BETTERTON -- Decades have passed since the last Bay Belle steamship whistled into this tiny Kent County town. Gone are the grand hotels with wrap-around porches and white-gloved waitresses, the throngs of Baltimore vacationers on a blanket-covered beach. There is no more busy boardwalk, no more bingo, no more bowling alley -- not even a grocery store.
And now the owners of Betterton's last remaining bed and breakfast, the Lantern Inn, are preparing to turn out the lights. Ray and Sandi Sparks, Upperco natives who bought the place six years ago, say the people just aren't coming anymore.
"They've forgotten Betterton," Ray Sparks said.
Not everyone has forgotten Betterton, which welcomed throngs of vacationers from the beginning of the 20th century until the 1950s, when the Chesapeake Bay Bridge made it a snap to drive to Ocean City and the steamboats faded away.
Many who loved Betterton as children have come back in their retirement years, fixing up weathered houses along the water and embracing the once-bustling town's quiet charm. Developers also have found the patch of bay-front land: Condos rise from the remnants of the grandest hotel.
This Saturday, the old-timers have their annual chance to see Betterton as it was. Fewer than 500 people live here, but more than a thousand are expected to converge on the beach for Betterton Day, complete with a parade, supper and a spirited game of "Cow-Plop Bingo," in which onlookers place bets on where the bovine player will drop her manure.
Those who look closely will also see something else -- a town that flourished, nearly died, and is slowly emerging as a different place.
Betterton began life as Crew's Landing, a quiet fishing town, in the early 1800s. By mid-century, Richard Turner of Baltimore, Enoch Pratt's former business partner, had set up shop as a farmer and trader. He renamed the town Betterton after his wife, Elizabeth Betterton.
Before long, he and his son were building hotels, figuring his new docks would lure steamboats of vacationers from the docks at Light and Pratt streets and in Philadelphia.
More than a dozen hotels followed. The grandest was the Rigbie, with its rocking-chair porch and stunning views of the bay. Only slightly less luxurious were the Southern, the Chesapeake and the Maryland, which became popular retreats for working families in the early 1900s.
By day, the beach was packed with swimmers, crabbers and fishermen, many of whom stopped in awe when the Bay Belle pulled in daily about noon. By night, the town offered dancing, bowling, moving pictures and multi-course dinners "in good Maryland style" with unlimited hot rolls and sirloin steak.
"If you didn't get to Betterton for the weekend, you weren't living," said Joanne Alfree, a Galena native who waited on tables at several hotels in their heyday. "That was the place to be."
Roads and bridges
But by the late 1940s, the state was building new roads, and steamboat travel was on the wane. Betterton's decline accelerated when the Bay Bridge opened in the 1950s, offering Western Shore residents the promise of an ocean resort only a few hours away.
"People just didn't want to come to little old Betterton when they had Ocean City to go to," said Jack Massey, a descendant of Elizabeth Betterton who grew up clearing pins in the local bowling alley.
By the late 1960s, when Lawrence "Skip" Ross visited with his college-age friends, Betterton had changed beyond recognition.
"It was one of those places you would go to and always want to go back to," said Ross, who now lives in Cecilton. "And when I did go back, it wasn't what it was."
In 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes wiped out the town's piers, and the so-called "Jewel of the Chesapeake" lost what remained of its shine.
Over the next 20 years, nearly all the grand hotels closed. Some became private homes. The Rigbie was turned into condos. Only the Southern, which opened in 1904, stayed open, though it changed names several times.
Today it is the Lantern Inn. Ray Sparks, a machinist, and his wife, Sandi, a nurse, had planned to build a bed and breakfast in Rock Hall. But they saw a listing for the Betterton inn and thought it would be a perfect spot for their retirement.
They paid about $300,000 for the 14-room Victorian, then spent close to $100,000 on renovations. In keeping with the inn's 100-year-old tradition, they tried to keep prices affordable year-round: They charge $80 to $95 a night.
Though some residents weren't used to having guests nearby -- and a neighborhood pig occasionally startled visitors -- the innkeepers eventually found a market for their cozy getaway. NASCAR fans came looking for a place near the Dover track. Bay bicyclists discovered the inn was a good place to recharge.