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  • Southern Reverie

Smith Island, Maryland: The History and Life of This Watermen's Community

We visited Smith Island, Maryland, in the Fall, and the locals had planned an all-island event to celebrate Halloween. From the sound of it, the whole island was participating, with over 30 Smith Island Cakes being made, costumes in the works, and family members coming in from the mainland to join in. There's a feeling on this small island that everyone is kinfolk in one way or another and they contribute to not only keeping the island functioning but also holding the line for each other as they have done for centuries.

Their isolation is a point of pride because they have learned how to navigate it into their bond to the land, the history, and each other. Knowing we couldn't stay for the event because we had a ferry back to Crisfield, we got the distinct feeling of missing out -- not only on the event but some sense of belonging they've got innately that we struggle for on the "mainland."

The Where, When, and What of Smith Island

Smith Island, Maryland, is the last inhabited island in Maryland, and it is inaccessible by vehicle. Nestled in the Chesapeake Bay, Smith Island is known for its rich history, being a hub for the seafood industry in this region, a famous signature cake, and a rock-strong sense of community. In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy, the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development offered buyouts to landowners. Most refused the offer.

Technically, the island, which is nine square miles, is split between two states: Maryland in the North (the only inhabited area, which is about four square miles) and Virginia in the South. Folks have called this island home since the 1600s when British, Welsh, and Cornish settlers arrived. It was named for Henry Smith of Jamestown, who was granted 1000 acres in Maryland in 1679. The population peaked in the 1900s with 800 residents. Today, it's a community of a little over 200 people.

The inhabited Maryland portion of the island comprises three distinct island communities -- Ewell, Rhodes Point, and Tylerton. Because there are no bridges, tunnels, or airports, they have relied on boat and ferry transportation to and from the island from the 1600s to the present day. There are very few vehicles on the island, mainly concentrated in the Ewell community. Residents rely on golf carts and bicycles to get around. The original Island Belle sailed to and from Smith Island from 1916 until 1977, providing the only regular transportation. She was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

There are several churches on the island and graveyards where residents have worshiped and been buried for centuries. Smith Islanders come together for other festivities throughout the year, including the Smith Island Crab Skins Baseball Game, the annual Smith Island Cake auction, and the summer Blessing of the Fleet ceremony.

There is an elementary school on the island but middle and high school students take a daily boat to/from Crisfield to attend school. But that wasn't always the case; older islanders recall boarding on the mainland all week to attend high school.

The Language of Smith Island, Maryland

Smith Island is inhabited by one of the region's oldest English-speaking communities, known for its relic accent, which preserves many speech patterns from the original English colonial settlers. The local dialect has similarities to the dialects of Cornwall but is distinctive to Smith Island. The most obvious difference is the way islanders pronounce certain words, and some of their words trace back to words used in Elizabethan English. For example, one word used by islanders is "proggin," which refers to collecting arrowheads or other artifacts from marshland. This is a word from the early 1600s when it meant "poking around for anything that might be picked up."

Backwards talk makes their language even more interesting and closely resembles what others might consider irony or sarcasm. It is exactly what it sounds like, and is kind of like grammar, as we might understand it, gone awry. You might hear a Smith Islander say: "That don't look right," which really means "that looks good." Or instead of saying "He really loves his son," they might say "He don't think nothing of his little boy." This includes a banter or tone of playful insults the islanders are very familiar with. Outsiders might see Smith Islanders calling each other names and insulting each other and think they don't like each other which is far from the truth.

A Watermen's Community

Not long after settling on the island in the 1600s, they realized that the only source of income, food source, and sustainable livelihood for their families would have to come from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The history of Smith Island cannot be separated from the watermen and their families. For centuries, Smith Island has been known for its thriving crab industry, with its watermen navigating the waters of Tangier Sound in search of the prized Maryland Blue Crab. Most of America’s soft-shell crabs are caught within 50 miles of Smith Island.

Oysters also played a part in the Smith Island economy. Watermen earned fortunes during a 19th-century oyster boom. Smith Island watermen harvested oysters from the bay in the late 19th century and shipped them via railroad all over the country until the oyster supply gave out.

Passed down through generations, the skills and traditions of the watermen are an integral part of the island's identity. These hardworking individuals rise with the sun to navigate the waters of Tangier Sound and the Chesapeake Bay, meticulously setting and checking their crab pots. It is a vocation and lifestyle that requires unwavering dedication and a deep respect for the water. It's a place where its industry and community values intertwine so much that when someone needs help -- with literally anything -- everyone shows up to help.

What's This About a Smith Island Cake?

So yes, there's all this history, community, beautiful views of the Chesapeake Bay... and there's Smith Island Cake. This delicious dessert has also become a symbol of Smith Island. It's a staple of community events and recipes have been passed down through generations. Layer upon layer (we're told at least 8-10 layers to truly rank) of moist cake, perfectly stacked with sweet, creamy icing, these cakes have earned their status of the most famous cake on the Eastern shore and the official Maryland State Dessert as of 2008. The original and most popular flavor is a yellow cake with chocolate fudge frosting.

So when did all this cake goodness start? The story goes that women on the island started making cakes in the 1800s to send with the watermen on the autumn oyster harvest. Not only was the cake a reminder to the men of their community that they were loved and missed. But there were more practical reasons for the numerous sugary layers. The men not only loved sugar, they needed it for the energy boost, plus all the layers of chocolate icing helped to keep the cake moist. A large hunk of cake was so sweet, it would theoretically last longer than a regular piece of cake in both freshness and energy.

Another reason for all the layers was that Smith Island didn't get electricity until the 1950s-- decades after the rest of the country. The women who baked these cakes had to do so on a wood stove, more specifically, a metal box on top of their wood stove. Getting a thick cake to rise was next to impossible, so they creatively poured a small amount of batter into multiple pans and repeated the process several times. There was no refrigeration, so the layers of icing helped preserve the cake's moistness. The original icing was made with only sugar and chocolate, no butter, which also helped preserve the cake for more extended periods of time.

Holding On to Smith Island

They say that if more isn't done, Smith Island won't exist in 2100. The island is home to many ecological wonders, teeming with biodiversity and natural beauty. From the abundant wildlife to the abundant marshlands, Smith Island gives a grim glimpse into the delicate balance of nature.

The expansive marshlands of Smith Island serve as critical habitats for various species, including migratory birds, fish, and crabs. The marshes also act as a natural filtration system, helping to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. Like many coastal communities, Smith Island faces grave concerns about its future. Rising sea levels and erosion threaten the island's delicate ecosystem and its residents - human and otherwise. The erosion of the shoreline and loss of wetlands can disrupt the natural balance and have a profound impact on the island's ecosystem.

The community of Smith Island is working on the preservation of its shorelines. Through initiatives such as shoreline restoration and conservation efforts, the residents are taking steps to protect their island's natural beauty for future generations. They need our help.

But, the stories of all the people who have called Smith Island home for over 300 years are the life of this place, and nothing can take that, not the rising seas or the faster pace of the outside world. Living on Smith Island means being part of a community that values connection, resilience, and a shared purpose, where people make 30 Smith Island cakes for their Halloween celebration, and everyone shows up when someone says I need help. There's hope in that.


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