Rescuing family's past from time and nature

In the '60s, an old man moved relatives' gravestones from a shrinking island to save them from the bay


TILGHMAN -- The old man tended the five gravestones for years, mowing the grass, occasionally kneeling to pray - as if the bodies were really buried here.

As if the Chesapeake Bay had not devoured their Poplar Island sod, as if the old man had moved quickly enough to save the earthly remains of his father, his father's wife, his brother, his half-brother and his grandfather. At least he had the family stones and stories.

Willie Roe heard the stories and helped haul the stones here to Tilghman Island for the old man, Harvey C. Howarth, who asked his friend and fellow waterman for a hand in a race with time. Poplar Island, maybe five miles northwest of Tilghman, was vanishing into the bay yard by yard. A little graveyard clutched the water's edge.

"They told him these gravestones were going to wash away," says Roe, 72, who can step out of his house on Tilghman, glance to his left and see the five white and gray stones in his yard, where "Mr. Harvey" put them up about 40 years ago. Members of Howarth's family don't seem to want the stones moved, although Roe says he has made it clear that they can "do whatever you want with them. They're not mine."

As the federal and state government carry out a $400 million project to restore Poplar Island, the gravestones stand on Tilghman - a small community of watermen, former watermen, restaurants and resorts - as a reminder of one man's effort to salvage family remnants while the home turf crumbled.

Roe heard bits of the Howarth story over the years from Mr. Harvey, one of the many Poplar Island exiles who settled around Tilghman. Roe heard how a hard winter in 1929 drove Howarth off the island.

Howarth made his living on Tilghman dredging oysters in winter, painting houses in summer. From time to time, he apparently would hear about the steady erosion of Poplar Island, which in the early 17th century was measured as one land mass of 1,430 acres, according to William B. Cronin's The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake.

By the turn of the 20th century, it had turned into a cluster of three islands. By 1931, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, the main island was down to 134 acres.

"The older he got, the more he hated the idea of those stones being on Poplar Island," says Harvey Howarth's nephew, Harvey J. Howeth Sr., 78, of Easton. "He didn't want those tombstones going into the bay."

Howeth's father, James, and Harvey C. Howarth were brothers, sons of George E. Howarth and his second wife, Lizzie. Nobody in the family has figured out why they spelled their names differently, says Howeth.

In Willie Roe's nasal, Eastern Shore accent, with its many unspellable vowel sounds, they both come out sounding something like "Howth."

Roe has always lived in Tilghman, always worked on the water fishing and clamming, watching skipjacks yield to powerboats and the catch steadily diminish. He is happy to tell how one day's rockfishing in the 1950s earned him enough to buy his first house with $300 to spare.

"I clammed around Poplar Island a lot," says Roe.

One trip to Poplar that stands out in his memory had nothing to do with clamming. It must have been during the 1960s, as Roe remembers, when he was in his early 30s and Mr. Harvey, who was born in 1891, was in his mid-70s.

"He'd been asking me two months before that to take him" to check on the gravestones, says Roe. "That one day was a Saturday. I said `I'll take you right now.'"

On the way to the 20-foot skiff they picked up John Haddaway, a friend of Roe's who was mowing his lawn. Off they went for the 30-minute skiff ride to what was left of Poplar Island, which by the 1960s was down to about 80 acres.

They tied the skiff and stepped ashore, looking for the graveyard and the big landmark cedar tree Howarth talked about.

A map of Poplar Island in 1914, drawn decades later from memory by Charles Harrison, whose family had property there, shows a graveyard next to the "George Howeth Farm" on the east shore. Next to this, Harrison noted the homestead of "Harvey Howeth."

Roe and Haddaway recall finding the graveyard in a state of ruin. "It was all overgrown," says Haddaway, who lives down the street from Roe on the shore of the Choptank River. "Cedar trees were down over the stones."

The water was edging close to the five stones, so the men decided to move them. That meant working with their hands, as they had planned only to look at the graveyard and had brought no tools with them. Crawling under the fallen trees, they pulled out the stones. They loaded them into the skiff, which held the heavy stones easily enough, Roe says.

Back at Tilghman, they laid the stones down in Roe's yard by the Choptank River bank. Howarth then considered what to do about the remains back on Poplar.

"He tried to raise some money to dig them up," Roe recalls. Roe remembers talking with a local undertaker about that at the time.

"He said he didn't think we'd find very much," Roe says.

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