Bishopville resident John Hastings describes the Worcester County town where he has lived for 25 years as the hamlet he never wants to leave.
Hastings likes it that his home sits on 5 acres along the rural Hammond Road - a road named after his neighbor's early farming family. He also is excited to talk about the new, 1,000-acre Lighthouse Sound golf course development, lined by million-dollar homes, on the southern tip of the Bishopville area closest to Route 90 as it heads into Ocean City. The Fenwick, Del., retailer enjoys the area's tranquillity while welcoming the new development and the future customers it will bring.
Sandy Coyman, Worcester County's director of comprehensive planning, describes Bishopville as a rural community with an undefined boundary and a population "of several hundred."
"We don't keep census on that area," Coyman said. "Why don't you just count the houses and multiply by 2.5."
This sprinkling of new homes and old farmhouses among acres of corn, soybeans, chicken houses, woods and wetlands is a 15-minute ride from Hastings' clothing business on Route 1 in Fenwick. It sits next to the Delaware border and stretches about 50 square miles between the shores of the Assawoman Bay and Routes 90, 54 and 113.
Somehow Bishopville has managed to avoid the sidewalks and sewers eating away at its edges - if you don't count the upscale Lighthouse Sound development.
Many people who live in Bishopville say they like it the way it is, whether they have been there for generations, arrived with a wave of newcomers during the 1980s, or have only recently discovered its natural beauty and peacefulness.
"Everyone is friendly once you get to know them," said Hastings, who buys his vegetables from a local farmer and his steamed crabs at Hemphill's Dock. "You've got to know where to go, though. Everything here is by word of mouth."
The county has not targeted the area for urban development in its new comprehensive plan, Coyman said. Instead, Bishopville has been officially defined as an agricultural area.
Coyman said Bishopville's roots date to the days when settlers brought the sailing ships up the St. Martins River to harvest the baldcypress trees for shingles, just as was done on the Pocomoke River. Signs of those days remain. One of the creeks that flow into the area is called Shingle Mill Prong. There's also a Shingle Road.
Downtown is barely a spot on the narrow, two-lane road. There is no supermarket or strip mall. The old general store is boarded up, as are the 19th-century commercial buildings across the street. There is a tiny dessert shop called Rita's, a block-long building with a menagerie of new and used goods called Dennis' Thrift Shop, a bank, a post office, a church, a fire station and a couple of restaurants a few miles away.
Not a single intersection has a traffic light, even where St. Martins Neck Road begins at Bishopville Road.
George Rines III, a real estate agent with the Coldwell Banker office in Ocean Pines, and a Bishopville resident during the past 25 years, is surprised that the area has not succumbed to the pressures of development.
Ocean Pines and West Ocean City are nearby. New neighborhoods are blanketing Selbyville, Del., just a bit north of Bishopville and where many residents do their shopping.
"There's definitely some new construction going on, but whatever happens is up to the farmers," Rines said. "Land is not going to be subdivided unless they want it to happen. But things have been tough for the farmers. So, who knows?"
Rines, who lives on 4 1/2 acres, said he loves living in the area. "The only thing is the chicken houses. But, they don't bother me. I'd much rather not be jammed in with everybody else."
Bishopville resident Karen Martin said she has seen a change taking place during the past two years.
"I can see 15 new houses from my property," she said.
Real estate statistics show that houses averaged $436,321 during the past 12 months.
Martin and her husband, Howard, moved to the area 25 years ago from Prince George's County. They were looking for a place to raise a family. They own a small real estate office and a furniture-moving business.
"At first we moved to Ocean City, but then realized how busy it is," Martin recalled. "Can you imagine teaching your child to ride a bicycle on Route 1? We wanted a place that was safe for our daughters. We wanted a simpler life."
The couple's two daughters, both now away at college, grew up "playing everything: softball, basketball, field hockey, tennis. Sports have always been a big thing here. If the county couldn't provide it, we paid extra and went to Ocean City," she said. The family's social life centered on the fire station and the church.
"The girls took the bus to school so they could meet other children. It wasn't as if every house had a child in it."
Martin said the current newcomers are looking for the same thing. "They say they are looking for a simpler way of life. They say they are worried about the discipline in the schools and don't want to worry about a bicycle sitting in front of the house getting stolen."
While downtown Bishopville remains sleepy, neighborhoods like Piney Point and Piney Island show how the area has prospered.
A water view
Each house has a view of the Bishopville Prong, a meandering body of water that empties into St. Martins River. They are nestled in woodlands, inconspicuous to those driving on the more traveled, two-lane country roads.
The new Lighthouse Sound development is built on hilly ground overlooking the wetlands of the Assawoman Bay. The Ocean City skyscrapers stand out in the distance as golfers walk lazily along.
Million-dollar second homes stand out in three different neighborhoods. There were 94 lots available less than two years ago, according to Kim Lynch, who manages the Lighthouse properties.
"They're all sold out," she said, adding that buyers can still buy a lot and house package from a builder. The least expensive house in the development is probably about $700,000, she said.
That new development has created two sides to the town, Martin said.
"There's a new Bishopville," Martin said, "and an old Bishopville."
ZIP code: 21813
Drive time to downtown Baltimore: 2 1/2 hours
Public schools: Showell Elementary, Berlin Intermediate, Stephen Decatur Middle (Berlin), Stephen Decatur High (Berlin)
Places of interest and shopping: Lighthouse Sound golf course and restaurant; the Grove Market; Hemphill's Dock
Average list price: $451,964 *
Average sales price: $436,321 *
Sales price as a percentage of listing price: 96 percent *
Average days on market: 201 ** Based on 35 homes sold during the past 12 months as compiled by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems