TANGIER ISLAND, Va. -- On pleasant evenings, teen-age islanders congregate on the steps of the weathered post office and converse in a lilting parlance that traces to their Elizabethan forebears.
Ofttimes the talk is of leaving.
"There's more to do" on the mainland, explains Sandy Dise, 15, a 10th-grader whose roots run generations deep in the scant island soil. "And you don't have to take a boat when you want to do it."
"We're losing the young people," laments Mayor Dewey Crockett, who is also assistant principal of the school, music director and organist at Swain Memorial United Methodist Church, and the undertaker. "With television and VCRs and the Internet, we're not as isolated as we once were."
The remote island has changed more in recent decades than it did during several centuries after its discovery in 1608 by Capt. John Smith, the leader of Jamestown.
Homes that didn't have phones until 1966 now have cable TV and computers. As its watermen suffer dwindling crab catches and tightening environmental regulation, the Tangier economy is turning toward tourism. But opportunity is still limited. Since 1950, the population has fallen by more than half to about 650.
A precious culture is endangered, many islanders fear.
"There's no other place like this," allows 94-year-old Ruth Wallace Clark as she drives her golf cart down King Street. Her voice confirms the claim. Centuries of isolation have left a linguistic cadence and some pronunciations that are closer to Shakespearean English than to a Virginia drawl. "Tide," for example, sounds more like "toyed" hereabouts. The beach on the northern end of the island is located "up'ards."
Tangier sits in the Chesapeake Bay, about 18 miles from the western banks of Virginia and about 12 miles from Maryland's Eastern Shore. The island is about 5 miles long and less than 2 miles wide. Only a fourth of the 850 acres qualify as dry land. Its 250 or so houses are squeezed onto three ridges separated by marshes and tidal canals called "guts" and connected by several hump-backed bridges.
The streets are not much wider than sidewalks and most travel is by bicycle, electric golf cart, motor scooter or on foot. There are a few compact pickup trucks for hauling stuff. As the dead and living vie for scarce space, tiny lawns are filling up with gravestones. The family names in the epitaphs are largely the same as those in the current phone directory: Crockett, Pruitt, Parks, Dise, Thomas, Wallace.
The first documented settlers were Joseph Crockett, his sons, and their wives and children. They came in 1778 to farm and to herd sheep and cattle. The founding families were fruitful, though, and there were few acres to cultivate. So islanders soon turned to the bounty of the bay -- fish, oysters and crabs.
While the waters have long provided sustenance, Methodism has been the island's spiritual rock since Joshua Thomas was converted during a trip to the mainland in 1805. The husband of one of Joseph Crockett's granddaughters, Thomas returned with enough fire and brimstone to ignite a religious movement that still guides nearly every aspect of island life.
No liquor or lotteries
No alcoholic beverages or lottery tickets are sold legally on Tangier. In 1998, the town council rejected Hollywood offers to film "Message in a Bottle" on the island. The movie starred Paul Newman, Kevin Costner and Robin Penn Wright but the council read the script and rejected it because it featured scenes of sex and beer drinking.
On Sundays, worship begins with a frank and open "Class Meeting" in which the congregation shares personal and communal joys and concerns. Led by lay members, the tradition was begun by a denominational pioneer, John Wesley, but has long since been dropped by most Methodist churches. This hour-long session is followed by Sunday school, and by morning and evening services. There is another sermon and more hymns on Wednesday nights. Islanders wear T-shirts commemorating past revival meetings.
"We have strong family values, but this is not utopia," cautions Jean Crockett, the wife of the mayor, as well as one of the island's two nurses and an upper-grades English teacher. There are some illegal drugs, she said, and a couple of bootleggers who sell alcohol.
But "it's a good place for kids to grow up," said Edward Landon, the island policeman, basketball coach and church youth director.
`Crabs are scarce'
"Crabs are scarce. That's for sure. But it's not the watermen's doing," declares Kim Parks. "And we've been accused of raping the bay. That's plain and simple not the truth. We're just out to make a living."