A timeless rhythm of repetition and change reveals itself
during a visit to the island's annual Camp Meeting. [February 2007]
By Katherine Brown
The ferry heads across Tangier Sound. The evening sky is a low-hanging gray, and the boat rumbles loudly as it goes. We are out of sight of land: Crisfield is behind us and Smith Island not yet visible. I am four hours from home, traveling from the metropolitan rhythms of the city toward the more deliberate drum beat of island life. I am a Methodist seminarian and I'm going to experience, for the first time, a camp meeting—specifically, Smith Island's 118th annual Camp Meeting. It's the island's biggest do, running Sunday through Sunday: A week of homecoming, revival, exhortation, worship and praise. I'm also going to talk with as many Smith Islanders as I can, to see whether I can gain some understanding of their life and faith.
Smith Island, about ten miles due west of Crisfield and the only inhabited offshore island in Maryland, is in fact several islands—one of which has the towns of Ewell (the largest) and Rhodes Point, another of which has Tylerton. Although Smith Island once had more than 800 inhabitants and a thriving community of farmers and fishermen, erosion and the modern world have robbed it over the years of a third of its land and most of its people. The 250 or so who are left depend only on the Bay for their sustenance. It's a dying way of life, islanders tell you. It's a dying way of life, visitors tell each other. It's a dying way of life, all the books and magazines say. Yet, if dying means changing, it's a way of life that's been dying since it began. Time has been turning, and life has been changing, the whole three centuries, here as elsewhere.
It is disorienting to arrive on the island. I feel it particularly my first night. I imagine it in the eyes of the day-trippers who walk carefully from the tour boats onto the dock and look around as if wondering where they are. I see it in my husband Paul's face when he arrives a week later. The island is bounded by the water yet is limitless in its horizons. Perhaps it is the stark visibility of this paradox that unsettles so. It takes time to settle into the place. Time to look at the marsh until what comes clear is not the initially apparent green but the subtle variation of shades: yellow-green and pale-wheat, and even a faint purple tone. And time, it seems, is what Smith Island offers, or a respite from the mainland sense of time with its rapid and linear rigidity. Island time is cyclical, modified by tide and wind and winter freezes, and it takes time to learn to live day by day within its wave.
On Sundays the island goes to church. Though not all attend—day-trippers still come—the rhythm of Sabbath influences the routine. Most Sundays of the year each village worships in its own church, but come August, islanders gather for Camp Meeting in an open-air wooden pavilion in Ewell they refer to simply as "the tabernacle."
Camp Meeting is a time to put aside the regular cycle of work and rest for an intense space of religious revival and sociability. Smith Island's meeting used to last two weeks; men pulled their boats from the water and families relocated to the campground for the duration. "Oh, my land, Camp Meeting was always the thrill of a lifetime," Virginia Bradshaw, nearing 90, says. She and her family would come across from Tylerton. "We girls waited for the whole week, and we had gingham dresses, one for every day of the week. They cost seventy-nine cents, can you believe that? There was a man at a store [in] Crisfield, and he'd send a woman or two over with dresses for us to pick what we wanted. And they were gingham, and if you went out and met a girl with a dress like yours—oh!—you got mad and went home and changed. Every night they kept the lights on a whole hour extra for the kids—and when they went off—boy!—you'd better get home."
Camp Meeting is shorter now, and the boats still go out during the week, but the pattern of preaching and visiting continues. Sunday worship is held morning, afternoon, and evening, and includes fervent preaching and gospel music from groups like the Hoppers. Weekday mornings, the island's children and grandchildren come for Vacation Bible School. In the evening, all gather again in the tabernacle—or, as they say here, "under the tabernacle"—for another time of preaching.
On the first Sunday of Camp Meeting I walk past the Ewell church and cemetery—the east-facing gravestones shine like Easter in the morning sun—and across the green grass to the screened-in tabernacle with its two-tiered shingled roof and sawdust floor. Fans turn slowly overhead. ("Hotter 'n Cam' Meetin' " is the traditional phrase, and it is.) A table in the back holds a cooler of water and some Styrofoam cups. Another bench holds a box of brown paperback songbooks and cardboard fans, some decorated with a pastel-tinted picture of Jesus, others with a more secular message—a photo of a multigenerational group of women of color with the reminder to "Take time to get a mammogram and Pap test." Flower arrangements bloom throughout the tabernacle.
First there's "Class Meeting," a quiet time of testimony and witness. "We stand up for Jesus here and we just say a few words to honor him," the class leader says. "I haven't done everything I should, but I've always been better than I would'a been if it wasn't for the Lord." He talks about the swiftness of time, and the shortness of life, and recalls an island man, Captain Caleb. "He was ninety then, and I said to him, 'It feel like you been here long?' and he said, 'Oh, no, just like a small breeze.' "
Then the class members pitch in, share their thoughts—the leader moves from speaker to speaker, shaking hands, clapping open palms to shoulders, earnestly welcoming each other's witness. The talk is intimately pitched; "pray for me," each ends. A man stands to speak, but I can't make out what he's saying. His back is to me, and there's a thickness in his throat and he pauses a lot between words. I can only see the emotion reflected in the leader's face. Another man in the gathering starts to sing,Nothing but the blood of Jesus, and the soft crooning is taken up by other voices, increased and carried forward until it spreads through the tabernacle and then dies again, as softly as it had begun.
"This is holy ground to me," one says, "You all know, a few years ago, I was given the task of shingling this whole tabernacle, and every time I came in here, I felt surrounded by this whole cloud of witnesses—all the powerful testimonies of the past."
"This island is changing, we know that, but Jesus Christ don't change, he is the same past, present and future."
"That's a true word."
"No doubt about it."
I fall into a routine: On weekdays I am awakened early, when the sky is still dark. The watermen go out before daybreak. I hear the grumble of a diesel going past, glimpse the workboat's light, fall asleep again. I wake later to the flush of sunrise. Soon the room is flooded with light and with the wild cries of gulls. Wind stirs the curtains and brings with it the faint sound of conversation—Smith Island voices, Smith Island accents, "Cornwall by way of Carolina." Mornings I help with Vacation Bible School; afternoons I wander and talk to people; evenings I am back to the tabernacle for another time of exhortation. It is as if I am dividing my time between the oldest and youngest islanders.
Virginia Bradshaw and Elmer and Lillian Evans are the oldest inhabitants of Smith Island. I meet Virginia Bradshaw and her daughter Donna Jean Laird at Ruke's, Ewell's hang-out. The Evanses invite me to their home. All recall the disastrous events of October 1937, when a massive fire burned the Ewell church and tabernacle and tent-cabins. It was a Sunday, and the men of the island had just left to go to the head of the Bay for oystering.
"I've heard this story so many times, it's like I was there," Laird says, "They had just ate dinner in the out-kitchen, behind the house, and my grandfather leaned back in his chair and he could just see the church and he said, 'Oh my God, the church is on fire.' " The fire was so hot you couldn't get within a thousand feet of it; the church bell came crashing to the ground.
"Buckets was all we had," Bradshaw recalls, "and the men had all gone, and it was winter. We had to rebuild." And they did, in time for Camp Meeting 1938.
Sixty-seven years later, I stand outside with the children gathering for Bible School. We're waiting for the boatload of children from Tylerton. A young girl with long, fair hair stands beside me, and I ask her name.
"Lydia. It's in the Bible."
"It's a beautiful name."
"My daddy named me."
We watch the boys on the swings—two are swinging and the rest take turns dodging beneath, as through a gauntlet. "Those boys are trying to kill theirselves," Lydia observes with a solemn maturity.
"They're acting like goofballs," I agree. Lydia turns this word over in her mind then gives a sudden, sunny smile.
"My brother is the biggest acting-like-a-goofball!"
On the first night of Camp Meeting, I meet Everett and Carol Ann Landon. We get acquainted in the tabernacle and later, as we walk back to their boat at the dock. We talk more during the days that follow, around and after Bible School time. Everett is from Rhodes Point, Carol Ann from Tylerton, though now they live in Sharptown, on the Eastern Shore.
"We met on the school boat to Crisfield," Carol Ann says.
"I walked across the water for Carol Ann when we were dating," Everett grins. "It was a winter freeze-up, so I couldn't take my outboard across. I'd gone Friday night without seeing her and I didn't like that at all. So the next day, I got out a rubber raft and I put on big rubber gloves too, and I set off to walk from Rhodes Point to Tylerton across the ice. Now, it was froze most of the way across, in the shallows, but the channel between Rhodes Point and Tylerton [wasn't frozen]. So I just put that raft down, and climbed on, and paddled across with my hands in the water . . . and then I was there!"
Everett and Carol Ann married and left the island for a while (Everett was an electrician in Pocomoke City), but the birth of their son drew them back to the old patterns. Everett bought a boat and followed his dad onto the water. Carol Ann picked crabs in the co-op, as she previously had with her mom in the house ("crab picking's really how I earned the money for my wedding"). Then another call came. Now Everett and Carol Ann and their three children live in Sharptown, where Everett's a student pastor.
Everett had been praying on it for a good while, but he was working on the water when God's call came clear several years ago. "It was during the peeler run—and this is the best part of the year, when you make your whole money, the bills for last winter, and the savings for next, the whole money for the year. And I was out there on the water, and I thought 'Lord, is this what I'm meant to do the rest of my life?' It came to me clear on the water. God talked to me—not audibly, you know, but I knew right then and there—and I went home and went in and told Carol Ann, 'I'm going to be a preacher,' and she looked at me and said 'I'm behind you one hundred percent.' "
On Tuesday afternoon I hitch a ride on the Bible School boat back to Tylerton to meet Carol Ann's oldest brother, Harvey Corbin Jr., at his crab shanty. It's a cool dim-green place, with the constant wooshing sound of water running through peeler crab tanks. Carol Ann introduces me to Harvey and a succession of tall, broad, mostly silent men, each introduced as "Carol Ann's nephew." The Corbinses' hospitality is generous and courtly. "Serve your guest first," Harvey urges, and Everett hands me a snow cone—a tall cup of crushed and syruped ice with the surprise of ice cream in the middle.
Carol Ann shows me the peeler tanks and crabs, and explains the work, "There's peeler-potting, and hard-crabbing, and scraping for crabs. It's different equipment and different grounds. My dad's a peeler-potter, and my brother Harvey, he does peelers too. I can remember in high school having to get up and go to the shanty in the morning and sort through the crabs. And this was before school—I still had the hour-long boat ride across to Crisfield! I don't know how I did it. I don't think I could do it now." Idly, as if without thinking, she dips her hand in to cull a dead one from the living.
Back from Tylerton, I bike the Marsh Road from Ewell to Rhodes Point. The island's young people seem to be fond of cruising back and forth here in cars and golf carts and ATVs. The narrow road runs through marsh that stretches as wide as any prairie, and the sky is as high and wide above it. There is an openness and breadth to this flat expanse, made to feel all the more vast by the distant sight across the water of the teeny-tiny dollhouses of Tylerton.
The road ends at the marine railway in Rhodes Point. I turn back, ride past houses still battered from a recent storm. I've run into a man who's on the island to see "a way of life that's dying" and am irritated at his having already decided on an end, rather than a beginning. But these battered houses do have a look that tends toward elegy.
I pause near the trestle bridge to look at the marsh. The greens are laced through by the glimmer of water. The water is still, glassy in spots, with tiny shaken ripples elsewhere. The water, more than the land, defines this place. The water is life as well as livelihood. The work is repetitive, back-breaking, saps both strength and mind—you have to give "110 percent," Everett says—yet there is a richness in living and breathing andbeingthe Bay, in claiming connection to its providence.
On again and into Ewell. A young girl, 13 or 14, with a flippy blond ponytail and a bright pink top and bare arms roars past on an ATV.
I spend an afternoon with local historian Jennings Evans in his Ewell home. The living room is lace-curtained and set with his wife's collection of dolls. A VHF sounds in the next room, the murmur of conversation interspersed with laughter (the watermen push to guffaw as well
as to talk).
"I got interested in all this history when I left the water," Evans says. "After Sunday School one day . . . I went out and looked at the cemetery and I saw all these Evanses, and I thought, 'I wonder which one I'm related to.' "
Evans has since become the island's unofficial historian. He's got a passion for the tale and a gift for the telling. He knows all the cycles of the island's history. First, the islanders farmed, as well as fished. Old timers recall wonderful pear and apple orchards—as if fruit so sweet will ne'er be eaten again—and cattle. But the Bay came in and flooded the land, and the people moved, leaving the orchards to the Bay.
"Farming was played out on the island by 1900," he tells me. "But by then, they'd found out about oysters. The oyster boom began back in 1866. It was the New Englanders who'd came down and drudged Virginia waters, and hauled the oysters back up to replenishtheirrocks. Thieves! . . . Nah, I guess we'd have done the same."
Orchards to oysters to oysters-plus-crabbing. And then back to religion. "Oh, you can't describe the islands without getting into the religion," Evans continues. "Now, Joshua Thomas, he wasn't even from the island. His father was a Tangier man who married a Falmouth girl." Evans tells the story of Thomas, a barely lettered, frolicking-dancer, camp-meeting-converted early-19th century lay preacher with as much enthusiasm as if he'd heard it from the man himself.
"Now Joshua was out in the cornfield, and suddenly it hit him—that he'd been saved—and he couldn't contain himself and he went stomping through the cornfield, just laughing and shouting for being saved, and he had cornstalks all over his collar, and his neighbor saw him and went and told his wife, 'I'm sorry to tell you this, but I think you'd better come because Joshua's gone mad and he's stomping all that cornfield.' So they came, and they didn't know what he was doing till he told them. And his neighbor said 'That's all well and good, but you'd better go figure what damage you've done to this corn.' And d'you know, when they went back, not one of those stalks was broken. With all the stomping he'd done in there, not one was broken. That was just one of the little miracles that Joshua Thomas did."
Evans reassures me of the tale's accuracy, "It's all in that book"—Parson of the Islands, published in 1861, the title taken from the nickname the British gave Joshua during the War of 1812, when they had their camp on Tangier. "They wanted Joshua Thomas to preach to the men, and he got up there and told them they'd never take Baltimore—and they didn't take Baltimore, either!"
Later, I return to Tylerton, this time to spend an evening at the Smith Island Crab Co-op. Dinner is over. The men are down at Drum Point Market, the town's social nexus. (If this were Ewell, they'd be at Ruke's.) Seven women are back at the co-op now, picking the crabs their husbands have brought home, and talking even as their hands fly between shells and tubs. The sweet smell of steamed crab is pleasantly pervasive. I ask about Camp Meeting.
"You'll notice we say 'Cam' Meetin' not 'Camp Meeting,' " comes the laughing reply. "Have a seat," Tina Corbin, president of the co-op, invites. So I sit in a chair at the stainless steel table beside her. The women reminisce about how their mothers, when they were girls, were allowed to keep the money they made picking crab claws; they'd save that "claw-money" to order their "Cam' Meetin' Rig"—dress and shoes and bag—from a catalog. The women talk about the feel of Camp Meeting, about the smell of cleaning and cooking, Cracker Jacks and lemonade sold out of the church basement. There was nowhere else to buy food in Ewell on a Sunday.
I listen and watch them pick. "You guys are fast," I state the obvious. They laugh. "We better be—we'reprofessionals," Tina says, "We learned to pick crabs, oh, from watching our mothers. We picked in the out-kitchens with them till this co-op opened." (The state of Maryland cracked down on home picking in the early 1990s. The women organized, got state and federal grants, and opened the co-op in 1996.)
"I didn't learn till I was 32," Christine Smith says. "I was a lab technician before. I married and moved here. I was so nervous: I'm a lefty so there was no one to show me how. I called Dora [Corbin], and I was just ready to cry because I couldn't do it, and she said 'Just do it on the table.' And that worked for me. Some pick in their lap—and that one there in the corner—she does it with her legs crossed! She's doing it now, sitting like a lady!"
"We're not all prissy like Patty, picking with her legs crossed," Tina teases, which Patty Laird ignores, instead saying evenly, "We should sing for you."
"I hoped you would," I answer, "but I didn't want to be so bold as to ask."
There is a general shout of laughter at this, "Well, if you didn't want bold, you came to the wrong place—'cause we're bold!" When the laughter dies, Tina adds, "We been blessed today, blessed this week—we got no reason not to sing." She pitches the tune, then all launch into "It Is Well With My Soul," a cappella, in parts.
Their voices are lovely, the harmony is true, and the acoustics in the clean crab-picking co-op are fabulous. I raise my voice with theirs (tracking the alto part), and the singing raises the hair on my arms. Robin Bradshaw shivers at the end, "I got chills from that."
Evening at the tabernacle. People are pulling up in golf carts. A special run of the ferry is bringing folk across from Tylerton; they walk up from the dock. Streams of people are drawing near to hear another night's preaching, the call to repentance and to praise. Women have put on their best dresses; they cross the ground carefully in heels. Children swing and run around. Men sit on the log bench beside the tabernacle, and stand near it, and talk on the day's crabbing. Their pose and their conversation seem timeless in the gold of the lowering sun. They've been talking there forever, I guess, because Jennings Evans recalls "the old guys" of his boyhood sitting outside the tabernacle, talking about crabbing.
Timelessness is a recurring theme in descriptions of the area, as if change has never come. As if the island's significance is a haven from the trouble of change. Even the book,Parson of the Islands, dwells on the refreshing rest and wisdom found in the persistent simplicity of the island villages. During World War II, the villages were still places of kerosene lamps, outhouses and cisterns, and sunbonnets, a refuge from modernity. Fifty years after that, in
Island Out of Time, Tom Horton wrote of walking his daughter down the narrow lane to the last one-room schoolhouse in Maryland, as he and his family found their own haven in Tylerton.
Timelessness is an illusion. Kerosene was traded for electric light in 1949 ("August twenty-fourth, it was, at two-thirty in the afternoon," Evans says.) The one-room school closed in 1996. Islanders are moving off; mainlanders are buying on; oystering is down as property values are up. Now the gain and loss of change are as palpable on the island as everywhere else. Smith Island is no longer as distant from the mainland as for some two hundred years it was—twice-daily ferries and telephone and internet connect it now.
But still it is a refuge. Not because the island lies past the edge of a changing world, but because it is a center within it. Connection, vulnerability, dependence. Containment, self-sufficiency, independence. Even the constancy of change—a sign, after all, not of death but of life. These are the paradoxes ofallof our living, distilled more sharply, more clearly, here. Here, we can learn to see, and look with new eyes at the world and our lives in it.
Cruiser's Digest: Smith Island, Md.
Smith Island, composed of the three communities of Ewell, Rhodes Point and (separated from the other two by water) Tylerton, lies about 12 miles west of Crisfield. With a few hours, a boat, and a bicycle, you can see a pretty much all of it, but if you stay a few days, you'll begin to see more. Be careful, though: any length of stay makes it harder to leave.
Tour boats regularly visit Ewell, making roundtrips daily from both Crisfield and Point Lookout. Day-trip and overnight packages are available. Visitwww.smithislandcruises.comor call 410-425-2771.
Local ferries go back and forth to Crisfield twice daily: from Ewell or Tylerton in the early morning and afternoon; returning from Crisfield at 12:30 and 5 p.m. Contact the Captain Jason (Ewell–Crisfield) or theCaptain Jason II(Tylerton–Crisfield); 410-425-5931 or 410-425-4471.
You're set for lunch, with three restaurants to choose from. Ruke's, the red-shingled mainstay of Ewell (410-425-2311), and Drum Point Market in Tylerton (410-425-2108) offer basic grill fare (including crabcakes); Bayside Inn, a larger restaurant near the Ewell tour-boat docks (410-425-2771), has a more extensive menu. Make sure to try a piece of Smith Island's famed nine-layer cakes. Bayside's side-window sells hand-dipped ice cream; Ruke's has soft-serve; Drum Point has a freezer with various ice-cream bars. All three restaurants close mid- to late afternoon.
We spent two weeks with Pauli and Steve Eades of the Chesapeake Sunrise B&B/Smith Island Marina and would return for more. The white-painted house sits right on the thorofare and has wonderful views of the water and its traffic. They are warm hosts and excellent breakfast chefs. They'll arrange for steamed crabs or a nine-layer cake, a visit to a crab shanty or about anything else you can think of. Bikes, kayaks and crabbing gear are available for guests to use.
The Eadeses also run the Smith Island Marina. It has six slips, power (30 and 50 amp) and water, and a depth of 7 feet. Fuel is just down the way. The boathouse is air-conditioned, set with a table and comfortable chairs, and well stocked with magazines and games. 410-425-4220, 866-425-4220;www.smithisland.us.
The Ewell Tide Inn also offers bed and breakfast accommodations. 410-425-2141, 888-699-2141;www.smithisland.net.
In Tylerton, we stayed with Sharon and Chris Marshall of Chesapeake Fishing Adventures. They offer a variety of fishing-tour packages and have also accommodated boaters who want to tie up and stay ashore awhile. Mornings at their house we ate very well. 410-968-0175, 443-783-2499;www.cfadventures.com.
The Inn of Silent Music, also in Tylerton, has lovely rooms and serves guests both breakfast and dinner. 410-425-3541;www.innofsilentmusic.com.
Wander, walk, bike, sit, fish, crab, kayak, hitch a ride between islands, go progging in the marsh. Smith Island Day is in July; Camp Meeting is in August; Taste of the Island comes in the fall. Visit the Smith Island Center, in Ewell, for a fascinating overview of the island's history and present culture as well as its small gift shop. 410-425-3351, 800-521-9189;www.smithisland.org. The Bayview Gift Shop has a good selection of Bay-relevant books and some local crafts mixed in with the generic island art.
Head across to Rhodes Point, with its own neat, white church and well kept cemetery. See the boat railway, where the island's boats are regularly pulled out and stored.
Take to the water with Waverly Evans; visit his Tylerton shanty filled with folk art. A few shanties up the way is the workshop of Haney Bradshaw. Haney's models are meticulously detailed, every chine angled just so—"I used to build boats," he explains, "so I build my models like real." While in Tylerton, visit the Smith Island Crab Co-op, buy a T-shirt and a pound (or two) of crab—the best stuff we've ever had. 410-968-9000;crabs.maryland.com.