Ten miles off Chesapeake Bay’s lower Eastern Shore lies Smith Island, Md., where 240 residents of three villages eke out a living as their ancestors have for generations.
Isolated and self-sufficient from 1679 until modern transportation, technology and communications connected them, Smith Islanders first farmed, then fished and harvested oysters and crabs. They still do, although the watermen now work under strict state and federal regulations designed to protect the decimated stocks. Their kids are dropping their unique brogue and pursuing education and work on the mainland.
Fiercely proud and independent, the close-knit islanders have no municipal government. They negotiate civic affairs through Methodist church congregations in Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton. Pastor Rick Edmund is Smith Island’s unofficial mayor, says Pauli Eades, who with her husband, Steve, owns Smith Island Marina.
Many of the 5,000 annual visitors come by passenger-only ferries from Crisfield, Md. Cruisers follow recently dredged Big Thorofare through the marshes to Ewell, Smith Island’s “city.” Here, the Eadeses welcome boaters and kayakers with basic amenities and helpful advice on understanding and appreciating the island’s culture. From May through mid-November, Big Thorofare is abuzz with workboats, and crab pots dot the waters.
Nearby are a fuel dock, several shops, restaurants, lodgings and the Smith Island Cultural Center, housing historical exhibits. The restaurants all feature local crab and other seafood. The strongly religious island is dry, so its BYOB but with respect to residents.
Smith Island’s slow pace encourages walking, although you can rent a bicycle or golf cart. Rhodes Point village and waterman’s boatyard are 2 miles from Ewell. More fun is kayaking through the marshes — fishing, bird-watching or “progging” (searching) for Indian arrowheads along the way. The Smith Island Water Trails brochure details seven routes. The Martin National Wildlife Refuge covers Smith Island’s northern half, 4,500 acres.
When possible, islanders supplement their crabbing income. Eades sells her paintings. Many women bake and ship Maryland’s state dessert, the chocolate-frosted 8- or 10-layer Smith Island Cake. Others make and sell handicrafts. You can also watch local women pick crabs or, for a fee, enter the spotless room where they work. The seasons determine whether charter captains take fishing or hunting parties. Watermen turn to construction in winter, helping elderly residents or renovating homes for summer people.
In Ewell, Waverly Evans, who sells his folk art from his crab shanty, and other retired watermen will take you crabbing, on nature tours or to Tylerton. In this isolated village of 70 residents, Drum Island Market sells what Eades calls the “best crab cakes on the planet.” The Inn of Silent Music offers lodgings and a gourmet dinner for guests.
Water laps almost into front yards and over roads. Superstorm Sandy slammed Smith Island, tearing away the marina’s bulkhead and a 150-foot swath of shoreline. The Eades and other locals with damage were denied federal, state and private insurance aid because the government refused to rehab buildings on an island that is eroding and sinking. Instead, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is offering to buy — and tear down — damaged structures.
In “An Island Out of Time,” Tom Horton eloquently describes Smith Island and its people. The culture may be facing the end of its time, and if Smith Island is depopulated, the exquisite marshes and wildlife will remain, but the centuries-old lifestyle will be gone. www.visitsmithisland.com, www.smithisland.org
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July 2013 issue