Port Tobacco teetered on overcrowding. The Census Bureau said the town's population was 36. But folks say the number is really lower because some of the Volman and Wade kids left for college since the 1990 census was taken.
"Nowhere near 36 people anymore, more like 28," says Kay Volman, owner of the town dog. Prissy is "the queen of Port Tobacco," a good ol' Lab, a born chewer and retriever and welcome anywhere. Two cats, her only potential competition, are now deceased.
An inventory of Port Tobacco finds eight houses, owned by a retired chemical engineer, a lawyer, an owner of a rare book store, and others in the tobacco and education fields. There's a Board of Commissioners, and town treasurer Jerry Volman mails the tax bills so the town can cover its major expenses: street lighting and mosquito control. Four street lights, many more mosquitoes. One landowner receives a bill for 16 cents; it costs twice as much to mail it to him.
There is no Main Street or white picket fences. The town finally got cable -- "by the grace of God," Mrs. Volman says. No water or sewer utilities here, though. Or crime, knock wood.
And every year, a high school girl from the area is picked to be Queen Nicotina for the fair. This is tobacco country, after all. Was tobacco country. The town is short on is.
Port Tobacco, Maryland's smallest incorporated town, is a 60-acre museum piece. In the smallest of towns, everyone is a historian. Visitors follow their Triple A maps here and stop to listen to the stories about Capt. John Smith looking out and John Wilkes Booth hiding out. The residents are die-hard tour guides trying to keep the town alive.
But it's tiring work.
"I try to do what I can," says Robert Barbour, 84.
Port Tobacco is three miles from La Plata in Charles County, down and off Washington's right hip. Take the sly left at the Port Tobacco post office ("Serving The Community Since 1792"), past the shuttered, one-room Port Tobacco School (established 1878) and its outhouse (Buoys and Gulls), and just past a tobacco barn strung with leaf carcasses. Footsteps away is loud-mouthed Port Tobacco.
Minnows are flipping out of the muddy waters of Port Tobacco River. Crickets trill in the marshes, and some country man's wind chime won't shut up. One more sound: four radials digging gravel. This man, Dennis Kitchen, drove by here last year and took almost everybody's picture for his book about the smallest towns in America. And in Maryland, Port Tobacco wins by edging Eagle Harbor (pop. 38) in Prince George's County.
Garrison Keillor wrote about small towns in the introduction to Mr. Kitchen's book, "Big Falls, Blue Eye, Bonanza & Beyond": "It may be a one-dog town, and the dog is thinking about leaving, because it is too slow for him there." For a fact, Prissy isn't thinking about leaving Port Tobacco.
"Those who live here seem to like it," Mr. Barbour says.
The land beckons
In the smallest towns, you first meet the land: shade trees, tobacco fields, one stagnant pond, pillowy hills, stockpiles of beaver dams, dry sod and wet marsh. The air smells of crops and grass and the acrid punch from a dead skunk.
In the smallest towns, you meet signs before people: "Port Tobacco Indian Village of Potobac Visited in 1608 by Capt. John Smith. County Seat 1658-1895" is posted on the "outskirts" of town. Inside the courthouse, there's a portrait of John Hanson, "First Elected President of the U.S. in Congress Assembled. 1781-1782."
If they had the money, the town folks would pay somebody to dredge the pond behind the courthouse. They believe John Hanson, a Charles County native son, might be buried underneath the fat cattails.
In the smallest towns, you meet the dead before the living: In Port Tobacco's shoe-box cemetery, graying headstones say William Croft and his wife, Fannie, are buried here. Co-founders of the Port Tobacco Baptist Church. The Twifords are also here, including "Our beloved baby Rena B. Died March 25, 1896. Aged 11 months." Their son, Cleveland, died in 1906. He was 14. Thomas and Lorena Twiford buried two young children within 10 years. The fact remains freshly grave.
The Twifords' grandchildren, Robert Barbour and brother James, live next door. Robert is the official town historian. He and his wife, Dorothy, open the courthouse and gift shop on weekends for tourists.
"One day we'd like to see the town restored like Williamsburg," Mrs. Barbour says. "But it won't happen in my day or yours -- surely not in my day."
Mrs. Barbour, 79, lived in New York and San Francisco before settling in the 200-year-old Stag House, which has been in the Barbour family for half that time. In Port Tobacco, calling anything old is redundant. The entire town is registered as a national historic district.
The Society for the Restoration of Port Tobacco is the town's most prominent group and enjoys a thorough lack of competition. Society membership is $15, and they need bodies. Out-of-towners are welcome -- my, yes. "The local people don't ++ know what they have to take an interest in," Mrs. Barbour says.
She knows the local stories by heart: Capt. John Smith admiring and recording the view of the New World from the spot where only a few decades later, in 1662, the Jesuits built St. Ignatius Catholic Church. John Wilkes Booth hid here until he bought a $18 skiff to flee for Virginia after his dastardly deed. "Oh my, yes," Mrs. Barbour says. "By the way the crow flies, it was about two miles from here where he was."
And Grandpa Twiford was the town's colorful character, Mrs. Barbour says.
"He never used a horse," she explains. "He always pulled his buggy with a steer, for some reason." The town seems too small to have current characters or to muster current gossip. The latest local news reports that a beaver was in Mrs. Volman's back yard last night. The last scandal was nearly a century ago, the torching of the town courthouse.
Mr. Barbour unlocks the replica of the courthouse that "mysteriously caught on fire" in 1892.
A gang of men burned it down so the Charles County seat could be moved from Port Tobacco to La Plata. The railroad had bypassed Port Tobacco for La Plata, and it seemed to some to be common sense to have the county seat there. Plus, the Christ Church had left Port Tobacco for La Plata.
"This town pretty much died after that," says John Major, the postmaster in Port Tobacco.
The lowlands around Port Tobacco were cleared for farming, causing the soil runoff to clog and close the Port Tobacco River -- once a thriving port on what was once called the Tobacco Coast.
No port, no church, no courthouse, no breaks. A pattern of departure and decay. Port Tobacco was left in the dust. And it was left to people such as Mr. Barbour, who rarely dabbles in the present when tour guiding. But he makes an exception.
"We're getting a new post office, you heard," Mr. Barbour says.
It's not a question. Everyone knows they're finally going to build a new post office for Port Tobacco (ZIP code: 20677). The old post office fronts Dexter's BBQ Pit ("Now Open!") and features the latest in Civil War stamps. Some people say they need a new post office, others say they don't. It's not a matter you vote on.
Sad news is those 95 rare combination-lock post office boxes will be retired. The Postal Service says people could break the boxes' little windows and swipe someone's mail. Like most everything else in Port Tobacco, the boxes will become museum pieces.
Even in Port Tobacco, people lock their doors at night. Crime is sometimes referred to as "it." Dorothy Barbour says we hope it won't reach us, but of course it's in Waldorf and it's coming to La Plata, she reads. We could go six months and not hear about it, but you saw the paper, Kay Volman adds. The Maryland Independent lead story on Wednesday, Sept. 6 was about a Waldorf man accused of hiring someone on the Internet to kill his wife.
"We can see," says Mrs. Volman, "we're being invaded by the real world."
La Plata is five minutes away with its Fair Lanes bowling alley, McDonald's, palm reader and Moose Lodge. The Volmans eat out on Cobb Island, which has a restaurant known for its fried oysters. And Norfolk, Richmond and Washington aren't far away. But home is Port Tobacco.
Mrs. Volman, a Charles County native, has lived in Port Tobacco for 20 years with her husband, Jerry, and their five children. They always wanted to live in an old home, and they got one -- the Chimney House (1750) is so-called for its rare, double-wide chimneys with built-in windows.
"It's always felt like home to me," she says. "It's the people. We're still so country." They have an instinct for helping neighbors when there's a death or illness in the family: "When in doubt, you make a poundcake and go."
Her range of memories here include her now-grown kids playing hockey on the frozen pond, all those school science projects staged at the pond, and horseback riding through the marshes. "Water has been the doing and undoing of Port Tobacco," she says. The water table is so high that it's hard to build new homes or new anything. The prospects for expansion are slim.
"You ever seen 'The Money Pit'? You're sitting in it," Mrs. Volman says. They are putting in a new septic tank. "We thought of moving, but our kids are going into cardiac arrest." Her husband has talked about converting the old place into a bed and breakfast. "But I know who will be making the beds and fixing the breakfasts," she says.
They stay on, hardly believing that Port Tobacco will ever become another Williamsburg, but knowing the town will somehow keep on.
"I don't know what's going to happen when Robert is gone, though." Robert Barbour, the town's historian, is also its oldest resident.
From her yard, Mrs. Volman will continue to steer visitors up Chapel Point Road to St. Ignatius Church, quietly and forever overlooking the Port Tobacco River and all this good earth.
John Smith was quite right. It's a great view of the New World.