counties, hard liquor is sold only at county-operated dispensaries in Somerset.

With no town government to enforce the island's liquor ban, the county's three-member liquor board has twice agreed with the majority sentiment against alcohol, denying license requests by the store's previous owner in 1988 and 1994. A decision on Eades' application for a seven-day on- and off-premises license won't be made until the board's July 28 meeting.

But the two passenger ferries that make the daily 12-mile run between Smith Island and Crisfield and supply islanders with necessities -- everything from groceries to lumber, appliances to mail -- have been hauling alcohol for years.

Liquor opponents readily acknowledge that watermen and other boaters bring as much alcohol as they please to the island. And residents can phone an order to stores in Crisfield, and beer or wine will be loaded on the boats -- marked, like every other package, only with the name of the person who ordered it and the boat that will haul it.

Ferry operators make little effort to conceal cases of beer that are stowed almost daily aboard the Capt. Jason II and the Island Belle II, the two ferries serving Smith Island, and the Stephen Thomas, the ferry for similarly dry Tangier Island, Va. Customers generally pay a $2-per-case freight charge.

"I have a 5-year-old daughter, and I don't want to see it [the law] changed," said Dana Evans, a Wicomico County native who married a waterman and moved to Smith Island eight years ago. "What's the point having it so readily available? We don't even have any police if people get out of hand. And it's not like anybody who wants [alcohol] is doing without, that's for sure."

Supporters of Eades argue that with freight charges, beers such as Budweiser can wind up costing $20 a case, with micro-brews or European brands costing much more.

Some liken the current controversy to complaints expressed by islanders in the 1930s when Ewell storekeeper Carlton M. Evans installed a nickel-a-song "music machine" and young people began congregating there to dance. According to an article in The Sun at the time, neighbors feared that the store was being turned into a dance hall.

Chris Parks, a former weekly newspaper editor and sometime waterman who is working for a University of Maryland research team on the island, says he's not much of a drinker. But he supports Eades wholeheartedly.

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