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In bay town, the tide has turned

TYLERTON — TYLERTON - Thank goodness there were only four entries in the kids' Fourth of July best-decorated bike contest. We judges declared them winners all - Most Creative, Most Patriotic, Most Sparkly and Most Balloons.

The Fourth always happens on Saturday here in Tylerton, the most remote of three villages in the center of the Chesapeake Bay on Smith Island. Weekdays, there's no time for anything but the crabbing that underpins the island's economy.

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It had been a while since my last visit to the little community where my family lived for three years during the 1980s, but the islanders quickly put me to work getting festivities ready. That was always one of the charms of living in so small and isolated a place. You were needed in a way that you seldom are on the mainland.

About the time we moved in 1990, I wouldn't have bet on Tylerton being a viable community in the 21st century. For all its charm, the place was in an accelerating decline.

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The population of year-round residents had fallen from 153 in 1980 to about 100. Deaths were running 10 to 1 ahead of births, and state health enforcers were threatening to end the town's vital cottage industry - women picking crabmeat in their homes for sale.

The state said it would shut down Tylerton's one-room elementary school as soon as its largest class - five kids born after a freeze-up that kept oystermen home all winter - finished sixth grade.

The worst blow of all was the closing of the town's only store. In Tylerton, itself islanded by a mile of water from the rest of Smith Island, a store is much more than a place to shop.

It is the place to watch the rest of your very small world go by, a place to play dominoes, and argue and lie and tell stories. Only boarding up the Methodist Church could have rent the fabric of the village worse.

But this month, there was much to celebrate in Tylerton. "It'll never be like it was, but I believe we're on the way up," said Dwight "Duke" Marshall Jr.

Marshall, 35, is the oldest son of one of the island's best crabbers. He left for college and a mainland business career, but, like a lot of islanders, had mixed feelings about departing a place that needed desperately to retain people.

This month, he celebrated the seventh anniversary of the store he built to replace the one that had closed in Tylerton.

Called Drum Point Market, after Tylerton's old-time name, it features fresh produce and what I am praising as the world's best crab cake, prepared fresh each day by his mom.

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Five years ago, Marshall was instrumental in forming the Tylerton Community Council, the first local government, other than the Methodist Church, in the island's 250- year history.

The absence of government suited most islanders, but when the town began trying to persuade the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to spend nearly $2 million to build a bulkhead on Tylerton against erosion, "they told us we had to have some kind of organization to get the project," Marshall said.

The seawall is going up on schedule this summer. Residents say it's giving people all over town the confidence to renovate and upgrade their properties.

The town's population is hardly soaring, but with about 75 year-round residents, it seems to have stabilized, and the birthrate has edged upward.

The school has closed (kids take a boat to Ewell, another island town), but with computer training from the state, island women are turning the building into a data-processing co-op.

A women's crab-picking co-op, formed after the state ruled it illegal for the islanders to pick in their kitchens, is churning out several thousand pounds of high-quality meat each summer, and last year retired its mortgage.

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A Washington, D.C., couple moved to Tylerton and opened the town's first bed-and-breakfast, The Inn of Silent Music. Business, they say, is often almost more than they can handle.

The outside world has discovered Tylerton as an affordable summer home community. Twenty of the town's 60 houses are in outside hands.

"Fortunately, the bulk of them seem to participate and respect the kind of place this is," Marshall said. The welcome booklet published by the Community Council has this to say about drinking, which the church opposes:

"Tylerton is a dry community. Although alcohol consumption is a respected right of the individual, it is appreciated that consumption of alcoholic beverages should not be obvious to a neighbor passing."

Marshall said he spoke in the spring at a celebration of his sister's graduation from Crisfield High (a school boat runs students in grades seven to 12 to the mainland).

He talked about how Smith Island is becoming "a concept - you don't have to be born here any longer ... you just have to have that feeling of wanting mud between your toes."

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He sees the traditional waterman's role in Tylerton evolving "to doing more guiding, taking tourists mud-larking [exploring the marshes and beaches]."

His youngest brother, Jamie, whose first child was born in the winter, crabs from dawn until afternoon, then heads for a prison guard's job at Eastern Correctional Institute on the mainland. "It's long days, but Jamie's lived all over the world [as a member of the Marine Corps]," Marshall said, "and Tylerton's where he wants to be."


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