Baltimore County peninsula a tiny world of its own

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Under the steel-gray sky, a piercing wind puffs foamy crest on the sea-green wavelets lapping over the bulkheads. Flocks of canvasback and mallard ducks swoop, circle and land to bob on the water.

The waterfowl dive quickly for corn tossed into the water by Augie Zadera and Steve Takos, hunting buddies of 40 years who, in another season, might be trying to make a meal of these ducks instead of feeding them.

Behind them, traffic is sparse on the puddled streets, which often flood during heavy storms or extremely high tides. Boats are drawn up on trailers and covered with plastic sheets, and the empty piers reach out into the water like bony fingers.

It's winter in Millers Island, the quiet time on this narrow peninsula between the mouth of the Back River and the Chesapeake Bay known as "the island." It is one of southeastern Baltimore County's most isolated communities, a tiny world of its own with a breathtaking view across the bay to the Eastern Shore, to Tolchester and Rock Hall and south to the Bay Bridge.

Road access is only through the vast woods and marsh of Gunpowder Falls State Park, which includes the Black Marsh Wildlife Refuge and forms a buffer against further development.

Residents are grateful for this natural barrier because the extension of municipal water and sewerage about a decade ago spurred a small construction boom on the peninsula. The newer houses are larger and of modern design; older dwellings tend to be small and plain, fixed-up and winterized former summer homes.

"This all used to be marsh; where they put those houses was all cattails. I used to trap marsh rats in there and hunt rabbits with fTC beagles.Now it's all growed up, and there's no place to go," said Mr. Zadera, 74, as he conducted an encyclopedic tour of the tiny community, along Chesapeake Avenue and Cuckold Point Road.

Most of the original summer places were owned by Poles, Germans and Bohemians from East Baltimore, he said, ticking off the names of former residents and pointing out where homes have been replaced and where picnic areas once stood.

"Right there used to be the Workmen's Circle, the picnic ground for the Jewish community groups. They had a beach, a bar and bathhouses, and it was wonderful," he said. Houses now occupy the area.

The tip of the peninsula on the Back River side is Cuckold Point, a name whose origin is lost but which appears on a 1752 survey and which was advertised in 1857 as a "ducking shore," according to county historian John W. McGrain.

Mr. Zadera said he first visited Millers Island as a boy of 14 and has been here, off and on, nearly ever since, working first as a commercial fisherman and duck hunter. In 1955 he opened the steamed crabs-to-go business that he says draws summer customers from as far away as Towson and West Baltimore.

For Mr. Zadera, as for most "islanders," the big attraction of this out-of-the-way place is the water.

"I worked in my family's bakery in East Baltimore, but I didn't like it. I wanted to be around the water," he said.

Robert Poleski, 31, whose family owns Bill's Boats, the only remaining boat-rental outfit, said, "I could get an office job, but it's kind of hard looking at four walls. I couldn't live without looking at the bay."

"I wouldn't trade growing up as a kid on Millers Island for anything," said Mr. Poleski, who worked with his father and brother as a longshoreman on the Baltimore waterfront in the off-season and at the family's boat yard every summer.

Edward Hranicka, 33, who grew up in the community, said, "In the summer, it was the greatest; in winter, it was the worst."

His family operates Fisherman's Inn, one of the eight restaurants and bars in Millers Island. The place began as a house in 1945, and 10 years later became a crab and oyster restaurant, said Josephine Hranicka, his mother. Like other restaurant owners, Mrs. Hranicka lamented the demise of the rockfish, once a staple and specialty of the house.

"We charged $1 for all you could eat, and rockfish was 7 1/2 cents a pound," she said.

Although winter is quiet compared with the hectic summer pace, even the cold months are not as somnolent as they once were, Mr. Hranicka said. "Our winters have been milder so people come out for a ride, and they want to relax with a seafood dinner. Weekends are very busy even now," he said.

Agnes Poleski, 63, who moved to Millers Island from East Baltimore 40 years ago, said, "It's really nice living here. I love it. But I hated it at first. I cried every day."

Mrs. Poleski recalled how her husband, William, 80, raised their house on cinder blocks after a storm battered the area many years ago and how they have gradually expanded the boat-rental business with the help of their sons, Robert and Michael.

She said the sewage line brought change to the community in the form of new development. But except that it drove "property prices sky-high, it has been for the better," she said.

"There are nicer homes now, new ones, and people have remodeled their older ones."

Robert P. "Bob" Ward, 51, president of the Millers Island Community Association, said the community has about 225 single-family houses, with no more than a dozen lots still left. The Beltway and new highways have eased its isolation.

"It's only 20 minutes from here to downtown Baltimore," said Mr. Ward, a relative newcomer who bought a lot in 1982 and built a house three years later.

Mr. Ward, a computer specialist who now works for a comic-book distributor, said the community began in the 1920s when the Canton Railroad owned the property on the river side and Bethlehem Steel owned the bay side.

Local legend has it that a large brick house on Chesapeake Avenue was once owned by Francis X. Bushman, a silent-movie matinee idol who died in 1966 at age 83. Harold Witmyer, 70, who lives a few houses away, laughed and said that Mr. Bushman had a small fishing shack in Millers Island but that someone else in the Bushman family built the big house.

Mr. Witmyer, who has lived in a waterfront house on Chesapeake Avenue since the early 1950s, said the biggest thing to happen on the island since Mr. Bushman came was the sewer line, which he considers an improvement.

"Who would want to go back to the old outhouses and poor water supply?" he said at Ramona's Cafe, where he had stopped for coffee. "The new people don't bother me. I come here to see my friends."

Mike Kondylas, 37, who runs Ramona's, a longtime family business, said he made the move to Miller's Island four years ago and is glad he did.

Gazing from the restaurant's picture windows, Mr. Kondylas said the panorama is even more spectacular in summer.

"You can see everything from a $300 rowboat to a half-million dollar yacht," he said. "There are sailboats and powerboats in processions out there in the summer. On a clear night you can see the headlights on the cars crossing the Bay Bridge."

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