The Eastern Shore at the Baltimore Book Festival

Regular blog posts? I’ve been delinquent.

My wife and I went to the San Francisco  Bay area to visit my wonderful cousin Dixie and her boyfriend, Tony for a couple weeks. Then I had my 35th High School Class Reunion, and being our reunion committee’s designated procrastinator, I had a lot to do in a short couple weeks. Then it was helping to plan my daughter’s surprise 30th birthday party. Over this past  weekend, it was the Baltimore Book Festival with the Eastern Shore Writer’s Association I had to prepare for. On Sunday morning I participated in a panel on the Inner Harbor Stage with four other authors – Norene Moskalski, Amy Schisler, Neal Gillen and Peggy Jaegly.

I plan on telling you more about all this stuff that’s kept me away from Eastern Shore Brent for a month or so, and then getting back to out regular scheduled programming of Eastern Shore history, memoir and pop culture. In the meantime, I’d like to share my introduction  from yesterday’s panel:

Welcome to the Eastern Shore Writers Panel presented by the Eastern Shore Writers Association.

Over the next hour, my fellow authors and I are going to share with you some Eastern Shore heritage, character, and storytelling.

We’ll discuss how life on the Eastern Shore has affected our writing.

We’re also going to tell you more about the Eastern Shore Writers Association, currently celebrating our 30th year.

ESWA is an organization for authors of all levels.

Our membership includes aspiring writers looking for a place to begin,  highly accomplished writers, and writers at all levels in between.

Located on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay, known as the Delmarva Peninsula to represent the 3 states (Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia) within its geographical boundaries, from the lighthouse at Cape Charles to the Chesapeake’s upper tributaries, and from the Bay Bridge to the Atlantic Ocean, the Eastern Shore is a place alive with stories.

For almost 10 years before my first two nonfiction books – Remembering Kent Island: Stories from the Chesapeake and A History of the Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department were published by The History Press, I conducted an oral history program sponsored by the KI Heritage Society.

I interviewed scores of senior members of our community, among various walks of life, many who have since passed away.

I collected personal stories of oystermen and crabbers, of farmers and business leaders, politicians, preachers and music teachers.

I filmed their memories for posterity, and hopefully contributed to the preservation of knowledge that otherwise may be forgotten, eroded away like an unprotected Chesapeake Bay shoreline.

I learned a lot from those Oral Histories and made friends of people who had before only been acquaintances.

Working on that project was a privilege.

Technically an oral history is a firsthand spoken word account of someone’s life, an event, a time or a place, and is typically conducted in the form of a recorded interview.

To me oral history is storytelling at its most ancient and most personal level.

It’s history with emotion. It’s history with a voice.

One of the things I like best about oral history is the fiction of individual perspective, the element of embellishment, of the teller improving the tale through the telling, of not letting facts get in the way of a good story.

Facts don’t always tell the whole truth.

The people of the Eastern Shore have always been known for the blunt earthiness and salty eccentricity that comes natural to tough folk living off the land and the water.

Kent Island, at the eastern terminus of the bay bridge, the largest island in the Chesapeake Bay, is one of the oldest permanent English settlements in our country.

Originally claimed for Virginia by the surveyor/ fur trader William Claiborne in 1631, years of violence, bad blood, and the first recorded naval battles in North American waters followed after King Charles I granted to George Calvert, the 1st Baron of Baltimore, a charter for the colony of Maryland, which included the Eastern Shore and Claiborne’s already settled Kent Island.

Claiborne, though on the losing end of Eastern Shore history, did not give up easily. Feeling wrongly persecuted and badly treated, he argued and battled tenaciously, and long after defeat, bad-mouthed his enemies, and harbored bitter resentments.

On the Eastern Shore, we know how to hold a grudge.

Our Revolutionary War record has highlights for sure, but a lot of the Eastern Shore was Tory country. We kicked some redcoat butt in the War of 1812 though. And in the Civil War era we leaned south. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln didn’t get one vote from my home county.

For generations, except for certain advancements in work or leisure, life on the Eastern Shore remained virtually unchanged.

The first span of the William Preston Lane Jr Memorial Bridge, the Bay Bridge to everybody except the state of MD, opened in 1952.

Before that, access from Baltimore, Annapolis, Washington D.C. and beyond was only feasible by boat – dugout canoes and sailing ships, barges and bugeyes, schooners and skipjacks, steamers and ferries.

Though generally self-sufficient, life on the the ES did require interaction with the outside world. Supplies, mail, news, and even entertainment (as evidenced by the early 20th century’s James Adams Floating Theater), were shipped in; seafood, farm products, (and the occasional son or daughter who was “Craving the World”), shipped out.

The Bay Bridge changed all that.

Much of the Eastern Shore can still be called rural-in-nature, but suburban sprawl has increased exponentially over recent decades.

And though there’s always been some reluctance to accept “foreigners” – anybody whose family tree doesn’t have roots going back 7 generations – one attribute we on the E.S. have always been known for is our hospitality.

Colonial era ordinaries and taverns were at the heart of regional economic, political and social activity, serving villagers and travelers alike. The tavern proprietor also often functioned as postmaster, real estate agent, auctioneer, arbitrator, and referee.

After the Civil War, as our economy expanded, boardinghouses and hotels began to proliferate.

Around the turn of the 20th century, and for fifty years or so, our Chesapeake shorelines were dotted with grand vacation resorts such as the Love Point Hotel, where in the early 1930s, a buck and quarter bought you an-all you-could-eat meal of crabcakes, softcrabs, fish and oysters, Maryland fried chicken, chops, steaks, corn-on-the-cob, mashed potatoes smothered in country butter, local tomatoes, hot beaten biscuits, and homemade pies and cakes.

And of course there was nothing like a little sweet tea, or local bootlegged liquor, to wash it all down.

And the Eastern Shore, like most places with a long history, has its share of legend and lore that is scoffed at in the light of day, but isn’t as funny after the sun goes down.

In the old days, folk feared will-o’-the-wisps or jack-o’-lanterns, mysterious lights that appeared at night, hovering over the salt marshes at a distance, and luring susceptible victims to a watery grave.

Ghosts are everywhere.

In 1712, an Eastern Shore spinster named Virtue Viol was prosecuted in Maryland’s last witch trial.

Over several frantic nights in July 1952, just as the Bay Bridge was opening, a commotion of UFO activity was documented from the lower Eastern Shore to the seats of power in Washington, D.C.

Certainly the most celebrated mystery in the modern era is reports of a strange 30-40 ft bay serpent, affectionately called Chessie. There is still an occasional sighting, but the Chessie frenzy was concentrated in the waters surrounding Kent Island throughout the 1980s, and garnered national attention after a local family supposedly videotaped the cryptozoological creature.Though skeptics speculate what witnesses have actually seen is such natural phenomenon as detached construction equipment or displaced marine animals, others believe Chessie could be anything from a surviving prehistoric monster to a giant mutant eel.

I’m telling you. You can’t make this stuff up.

What I did make up, however, is my recently released first novel, Bloody Point 1976 which takes place over our country’s Bicentennial Weekend, and is a rowdy and racy story about Tooey Walter, a young and naive Chesapeake Bay waterman hired to retrieve a local bigwig’s daughter from The Block, Baltimore’s notorious red-light district.

I’ll be at the Eastern Shore Writers Booth from 1–3 pm today, so I hope you’ll stop in to say hello, and perhaps purchase one of my books or a book from one of the other authors participating in this morning’s panel.

Thank you for your time.

4 thoughts on “The Eastern Shore at the Baltimore Book Festival

  1. Glad your blogging again. Sure miss ’em. But, family come first and glad you have new memories to last a lifetime. Your Baltimore Book Fair intro was captivating. Hope they enjoyed it as much as I did. My mom was a fan of Chessie. Still have some newspaper articles on it.

    • Thanks, Robyn, and thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the comments from Baltimore. It was a lot of fun. Like your brother, I was in the Navy at the height of Chessie Fever, but I remember my grandmother really being into it too. Thanks again!

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