State of Play – Washingtonian
“A new book offers a fun look at Maryland’s quirkier corners.” So says Washingtonian magazine in the Capital Comment section of its January issue, reporting on my latest publishing venture. “Starting in 2005, Eugene L. Meyer chronicled the Old Line State in ‘Hidden Maryland,’ a column for Maryland Life magazine. The ex-Washington Post writer dug up undertold stories, penning about 50 columns before the magazine closed in 2013. Now most of them have been compiled in the book Hidden Maryland.”
The magazine’s Daniella Byck goes on to highlight “four of our favorite bits,” under the headlines: ELKTON WAS A SHOTGUN-WEDDING DESTINATION; PIMLICO’S FLOWERS AREN’T WHAT THEY SEEM; EXPECT TO SEE DOUBLE IN DELMAR; and YOU CAN TIME-TRAVEL IN HAVRE DE GRACE. One update included: Mary L. Martin, Ltd., which bills itself as the world’s largest postcard shop, moved its retail outlet from Perryville, on U.S. Route 40 just north of the Susquehanna, to Havre de Grace, just south of the river. It retains a 10,000 square foot warehouse on the former site.
Read these “undertold stories” and more in paperback or e-book, available on Amazon. To order, please click here.
Smith Island Update
For Maryland Life magazine, I’d featured Smith Island, the only inhabited island within the Maryland waters of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s actually an archipelago, with three small settlements, Ewell and Rhodes Point, linked by a road, and Tylerton, a boat ride away from the others. My piece ran in September/October 2008, and I included it in my newest book Hidden Maryland: In Search of America in Miniature. The book updates many of the magazine stories, but Smith Island stands alone. The place was in decline, its population dropping, its water-based economy suffering, while sea level was rising and erosion increasing. It seemed almost too easy — and sad — to update what was, in essence, an advance obituary for the island and its centuries-old way of life.
But on a whim, I decided to check in with Janice Tyler, who featured prominently in my original piece. This is the update I didn’t want to write.
Janice was now living fulltime in Crisfield, since her husband Bobby, a waterman, had died five years ago. “It’s changed. A lot of older people are dying off,” she said. “Jennings Evans – in his 90s – he died last week. Younger people are moving out, new [weekend, second home] people are moving in. Six people got off the Ewell boar [at Crisfield] I didn’t know.” There were now only two children attending the island school, which is in Ewell, and they had to be brought by boat from Tylerton, to be instructed by a teacher’s aide. The Tylerton school, built in the 1990s, had closed in 1996 for lack of students and was now a private residence.
The Smith Island Crab Co-0p that Janice had founded in Tylerton closed three years ago, for lack of pickers. It had begun auspiciously with 15 island women picking crabmeat but had gotten down to three. “Then most of the time it was just two of us picking,” said Robin Bradshaw. Janice’s daughter, who still lives in Tylerton. There were still a few women picking crabs in their own kitchens but not many. This was due to the crab situation, not just an uncertain harvest but a state-imposed limit on the number of new licenses granted to watermen. Those entering the water trade had to either inherit or acquire a license from another waterman. Two younger watermen still working had inherited theirs. The island’s young adults were now routinely moving to the mainland for jobs. Robin’s three daughters were there, one at the state prison, another as a nurse, and the third working for the Somerset County Sanitary District.
The population, 171 in 2012, when my original story appeared, had dropped, by one count, to 139 in 2020, then seemed to increase with the influx of outsiders buying properties. But the precise numbers are hard to pin down. According to Janice, many of the houses remain vacant. Though her home is now in Crisfield, her heart is still in Tylerton, on Smith Island. “I’ve been on cruises and all and never seen a sunset to what I’ve seen in Tylerton,” she said. I couldn’t agree more.
You can read (or own) a copy of my Smith Island feature in Hidden Maryland: In Search of America in Miniature. Click here.
Rip Van Winkle wakes up in Southern Maryland
I couldn’t find Main Street. It had been years since I’d been there, in Prince Frederick, the Calvert County seat. Now, it was Dec. 28, 2022, and I was trying to show the town to my son, who was visiting from Chicago. On Route 231, we crossed Route 4, which slices down the spine of the county, a peninsula wedged between the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay. I expected the road to veer off to the right and flow directly onto Main Street, with its stately county courthouse and handful of one-story offices, formerly stores. Instead, I found myself at a rotary meant to calm the traffic. Except there wasn’t any traffic to calm, just several confusing exits to follow from the circle. So, instead of finding myself on Main Street, I was on Dares Beach Road, Finally, I had to resort to GPS to get where I wanted to go. Then, I found my way back to Route 4 and headed north. The landmarks I remembered — like the county’s first mosque, which I’d written about — were all but hidden behind, or astride, a string of new strip shopping centers, with all the national chains and none of the local places I’d cherished long ago.
I felt like a man out of time, my time, like Rip Van Winkle waking up from a 20-year nap. “It was with some difficulty that he found the way to his own house,
which he approached with silent awe,” 19th century author Washington Irving wrote of his awakened anti-hero. “He now hurried forth, and hastened to his old resort, the village inn—but it too was gone… all this was strange and incomprehensible. ”
My search for Main Street was preceded by a visit to Benedict, a tiny riverside town on the west bank of the Patuxent, in Charles County, It had been years since I’d been there. This sleepy little Southern Maryland village had had its 15 minutes of fame during the War of 1812 when, in 1814, British forces landed there on their way to the nation’s capital, where they burned the White House and torched the Capitol, an assault the likes of which had not been seen again until Jan. 6, 2021. My first visit was shortly after Tropical Storm Agnes in June 1972 had dumped oceans of fresh water into the Patuxent, completely decimating the oyster industry as far upriver as Benedict, from which the local watermen and the town never recovered. Nonetheless, I would drive down there to dine at Chappelear’s, a restaurant at water’s edge, afterwards to walk out on the pier and gaze east across the river towards Calvert County. With my youngest son home for a time over the holidays, I took him to Benedict, driving down from the north by way of rural southern Prince George’s County.
Once, we would have passed tobacco barns filled with the leaves hanging in bunches to air cure. But that was before the federal tobacco settlement offered growers cash not to grow. Now, there were just barns, their contents unknown.
At Benedict (population 180, according to recent census figures), there was no Chappelear’s but a burned out shell where it used to be. Ray’s Pier , the only remaining restaurant, was closed until the next day. There was no commerce at all. Just a small post office, and a tiny office strip with a for lease sign, and, surprisingly, a large new building that houses the Benedict Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad. A small sign at water’s edge recalled the town’s historical moment as the landing spot for the British forces that marched from there in a northwesterly direction, pausing in Upper Marlboro to take Dr. William Beanes, a friend of Francis Scott Key, hostage, and then on to defeat the Americans at Bladensburg on their way to rout capital. Beanes was held by the British on a ship in Baltimore harbor, prompting Key to seek his release and to write the words to the Star Spangled Banner. And it all began in little Benedict.