The town that sprawl forgot

October 28, 2006

The two dozen or so members of the Zion United Methodist Church in tiny Toddville, an end-of-the-world community in Dorchester County's marshy netherlands, will gather tomorrow afternoon after Sunday service with family and friends for their annual homecoming feast. The tables will be covered with plates of crab cakes, chicken, ham, vegetables and homemade cakes and pies. People will inquire about each other's health, the coming winter and how so-and-so is doing. Inevitably, someone will ask: A few years from now, will there even be enough people left in Toddville to get together for dinner?

Much of the news these days from the Eastern Shore is about growth. Huge tracts of farmland are being converted into residential developments with expensive new homes. Towering dockside condos in Crisfield nearly block out the fabulous sunset over Tangier Sound. In tony Talbot County, some empty waterfront lots are on the market for almost a million dollars. From Chestertown to Pocomoke City, people argue about how much growth their communities can withstand before the rural qualities of life are irreversibly diminished.

On the Shore, it seems that the specter of sprawl looms over the horizon like a dark cloud. But there are exceptions. And in Toddville, nobody's complaining that things are getting too crowded.

The two-lane road from Cambridge to Toddville winds through thick stands of loblolly pines and past small farmhouses with trailered boats in the yards. A green combine muscles its way along swaths of soybeans, kicking up great clouds of yellow dust. Canada geese are arriving to their winter home in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The season's cool temperatures have begun disrobing the trees, revealing tight clumps of mistletoe high in the bare branches. A few oncoming motorists greet each other with the friendly salute of a forefinger lifted off the steering wheel.

Even in the Eastern Shore outback, colorful roadside campaign election signs are plentiful. They wobble in the breeze like patches of partisan weeds. But as the miles go by and Toddville comes into view, the candidates' broadsides give way to real estate signs. That's not unusual on the Shore, where newcomers are keeping the property market fairly hot. But the difference in Toddville is that while people are leaving, no one's moving in.

Forty years ago, the Toddville area had a population of about 400. The men worked on the water catching crabs and oysters. The women easily found seasonal jobs in the seafood packinghouses and tomato canning factory. Most of their daily needs could be found at the five small markets. Nowadays, to count 200 residents you have to include the nearby town of Bishops Head. The packinghouses and the markets are shuttered, and even simple chores such as grocery shopping must be done 27 miles away in Cambridge.

The steady diaspora of Toddville's close-knit families is attributed to a number of factors. Commercial seafood harvesting is so poor that only a handful of watermen can eke out a living on the nearby tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. As the population grew older, many residents moved away to be closer to families and health care services. For others, flooding from Tropical Storm Isabel proved to be the last straw. People simply abandoned their homes and relocated to higher ground.

Once proud of their community of freshly painted houses and well-kept yards, some Toddville holdouts are openly embarrassed by the presence of so many empty buildings. Windows are without panes. Roofs are bare of shingles. The tenacious Phragmites reed has crept past unattended fences to claim lawns and threaten small family cemeteries.

No one knows what lies ahead for Toddville. Even its post office, which is open only two hours a day, may close when the postmistress retires this winter after 30 years. That would be another sad benchmark for a town that seems just too far away and too prone to flooding to grab the attention of real estate speculators.

Tomorrow's church dinner no doubt will be a festive event for Toddville. But the question remains: How many more homecomings are in its future?

- Bill Thompson

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