`There's been change, for sure'

MARYLAND JOURNAL

Shore village makes do with fading population, lack of public facilities

October 08, 2007|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

NEAVITT -- If this unincorporated Eastern Shore village has a mayor, it is Joe Jones. That's him, flashing by in a green-and-yellow blur aboard an all-terrain vehicle on the main drag - the only drag - as if important civic business were at stake.

Jones, 79, knows just about everybody here on this mile-long clump of marsh bordered by Harris, Balls and Broad creeks, a few miles south and a world away from the tourist spots of St. Michaels.

There's not much need for a formal census in a place this size. But ask Jones for a count of old-timers who grew up here and he's game. The count is decidedly low-tech. Jones cruises along on his ATV and jots down names, not addresses. His sidekick, Sophie the basset hound, rides shotgun.

With much of the tallying done on his fingers and a frayed sheet from a legal pad, Jones starts with a guess of something under 300 residents - and that's during the summer when the weekenders take up temporary residence.

The old-timers' count, says Jones, is 27 natives - 29 if you include a couple of folks who've lived here 60 years or more. Watermen? Well, they used to call it a waterman's town. Now there's maybe six full-time, three part-timers and a few from nearby Bozman who tie up in Neavitt. That's it.

At 6 feet above sea level, the road through Neavitt is lined on both sides by unassuming bungalows, ranchers and solid two-story colonials. It ends at the public landing and dock where the handful of watermen tie their boats.

But don't look for anything like a town hall. It has been decades since there were two general stores and a school. The old theater building that used to house the post office is up for sale, apparently with no chance it could again double as a post office.

In fact, Neavitt United Methodist Church is the lone public building. It's the kind of place where the pastor gets a designated parking spot right out front. (He's always in a rush on Sundays because he serves three congregations.) The church piano player parks her bicycle by the front door.

There's plenty of room for Sunday school, but not enough children. The sanctuary is the spot where the congregation keeps a Service Flag, sewn by the women of Neavitt for the 35 men who served during World War II. All 35 have a star, including two who were killed in combat.

Jones has watched for years as the place where he grew up has filled with low-key newcomers - retirees mostly, or soon-to-be retirees who like the out-of-the-way location. And he's all right with that.

In fact, the new folks are often the first to endorse the honorary mayor's faux title. They've "all fit together right well," says Jones, a World War II Marine combat veteran who worked the water for a third of his life, then spent an additional 21 years as state natural resources policeman.

"There's been change, for sure," says Jones. "But a lot of times, it's the new people who're out doing whatever needs to be done."

These days, the only thing resembling commerce is Forest and Martha Bogan's pottery, run out of a converted garage and addition in their backyard.

"Right off the bat, we got involved with people," says Forest Bogan, 74, who moved here from western Massachusetts 20 years ago. "People here welcome you. We were invited to Thanksgiving dinner by the unofficial mayor the first year. We'd only been here since September that year and Joe invites us to Thanksgiving."

The Bogans have been active in the civic association that sponsors a Labor Day picnic, flea markets, two bonfires in the town park and a New Year's Eve celebration that includes a crab drop at midnight. Fourth of July sparklers are optional because townspeople can easily see big fireworks displays in St. Michaels, Oxford and Cambridge.

For four years, since Hurricane Isabel ripped her way up the bay, Neavitt has done without a post office. Flood damage was repaired in the building that over time had served as a movie theater and general store, as well as the post office. But a new owner wants to sell the place.

Residents have been driving five miles or so to the neighboring town of Bozman, where 120 temporary boxes were set up in the lobby to serve Neavitt.

"This has dragged on for all these years," says Rex Kilbourn, 81, a retired Navy supply officer who bought property on Broad Creek in 1966, then retired there in 1980. "I just don't think there are many people in this country who have to go that distance to get their mail. Neavitt has never had home delivery of any kind. People always picked it up at the post office."

Postal service officials say that even after years of wrangling about Neavitt, a final determination hasn't been made. But few residents expect a change of heart, not with the postal service working under federal legislation that requires the agency to operate like a business.

The real loss, say many residents, is that the old post office served as a community gathering spot, where talkers and listeners always gathered to share the news of the day, to weave the daily string of small-town life.

"I could never understand why, but it always seemed that the day was divided - men came in to get their mail in the morning and the women came in the early afternoon," recalls Bonnie Higgins, Neavitt's former postmaster.

"The women would talk about anything and everything, Higgins says. "The men, well that always seemed to be a lot of jokes and stories - most of them about Joe or told by Joe."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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