Chesapeake history resides not only in the 17th and 18th centuries, a period we generally associate with early European contact. Sometimes we simply run into situations that take us back three generations or so to a time when the Bay was different from what it is today.
A lifetime, from childhood to twilight years, can span more than two generations and the insights one person can retain over that time are invaluable.
Mike Hirshfield of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and I had a conversation some years ago in which he gave name to a concept we’d both been thinking about. “Serial memory loss” he said, describing the phenomenon where each generation defines the Bay in terms of its earliest memories, or at least in terms of the stories they heard in childhood. The result is that, as the Bay degrades, so do people’s expectations for what constitutes a suitable environment.
One of my roles as a historian is to capture and resurrect the memories of past generations and reintroduce them into our expectations. This happens in many ways, sometimes unexpectedly.
My home, along a phalanx of cliffs on the Western Shore, is opposite the Eastern Shore, where the land lies low behind a chain of islands slowly and being drowned by rising sea level. Here, opening from the Bay are rivers like the two Choptanks, Honga, Nanticoke, Pocomoke and others.
The Eastern Shore’s Honga River is a Bay tributary visited by relatively few recreational boaters. There are no glitzy bars and marinas to speak of and it is a long, 100-odd mile trip by road from noisy weekend watering holes like Solomons or Annapolis. I have sailed there a couple times each year since coming to the Chesapeake three decades ago.
Recently, I have crossed to witness the resurgence of the Bay’s underwater grasses, which had virtually vanished during the early 1970s. Last summer, while “ground truthing” grass coverage for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s aerial survey, I traveled the perimeter of Hearns and Duck Point Coves to census the lush SAV beds. In some places, long fronds of vegetation rose to the surface in chest-deep water, the widgeon grass (Ruppia maritima) flowers remaining just submerged. It also grew right up to the edge of the eroding marsh, accepting that natural boundary in dynamic equilibrium. But where wave energy reflected off the bulkheads of developed shoreline or stone rip-rap on private property, no grasses were found.
Grasses continued right into some of the little feeder creeks, with some traces of eelgrass (Zostera marina), not seen here in almost living memory.
The last turn up one of these creeks ends in a culvert (one of the Bay’s 3,500 blockages to migrating anadromous fish) and has been transformed by machines into roadside ditches draining the Shore’s wetlands.
Wingate-Bishop’s Head Road crosses the culvert, barely above the tide, and certainly not above storm tides. Where the road points on to Crocheron, fiddler crabs scurry in and out of cracks, subtly undermining the macadam, and marsh snails climb up the stop sign post, grazing on algae growing there while staying out of reach of blue crab predators. Tide rushes out of the pipe and young crabs skitter on the edges, hunting for passing morsels.
Despite man’s intrusion, this is a vital, living marsh and creek. Keep the stresses from development “thin” enough and the Bay seems to cope without collapse.
I saw an old enameled Shell Oil sign above the trees. Finding fuel here in this backwater could be useful some day. Another sign, hanging near the Shell, creaked in the light wind on rusty hangers. It announced a tiny country store called Tom Jones Mkt.
No one was in sight, but I walked up, tried the door and met Annie Jones. Once I had her confidence, I began to learn a great deal. She and her husband, Tom, had owned the store for 35 years. Tom had died one snowy morning in 1988, and she has continued on.
Mrs. Jones was born Annie Murphy, the last of seven children. She’s now the only one alive. A picture on one wall shows local schoolchildren about 1919. Thinking of how every student today is photographed repeatedly and in color, I wondered about the itinerant photographer who came way down here to take this picture.
All the children were in their best, the boys with ties, the girls with their stockings, and a big bow in the back. “I used to have one too,” Annie said, touching her hair to make the pleasant memory real. “Only one of the people in that picture is still living. I had two brothers up front, there.” Four boys lay on the ground where the photographer had positioned them, faces grumpy because it was certain they’d catch hell for getting dust all over their Sunday best.
“I grew up right here.” she said. “Our house was here (moving her desk pad to orient me). We built them so the high, good farming ground could feed us. Over by that room (she gestured) was what we called a ridge and it was maybe 5 feet high, so a youngster could go down by the ditch (creek) and walk without being seen. My mother told me (it was) about 1916-1919, and today it’s so close to Bay level you can walk and still be seen.”
“The land’s sinking.” she said, adding that flooding is more common than in the past. “It comes quick, but in four or five hours, it goes quick too!” I pressed for more on rising sea level, which would have been nearly a foot in the time she speaks of: “I think I notice it most over by Blackwater Bridge. All those dead pine trees, and what used to be just little guts is now all open water. You think they’ll do something about that?” she asks.
My response is that I simply don’t think the willpower is there in society to change our lifestyles that profoundly.
Her father was cashier of the local bank, then the Eastern Shore Trust Company, taking that position in 1919. “He worked until they closed that branch,” she said, “and the one in Hooperville, too. (On Hooper Island across the nearby Honga River) and others too...” In one consolidation after another, the neighborhood institution was swallowed into the conglomerate. “They all have to drive to Cambridge today. What is it now?" she shook her head, "Nations Bank?” “No,” I responded, “They’ve been swallowed, too. It’s Bank of America.”
When you walk in, the store is dominated by a big kerosene heater that is its focal point in winter. A couple of comfortable old chairs sit beside it, facing the door to greet newcomers.
Her little white cat, 2 years old on this my first visit, occupies one of the chairs until too many visitors pet her, disrupting the 18 hours’ sleep she claims as her birthright each day.
The shelves are an interweaving of unlikely items juxtaposed in purely accidental ways. A selection of 7-inch sanding disks (for which I’ve searched for in vain through scores of chain hardware stores) is next to the soda cooler.
There are cheese and cold cuts in the cooler, and the next shelf over, paint remover. Shoe polish and Vapo-Rub sit next to snack crackers, only 25 cents a pack, compared with 65 cents in my local supermarket. Kerosene lanterns are on the top shelf, already filled, and with paper bags over them to keep the chimneys clean.
“How do you decide what to stock?” I ask. “Oh, I just don’t know,” she replies, “somebody asks for something and I get some.”
From the days when Tom Jones sold meat and produce, there is a large white enameled Dayton Scale, standing a couple of feet above the counter. It has age-stained mirrors mounted on the ends of the drum and facing the customer. The dial reads like a slide rule, showing the weight to both the clerk and client. A brass plaque notes it was sold by International Business Machines, with an address on Broadway in New York City.
My Uncle Franklin started working for IBM in 1936, so I asked him about the Dayton Scales. He responded: “Sure, I remember as a new hire at IBM sharing shop space with the scale guy. He would use screws and nuts of known weight to calibrate them, taking 10 of those and 15 of another to make up higher multiples.”
Maryland’s Department of Weights and Measures still comes down to check Annie Jones’ old Dayton scale each year, to assure the standards set with those nuts and bolts are still maintained.
I returned to Duck Point Cove again this summer. After this years’ cool and often cloudy spring, the growth of underwater Bay grasses was down and behind both in height and in flowering and seed production.
The Tom Jones Market was closed when I tied up to a stake next to the culvert just at high tide, and I wondered, “Oh, have I lost my chance to talk with this fine lady again?” But, when I walked over, there in the window was the kitty’s little white face, awaiting breakfast. Just a bit before 8:30 a.m. Jones’ station wagon pulled up and I reintroduced myself. “I’ll be open in a minute here,” she says, using the the store key pinned to her shirt so it cannot be mislaid or forgotten.
“When we bought the store in 1966, I suppose bread was 30–35 cents a loaf and, I remember you could buy six gallons of gas for a dollar. We had a ’52 Ford then and we were upset when it went to five gallons for a dollar. I remember the brand was Pureoil.”
Speaking of her early years: “Most crabs were just packed in wooden boxes and shipped out by boat.” I told her I was here looking at the Bay grasses and she mused: “We don’t see that any more. The men used to take a skiff and go where that was washed up on the marsh. … It was sort of a sponge, but not. You could pull apart the mat — it was brownish gray — and (making motions with her arms) spread it out in the boxes to pack the crabs. ‘Sea-O’ they pronounced it. I supposed they could have been saying ‘sea oats’ but I never had it written down. Used a lot of it, too. (Alas, this resource is no longer there.)
“We had no refrigeration and you couldn’t always get ice, only when a truck would come down to get picked crab meat with 300 pound blocks. They’d take an ice pick, you know? And cut it in half, then in thirds for a 50-pound piece. That cost a quarter.”
Ice today is sold crushed in bags, or as a block. In yacht yards on the Bay’s Western Shore, it’s $2 or as much as $3.10 for a 10-pound piece in a polyethylene bag advertising the contents’ remarkable purity. “The watermen say blocks last longer than the crushed” Jones says. A block sells for $1.25 at the Tom Jones Market.
Her right eye has had a cataract removed, and through the glasses’ lens on that side, her eye looks out larger than life as she appraises you, or does her sums, ignoring the old calculator. She will often close the other eye while thinking.
These are not easy years. There’s her vision, a hip broken some time back and this time I find she is a cancer survivor. Her physician chose not to remove, but to treat. “I don’t complain,” she says, “doesn’t help and when I don’t have pain I like to laugh and enjoy.”
Getting a friend to drive her to treatments at the distant Johns Hopkins Oncology Center in Baltimore was wearing, and this year she transferred to a young physician in one of the Eastern Shores’ increasingly sophisticated medical facilities. She likes him.
Retire from the store? “Oh, I don’t know…” looking down almost shyly, “I’d miss the people, and have to be a lot more active to see them if I retired.” Three people come in while I am there, for a newspaper, to ask Jones to call a neighbor and for air for the pickup. “Air’s free,” she says, unmindful of running the compressor to supply it.
Some come for gas, which at Tom Jones Market this June was $1.67, down 13 cents a gallon one week and 5 cents the next.
“People buy enough,” she looks up smiling, “till they can go into town (Cambridge) and get it cheaper this time of year.” She thinks a bit, calculating, “I suppose I sell 400 gallons in a week. The crabbers buy some this time of year, and carry it over to Hearn’s Cove.” A truck pulls in and a tanned and rough waterman arrives to do business with a jerry can for fuel.
I pay for my blocks of ice and we part. Maybe I’ll sail back this autumn.
I carry back a piece of the past with me, not colonial history but a vignette from more than half a century ago on the Chesapeake, and fragments reaching still farther back to a Bay and Eastern Shore far more vital than today: more productive, more sustainable but less lucrative than our modern economy demands.
To achieve this way of life again, most Chesapeake Basin residents would have to to accept a standard of living different from what society and advertisers say we should demand. If we tailored our needs well enough, the Bay would forgive our transgressions and reward us with things and experiences we’d never have imagined, experiences enjoyed as a matter of course just a few generations ago.
Who among you, now, has the courage to step back and ask significantly less of the Chesapeake so she can give us more?