Chesapeake Bay cognoscenti would recognize most of the estuary’s charming waterfront villages — the islands of Smith, Tangier, Hooper, Tilghman, Deal; also the Rock Halls, Cape Charles, Solomons, Reedvilles.
Far fewer would summon to mind Saxis, VA, population “200 on a busy July weekend, 100 on a cold January day,” according to Moody “M. K.” Miles III, the town’s historian, and “local” enough that his family’s name adorns now- collectible oyster cans.
It’s hard to grasp, looking out from Saxis with its spectacular, 270-degree views of Pocomoke Sound and the unpeopled marshy shorelines of Accomack and Somerset counties — but for the first two centuries of its history, the place was never all that water-oriented.
So shallow are the waters surrounding Saxis that you can ground a kayak in places at low tide. A pier built to serve steamers from the 1880s through 1933 was located a full third of a mile offshore to reach the nearest channel. Goods and people were often waded in and out of town.
So it was that John Smith, though he twice passed close enough in 1608 to accurately chart the little peninsula of high ground that is Saxis, never refers to it. The Revolutionary and Civil wars also largely passed Saxis by. For a couple centuries, it appeared on maps of Maryland, though in truth it lies just across the state line in Virginia.
Nor was Saxis that easily reached from the land side. The first decent road was not completed until the late 1800s. John Wesley Drewer, patriarch of a leading Saxis family, arrived in 1849 as an orphaned child, picking his way across the marshes with his sister, Rebecca.
Saxis tilted Bayward once the railroad ran to Crisfield, MD, in the 1860s. Crisfield is a 45-mile drive from Saxis, but only a few miles by boat. In its seafood heyday, Crisfield was Maryland’s second biggest city and an outlet for Saxis’ oysters.
Today, dozens of crabbers and oystermen still operate out of the harbor and a 7-foot deep boat channel first dredged in 1937 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Shedding peeler crabs into valuable soft shells is the summer mainstay of the waterfront. Tourism, which has sprung up in recent decades in nearby Virginia water towns like Tangier and Chincoteague, never gained a hold here.
Lots of people drive through some weekends, the locals will tell you, “but not tourists, just curious.”
Kirk Mariner’s fine little history, “Almost an Island,” sums it up: “Saxis entered the second decade of the 21st century (as) that increasing rarity: an authentic fishing village unspoiled by development or tourism…a place where making a living required hard work and ingenuity.”
I had a profoundly slurpy introduction to Saxis. Friends took me one crisp autumn night down the windy road to land’s end, where we entered what from the outside appeared an abandoned cinderblock structure. Inside, Andy Drewer’s concrete-floored, oyster-shucking house was jammed with maybe 200 people, packed closely in folding chairs along fluorescent-lit, dripping tables awash in oysters — steamed, raw, fried…delivered by volunteers for as long as you could eat. It was BYOB, and libations from jugs of Jim Beam to Chardonnay in decanters graced the tables. I’ve seized many opportunities to gorge on oysters, and this topped them all.
The whole evening, no frills, generous and welcoming, eating freshly and well from the surrounding waters, everyone coming together to benefit the town — seemed to evoke much of what’s good about Saxis. (They’ll do it again from 5-8 p.m. on Nov. 7. (Tickets are $35 and worth it. Reserve your place now by e-mailing Denise Drewer, the mayor of Saxis, at firstname.lastname@example.org).
When we recently called on her, Drewer was supervising plumbing at her daughter’s house next door and on the phone about re-dredging the harbor. “We’ve got a leash law, a grass-cutting ordinance…try to keep the place neat for the out-of-staters,” Drewer said. According to Drewer, about half of the houses are now owned by people from out of town. The price is right. A house in good shape here goes for $75,000 and up, and as low as $35,000 for a fixer upper. To date, Saxis has avoided the “tear down and build McMansions” fate of other waterfronts.
The mayor and her husband, Andy, whose Shore Seafood is the town’s big employer (about 50 people), are invested in Saxis’ future. They’ve been buying up empty homes and lots for refurbishing and resale. “We were about ready to begin reselling when the bottom fell out in 2008, and it’s not back to where I would sell anything.”
She said that she thinks “it’s time to try some summer rentals…we’ve got more people asking, is there a place we could stay here?” The town is creating access points for birders and kayakers to park and picnic, she said.
Kayaking opportunities abound, from the nearby sandy beaches of Williams Point in the mouth of the Pocomoke River, to mazes of tidal creeks extending south for about 60 miles to the Bay’s mouth near Kiptopeke. Bicycling appeals too, on quiet, untrafficked roads that can take you on loops of a couple hours to a few days and make you forget you are always a short trip from busy U.S. 13 that follows the spine of Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
Saxis’ pressing issue is the same that every Bay town — from Baltimore to Norfolk — will be facing: protection from storm surges, exacerbated by rising seas. Hurricane Floyd hit Saxis hard in 1999, and Sandy hit it harder in 2012. “We need about 5,000 feet of new rock breakwater, and we’re hoping for some new federal money, but nothing so far,” Drewer said.
She recommended that we try breakfast at Martha’s Kitchen, an easy choice as it’s the only one; but who could want more than the massive sausage omelet I had (though I wish I’d seen the slabs of scrapple before I ordered)? We were so full we had to leave hours later without sampling the seafood lunch menu, including soft shells shedded out just a few yards away.
You have to look to find Martha’s, tucked into a complex of white cinderblock buildings, with an entrance through an unmarked door. Martha Jean Linton, 63, said she’s open six days a week, 5:30 a.m. until 1 p.m., “but that doesn’t mean I’ll kick you out at one. Tell people I’m on Facebook.”
It’s fun to linger and listen to the conversations at Martha’s. Local decoy carvers compare notes. Kefford Linton, Martha Jean’s husband, said to come by later and see the model boats he builds across the street. Bob Fears, a retired lawman, said, “Saxis is kinda the last frontier of the Eastern Shore, just a little trashy…watermen’s pots and nets in their yards.”
“If a Democrat comes in, there’s a chance they’ll get their feelings hurt,” one breakfaster chuckles.
And from a tableful of local watermen taking a break:
“You think peeler potters the problem…it’s them sponge potters down by Cape Charles that’s killing the crabs.”
“State wants a five and a quarter inch crab…5-inch crab’s what you got to have.”
“Croakers is what’s eatin’ the crabs…all they do is swim and eat, croakers.”
“Made 623 crab pots since the first of April…the wire’s all startin’ to run together…16 more and I’m done.”
It’s the sort of talk that William Warner heard 40 years ago that inspired him to write his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Beautiful Swimmers”: “one cannot sit around very long and listen passively…thus this book.”
Later this summer, Saxis will get its second restaurant and first tiki bar, according to Arnold Ray Evans, an astoundingly fit-looking, 80- year-old crabber and Saxis native. He’s bankrolling it and his daughter will run it. Whereas many watermen just gripe about regulations,
Evans has been known to take more direct action…but that’s another story. He’s also the only waterman who has offered me a cold beer before breakfast on the way to the fishing grounds.
Miles says the upcoming dredging of Saxis’ vital harbor “might be the last time.” He worked 40 years for the Corps and said money for little projects like this is going away. State money to help residents elevate damaged homes after Floyd was a godsend, but there was no money available after Sandy, he said.
It’s not just Saxis. Other Bay towns and the big cities around the estuary are going to be competing for more protection from the waves. “I guess we’re doomed,” Miles half jokes, adding, “maybe it’ll be a hundred years.”
In the meantime, Drewer says, “people still want to move here…it takes a certain kind.”