Tall Timbers lies in one of the most out-of-the-way corners of Maryland: at the base of a squiggly little St. Mary's County peninsula that juts out into the wide waters near where the Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay.
This drowsy riverside settlement's rustic place name evokes times past, just as its rugged landscape suggests a backwater hamlet largely untouched by the progress of the late 20th century. Narrow country roads snake lazily through the thick loblolly pine forests along the river, which is so wide you can't see across it on a hazy summer day.
And it's precisely this placid out-of-the-wayness that makes the citizens of Tall Timbers love their obscure backwoods community so much. They realize that growth may well come, as it has to other nearby sections of St. Mary's County; but for now they like the fact that the rest of the world tends to overlook them.
"We go to Baltimore on business a lot, and believe me, this is a different world," says Jack Hormell, a transplanted Pennsylvanian who, along with his wife, Karen, runs Potomac View Farm Bed & Breakfast, a stately 1910 manor house with a pleasant vista of the river and deer running across the front fields at dusk.
You come down here, turn off your car, and you're in a different world. Sitting on a front porch, it's even easy to imagine somebody riding on horseback down the driveway, coming home from the Civil War.
For all the town's seeming uneventfulness, a lot of significant Maryland history has unfolded around Tall Timbers. Just a few miles up the Potomac, at St. Clements Island, is where the state's first settlers landed in 1634. A couple miles down the road, at Piney Point, an American Revolutionary force repulsed an armada of 72 British ships in a 1776 naval battle.
In the 1800s, the area was an easy steamboat jaunt from the U.S. capital. For decades it was a popular resort sometimes called the Playground of Presidents, because it hosted everyone from James Madison to Teddy Roosevelt.
Tall Timbers also has a colorful, and at times dark, past. Up until the mid-1800s, its wild and woolly shoreline expanse was known as Tarletons Thicket. It was a haven for beaver hunters, tobacco farmers and oystermen, but it also sheltered Civil War blockade runners and other fugitives from refined civilization. "It was a pretty lawless place back in the old days," says Rick Meatyard, 45, owner of the Tall Timbers Marina and grandson of Archie Meatyard, one of Tall Timbers' founding fathers.
Because the fishing was -- and still is -- abundant, Tall Timbers was also the scene of some of the Chesapeake's bloodiest Oyster Wars, as locals exchanged bullets with Virginia watermen in the late 19th century in a struggle for possession of the fecund offshore oyster beds.
Later, during Prohibition, bootleg alcohol, created in stills deep in the pine thickets, became a mainstay of the local economy. Even today, you have a few jars of "shine show up around Christmas time," says Mr. Meatyard, laughing.
Tall Timbers officially came into being in the early '20s when Henry Juenemann, an avid fisherman who'd prospered in the ice and coal business in Washington, D.C., and his partner, Rick Meatyard's grandfather, paid a few thousand dollars for a huge tract of riverside real estate, which included the land on which the Tall Timbers Marina now stands.
Rick Meatyard explains with a chuckle how, in the 1930s, his grandfather and Juenemann came up with a scheme to stir up tourist interest in their new riverside vacation spot: They imported some alligators from Silver Springs, Fla. "By the time those gators got up here, they were pretty hungry and pretty upset," Mr. Meatyard says. "They tried to haul 'em down here from the train station in trucks, and it was a fiasco! Most of 'em didn't live very long, but there were tales around here as recently as the '50s of people seeing alligators -- though I don't know how true it is.
"Of course, this whole county was also a mecca for slot machines up until the early '60s, too," he adds. "Penny machines to dollar machines. If you were old enough to reach 'em, you were old enough to play 'em!"
In the mid-1920s, when Juenemann and Archie Meatyard began selling waterside lots for less than $100, many of their Washington neighbors followed them down the river and built summer cottages.
"Growing up, I never missed a summer here," says Norma Copado, 67. Born in Washington, D.C., Ms. Copado has for years resided with her mother, a 97-year-old native of nearby St. George Island. Ms. Copado is a former postmistress in Tall Timbers and has also been a clerk in Sheaffer's market in the town since the 1950s.
"Tall Timbers really hasn't changed much over the years, except the houses are nicer and a lot of the people who used to spend the summers here are now retired and live here full-time," says Ms. Copado, an amiable woman who spends as much time chatting with her neighbors as she does selling fishing gear, groceries, liquor and lottery tickets. "This is just a real friendly place. I know everybody who comes in here. I can spot a stranger right off."
Not surprisingly, the majority of Tall Timbers' approximately 500 residents are, like Ms. Copado, second- or third-generation descendants of those Washingtonians who bought into Juenemann and Meatyard's vision of a beachside utopia nearly eight decades ago. Residents who aren't retired often find employment at the nearby Patuxent naval base or in the construction trade.
"It's like a big family here," says Susie Brown, 38, who also works as a clerk at Sheaffer's and moonlights at the Oakwood Lounge, a nearby seafood restaurant housed in an elegant 1930s fishing lodge. Ms. Brown, after spending a number of years in New Orleans, has resettled near Tall Timbers in a house her grandparents once owned.
Last winter it was so cold the river froze almost clear across to Virginia and the electricity was out for five days in Tall Timbers, she recalls. "We kept the store open anyway, and everybody came in and asked, 'What do you need? What do you need?' Everybody shared everything; they couldn't help each other out enough. You sure don't get that everywhere."
Rick Meatyard is the closest thing Tall Timbers has to a business magnate and unofficial historian. (He still has boxing gloves, an old canoe and other relics from the boys' summer camp his grandfather and father operated in the '30s near the site of his marina.) A Silver Spring native, Mr. Meatyard settled permanently as Tall Timbers in the early '70s, after graduating from the University of Florida. Dropping plans for a law degree, he eked out a living as a carpenter and oysterman before taking over the marina and dabbling in local real estate.
"This is a great place to raise kids, a place where the kids and the dogs can run free," he says, smiling. "Though economically, life can sometimes be a struggle here, I think I speak for most of the people in Tall Timbers when I say I'd rather be doing nothing here than anything somewhere else."
'Over There by the Tall Timbers'
Local legend has it that Tall Timbers got its name back in 1917 when Washington businessman Henry Juenemann was visiting the area and staying at the resort hotel at Piney Point.
Pointing out a piece of land along the nearby shoreline that he was interested in buying, Juenemann was said to have exclaimed with a wave of his hand, "Over there by the tall timbers."
Juenemann and his partner, Archie Meatyard, eventually founded the town. The name Tall Timbers first appears on land plats documenting their initial land purchases in 1922. Two years later, when they ran full-page advertisements in the Baltimore and Washington newspapers for their new resort, they touted it as "a riverside paradise with, salt air, pine breezes, plenty of shade. . . . Fish, crabs, and oysters plentiful."
They tossed around various names, such as Tall Pines on the Potomac, says Archie Meatyard's grandson Rick. "But they always came back to Tall Timbers."