A voyage down the Southern Maryland shoreline tells the whole story.
One spot is so small and remote, its downtown is a blur to passing travelers. Ice. Bait. Chum. Fuel. Gone in a drive-by second.
A few miles away, an old shore town is remade. Builders rip up abandoned fishing shanties. Commuters roar down newly paved roads. Jet skiers rumble on the waterways. The past is only a name on a tombstone. The rest is just a memory.
As Calvert, St. Mary's and Charles counties undergo one of the biggest population explosions in the nation, towns on the shore are bracing for change. Side by side, they sit on the coast -- snapshots of the past, the present and the future.
Old seaside villages fill with anxiety as fishing catches dwindle, watermen die out and the next generation goes into the drywall business.
New shoreline hot spots profit off nightclubs and trendy boutiques while saving just enough old oyster houses to still look good on postcards.
Day after day, coastal hideaways grow more popular because they are so remote, and less remote because they are so popular. Watermen open gift shops, folks line up for cruises to nowhere, tourists buy Hearty Fishermen -- breakfast specials, not people -- and a new shore emerges.
Solomons Island: the future
It's a rain-swept Saturday night at the Tiki Bar, and Jennifer Payne is getting splattered. Not with rain, but with a mai tai.
"It's like Hawaiian punch, only really, REALLY strong," says the bartender, who is pouring drinks under the thatched roof at the roaring Solomons Island bar.
The singles scene at the Tiki Bar could be anywhere. A man in a Defense Intelligence Agency sweat shirt tells several women they're the only one for him. A few beefy guys stand by palm fronds and check out anyone in a midi top. A blonde in a leather jacket describes a disastrous date who told her not to bleed in his car. A guy named Chip says he's definitely psyched.
This waterfront community at the southern tip of Calvert County offers one glimpse of Southern Maryland's future. It is as different as can be from the fishing mecca established by the old-time families -- the Elliotts, the Garners, the Doves. Those folks filled the community with oyster shucking sheds, boatyards and fishing shanties.
Now tourism means everything on Solomons Island. The commercial district is one of the hottest miles in Southern Maryland, with at least 50,000 tourists visiting the narrow downtown strip each year. The county has created a waterfront park, and it is building a new riverwalk and planning a beautified island entrance.
There are 10 gift shops, four antique stores, five bed-and-breakfasts, 16 restaurants, six fishing boat businesses and two otters on display at the Calvert Marine Museum (Bubbles and Squeak: They like crowds).
The family that used to manage an oyster house now runs two gift shops. Tourists can try on watermen's clothes at the museum and pretend they are fishermen. Sea captains give group tours and lead charter expeditions.
On the stormy Saturday night, the island was host to hundreds of people -- from three wedding parties to a fleet of senior prom-goers. Pleasure boaters pulled in for a night, joining the more than 1,100 people who reside there.
"Solomons is really the flagship of the county as far as our tourism development goes," said Solomons tourism specialist Herman E. Schieke Jr. "It's just so much fun."
Most locals attribute Solomons' commercial health to the Johnson Bridge, connecting Calvert to St. Mary's, and the installation of sewer lines in the late 1980s. Now, transplanted Washington and Baltimore commuters move in greater numbers each year, looking for a summer hideaway or a year-round home near their sailboats and cabin cruisers.
The growth has obliterated much of Solomons' past. Entire streets filled with Victorian houses were destroyed for new businesses -- recently one was razed for a parking lot. The houses that still stand are private and gated -- they didn't used to be -- so neighborhood folks cannot cut through to the water.
But even the longtime residents are reluctant to condemn the change.
"I think the good old days are nice to read about," says Gladys Bowers, a native who lived through the Depression. "Anybody who has lived on Solomons and lived through the hard times will say, 'Forget about the good old days. I'll take now.' "
Broomes Island: the past
Broomes Island, population 275, is the place that stayed behind.
Broomes used to be considered something of a Solomons Island twin. The two remote spots shared families and fishing traditions, separated only by a short stretch along the Patuxent River. But the two don't even seem part of the same stratosphere anymore.
Derek Wentz can draw a map of Broomes Island in half a minute, in between sales of chum and clamsnout. He can do it on a piece of paper no bigger than a receipt for chicken neck or jumbo worms.
"Just five roads, that's it," he says, ballpoint between his thick fingers, tracing the street map effortlessly on the Formica counter at Bernie's bait shop. "That's the island, right there."
It actually isn't an island at all, but a long neck of land that juts into the Patuxent River on the lower half of Calvert County. Here, developers have added a handful of houses, but most of the land remains untouched by newcomers. Generations of families live side by side in modest houses, and gangs of childhood friends grow into adulthood together.
"My grandmother lives across the street from my parents, I live behind my grandmother and my brothers live behind me. My one brother, who was killed, is in the cemetery," says Lori Denton, 34. One day, she says, she will be there, too.
The fishing culture runs deep here and for years has guarded the island from change. Denton's son, Christopher, is only 8 but already knows how to hook a slippery eel on a trotline. Her grandfather still holds the local record for most hardheads caught in a haul. She herself jokes that she was born with webbed feet.
Like everywhere else along the coast, there are signs of strain. Not long ago, watermen could go out for a morning and fill a washtub full of hardhead, bluefish, rockfish, trout, flounder, spot and white perch, catching them two at a time, almost as fast as they could put their lines out. Now they wish for just one of those days a season.
Hezekiah C. Elliott Jr., also known as Duck or Poopy (but never both together), is one of Broomes Island's oldest and only watermen. But he doesn't go for long fishing trips anymore. Maybe it's his 68 years, most of which he spent on the water. Or maybe the dwindling catches. Whatever the reason, he has taken to watching nature shows on television instead. On most nights, it's not the sound of shucking that floats from his windows, but the roar of tigers, bobcats or whatever else happens to be on.
When new folks move in, he doesn't invite them over to watch.
"I call them outsiders," Elliott says, as he squints and sucks on a Marlboro, his legs spread slightly to make room for a belly so big and round it looks like he swallowed a buoy. Usually, he deals with his new neighbors only when he takes his skiff out, and he says they just don't seem to understand what a fishing village is all about.
"They're always hollering at you -- if I paddle my boat around their piers they say, 'You can't take those. Those are my crabs.' I say, 'They don't belong to you. As long as I see 'em, I can catch 'em.' "
The island cuts itself off from the outside world. A county worker wanted to inspect the shoreline of one Broomes Islander but left quickly when the owner came out of his house with a gun. Someone even shot a dog for trespassing. It still limps around town with a reconstructed leg.
Donnie Rogers, 53, a Broomes Island native and the wealthiest landowner on the island, says Broomes could be a tourism hub if it wanted. The community just has to make visitors feel more welcome.
"I guess it's a tough choice to make," he says. "I want the money. But I don't want all the people."
St. George: middle ground
Between the extremes of Broomes and Solomons are places like St. George Island, an uneasy middle ground where old-timers and newcomers live in the same town as strangers.
Only here can people such as Ronnie Evans feel like outsiders. When he was young, Evans could shuck a dozen oysters in 55 seconds and everybody knew it. He was the three-time national oyster shucking champion. Now he can go a whole night without getting recognized by the crowd in his St. George Island restaurant.
"It's a lot of strange people around here," he sighs as his staff slings the seafood on a busy Friday night. "Sometimes I look around here and I don't recognize a soul."
St. George Island, at the bottom of St. Mary's County, is about as far from Washington and Baltimore as Southern Maryland gets. The thinking used to be: If the world ended today, the folks at St. George Island would hear about it 12 days from now. That's not quite the case anymore.
Until recently, much of the island's land stood vacant, unable to handle a house and a family -- the lots were too small and swampy for a backyard septic system. But when the county installed sewer lines a few years ago, the previously unbuildable lots were open for development.
New residents have begun constructing homes on small corners of land and tearing down old summer vacation cottages to build stately Victorians in their place. A recent Friday night dinner crowd at Evans seafood house is filled with professionals from out of town who like the idea of disappearing for a few days in a seaside village. Some are even considering moving here -- now that they don't have to worry about the lack of sewers.
"We got a lotta new houses coming in here. Big ones," says Evans, 52. He has a name for the residents who live in them: money people.
But unlike Solomons Island, St. George Island still seems off-limits to condominium communities and theme bars. The narrow streets on this tiny island are largely deserted, splashed by seawater and shaded by loblolly pines.
St. Georges is attractive because it is so remote. But some fear the islanders are sacrificing their community to the visitors who find it so quaint.
Captain Jack Russell runs two-hour boat trips down the St. Mary's River with all-you-can-eat steamed crab feasts. But the longtime resident rails against the very development that brings him tourists. He fears that if tourism profits grow, his neighbors would be too tempted to sell the island away.
Sometimes, he thinks, they already have.
"It will never be the same," he says. "Our remoteness is gone forever."
Pub Date: 7/23/96