Cuban family finds quiet at pastoral Shore retreat

Apart from media, boy receiving little attention at Wye

April 27, 2000|By Todd Richissin, Scott Calvert and Chris Guy | Todd Richissin, Scott Calvert and Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

QUEENSTOWN -- For all the hoopla following Elian Gonzalez to his temporary home at Wye River Plantation, locals long accustomed to important officials and events in their back yard have treated his arrival almost like that of, well, a little 6-year-old boy.

It was only in 1998 that the ribbons of roads and web of waterways surrounding the Wye River Conference Centers at the Aspen Institute were closed when President Clinton joined Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat here for Middle East peace talks.

By comparison, the greatest inconvenience yesterday from Elian's first full day on the Eastern Shore was the horde of journalists staked out in hopes of a picture or a few words.

The history of the plantation -- home to generations of settlers back to the 17th century -- is deeper than its surrounding salt waters. This is the land where Frederick Douglass was enslaved before his escape, the burial ground for William Grason, Maryland's first popularly elected governor, and of William Paca, the state's third governor and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The plantation borders hunting and fishing grounds, and includes high-tech conference centers and meeting rooms color-coordinated to induce ferocious brainstorms. It is a playground for sports- men and intellectuals, a place where Hemingway and Thoreau would be equally content.

Elian, because he is staying at Carmichael Farm -- about a mile north of the plantation and away from the shoreline -- hasn't closed waterways or caused traffic jams. In fact, he's hardly noticed by the people closest to the plantation.

"It won't affect the village of Wye Mills one iota," said Howard "Mac" McGrane, curator of the Wye Grist Mill and Museum, a few miles from Carmichael Farm. "It's still the same lethargic little village it was in 1860. Nothing is going to change, whether Elian is here or not. We don't care. Not to be abrupt, but he's here. So what? If he comes to the mill, I'll give him a tour."

With the legal and political tug of war still pulling at Elian, the boy and his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, remained secluded yesterday at Carmichael Farm awaiting the arrival of visitors from Cuba.

Overwhelmed by reporters and photographers who lined the narrow road in front of the farm with television satellite trucks as he arrived Tuesday, federal agents and Maryland State Police moved yesterday to restrict access to the 50-acre farm.

Drew Wade, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshal's Service, said officials were doing everything possible to minimize the impact on the neighborhood.

"This is private property and the owner does not want a lot of commotion and people in the area that would impede traffic," Wade said.

A world away

To people who live in the area, Wye River Plantation has become an amorphous term, made so by the founding of the Wye River Conference Centers in 1979.

The conference centers are the creation of the Aspen Institute Inc., a nonprofit international organization whose programs on world-ranging issues are aimed at business leaders, government officials and the media.

Residents of nearby Stevensville and Easton -- as well as older residents throughout Maryland -- tend to lump the 1,100 acres controlled by the institute with a masterpiece of 2,500 acres to the south, the Wye Island National Resource Management Area, which is owned by the state.

It largely remains a world away. Rolling down busy U.S. 50, many motorists have no idea that just three miles from that bland road is pure beauty. Across the entire swath of land and water, deer dart through woods, bald eagles soar and rockfish abound.

"The whole area is remote, which is what makes it so attractive to us," said Janet Froetscher, a spokeswoman for the institute. "It's got trees and grass. It's a great place to walk and think and be reflective. It's a wonderful atmosphere for that."

Even many locals don't realize that this prime 1,100 acres of Talbott County is controlled by the Aspen Institute, whose last available federal income tax forms, 1998, show it took in $29.5 million, mostly from contributions, to pay for programs in several countries.

The institute's board of trustees includes a who's who of notables, from Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia to John J. Phelan Jr., the retired chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. The Wye Conference Centershave provided a secluded, secure location for everything from congressional and business retreats to seminars and international peace talks -- just 60 to 70 miles from Baltimore and Washington.

"It's close to D.C. and it's a rather open area that can remain secluded," said Myron Marlin, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice. "It's a place that can give Elian an opportunity to be away from the crowds and bond with his father and return to some kind of normalcy."

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