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A town celebrates crabs -- and itself

CRISFIELD — CRISFIELD - It's Labor Day weekend and despite what could turn out to be one of the worst crab harvests on record, nobody around here would even think of giving up the National Hard Crab Derby and Fair.

In a way, the 56th annual celebration of all things crustacean - races with crabs representing almost every state, crab picking, crab cooking and the Miss Crustacean pageant - is proof positive that what goes around comes around.

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The three-day event was dreamed up in 1947 by a local newspaper editor and other post-war boosters as a way to showcase this waterfront town back when it was the seafood capital of Maryland.

Now, the end-of-summer festival in the state's southernmost town is providing the perfect segue for developers, business leaders and Chamber of Commerce types who are marketing Crisfield as the next big thing for investors, second-home buyers and baby boom retirees.

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But natives, especially those who have moved away over the years, know the crab derby says as much about their town as the glossy real estate brochures that seem to have sprouted all over town ever will.

As the old saying goes: Every Crisfielder has to come back at least twice in life, once to be buried and once for the crab derby.

"It really is a homecoming time for everybody who grew up here," says Julie Horner, a native who came back to the town of 2,880 for a job running the Somerset County tourism office. "It's a celebration of everything crabby, of the seafood industry, and it makes Crisfield a destination that's worth trying."

For Greg and Krista Tull, their 6-year-old daughter, Kayla, and two sets of her grandparents, staking out a spot on Main Street to watch the parade that launched things yesterday was their way of carrying on a tradition, even though none of them has strayed far from their hometown.

The couple, both 37 and members of the Crisfield High School Class of 1984, attended Salisbury University together, then settled about 20 miles from Crisfield near Salisbury.

"The parade has been a big deal, especially since Kayla was born, but I don't think either of us has missed ... the Sunday night fireworks since we were children," said Krista Tull.

This year's parade was dedicated to members of the 1229th Transportation Co. of the Maryland National Guard, who have been serving in Iraq since April. The parade grand marshal was retired Gen. Maurice D. "Dana" Tawes, a hometown D-Day hero who served 38 years in the National Guard.

In typical everybody-knows-everybody Crisfield style, two participants have special connections to the unit.

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Carolyn Evans, the wife of Sgt. Robert "Muggsy" Evans, rode in a convertible along with the mayor and her fellow members of the town council. Five-year-old David Wigglesworth, who was named Little Mr. Crustacean in a contest Thursday night and who is the son of Sgt. Michael Wigglesworth, also got a ride down Main Street.

More and more visitors have been turning up lately as word spreads of a proposed cross-bay ferry service that could link the hard-luck waterfront town where jobs and prospects have declined, with diminished harvests of crabs and other seafood, with Reedsville, Va.

The plan, still under study by business and political leaders known as the Fast Ferry Coalition, has sparked a real estate boom that shows little sign of stopping.

"The ferry definitely got the ball rolling, but it's gotten beyond that now," says real estate agent Rick Evans. "Just about every day, somebody shows up at my office to look for property. The crab derby is a great excuse for people who want to come here and look around."

Barry and Suzanne Starliper couldn't agree more. The Chambersburg, Pa., couple are looking for a second home on Smith Island and in Crisfield. Yesterday, they got into the spirit of things, buying three entries in the open derby, naming the crabs for their daughter and granddaughters.

Their entries lost out to a crab known as Swifty2. The Governor's Cup race, which in years past drew crabs that were shipped from around the country, was won by a local blue crab that raced for Georgia.

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The derby part of the derby was a wacky hourlong scramble of skittering bay crabs across a slightly inclined wooden track. Money raised by the entry fees for 350 crabs goes to the local American Legion Post.

Winning crabs are usually rewarded by a return to the waters of Tangier Sound. Losers often wind up as free food for anyone with an appetite who stops by the post.

The highlight of the sweltering derby day might have been volunteer firefighter Eric "Flea" Emely's decision to use a fire hose to cool off the crowd of about 2,000 that filled the metal bleachers of the Crab Bowl.


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