The early October sun shines brightly as I tie up my skiff into the harbor of Tylerton, one of three towns located on Smith Island, MD. Here is where the Chesapeake Bay Foundation operates its Smith Island Education Center in the heart of town. I walk up the dock where I am greeted by Jessie Marsh, CBF’s senior manager for all our island education centers, including Smith. Jessie is a native of Tylerton but now resides in Crocheron, MD in Dorchester County. With a big grin, Jessie hands me what appears to be bear claws with handles. It’s time to pull some slow-roasted pork shoulders that have been cooking since last night.
Today is the Smith Island Pig Roast, a free community event that has been happening here since 1991 when a group of North Carolina folks started the tradition. It is a chance to gather all those connected to the island for an outdoor meal while enjoying each other’s fellowship. In preparation for the meal today, CBF barbeques around 180 pounds of pork, shucks four bushels of oysters, and acquires a giant tub of macaroni salad. The oysters will be breaded and fried, and the pork will be pulled and slathered in a vinegary sauce.
As I work diligently to pull apart the pork shoulders for the feast ahead, I look around the Smith Island center’s kitchen. Most people have a certain image in their minds when you say “environmental education center”: woods, cabin, dirt, and a bearded man in a flannel shirt directing activities. However, this center is unique in its unobtrusiveness; its ability to blend in with the town in which it resides. The education center here looks like any other house on Smith. And therein lies the beauty of this program: It fits right in with the community.
The Smith Island Center was established in 1978, and since its inception it has been a part of Tylerton. It is comprised of two houses—one of which is among the oldest in town—that were both family homes at one time. The center’s program involves visiting with locals and discussing the history of the island as it relates to the health of the Chesapeake. Students also experience life as a waterman by setting crab pots, scraping the underwater grasses for soft crabs, and oystering. The goal is to show students the way of life in this community and understand that it is directly connected to the Bay’s health.
Beyond its education program, the center adds to Tylerton in many ways. The economic impact of the center has been a boon to local people. The ferry is paid to take CBF students back and forth from the mainland to the island. Teachers may purchase part of their groceries for their trip from the Drum Point Market, the only store in the town. If they do not want to cook their own meal, teachers and students have the option of hiring Mary Ada Marshall to cater their meal with her famous baked rockfish or crab cakes, followed by a famous Smith Island layer cake.
CBF’s Smith Island Center also works to culturally enhance its neighborhood. Twice a year it hosts a Ladies’ Night where the hard-working women of the island can relax, swap stories, and eat together. In the spring it provides a chicken supper to accompany the annual Blessing of the Fleet, and in the fall it hosts the Pig Roast. The educators here have helped run the wintertime bingo series, hosted community clean-ups, and assisted families cleaning soft crabs for market. One educator even fell in love, got married, and stayed on the island after she left CBF. Needless to say, CBF has become an integral part of community life in the small town of Tylerton.
After I finish pulling the pork and washing my hands, I grab my camera and walk outside to see the throngs of hungry residents preparing for the feast. Most are sitting in the sun, talking with friends old and new. As the educators walk out the door with trays of pork and oysters, I cannot help but wonder if CBF’s relationship with Smith Island is a prime microcosm for our role in the broader watershed. In the community, we are a full-blown partner and stalwart neighbor. We take care of our neighbors when trouble arises and work to improve our communities. We hope for a better future and work hard towards a better Bay.
And now the lines form with our neighbors and friends. After a short prayer, the procession of eaters pass the table and pile on their vittles. The investments CBF has made in the community have been worthwhile, as evidenced by today’s gathering. The investments CBF is currently making in the watershed community will pay dividends in the future when we have a healthy, vibrant Chesapeake and educated future generations that will keep it that way. And that is something all of our neighbors can agree upon.