The Wye River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland is only a 3 hour drive (in time) away from my boyhood home in Central New Jersey. However, in every other way, these two places are worlds apart. It was a place where a young boy could explore his relationship to the land and learn lessons that would stay with him for a lifetime.
My grandfather lived on the shores of the Wye, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay. I only knew him as an old man, who knew a lot about plants, animals and the land. He was quiet and smoked a pipe. The gaze from his steely, blue eyes could unnerve you, if you didn’t know that he was a gentle soul. Granddaddy had been a machinist in his working days, and he built a shop off of his garage, which was his place of sanctuary. He was my Mom’s father, and the only grandparent that I ever got to know a little of. Both of my grandmothers had passed before I was born, and my Dad’s father passed when I was only four. Granddaddy had a boat too, which we used to explore the river with and go crabbing and fishing. I think Dad looked forward to it as much as I did.
It’s funny how when we experience a place for the first time, we think that it has always been that way. The first time I remember visiting Granddaddy was circa 1964, and he was living in an Airstream trailer on his property. He called it the “Wigwam”. Granddaddy had a garden and a row boat at the shoreline of a small cove, just to the south of Pig Pen Point, off of Bennett Point Rd. I remember that we had just visited my Aunt Jean in Washington D.C., so the 1.5 hour drive to Granddaddy’s house took us over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Looking over the side of the bridge to the water 200 feet below scared me. The bridge was 7 miles long and I though we’d never get to the other side. Once we got to Kent Island, US 50 became four lanes again. I didn’t realize that the bridge was only built in the previous decade. It would soon allow for increased movement across the bay and change the texture and culture of the landscape forever.
Granddaddy lived on the Eastern Shore before there was a Bay Bridge. Before the bridge was built, life was even more slow paced. Sure, there was travel back and forth to Annapolis and the crowded western shore of the bay back then, but it was by ferry boat. Many locals fought to block the building of the bridge, as they saw it ruining their rural way of life. Once the bridge was built, it became a fast link from the busy urban areas of Baltimore and Washington to quickly drive over to the Atlantic shore for the weekend. Traffic backed up on the weekends. It also opened up access to the estuaries of the Eastern Bay, where tourists competed with locals for the best crabbing and fishing spots.
But as a contrast from suburban Central New Jersey, the Eastern Shore seemed like a wild place. After crossing the bridge, we were on Kent Island. One more short drawbridge over Kent Narrows brought us to Graysonville, where we turned off to go the the Wye river. The myriad of tributaries and inlets that punctuate the Chesapeake Bay manifest themselves in somewhat of a dendritic pattern, like branches on a tree. The main bay is the trunk. Rivers like the Severn, Miles and the Choptank are the tributary branches. This is a clue to the geological formation of this landscape. During the ice ages, much of the land in the northerly latitudes of the North American continent were covered by large ice sheets. Sea level was much lower than in the present day. The Mid-latitudes is where the margins of the continental ice sheets were. As they melted, they carved river valleys that mainly flowed south. One of these large river drainages was the Susquehanna River, which drains into Chesapeake Bay. When sea level was much lower, what is now the bay was once a river channel, with many tributaries feeding into it. After the ice age, sea levels rose and drowned out the river valleys, leaving us the flat lowlands surrounding the Chesapeake of today. The Wye River is one of these.
In the early 60s, Granddaddy’s place on the Wye was still very rural. Although he was already seeing changes, it was a wild place in my eyes. Walking around his property felt like a National Geographic expedition. There were snakes and frogs in the bushes, and birds I had never seen back home. Belted Kingfishers, Egrets, Red-Winged blackbirds, and Baltimore Orioles (not the baseball team!). There were Cedar waxwings, Eastern Goldfinches, Cardinals, Killdeer, several species of wrens and sparrows, and sometimes Canada Geese flying overhead. And that was only on land. Once we got out in the boat on the water, there was a plethora of sea birds and water creatures to discover.
Granddaddy’s sister, my Aunt Edna, lived in a cinder block house on the property next to his. I only remember a few things about her, as she died when I was still pretty young. But I can still smell the fresh baked apple crisp she had just baked from apples she had picked on her property. The fragrant essence of cinnamon and nutmeg and baked apple permeated throughout her homely, but warm house. She rolled out the dough for the crust, crimped the dough on the rim of the pie pan and laid a lattice work of strips on top of the pie. I can close my eyes now, almost 60 years later, and transport myself back in time to her kitchen. Food didn’t come from a grocery store; it was something that you grew, gathered, or hunted for. Your diet changed depending on what season it was.
The Aunt Edna of my youth was old, wrinkly and bent over. I remember being scared the first time I went into that dark house, but quickly realized it was a safe place. There was love in that house. I asked my older sister for anything she remembered about Edna. There were a couple of things she recounted which helped me learn more about my Great Aunt. Edna raised chickens and turkeys and she would complain that when it rained, she would have to get the turkeys out of the rain because they tilted their heads up, and she was afraid they would drown. Kathy also remembered that Edna had a decorative trunk in her house with Chinese writing on it. Not knowing the story behind that makes her life an even more intriguing mystery.
That’s about all I know about my Great Aunt. Finding information about her life after the fact has been difficult. It is also captivating. I sometimes wish I could travel back in time and get to know her when we were both about the same age. I would like to be her neighbor. I would like to get to see her as a young married woman, and I could get to know my Uncle Harvey, who I never met in this life. I imagine that they would be the kind of neighbors anyone would want. We might barter food for work, or work together to dig wells for each other. When the snows in winter would seal us off from the outside world, I imagine that you might find footprints in the snow between our houses. And I might fully know how the land shaped the people of the Eastern Shore before the Bay Bridge existed.
In the mid 1960s, Granddaddy had a house built on the property and the Wigwam had been sold. Now that he had a house, we could visit for more than an hour or two. One time, we stayed there overnight, so we had time for a boat ride. He now had a little rickety dock in the cove, and he had a power boat (named Si Si) to go along with the rowboat (named Ug). I was now old enough that Dad let me row Ug by myself, as long as I kept it in the cove and didn’t go out on the main river. There was a narrow peninsula separating the cove from the main river channel. It was overrun with cattails and brush, but it had an old duck blind at the end of the peninsula. Dad watched me from shore as I rowed across the cove to visit the duck blind. I used the bow rope to tie Ug to the duck blind and peered through the slats in the blind out into the main channel. I observed the cultures of many new bird species….Canvasbacks, Loons, Great Blue Herons, Pintails, Mallards, and Scaups. There were Mergansers, Wood Ducks, Green-Winged Teal, Redheads, Brants, Shovelers, and Widgeons. Occasionally we might see a swan. And of course, several species of terns and gulls were always around. It was enough to make a young kid wide-eyed and bushy tailed!
Being located near the midway point of the eastern flyway, the Wye river and the rest of the Eastern Shore was not only a place for resident waterfowl, but it was a preferred stopover for migrating birds. My home in suburban New Jersey was also on the route. However, I only saw the birds flying high overhead, as a subdivision does not entice the birds to land and spend any time there. My backyard seemed only to attract Starlings and Sparrows.
My earliest memories living under the flyway was having to come inside to watch the long, endless black line of migrating birds passing overhead. There were so many, that is was not safe to play outside, unless you didn’t care about getting bird poop on your head. In the early 60s, we would stay inside for a couple of days, drinking hot chocolate and watching the endless, undulating line of birds, as we wondered what exotic destination in the Arctic would be their nesting sites. I wanted to travel with them, so I read books and looked at maps of the Arctic. They enticed me to learn about other worlds far away from New Jersey.
After a couple of days, the main group usually had passed by, so we could play outside again. It happened subtlety, but by the end of the 1960s, the migration numbers were way down. That was decades before I read Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”. Although DDT was already having an effect on bird life, I wouldn’t learn about it for a couple of decades to come.
On the other side of Aunt Edna’s and Granddaddy’s property was a cornfield. At the margins where the properties met, there was a row of blackberry bushes. For breakfast, we would pick a ripe cantaloupe from Granddaddy’s garden and spread blackberry jam on our toast. Only the flour and coffee did not come from the property. Later, we would all go out in the boat and catch blue claw crabs for our dinner.
When we knew that there would be a good chance to go crabbing, Dad would stop at a grocery store and buy some chicken necks for crab bait. Granddaddy let us use them, but he always preferred to troll for fish and then cut up the fish for crab bait. People who came from outside of the region were known as “Chickenneckers”. This is not an endearing term. Although we came from outside and used chicken necks for bait, Dad and I were different from the average Chickennecker. We crabbed from a boat and didn’t leave trash behind like most Chickenneckers did. We also didn’t use steel traps, but used hand lines and dip nets instead. With hand lines, you get to “feel” the line to see if a crab is tugging on your bait. You have to pull the line in ever so slowly. Yank the line too fast, and the crab leaves the bait. You need a partner with a dip net to scoop up the crab when he gets close enough to the boat. It did require some skill.
We would take Si Si out into the main channel, and head across the river towards Wye Island. Granddaddy wore his wide-brimmed straw hat to keep out of the sun. He wore a long sleeved button down shirt. His pants were kept up with suspenders. I don’t know if he even owned a belt. With his steady hand on the tiller of the outboard motor and his pipe clenched between his false teeth, we cruised toward Bigwood Cove on Wye Island.
Wye Island always intrigued me. There were only a few estates and large farms on the island. Access was limited, with only one small, one-lane bridge connecting the far side of the island to the mainland. There was a large cornfield just uphill from Bigwood Cove, but no access to the island from the river. The banks were overgrown with vegetation. There were always more wild birds on that side of the river. Exploring Wye Island was always an itch I wanted to scratch, but never did.
A couple of our boating excursions stick out more in my memory than others. One time, we pulled into the dock with nearly a full bushel basket of crabs. We sat the basket on the dock as we proceeded to unload the boat. When I looked up, one lone crab had escaped and was scurrying sideways down the dock. I leapt up to retrieve him, but he jumped back into the cove and escaped. Granddaddy told me just to watch the basket, while Dad unloaded the rest of the boat. I sat down on a wire milk crate and kept an eye on our catch. Crabs would climb over each other to get to the top of the pile and then grab hold of the wooden sides of the basket and begin to climb up toward the edge. But none of them escaped. I didn’t have to do anything to keep them in. Every time a crab got close to the top, other crabs would reach up and pinch his back flippers with their claws and pull him back down. This happened over and over again.
I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to pull back a member of your own species and prevent them from escaping. “Wouldn’t that be a good thing for the crab nation if the rest of the crabs worked together to free some of their own?”, I asked out loud.
Granddaddy looked through me with his steely blue eyes. The corner of his mouth moved almost imperceptibly, making a wry smile. The man of very few words spoke just a few of them to me.
“Mick, you remember what you saw the crabs do to each other today!” “People are a lot like that too!”
I was puzzled. I didn’t fully understand what he meant at the time. But I knew that if Granddaddy said something, it must have been meaningful. Now that I am older, I know the meaning of his words. Too many of us try to get ahead in life simply by pulling our fellow citizens down. There are too many examples of this which happened in my own life that I could point to. And Good Grief!…..during this election year, all we see are negative ads from both sides warning us about how the end of civilization will come if the other party gets elected. But like crabs, we need to remind ourselves that those who only work to pull others down will eventually end up in the pot of boiling water, have their shells cracked, and end up being eaten for dinner. Then, my thoughts go back to that one brave crab who despite everyone else trying to grab his hind flippers to pull him back down, crawled out of the bucket on his own and made it to safety. I hope he lived a good long life and was able to breed many times.
By the early to mid 1970s, Granddaddy no longer went out on the water by himself. He might make it out once a year, when we went down to visit him. I was becoming a young man by then, so I helped Dad pull out the boat and repaint Si Si’s keel. We scraped the barnacles off of Ug, and bailed out the rainwater from her and made her seaworthy, at least for the cove. But there were changes we were seeing already to the landscape. A newcomer bought Edna’s old house and the land upriver from it and built a large house with a boat dock. To keep erosion from eating away at the bank, they built a seawall. That project not only helped keep their land from eroding, it started the erosion of the peninsula which sheltered Granddaddy’s little cove. The old duck blind was still there, but it was now on a little island, as the peninsula had been cut in half. The lesson…..A change to one part of the ecosystem affects the whole system. An engineer will look at one part of the system and come up with a solution to a problem. A Geographer will look at the whole system and view how each part affects the others.
The last time the three of us went out into the main channel to crab was on a weekend in Mid- September in the mid 70s. Boat traffic was everywhere, and many of the boats were bigger and faster than Si Si. Most were pleasure boats, as the oystermen were mostly driven out by the decimation of the oyster beds from Hurricane Agnes a couple of years earlier. The increase of development in the area was also accompanied by an increase in pollution. Even though the Wye is called a river, it doesn’t flush out pollutants very well, as it is more a tidal estuary than a true river.
Outsiders now outnumbered locals, and the area had a different feeling to it. Looking across the river, at least Wye Island seemed unchanged. The large farm fields were still there, surrounded by a thick forest of white and red oaks, mixed with sweetgum and tulip-poplar. We drove the boat over to the other side and cut the motor somewhere in between Bigwood Cove and Drum Point. Granddaddy lamented the good old days of what the Eastern Shore was like when he was a young man. But what he told us of a proposed future development put a chill down our spine.
A new development proposal had been submitted for Wye Island which would drastically alter the landscape of the region. The area that we were looking at on the West end of the island, and just across the water from Granddaddy’s house would be the location of a village dock for a planned community called Wye Village. Wye Village would have over 700 dwelling units, with an 18-hole golf course. We could not imagine what the Wye would be like in another 20 years. Granddaddy said, “at least I won’t be around to see it happen!”
That visit was the last time when I set foot on his property. I went away to college in the late 70s and got my degree just before Granddaddy passed away. Mom and Dad retired and moved to Florida. Dad passed away in 1986 and is buried in a cemetery in Delaware. Mom died in 1996 and is buried in the family plot in Bridgeville, DE. After Mom’s funeral, Beth and I drove our rental car towards the Wye River. I wanted to show her Granddaddy’s old house and share my history with her. As we drove down Bennett Point road, I found the area unfamiliar. I finally found Kehm Road, which was Harvey’s and Edna’s last name. I drove down it until I hit the lane which would take you to Granddaddy’s house and Edna’s place. There was a NO Trespassing sign at the head of the lane. The cornfield was gone. New subdivision houses were in sight. The place didn’t have a welcoming feel to it, so I declined to drive past the sign and knock on the door, even though part of me really wanted to.
I went back one more time after Mom died. In 2015, we rode bicycles with some high school friends from our hometown in New Jersey all the way to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Since we were already on the Eastern Shore, I rented a car to see visit Mom, Dad, and Granddaddy at their plots in Bridgeville. After that we went down to the Wye. To my amazement, the tiny hamlet of Queenstown, where Mom was born back in 1922, now sports an outlet mall on Hwy 50. This time, driving towards Granddaddy’s house, we went almost all the way down Bennett Point road. Towards the end of that long peninsula, what we saw amazed us.
The migration of the rich into the area is manifested by the McMansions all along the road. The closer the property is to the water, the larger the houses. Little cinder block houses like Edna used to have were gone….bulldozed to make room for the gentry class. I suspect that many of these homes were second homes or weekend retreats of Washington lobbyists or investment bankers. Increased land values and lack of jobs with the decline of the fishing and crabbing industries caused out-migration due to poverty. The In-Migration is a factor of wealth. I can’t help but think….”Was what was lost worth more than what was apparently gained?”
Since I live on the West Coast and have no relatives closer to Maryland than Connecticut, I might not be able to visit Wye Island in person again. But I often visit in using Google Earth. I found out that the planned community on Wye Island fell through, and it is still largely undeveloped. I am thankful that such a special place still exists there. However, there is a different story on the West side of the river. I found Granddaddy’s old house. I could hover over the area, where I saw that there is a swimming pool where Granddaddy’s garden used to be. Most of the other houses in the area also have swimming pools. The peninsula where I rowed Ug to visit the duck blind is now gone. I don’t even have a picture of it anywhere. But it still vividly exists in my mind. How I wish I had documented things better when I was younger!
My own town of Bend, Oregon is currently undergoing tremendous change. The little town of 24,000 that we moved here to in the 1990s is now rapidly pushing towards a population of 100,000. The landscape and the culture are changing. Out of state license plates parked in driveways are a common occurrence. The rudeness coefficient is on the rise. There are forces, from both inside and outside of the region which I cannot stop. But I can do my best to research the history of Bend and to document what Bend is like today, so that future residents will know the story of our landscape and how it shaped our society. If we don’t know from whence we came, how can we ever plan on where we are going?
Central Oregon used to be geographically isolated enough to keep the population from growing so much. We used to be a long way from anywhere. The mountains separated us from the large populations of the Willamette Valley to the west. It is a 2.5 hour drive to the Columbia Gorge to the north. The desert covers the 2/3 of Oregon to the east. It is almost a six hour drive to Boise, the largest city to our east. We didn’t worry about a Bay Bridge being built that would change our world.
A few things changed that scenario. The regional airport for Central Oregon, Roberts Field in Redmond just to our north, doubled in size a few years ago. Just a decade ago, one would have to take a turbo prop airplane to link to either Seattle, Portland or San Francisco to then link up with a major carrier to go anywhere. It wasn’t convenient to get here. Now, there are direct jet flights to Redmond from places like Denver, Salt Lake City, Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles and Phoenix. That eased the movement of people into the region as much or more than the Bay Bridge did for the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Combine that with the boosterism of the Visitor Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce, and the speed at which information travels over the internet and you have people from all over flocking to Bend in record numbers to move here. The cost of living is skyrocketing, widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. My own home has more than tripled in value since we bought it, but that doesn’t necessarily make me happy. However, it does make realtors, investors, and land speculators very happy.
The problems of Wye River and Bend, Oregon boil down to the same issue….there is a dichotomy between the people who view land as a commodity from which to trade for monetary gain, and those who view land as a community to which they belong, which sustains their lives and livelihoods.
All of this uneasiness I feel, brings me back to Granddaddy on the Wye River. This is how he must have felt too. I feel that I’m getting to know him and understand him more in death, than in ways that I never imagined I would when I knew him in life.