You might consider Crumpton (pop. perhaps 500) to be the town that was swallowed by an auction. The quiet riverbank hamlet in Queen Anne's County serves as a backdrop to Dixon's Furniture Inc., one of the region's liveliest -- and most comprehensive -- auctions of antiques and memorable miscellany.
The daylong sale, held every Wednesday, commands a warehouse-sized barn and acres of parking lots. It draws Amish farmers from Lancaster County, furniture dealers from the Mid-Atlantic states and bargain hunters from just about everywhere. Auctioneers on golf carts inch through lanes created by such cast-off belongings as ornate Victorian beds and life-sized stuffed tigers. People bid on Victrolas, antique birdhouses, bulk toilet paper, Rose Medallion tea cups, duck decoys, doilies and matchbooks from long-vanished hotels in New York. Some days, they buy an artificial limb or two.
By any standard, the auction is an absorbing show, the kind Crumpton is used to holding. From 1915 to 1930, the town was a major stop for the James Adams Floating Palace Theatre, a summer showboat whose itinerary took it to waterfront audiences from North Carolina to the head of the Chesapeake.
Located about 14 miles from Chestertown on the upper reaches of the Chester River, Crumpton is the sort of riverbank spot that seems to spring from the country's spiritual psyche. With its profusion of old oak and maple trees, its storybook streets -- Broad, Pine and Front -- and its Victorian gingerbread, Crumpton is a place where everyone knows your name and at least some of your business.
During the past dozen years, a wave of urban refugees -- some buying weekend retreats, others buying retirement properties -- have begun to stir up this country still life.
"New people have been bringing in new ideas," observes grocery store owner Tom Lane. "We used to be pretty set in our ways and now we realize there are other ways of doing things. Such as? Such as you don't always have to vote for Democrats."
Or that incorporating the town might not be such a bad idea. Crumpton is one of several towns in Queen Anne's County currently debating the matter. At present, it has no mayor and no official population. Residents get by with septic tanks and wells and fewer taxes.
A native of Kent Island, Mr. Lane remembers the truly sleepy days of the Eastern Shore before the Bay Bridge was built. Now the out-of-towners are coming, and even modest waterfront lots in Crumpton are selling for around $200,000, he says.
A Greenwich Village contractor, for instance, has built "a Fire Island kind of summer house" on one of the lots he bought next to the river, according to Norma Wolfson.
You could consider Mrs. Wolfson, owner of the Cole House Bed and Breakfast, to be an adopted native. As a child in the '40s and '50s, she spent all of her summers with sharecropper relatives in Crumpton.
Eight years ago, Mrs. Wolfson left her job as a buyer for Macy's to move to Crumpton with her husband, Dick, who runs an executive-search business and works as a management consultant.
"After 10 years of living in New York City, this is bliss," Mrs. Wolfson says.
The small town has a history of welcoming city folk. In the 19th century, it became a center of river commerce, with overnight steamers from Baltimore arriving three times a week to deliver visitors and pick up fresh produce. Crumpton built a hotel and shops. Continued growth seemed certain.
In the 1850s, two New Jersey land promoters purchased roughly 1,300 acres of the town, intending to sell dream houses in a small city they referred to "the Baltimore of the Eastern Shore." They built a church, a graveyard, mapped out sites for a town hall and public square, and started the Crumpton Gazette, the town's first and only newspaper.
Their plans came to naught, however, when the Pennsylvania Railroad bought and destroyed its competitor, the Chester River Steam Boat Line; new Eastern Shore railroad routes did not include the town. The cannery, which became Crumpton's largest employer, burned down in 1933. Dixon's auction came to help rescue the town in 1945.
These days, most of the people in Crumpton work in Dover -- about a half-hour away -- or Chestertown. They do their supermarket shopping in Chestertown or Millington. Children go school in Sudlersville.
Quite a few years back, before the town's trailer park began to produce new crops of children, Crumpton converted the elementary school into a senior center and county recreation office. There's still a splendid ball field, however, and summer brings visiting Little League teams from Sudlersville, Barclay and Pondtown.
Residents also speak proudly of Crumpton's volunteer fire department. This summer it is holding a series of country breakfasts to help meet general expenses and pay off what Mrs. Wolfson calls "their nice new equipment."