Talk about hometown pride! When I asked a waterman who lives on Smith Island, Md., if he’d like to accompany me to one of the other nearby villages, he replied, “Nope, I’ve been there.”
While the twinkle in his eyes suggested he wasn’t serious, the fact is that residents of Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay good-naturedly tout the superiority of their town over the other two.
Though chauvinistic about their tiny villages, Smith Islanders are hardy, independent and welcoming to visitors. Of course, when folks share a group of island strands encompassing about 8,000 acres, of which only 900 are habitable, it helps to develop a friendly attitude.
Smith Island actually consists of three minute islets, each occupied by a village. Ewell and Rhodes Point are connected by a short wooden bridge, while Tylerton stands alone.
Captain John Smith spotted the diminutive archipelago in 1608. Some present-day residents trace their ancestry back as much as 12 generations to the early European colonists. Most of the original settlers were English and Welsh, and vestiges of Elizabethan dialect persist. I soon realized that “air” means “are,” and “tie-yum” translates to “time.”
Following in the bootsteps of ancestors, most men eke out a living from the gray waters of the Chesapeake Bay. That means dropping traps or trotlines for crabs during spring and summer, and dredging for oysters in fall and winter.
Because overharvesting and pollution depleted the Bay’s oyster population in recent decades, the island’s economy has come to depend primarily upon crabbing.
The waters are thick with multicolored buoys bobbing in the waves, each marking a wire crab “pot.” Male crabs are the usual bait, luring females that enter anticipating a mating ritual, only to end up on someone’s lunch or dinner plate.
Brought back to land, “peeler” crabs (those about to lose their hard cover and become soft shells) are put in water-filled “floats.” As soon as a crustacean sheds its shell, it’s plucked out and prepared for shipment to a restaurant or market.
Hard shell crabs face a different fate. Some end up at restaurants not far from the waters where they grew up. There they are sprinkled with a peppery mixture of spices, and steamed until the shells turn from blue to red.
Others have a shorter trip to the Smith Island Crab Co-op in Tylerton. During crab season, women gather in the nondescript little building to pick succulent crab meat out of the shells with speed and dexterity wondrous to behold.
Observing the action at the Crab Co-op by no means exhausts opportunities to sample what Smith Island has to offer. Strolling through the three towns, or traveling by bicycle or rental golf cart, introduces a unique way of life. How many places have you visited where two golf carts passing by constitutes rush hour?
Another inviting way to get around is by canoe or kayak. A system of marked water trails leads through creeks that offer panoramic views of the scenery. They also provide opportunities for close encounters with wildlife, including heron, pelicans, bald eagles and many other resident and migratory birds.
Some visitors hire a boat to fish for striped bass (rockfish), sea trout, flounder and other game fish.
Back on land, each village is built around a Methodist church, which serves as a kind of unofficial government and center of community life.
Tylerton, population about 70 at latest count, is only two by four blocks in size. A five-minute boat ride brings you to Ewell (223 residents), which is connected to Rhodes Point (home to 90) by a strip of bumpy asphalt about 1.5 miles long which locals euphemistically call “the highway.”
A “must” for visitors is to throw diet to the wind and sample Smith Island Cake. It’s a towering delicacy of eight or nine thin layers that is designated as the official dessert of Maryland. Most common is yellow cake with chocolate icing, but flavors like coconut, fig and orange also are popular.
No matter how good the taste of that unique treat, to me the lifestyle of the proud and independent people who choose to live in such splendid isolation is reason enough to visit with them.