Small community to get indoor plumbing at last


Rever Sellman just wants to flush a toilet, or boil a pot of water, without having to go outside into the sweltering heat or freezing cold.

For nearly 50 years, whenever she has wanted to brush her teeth or wash the dishes, she has had to fetch water from an outdoor spigot four doors away.

"I have common sense enough to know that not everybody in life is going to have the same things," said Mrs. Sellman, who lives in a small West River enclave that time -- and modern convenience -- forgot. "But there are some things in life that all of us can have some of."

Mrs. Sellman's family is one of 16 along West Benning Road in Galesville that have never had running water.

That should soon change. A nonprofit developer bought the properties -- mostly two-bedroom, cinder-block duplexes and detached homes -- from Woodfield Fish & Oyster Co. late last year.

The developer, Anne Arundel Community Development Services Inc., has $1.2 million in federal and state money to replace roofs, install central heating and, perhaps most important to the residents, add bathrooms and modernized kitchens.

Two weeks ago, the developer won a property tax break from the County Council that officers of the developer said will allow them to continue renting the renovated homes to the tenants.

"Right now, we're just asking for basic needs -- not so much wants, but basic needs," said Mrs. Sellman, who has lived on West Benning Road since 1946.

For years, no one in Galesville -- even at its peak as a commercial center, even when it had three oyster packing plants, a canning factory and its own bank -- had a sink or a bath.

That changed for much of the watermen's community after World War II, said Jean Trott, a lifelong Galesville resident. But not for Mrs. Sellman and her neighbors on West Benning Road.

They are among the 13,000 Marylanders, including more than 1,000 in Anne Arundel County, who lack running water and other modern conveniences, according to the 1990 U.S. Census.

"These poor people are stuck with what they had," said Mrs. Trott, president of the West River Improvement Association, which testified before the council in support of the property tax breaks.

"They are still living in the '40s, and they want to be brought into the '90s."

Woodfield Fish & Oyster Co. built a small cluster of 700-square-foot, cinder-block homes on West Benning Road for its black employees -- mostly oyster shuckers -- during the 1950s. The sturdy structures, which have electricity and oil-fired space heaters, replaced the one- and two-room wooden shacks the company erected for itinerant workers when it opened in 1917.

Albert Foote, 67, said he started shucking oysters at Woodfield after school when he was 13. He retired three years ago when Woodfield closed that part of its operation.

Both of his parents worked there before him.

"That's how I learned how to shuck," recalled Mr. Foote, who likes to spend afternoons on a picnic bench under a shade tree his father planted outside their duplex. A lifelong resident of Galesville, Mr. Foote said his family moved to West Benning Road in 1953.

That is a long spell to go without modern conveniences, he said.

"I'm tired of living in something like this, but what else you going to do? I've been down here for 67 years. No use leaving now."

His daughter, Betty Anne, agreed: "A lot of people died waiting to see this, Dad. At least you seen it."

Mrs. Sellman, who cleaned and packed fish into 5- and 10-pound boxes for Woodfield when she was younger, moved into a Woodfield house next door to her parents when she was 24. Now nearly 60, she has never left West Benning Road.

Her grandmother used to have a large home around the corner, " and she learned to read in the two-room schoolhouse down the street that now serves as a recreation center. An older sister lives on each side of her.

"I want to stay where my family always was," Mrs. Sellman said.

For a long time, she said, she and her neighbors feared they would have to leave.

The Woodfield family, owners of the company, came under pressure to make the homes more livable 10 years ago. But there was little it could do. The ground would not pass the percolation tests needed to install a septic system, and the community did not have public sewer service.

Now that sewer service has arrived in Galesville, William J. Woodfield Jr. said, the family cannot afford to upgrade the homes.

"If it weren't for [the developer], I'm afraid we would have had to displace the people up there," said Mr. Woodfield, whose business stopped shucking oysters three years ago. "They were a godsend. We didn't want to destroy a community [full of] people we've known, I've known for my whole life."

A half-dozen West Benning Road residents still work in Woodfield's seafood market and ice plant, he said.

County Council members initially expressed skepticism about the cost and wisdom of renovating low-income rental housing along the waterfront, but they finally decided the neighborhood should be preserved.

Kathleen M. Koch, executive director of Anne Arundel Community Development Services, said it is important to protect "established communities where there is a sense of place and commitment. . . . There is more to providing affordable housing than just finding the cheapest location."

The tenants, who pay about $20 a week rent, will pay more when the renovations are complete. Each household will be asked to spend about 30 percent of its income on rent, Ms. Koch said. Most of West Benning Road's residents earn less than $22,500 annually, she said.

West Benning Road also has value as an example of black culture on the Chesapeake Bay over the past 80 years, Ms. Koch said. The three remaining wood-frame houses have been placed on the Maryland Historical Trust's official inventory of historic places.

"Up and down the Chesapeake Bay, [fish-packing plants] hired black people to shuck oysters, and they gave them these shacks to live in," Ms. Koch said. "What you have is a whole history of the minority community on the bay within West Benning Road."

Whatever the reason, Mrs. Sellman said, "I'm sure glad [the developer] looked this way. I'm looking forward to the dream."

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