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.
Along with being chauvinistic about their tiny villages, Smith Islanders are hardy, independent and welcoming to visitors.
That last trait is no accident. 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 colonists. Most of the original settlers were English and Welsh, and vestiges of their Elizabethan dialect persist. I soon realized that “air” means “are,” and “tie-yum” translates to “time.”
Following in the bootsteps of their ancestors, most men eke out their 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. Along with hard shell crabs, Smith Island is the center of the country’s soft shell crab industry.
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 that are a wonder 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 acts both 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.”
If you go
Smith Island is 12 miles from Crisfield, Maryland. Several boats offer scheduled service to the island, about a 45-minute ride. For accommodations, there’s a choice of several inviting B&B’s.
For more information about Smith Island, call 1-800-521-9189 or log onto www.visitsomerset.com
Victor Block is an award-winning travel journalist who has traveled around the U.S. and to more than 70 other countries. He is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and North American Travel Journalists Association. He is a guidebook author and contributes travel stories to a number of newspapers and websites.