Miles from anywhere

A once-bustling Shore village finds happiness in area's secluded beauty

July 30, 2006|By ARTICLE BY CHRIS GUY | ARTICLE BY CHRIS GUY,SUN REPORTER

Elliott's Island -- This little village is 18 miles from anything, even the basics. That's 18 miles from the nearest town, 18 miles from a loaf of bread or a jug of milk, 18 miles from a gallon of gas or a pack of smokes.

And that puts you in neighboring Vienna, population 263.

Anybody thinking of serious shopping, medical appointments, the dry cleaner, a new hairdo or just about anything else can tack on another 15-mile jaunt to Cambridge, the Dorchester County seat, or the same distance south to Salisbury.

It is a lifestyle that begins and ends with a meandering blacktop two-lane road that wends its way through a sanctuary of marshes, rivulets and chocolate-colored tides in one of Maryland's most beautiful and remote corners.

As the island's 60-odd residents see it, inconvenience is a small price to pay for living in such splendid isolation.

Senior citizens depend on a once-a-week ride from the county's rural transportation service. The island's three students catch a school bus that comes just for them.

The last of four or five island general stores closed a decade ago, leaving faded and forlorn buildings where salt air has turned white clapboard to a chalky gray, the same color of the crushed shells in every driveway.

"I guess it's almost like living in the [Australian] outback," says Wylie M. Abbott Jr., a waterman, trapper, volunteer fire chief and world champion muskrat skinner whose family has lived in the area for generations.

"You get used to bringing everything yourself," Abbott says. "If you've forgotten anything, you're plain out of luck."

Bounded by Fishing Bay and the Nanticoke River, the island is a mile and a half long and sits at the tip of a tendril of high ground. At 18 feet above sea level, the island has never flooded, despite being nearly surrounded by the 21,000-acre Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area - which abuts the sprawling 27,000-acre, federally owned Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Sometimes known as the Everglades of Maryland, Fishing Bay is the repository for the swampy, shallow Chicamacomico, Transquaking and Blackwater rivers. Vast stretches of marsh grasses and ancient pine trees are home for red-winged blackbirds, eagles, ospreys, muskrats, nutria and other year-rounders who make room each fall for tens of thousands of Canada geese and other migratory birds.

Wayne Klockner, director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Nature Conservancy, still remembers his first trip to Elliott's Island, when he held a similar job for the nonprofit group in Maryland.

"It's been years, but I remember the road," says Klockner. "It is one of the great natural areas on the East Coast. Those marshes are some of the great coastal wilderness we have left."

Every sizable clump of land has a name - Gray's, Langrells, Axies, Ewell's islands - says Sewell Fitzhugh, an Elliott's resident who is chief of the Nause-Waiwash, native people whose ancestors were here when Capt. John Smith came exploring in 1608.

"One of the villages that Smith wrote about was our Nause ancestral village here," says Fitzhugh, 52, who has fought the state for years for recognition of his and other native groups.

"When they lived here, they farmed enough to feed themselves, worked the water and trapped - pretty much what Europeans have done here," Fitzhugh said. "Through history, our people went underground and survived. We have always been here. I own land now that has been in my family since before written records."

The once-thriving fishing and farming town of Elliott's Island has dwindled over the decades since its heyday when islanders worked in flourishing canneries and seafood-packing houses.

Much of that history has been chronicled by author Ann M. Foley, a newcomer who left a restaurant she owned in Georgetown and landed in a 100-year-old farmhouse hidden in the woods in the middle of Elliott's Island.

That was 28 years and four books about local history ago, including two collaborations with watermen Wylie Abbott Sr. and Freddie T. Waller, both of whom have died.

"I came here looking for something off the beaten track where I could write. I got away from it all right. I've been here 30 years, almost. The reward for all the driving is that you get to live here," says Foley, who won't give her age, except to say she has qualified for Social Security.

Foley says she received the island equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. One waterman who read the 1999 Elliott's Island history book delivered a bushel of prime No. 1 crabs to Foley's back porch.

Foley, often called "Miss Ann," has melded seamlessly into the community. With the old general stores and the post office all gone, Foley says, the United Methodist church and the volunteer fire department are focal points for islanders.

The post office, which closed years ago, Foley says, is most likely the cause of confusion about whether it's Elliott's Island or Elliott Island. Either one works, Foley says. Even the fire company has it both ways on various fire trucks.

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