In the spring of 1987, I made the best move of my life — to remote Smith Island, MD, whose fisherfolk had endured for more than three centuries, 10 miles offshore in the center of Chesapeake Bay.
It never crossed my mind I’d end up making a book on the place, An Island Out of Time (W. W. Norton, 1997), and now a short film of the same name. The new Bay Journal production, An Island Out of Time, which I created with Sandy Cannon-Brown and Dave Harp, debuts at the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital in March and airs at 8 p.m. April 23 on Maryland Public Television during Chesapeake Bay Week. The title not only reflects the old-timey culture of the island, but also underscores its uncertain future in the face of steady erosion, rising seas and simply from youth moving off — “craving the world,” as the islanders put it.
I moved to Smith Island to do education work for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, to experience a place where nature still shaped lives in an era when humans were dominating natural systems across the globe. Sun and moon rose at one end of my street and set at the other. Half a minute’s walk either way brought you to tidewater. The doctor made house calls by skiff, as did the preacher.
The book is 20 years old, and some of the landscapes in it are now beneath the waves. The island’s resident population has fallen from nearly 500 to less than 200. Fewer than 35 remain year-round where I resided — in Tylerton (population 124 then), one of three hamlets that make up Smith Island.
After a delightsome three-year immersion in a culture that paid serious attention to God above and blue crabs below, my family moved back to the mainland. But your heart never leaves a place like that. Tylerton has never ceased to draw me back, along with an increasing number of outside homeowners and tourists, lending hope that the island’s not quite done. It helps that state and federal governments have put several million bucks of rock along the island’s edges to ward off erosion.
One big storm could still overwhelm the place, whose elevation ranges from a few feet on down. Up to a point, the island survives better than you’d think, as there’s little land there for storm surges to pile up on, as they do when they collide with the mainland.
When a community like Tylerton gets down to a few dozen people, it’s obvious every family counts. But the Marshalls, mainstays of the island economy and its store, count enough that Dave, Sandy and I decided to make our film about them.
Dwight’s and Mary Ada’s families hark back to the beginnings of Smith Island, which is to say back to the beginning of colonial America. Dwight is from Drum Point, the old name for Tylerton, where about half of the surnames are Marshall. Before that, his people came from “Shankses” — an island he talks about as almost another country, though its remnants lie only several hundred yards southwest of the Marshalls’ present house. In Dwight’s lifetime, Shankses has been so eroded and reconfigured that “if Dad [Russell Marshall, who died in the 1970s] were to come back now, he’d be lost down there.”
Mary Ada is an Evans from Smith Island’s “capital city” of Ewell, where her family’s name predominates. Her dad, Elmer, was a prominent waterman, captain of a skipjack that was one of the prides of the island’s fleet of boats that dredged oysters under sail all over the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake. She and Dwight met on the boat that ferried island high schoolers to the mainland, where they boarded Monday through Friday.
Theirs was to be a union of thoroughbreds, still going strong half a century later. Dwight, like most island boys, was born to work the water: “We’d ride our bikes, pretending we were dredging oysters like you would from a boat. And others would ride up pretending they were the law, coming to arrest us.” (At the time, dredging was illegal.)
Other island watermen had bigger, faster boats and fished with more gear, but in decades of roaming the Chesapeake for the Baltimore Sun I encountered none more skilled at maximizing a living from the Bay’s bounty. Dwight was a student of markets, phoning seafood buyers after a long day on the water, hopping a truck from Crisfield to check out New York’s Fulton Fish Market. He installed a freezer to hold his catch and ran a seafood sales route on the mainland, working incredible hours to free himself from the daily market prices set by middlemen.
He was frugal enough to heat his crab shanty by burning castaway nylon rope he gathered from the shore on winter “progging” expeditions; he’d also recycle washed-up cork floats watermen used to mark their crab pots. In 1975, he invested what many deemed an extravagant sum in a newfangled “Fiberglas” workboat, but the Miss Marshall is still going strong, several engines later, long after her wooden peers rotted away.
He was adept at seizing opportunities few others knew existed. One winter, as other watermen complained of scarce oysters, he discovered troves of diamondback terrapins hibernating in the mud of remote marshes. One morning he caught enough on the way to visit Mary Ada in the hospital to offset much of her medical bill — “a bank withdrawal,” one islander called it. No wonder his little girl, Maria, answered a question in elementary school that asked her to name some of Earth’s most precious natural resources: “turkles” (turtles).
Dwight talked about the “thrill of the chase,” how he loved to range far and wide, exploring on the chance he’d hit a rich, undiscovered pocket of oysters. I came to think of him as the human equivalent of a top predator, like a great white shark. But then there was the day he landed with hundreds of terrapins bound for slaughter, and photographer Dave Harp cajoled him into posing with perhaps the biggest female we’d ever seen. Dwight did so reluctantly. When Dave finished, he said, “I was afraid of that. I got to lookin’ her in the eye and now I got to throw her back.” Many years later his youngest son, Jamie, would do the same thing with a fat speckled trout that Dwight had saved for the family’s dinner.
When Dwight talked about all it took to be a top waterman on a place like Smith Island, with few fallback options, he’d add: “you need a wife who’s that way too.”
Indeed, for hard work, Mary Ada might have set the family standard, for many years rising at 2:30 a.m., picking 20 pounds of crabmeat and loading it aboard the 7 a.m. ferry to Crisfield, then cooking breakfast and getting the kids off to school and cleaning the house and processing several hundred soft crabs Dwight had caught, all before picking more crabs and rustling a multi-course dinner for Dwight and the four children. She also turned out highly regarded eight-layer chocolate cakes. She could bake one, ice it, and have the pans and bowls washed and put away in about 20 minutes.
On top of this, the two ran a grocery store to make extra money to send Dwight Jr. (Duke) to college. In her “spare” time, Mary Ada seemed always to have a home remodeling project going, and today what was once a modest bungalow is one of the island’s handsomest homes. Then there were church duties, which on the island are many. Along with most islanders, Dwight and Mary Ada are devout Methodists in a way that is closer to the religion that swept down the Delmarva Peninsula some 250 years ago than it is to mainland churches.
Dwight, who turns 74 in March, is now the oldest citizen of Tylerton. He’s undergone a quadruple heart bypass and has had both knees replaced. His crabbing schedule is “when I feel like it,” mostly from a small aluminum skiff made for him by one of his sons, Kevin, a boatbuilder and welder.
As her husband has wound things down a bit, Mary Ada, now 71, and “sticking myself with a needle four times a day” (diabetes) has upped her game. Those cakes she learned how to bake when she stood on a stool in her mother’s kitchen have brought fame and a bit of fortune. Her renown as “the cake lady” has spread far beyond Tylerton — indeed she’s shipping dozens of eight-layer concoctions as far off as Iraq every week, taking orders only by landline and buying bubble wrap in immense rolls.
She and other island ladies lobbied Maryland’s legislature to designate the Smith Island eight-layer chocolate cake the state’s official dessert. She’s burned through at least a few sets of double ovens since. Television crews and college classes troop through her kitchen regularly. Her “other cakes” aren’t shabby either — luscious one-third-pound crab cakes, the meat caught and picked fresh from island waters, and sold daily at the Tylerton store. The Drum Point Market is owned by Duke, her oldest son, and managed by Mary Ada. The crab cakes draw boaters and tourists on the island ferry.
Nowadays in the summertime, Mary Ada usually has grandchildren visiting, ranging from toddlers to late teens. None will ever live in Tylerton — and, when their visits end and it’s time to board the ferry to the mainland, none ever want to leave.
Mary Ada and Dwight talk about moving. “We’re wearing out, like an old boat and an old engine,” he said recently.
But Ada can only get so far into that conversation before she chokes up. Still, the unthinkable is becoming thinkable now.
She often describes their lives as “content,” a word I’ve heard more on the island than the mainland, where people talk more about whether they’re “happy” or not. “Content,” if you go to the Latin root, literally means to bound or limit one’s desires, and perhaps small islands, by their very nature, are bounded and insulated, confined by the surrounding waters.
So Sandy, Dave and I filmed on Smith Island through last summer into the fall. The Fourth of July drew so many people and children and dogs that for a day or two “it seemed like old times, when Tylerton was full of people,” one islander said the next day in church.
We interviewed Duke and Kevin and Jamie and Maria, the four Marshall kids who left, about their stories and what they want for their parents and what they hope for Tylerton. One thing’s crystal clear: In spirit, none of them will ever leave this centuries-long home of Marshalls and Evanses.
Climate change and sea level rise is readily discussed these days with regard to low-lying Bay islands. But “education is what will be the death of this place,” the late Paul Marshall told me when I moved to the island in 1987. He meant that younger generations would have options his never did, including the option to leave.
Once, during one of my endless discussions with Dwight about the prospects for more crabs and oysters in the Bay, Mary interrupted to say, “Oh, the Lord’ll take care of that … what I worry about is who’s going to be left here for my son to marry.”
I’m convinced most of us desperately want places like Tylerton to exist, perhaps to fill something lacking in our wider society. We need this even as the islanders pass our tour boats on their way to the mainland, craving the world.
Dave, Sandy and I knew going into this project that we might be recording the final act of an extraordinary family and culture. We were also determined that our efforts would celebrate the long-running play that is Smith Island and its people.
Where to view the film
View An Island Out of Time, a new Bay Journal film by Tom Horton, Dave Harp and Sandy Cannon-Brown at 2 p.m. March 23 in the Carnegie Institute for Science at the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital. Or, watch at 8 p.m. April 23 on Maryland Public Television. The film will be available to view after May 1 at bayjournal.com/films.