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Powerful
The 350th
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once a reporter, always a reporter



but now I have a dog



island dispatches


Powerful

    WPTX was one of the last live and locally operated radio stations in America and every morning, into the warming kitchens, groggy bedrooms and already chugging tractors and boats I arrived live, Southern Maryland News.

    It was a powerful thing to arrive full-grown but innocent; handed keys to a small, legendary place at the crest of when it all fell away into something different. Or, rather, fell from being different to becoming the same as everywhere else.

    WPTX in 1984 was the vital link in St. Mary’s County, the only source of live and daily news across a vast acreage of sparsely populated peninsulas vulnerable to extreme weather and not easily traversed. A farmer one peninsula over could die, be buried and waked between editions of the local paper. The opening price of cattle, hogs, grain and beans mattered. So did the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s forecasts of the immediate rivers and creeks.

    St. Mary’s County, in Maryland’s 350th year, was a remote place a long way from any big place stuck at the end of roads immediately destined to sputter into marsh. No ferries.  In 1984, for many, it was still a good 20-mile drive to a store that carried the region’s daily newspapers, the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post, in that order. Much of the peninsulas were beyond the reach of television.

In 1984, a deeply bucolic ambience and 400 miles of shoreline were still St. Mary’s only calling cards to the steady stream of newcomers the Navy sent to the test pilot school at Pax River. Most families suffered the deployment politely and moved on to Japan, San Diego, Elsewhere. Of course a handful married local. Mostly she fled but sometimes he stayed.

But from the first arrivals, including the Navy’s first flyboys of WWII who found nothing but forests, fields and airspace, there were always some who saw St. Mary’s County for what it was:  Paradise.

 “(T)he most delightful water I ever saw, being between two sweet landes.,” Father Andrew White wrote of upon his arrival aboard the Dove, a member of Lord Calvert’s first landing party on March 25, 1634.

Further blessed with friendly natives, Governor Leonard Calvert negotiated with the Yaocomicos for what roughly remain the boundaries of St. Mary’s County. The Yaocomicos king lived across the river from the Maryland Governor’s first capital, St. Mary’s City.

The purchase, in the eyes of the Europeans, was merely a courtesy. King Charles I had already granted the whole of Merryelande to Lords Baltimores – at the time George and Cecil Calvert. The Baltimore’s sent family and friends over in two legendary sailing ships – the Ark and the Dove – to work out site plan details and set up the business of subdividing the land to attract developers of a new world.

The Calverts initially carved Maryland into Manors of 1,000-plus acres to encourage wealthy colonizers to invest in the virgin land. The Manors broke down to the Hundreds, which Regina Comb Hammett’s History of St. Mary’s County Maryland 1634 to 1990 described as the number of families Julius Caesar determined the proper size to administer their own protection and defense.

    By 1800 the Hundreds evolved into Election Districts and followed Maryland’s population up the Chesapeake Bay toward Philadelphia and Boston and up the Potomac into the wilderness of the District of Columbia.

Nine districts remain in St. Mary’s County. They grew distinct in industry and lineage. Family names first appearing on the ship rosters in 1634 still thickly veined the phone book in 1984.

During their 350 years together these first Europeans came to know where the bad blood lay. It was still a small enough population to know whom among them had pulled the legs off grasshoppers as a child and whose fathers still did such things. Formal business was conducted with handshakes. No less binding agreements were settled with a glance.

“And it wasn’t the Navy that changed it, either,” Charlotte Coppage Young repeated in 1990, the year the State of Maryland inducted her as an inaugural Century Farmer. “It wasn’t the Navy, I always tell folks. It wasn’t the Navy that changed St. Mary’s County. It was the storm of ’33.”

Charlotte Coppage grew up on Windmill Point Farm on the St. Mary’s River. She remembered as a young teenager the earth moving sound of thunder and the lowing rising to a moaning excitement as cattle shipped east from the Dust Bowl smelled the water on her family’s farm where they’d been sent for salvation.

The storm would have been around the same time.

 “That storm took out all the wharves. The whole river,” Charlotte spread open her arm and gestured out the mouth of the St. Mary’s River. Below her farm some of the great manor houses still stand. Portobello, West St. Mary’s Manor and Cross Hall were among the great plantations poised upon bluffs of the St. Mary’s River with its huge, sheltered bays. They turned into steamboat stops then retired into big farms at the ends of long country roads before their most recent revival as celebrity vacation homes.

“By then steamboat traffic was struggling and losing out to trucking. This was just the end of it. And after that there wasn’t anything going on down here. It all died just like that,” according to Charlotte Coppage Young.

St. George Island, tucked inside the western lip of the St. Mary’s mouth “was hit by this storm without any warning,” David Sayre wrote, “…known to be the severest storm of the century …

The reason for no warning was because we had no communications. No radio, no daily newspaper (the Baltimore Sun only once a week), no telephones…

… (M)y family owned a large, two-story home … On this particular morning of the storm, we were eating breakfast in a large family kitchen that was not connected to the main house when a large wave hit the kitchen. We immediately moved to the main house and started eating again. Almost immediately again another wave came inside, broke the flooring under the table, knocking some of the dishes off the table, and by that time the water was well upon the floor. We decided to get out of the house and move to my sister’s house, Rhoda Bisco, close by. My two brothers and I moved my mother and father to the lee side of the house and got them through the lower windows, which was in a calmer area. While we were walking my parents to my sister’s house, the waves were washing at times over their heads. My two sisters were staying with us that day. Their husbands were captains on the mainland, so we were a family of seven fighting for survival. The island bridge then was washed away.

… After this, the family tried to settle down and ride it out, but the storm continued to get much worse, winds increasing and tides getting higher. By that time, boats of all kinds were coming by, and then there came two one-story homes floating between us and the home we had left, and clothes could be seen hanging on the hangers in the attic. Then looking at the big house we saw it move, and big waves hit and the entire thing disintegrated, and everything – house, furniture, clothing – went up the river. We had absolutely nothing left. It seemed it was time to try to leave for higher ground.

 

Higher ground in 1933 was not so easily attained. An inland shopping expedition the 15 miles between Piney Point and Leonardtown took a full day. It was another 50 miles across poor roads and empty miles of farms and forests to reach, Washington D.C.  Electricity was still a half decade away. The County still possessed its bounty but no longer commanded a commercial fleet to whisk it to market. It woke up, that sunny August 24, 1933, finding itself at the end of a long, costly, overland haul into town. It was an abrupt end to an inevitable outcome. The population had been steadily falling since its 1900 high of 17,182  reaching 14,626 in 1940.

It had been a long half-century of emigration and loss when the U.S. Navy landed at Cedar Point at the mouth of the Patuxent River, securing a deep water harbor the navy had coveted since the Civil War. War fervor and preliminary conversations with local legislators eased conversion of the land off the local tax rolls in exchange for what became the largest installation on the Atlantic coast.

Population doubled within the decade

Resentment flowed among the plantations and small farming communities of Susquehanna, Mattapany, Cedar Point, Pearson, Jarboesviille, Fordtown and Hermanville that were disappeared as Patuxent River and Lexington Park grew into their own Zip codes. But county officials never looked back.

County government remained in the hands of local families and kept largely to the county seat, about 20 miles north and across the county’s spine into the Potomac’s watershed. Leonardtown, affectionately named for the first Governor, was less affectionately dubbed  “The Gated City,” by Lexington Park’s early investors who ultimately set up their own bank outside the gate of the Navy base. It was as with many marriages, in the beginning, the incoming and the old world pledged their troths but kept their money separate. But it doesn’t take much more than a generation to merge troths.

Indeed, the newly minted natives of the emerging second half of the 20th century proved as generous brokers as the original natives. They established cordial relations with the entrepreneurial Naval aviators who stayed in The County to take up the Calvert’s old business of subdividing to attract developers to this new world.

Relations remained so cordial that by the final quarter of the century the entrepreneurs and their native-born children had become locals. Descendants of the Ark and Dove were getting scarce. By the end of this story those descendants will have pretty much sold out, their stake—the acres of empty farms, dense woods and meandering shoreline—proven finite

It is the natural end to the pattern set in 1636 when the Conditions of Plantation first downsized the Manors the Lords Baltimores were offering. They were downsized again in 1641, 1648 and 1649. It is simple math, explains Ms. Hammett in her History. “…(A)s the years went by … there was less land to grant.”

By the time of the 350th, the only thing Leonardtown really had left to do with The County’s economy was sign off on the subdivision of the remaining farms and forests.

When I arrived, armed with a microphone, unabashed ignorance and relentless curiosity there were abundant tales to tell, contemporary tales and centuries old tales on that most compelling of themes, the great battle to save things lost. Hundreds wanted only an ear to tell their piece of the tale. It was almost too easy to be called work. And previously unbeknownst to myself, I was born for it.

I was Southern Maryland News.

at the dock




The 350th