Tylerton has a gathering spot again


SMITH ISLAND -- Its square footage is little more than some living rooms, but the grand opening last week of Duke Marshall's Drum Point Market was like Harborplace and Wal-Mart combined.

Here in Tylerton, remotest of the three watermen's communities on this mid-Chesapeake island, a store has always been more than a place to shop.

Listen to an old woman's description of a store -- one of four here when she was a child and the population of Tylerton was near an all-time high of some 200 souls:

There was confectionery on one side; hardware, shoes and oilskins in another part; groceries in another. There'd be dozens of people inside. The barber would be cuttin' hair. In the back they were shucking oysters and picking ducks, saving the feathers in boxes; also repairing oyster tongs.

People was buying groceries and kids was getting candy with nickels a drummer had give 'em. Eggs was money then, and there was a girl trading some from her ma's hens for chocolate squares.

A young couple was eatin' ice cream, and the old men sat by the potbellied coal stove, roasting hot dogs on long wires and telling yarns. You could see our whole lives, right there on display in that old store.

And so, until very recently, it remained.

The scene, to be sure, changed with the decades, but the store remained a vital gathering place, a wellspring of community. On summer evenings and winter mornings, someone would throw out a line, like tossing seasoned kindling on the coals of collective memory:

How 'bout Waverly that night by the Wadin' Place Bridge? Now look, that Waverly, he was a dart, fastest man on the island; no one could keep close to him. And honest? What he said you can believe.

And the store would blaze and crackle for hours with tales of ghostly encounters and wild chases on the road across the dark marsh. Or someone would say: Cap'n Lacey.

Sung 'im down, would come the inevitable rejoinder.

The late Cap'n Lacey, it seemed, got carried away in Sunday testimony, recounting in excruciating detail a perilous journey, sailing back to Tylerton with wood from the Western Shore.

He earned the standard island treatment for long-winded talks in church. Someone broke into a rousing hymn, and the congregation joined in -- sung 'im down, as the saying goes. Cap'n Lacey took it all right, but he said they at least coulda' let him get as far back as the head of Tyler's Creek.

Storying at the store could be instructional.

Every year island boys were told of disasters that happened when someone's bow rope trailed in the water and wrapped around the propeller. Lesson: Don't ever have a bow rope longer than the length of your boat.

You could stir up a ruckus

There in the stores, the islanders purely savored one another.

When things got slow, they knew which buttons to push; a worn article on our descent from apes could be counted on to get a rise from certain church stalwarts. And the mention of Martians could usually set one crabber -- who truly believed in them -- to speaking at length.

And so it remained, until about two years ago, when the main store closed, followed several months later by a struggling sandwich shop. Last winter, for the first time in some 250 years of settlement, Tylerton was bereft of its traditional gathering place.

It seemed the darkest possible omen, the last straw, following as it did a series of body blows to the community.

Oystering had all but dried up. State health laws threatened to shut down local crab pickers. Church and volunteer fire department had been impoverished by a local embezzlement scandal.

Population had fallen from 153 in 1980 to fewer than 90, and the state announced it was closing the town elementary school for lack of students as soon as the largest class -- five kids -- finished sixth grade in 1995.

So you get some idea of how good it seemed here last weekend to see the benches of the new Drum Point Market filled with men spinning yarns, while women bustled in and out with produce, and kids slurped ice cream cones in the hot July sun.

Waterman's son to rescue

Duke Marshall, the 28-year old proprietor, grew up the oldest son of one of the island's best watermen.

He never disliked "the water business," as they call it here, but he never felt the passion for it that he knew was needed to succeed. And he had options his father never did. Duke enrolled at Salisbury State University, graduating in 1988.

An incident the following summer demonstrated his dual citizenship. He was still good enough on the water to take a skiff down the creek and earn a day's pay netting peelers and soft crabs.

And when the Virginia marine police fined him $400 for crabbing across the state line, he marched into court with briefcase, suit and uncalloused hands -- persuading the judge that here was no waterman worthy of prosecution.

By 1991, Duke had embarked on a promising career as an insurance agent for Nationwide; but there weren't many times I saw him that he wasn't racking his brain for ways to help his hometown out of its tailspin. It was a world in which he knew he couldn't remain; yet it was his roots -- what sustained him.

And so it happened that one Sunday a few months ago, he stood up in Tylerton's church, which is where such things are announced, and vowed to bring back a store.

He said it would open for the town's Independence Day celebration, always held on the Saturday nearest the Fourth, since nobody takes off a weekday in crab season.

The front steps weren't nailed down until late Friday night. The shelves were propped on milk crates. The air conditioner wasn't installed, and the pool table and sandwich grill were still on the mainland.

Duke's mother, who will manage the store, and several women who will work there part time, were still applying finishing touches at 1 a.m. Saturday.

Financially, it was a stretch; and not a wise investment, as economists reckon things.

"If I don't lose money, I'll be content," Duke says. But there are other measures of return on capital; and sweating over the cash register and bagging produce last weekend, Duke Marshall looked like a million bucks.

That night, like a true entrepreneur, he said: "I believe Tylerton is beginning to look up."

Some good signs

At least there are reasons to hope:

Miss April, the teacher at the one-room school, is taking courses to qualify to run classes through eighth grade, retaining the schoolchildren for at least two more years. And there is talk of some newlyweds and a family with three children moving here -- big news in a place where two babies were born in this decade.

Thanks to people who believe in tithing, church coffers are full again; and the crab pickers are on the verge of getting grants for a picking house to satisfy state health laws.

Why, if he had the money, he'd start a bed and breakfast for tourists right now, Duke says.

It's only a matter of time till the rest of the world discovers what they've been missing.

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