Monuments

The yard of a church is dotted with tombstones, which are a familiar sight around the minuscule island. (R. Latoff / Photri)

The vintage Capt. Eulice left tiny Onancock at 10 a.m. sharp, its polished deck dotted with a handful of locals heading home and tourists, standing out with their getaway moods and cameras strung about their necks. Destination: tiny Tangier Island in the heart of Chesapeake Bay, 12 miles from shore by boat and about 90 miles southeast, as the crow flies, from Washington, D.C. — thousands of miles away in mind and spirit.

We skimmed across the bay, seeing nothing but gray water and tacking sailboats, then a low-lying blue bulge appeared on the horizon and slowly crystallized into focus. Soon I made out white dots in a line — houses, a sky-blue water tower, a church steeple and a pier lined with pelicans.

They took flight and glided low across the water in synchronicity, momentarily disturbed, and an osprey eyed us from his piling-top nest. Heading into the harbor on the island's east end, at what is known as tourist dock, we passed oyster-shucking and crab-picking shacks and moored alongside the proud working boats inscribed with the names of loved ones: Three Sons, Mary Elizabeth, Miss Eloise and the like.

And then we were on Tangier. An aura of peace enshrouded its New England-style cottages, white picket fences and tiny, sun-baked lanes. For centuries, watermen, the fabled hard-working men of the Chesapeake, have lived in this flat, marsh-filled hinterland, eking a living from the water — crabbin', sharkin', eelin' and oysterin' — "whatever you can get," said Nancy, whom I had met on the boat.

She grew up on Tangier but had since moved to Crisfield, Md., on the Eastern Shore mainland, a picturesque village and out of the way in my big-city eyes but a big change in her opinion. She was here to show her childhood stamping grounds to two friends.

A line of mutated golf carts — many with three, four, five rows of seats and driven by women offering island tours — greeted our boat. But I was hungry, and most people on the island will tell you there's only one place to go — Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House, founded in 1939. It's a rambling old farmhouse, with several rooms crammed with long tables covered in white paper.

I was guided to a seat and, without further ado, white-aproned women started placing plate after plate of local fare in front of me — clam fritters, hot corn pudding, green beans, coleslaw, potato salad, pickled beets, applesauce, slices of baked Virginia ham, homemade rolls and baked butter poundcake.

"Crab cake?" one platter-laden waitress asked.

"Does a bear go into the woods?" asked Nancy, who sat next to me at the family-style table with her friends. She insisted these were the best crab cakes in Tangier, if not all the Eastern Shore, but I was willing to bet they might be the best in all of Virginia and Maryland, if not the East Coast. Mostly made of blue crab meat, they were waterman-fresh and lightly fried to perfection.

Given the amount of food I ate, I really should have taken the 20-minute stroll around the island's 1.25-mile perimeter. Instead, for some local flair I chose the $3 golf cart tour, led by Gina. With five others in our elongated golf cart, we barreled through tiny house-lined Main Ridge, as the island's biggest community is known.

Tangier has three communities — called ridges because they sit on ground a few feet higher than the surrounding marshland — connected by roads that are little more than paths. As she drove, Gina honked at locals chatting in the street, who returned a sociable wave.

Throughout Main Ridge I noted personal touches — a recipe board where I could purchase by honor system local recipes for corn pudding, shrimp-and-crab casserole and mom's coleslaw; a bench decorated with hearts and a sign that read "Rest a While." Gardens were lovingly maintained with flower patches and little girl and windmill statues. And the same balloons bedecked nearly every frontyard, avowing: "I Love Grandma" and "I Love My Grandparents."

The most disconcerting thing I spotted were the graves and coffins scattered in many frontyards — aboveground because there's not much extra space on Tangier and the water table is so high. The white marble monuments were interesting because many are etched with the same family names you see on mailboxes and business signs all across the island: Parks, Pruitts, Dises and, the most prominent, Crockett. These are a direct link to the past.

Tangier was first charted by Capt. John Smith, who spotted the isle on his exploration of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608. It is debated who the first settler was: Some say it was John Crockett and his eight sons, who came in 1686.

The first written record indicates that John's distant relation Joseph Crockett was the first official settler. He acquired 475 acres in 1778 and sailed from Cornwall, England, to claim his land. Regardless of who was here first, by 1800 there were 79 people on the Tangier Islands (as the trio of Tangier and two nearby islands, now uninhabited, were called). Almost half were Crocketts or descendants of Crocketts. They mostly farmed until the 1840s, when the seafood market was born and the Chesapeake exploded with sailing ships that transported oysters and, later, crabs to Baltimore and New York. Today, about 650 people, still mostly watermen and their families — a third called Crockett — call Tangier home.

No strip malls here

Gina jabbered away about the island in a well-practiced drone, pointing out buildings and other notable sites: the library, the post office, two churches, two grocery stores, one of the artesian wells, the volunteer fire department, one school (kindergarten through the 12th grade, with eight graduates last year), three inns, a 3-mile-long beach — nothing too eye catching until you ponder the fact that few other places can draw tourists by showcasing their day-to-day facilities.

And that's what's fascinating about Tangier. Such facilities — and the lack of them — provide a glimpse into another era. There are no stoplights, no movie theaters, no McDonald's, no jail, no supermarkets, no malls, no alcohol (though I overheard one man say that no alcohol is available or sold, but "plenty is brought in and drank"). There are few cars. Most people get around by golf cart or scooter — or on foot.

Because I live near Washington, D.C., I usually go over to Tangier for day trips. But a few years back, I stayed over one Saturday night. I was surprised to learn that Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House restaurant — my big plans for the evening — closes at 6 p.m., and the only thing to do afterward was attend a concert at one of the island's two churches.