The Rise and Fall of Delmarva, the 51st State

CRAPO — Earlier this month, two Republican senators, frustrated by government regulation and big-city "bullies," introduced in the General Assembly a bill to let the Eastern Shore hold a straw ballot on secession. The bill is slated for a hearing March 5 in the Economic and Environmental Matters committee. Secession has been proposed off and on since the 1830s and never gets very far. But what if this time ... (A satire)

CRAPO, June 24, 1999 -- There's not much left of Delmarva, the Union's improbable 51st state, created back in 1998. Not long after a band of Eastern Shore partisans broke away from the Maryland main to set up their own political entity, Delmarva is little more than a tiny plot of African violets withering from a diet of brackish swamp water and chicken droppings.


Talk of secession is nothing new in the history of the United States. After all, the South tried it once. But Delmarva was the first state founded on the principle that no government can tell an individual what to do with his or her chicken manure.

The rogue state's Founding Fathers -- they called themselves "seshers" -- had envisioned a unified peninsula comprising the nine counties of Maryland's Eastern Shore, the two counties of Virginia's Eastern Shore and the whole of Delaware.


The common enemy was government meddling. But if distrust of government was the magnet that drew the seshers together, it was also the powder that eventually blew them apart.

Leaders from the Eastern Shore of Maryland had long harbored grudges against the rest of the state. Sesh talk cropped up now and then, usually during an election year when a Shore legislator wanted free publicity.

Few on either side of the Chesapeake Bay ever took the threats seriously, even in 1933 when Gov. Albert C. Ritchie ordered Maryland National Guardsmen onto the Shore to arrest the ringleaders of a lynch mob.

Howling over the invasion by Ritchie and his bullies, Shore folks proposed that they secede. But that year there was a bumper harvest of muskrats and catfish, and they quickly forgot the issue.

Then two Eastern Shore legislators, Republican Sens. Richard F. Colburn and J. Lowell Stoltzfus, reintroduced the subject during the 1998 General Assembly when Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposed mandatory manure controls to combat toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks in the Shore's tidal waters.

To humor the two senators, lawmakers passed a bill that let Shore residents decide whether they wanted to secede. To the astonishment of the rest of Maryland, Shore voters embraced the idea.

Delegates in the provisional capital of Salisbury set about

organizing the new state. Property rights became the lynchpin of the new constitution. Zoning restrictions were outlawed. Land taxes were rolled back completely. Off-track betting was named the official state sport and slot machines were made legal in any public place. Most gun laws were abandoned and hunting seasons were expanded on all migratory waterfowl.


The common chicken was given uncommon status as the state bird. Indeed, the new state even resembled a chicken with its head (the Virginia counties) pecking the ground while a brisk westerly breeze ruffled its stern feathers.

Splitsville, Delmarva

The first sign of disharmony came from Delaware. First Staters had cautiously gone along with the scheme to join a new state. Yet when faced with the prospects of having to adopt a sales tax like Maryland's and to repair its roads, they pulled out.

Cecil County provided the next blow. Bonded closely to Delaware through family and job ties and not very fond of chickens, Cecil County dropped out of the new state as well as Maryland and joined Delaware.

Only mildly perturbed by the departure of Cecil County, the remaining seshers continued fashioning their new state. Colburn, who was never able to get his veggie libel bill through the Maryland legislature, had better luck with the Delmarvans.

Colburn's move to ban all criticism of perishable agricultural products was so popular that the measure was broadened to include any product made or grown in Delmarva -- including scrapple.


Ocean City posed the next problem. The resort town relies upon Maryland for beach replenishment funding and had no intention of giving up its sand dollars.

Ocean City and Worcester County opted to stay part of Maryland, almost derailing the most surprising political development of Delmarva's early days -- the appointment of William Donald Schaefer as governor.

Anticipating Ocean City's refusal to join Delmarva, the former Maryland governor swapped his resort property for a plot of soggy soil and a mobile home in the remote Dorchester County hamlet of Crapo. As a land owner in the new state, he was qualified to be its first head. The land, Schaefer thought, was perfect for growing African violets, his favorite flower.

Sesh leader Stoltzfus had been a contender for governor, but he lost all political footing when Somerset County, his home base and the most independent of all the Eastern Shore counties, decided it did not want to be part of any state. Seshers backed Schaefer as governor when it became clear that no native son had the support of the entire region.

In a remarkable public relations coup, animus against Schaefer for once comparing the Eastern Shore to an outhouse all but evaporated when he explained that he had intended the remark as a compliment. Schaefer said the Western Shore media had deliberately distorted his comments and, with manure now held in high esteem on the Shore, Schaefer was forgiven.

Sesh leaders chose to punish Ocean City by declaring Route 50 a toll road. If vacationers from the Western Shore wanted to relax on the resort's beaches, they'd have to pay to get there. Toll booths were erected every 20 miles and drivers were required to pay at each stop and eat at a nearby chicken barbecue stand.


But the toll road had consequences that further eroded the new state. Summer weekend traffic veered off the toll highway and clogged the roads in Caroline County.

Fed up with the new government's manner of making decisions, Caroline seceded for a second time, choosing to join Delaware.

Queen Anne's County was the next to part. Most of its people were transplants who commuted to the Western Shore for jobs. They never considered themselves to be true Shoremen and had only half-heartedly joined the sesh movement.

Sheepishly, they rejoined Maryland without bothering to inform the few Delmarva officials still meeting in Salisbury.

The 51st state was in disarray. Not only did it no longer resemble a chicken, it had the appearance of an unidentifiable roadkill. Cut off from the rest of the new state and eager to regain its status as part of Maryland, Kent County was allowed to return to the fold by agreeing to accept dredged bay spoils for the next decade.

Tony Talbot County soon followed, bending to the will of its property owners who felt uneasy about an allegiance to a new state that existed mainly south of the Choptank River.


Two concurrent events brought about the complete collapse of Delmarva. Virginia's Eastern Shore returned to the commonwealth after officials in Richmond threatened to withhold funding for the second Chesapeake Bay bridge and tunnel, a construction project that, it was predicted, would send real estate values skyrocketing.

Wicomico County, controlled by its Salisbury business leaders, booted the sesh delegates out of their capital and, enticed by the sales tax-free status of Delaware, became the southernmost county in the First State.

All that remained was Dorchester County, the home of sesh renegade Colburn. With developers threatening to abandon their projects in and around Cambridge because of political instability, Dorchester meekly returned itself to Maryland.

Lowering the flag

What's left of Delmarva is a tiny plot and a trailer. Legislators in Annapolis insisted that the land retain its ignominious status as the 51st state and that it be designated a landfill for surplus chicken manure.

Schaefer is rumored to be eyeing real estate in Cumberland. Colburn ducked out of public view, although some folks insist they saw him tacking up campaign signs for a Maryland Senate candidate named Jefferson Davis.



Governor: William Donald Schaefer

Capital: Salisbury

State bird: Chicken

State flower: Dandelion

Tree: Loblolly pine


Flag: Yellow outhouse on green palmetto background

Sport: Offtrack betting

Motto: "Fissi retro vorous frommage Pfiesteria" ("I remember the day I was born -- we had cheese for breakfast.")

State holiday: Nov. 28, commemorationg the 1933 "Battle of Salisbury," which pitted hundreds of Eastern Shore residents against an armed Maryland National Guard, who were attempting to remove four alleged lynch-mob leaders from the Salisbury armory to Baltimore for trial. -- William L. Thompson

Pub Date: 2/25/98