Issue Date: Chesapeake Bay Magazine - April 2007
FEATURE DESTINATION: A Quiet Place
counting Len's Marina and the ever popular Stoney's Seafood and Crab
House, there's not much there there on the little Patuxent River
peninsula that calls itself Broomes Island. And that, we all know, is a
by Wendy Mitman Clarke
photographs by Greg Vicik
Don't need much of an excuse to hop in the boat and go for a ride. A beautiful late fall weekend, a promise of softball-size crab-cakes, a cruise up one of the Bay's prettiest rivers to an island enclave (to obtain said crabcakes) . . . that was all the enticement I needed to round up the family, hop in the Bertram and point her down the Bay to the Patuxent River and Broomes Island.
I knew there wasn't much "there" there, as they say, but often that's exactly what draws me to a place. Besides, I did know that Stoney's Seafood and Crab House, home of the crabcake of my desire, was right on Island Creek, and that--plus the allure of an uncommonly warm, pretty day in late October--was reason enough.
We flew down the Bay, around Cove Point, past Solomons Island and up the Patuxent until we saw, about eight nautical miles up from Solomons, the entrance to Island Creek. To the northeast, acres of sloping fields flowed down to long strands of beach, and beyond that the early gold of fall colored the marshes. There were a couple of recreational fishermen out and a few workboats, but it seemed that for now we had this lovely section of river to ourselves. And as we approached the creek's entrance and slowed to a crawl, I realized that this ordinarily rare and happy circumstance might actually indicate a problem. There was Stoney's dock up ahead, dead empty. Here it was, just about half past twelve on a Saturday; the place should have been crawling with other boats and seafood aficionados. But as we got closer and looked in the darkened windows, it was clear the chairs were up on the tables; Stoney's was closed (for the season, as it turned out, just the night before). We were up Island Creek without a crabcake.
And so that wonderful, whimsical thing called serendipity was set into motion--and thereby hangs the tale of how I got to know Broomes Island a little better.
The first time I visited Broomes Island I had been invited to a mid-summer crab bash at a friend's parents' house on Island Creek. I remember rivers of beer and mountains of crabs--two steamers going full-tilt--a bunch of people who treated me like I was long lost family, and a rather wild and ill-advised water-skiing expedition that is best left to the reader's imagination, thank you very much. The next time I visited was again by land yacht, this time to sample Stoney's famous crabcakes. And the third time was to wade in the water with former state senator Bernie Fowler, who grew up here and has made it his life's mission to restore the Patuxent River and the waters around Broomes Island to their pristine and beautiful abundance.
In fact, one could argue that the annual Senator Bernie Fowler River Community Wade, as it is formally titled, is probably the only thing that might put Broomes Island on most people's maps. Since 1988, on the second Sunday in every June it has attracted state and national political and environmental bigwigs as well as neighbors to a small meadow beside a stretch of white sand on the island's eastern shore. Here they participate in a kind of church picnic-cum-environmental-political rally that culminates with everybody wading in--until Fowler, who's always front and center, can no longer see his high-top sneakers through the water. Once back on the beach, the official measurement of the waterline on his blue overalls is taken and the so-called "sneaker index" is noted for the year. Then, when it's all over and all the cars trickle back up the road, Broomes Island returns to what it is and has been for generations--a quiet place where everyone knows most everyone else and the noisiest things you hear on a late fall day are crickets singing in the grass and a boat out in the river that could use some muffler work.
The place that calls itself Broomes Island is in fact a narrow peninsula jutting into the Patuxent just above St. Leonard Creek, flanked on the east by Island Creek and on the west by Grapevine and Nan coves. It's a small place, not much more than a mile long and a half-mile wide at its beamiest. And like its better-known neighbor downriver, Solomons Island, it was largely isolated from the rest of the world even into the 1950s.
In his memoirs, self-published in 1977, John P. Broome includes a meticulous history of the family Broome (or Brome) dating from 1300. The family's introduction to the Chesapeake Bay came through John Brome, who arrived in Maryland sometime before 1650 and settled in what would become Calvert County on Brome's Manor, a grant of 2,000 acres on the tip of land along Island Creek--what is now known as Broomes Island. Obviously well connected and well off, the Brome family men were active in the politics of the young county and nation. Captain John Hooper Brome IV commanded Calvert County troops in the French and Indian War, and in 1774 he was appointed to the county commission charged with carrying out the provisions of the Continental Congress. During the War of 1812, Colonel John Broome VI took command of the Calvert County Militia, but the British burned the Broome mansion and confiscated all the crops and cattle.
John P. Broome, the 20th century scribe, describes a small house on the east side of Island Creek where he was born in 1888 with the help of Dr. John Dawkins, who lived about eight miles away and traveled by horse and buggy. Dawkins, he says, was assisted by an elderly Broome family member, Aunt Adeline Gantt, "whose experience was well-known." When Broome got older, his job every Saturday was to "hitch up the oxen" and haul shelled corn to a nearby mill owned by an African American who had been a schooner captain. "There was an ice house up the hill from the mill pond, which was usually filled by the people of the community as a joint venture, so that in the summer, when we went to take the corn, we would stop by the ice house and get a washing tub full of ice. We brought the ice home and put it in an ice pit in the ground, which was insulated with sawdust. Then for the entire week, we had ice for tea or for homemade ice cream." Broome walked a mile and a half to attend a one-room schoolhouse, and, not unlike island kids today, he recalls, "Whenever I could find time, I went fishing."
By the 1930s, Broomes Island had upgraded to a two-room schoolhouse with a woodstove, according to Bernie Fowler, who came along a few decades after Broome. "The upper-class boys--you know, the fourth to seventh graders--had to go get the wood and pump the water so the students could have water and heat," he told me when I'd talked to him in an earlier interview.
There were about 150 homes, he said, though he could only recall five or six cars on the island. People walked or rode horses. "Broomes Island was enjoyable because of the togetherness of the community. . . . You had to mind your manners because you had more than one mother or father; you had to walk the straight and narrow because a lot of people were watching out for you." Like many residents, Fowler's parents worked on the water. His father was a waterman who crabbed and oystered; it wasn't unusual for his mother, he says, to net 25 dozen soft-shell crabs a day during the season. "The aquatic life was so abundant. At one time there were sixty oyster boats going out of Broomes Island."
Fowler took up the waterman's life as well, but by the 1960s the river had grown murky and had lost most of its underwater vegetation, as well as the fish and crabs it supported. By 1970 Fowler was running for a seat on the board of county commissioners to begin his battle for the river, and the thriving watermen's livelihood of Broomes Island was, as in so many other places on the Bay, in a free fall.
Stoney's was closed, but its dock wasn't, so we tied up the Bertram and I went exploring on foot. Oyster House Road cuts across the island from Stoney's west, and though I didn't see the eponymous oyster house, it seemed a logical place to start my walk in search of something to eat. A crabcake, I figured, was probably out of the question, but maybe there was another establishment within walking or boating distance on the island.
The peninsula is barely a quarter-mile wide here, so in just a few minutes I found myself on the other side, standing in the store at Len's Marina talking to Dennis Kwiatkoski, whose family owns the marina and who was raised here. Boat ramp? They had it. Bait, ice and fuel? They had that too. Milk, bacon, eggs, butter, pancake mix, motor oil, chips and ketchup. Got it. Crabcakes? I asked Kwiatkoski. Yep, that too, right there in the cooler. I asked him if there were any folks around I could talk to about what Broomes Island was, and is, like. His mom, he told me, who with his father bought the marina in 1971 just happened to be upstairs.
Janice Kwiatkoski, who's approaching 68 years old, was born and raised on the island, the daughter of a waterman. "He used to be a captain at Denton Oyster House just at the end of the road here," she told me, resolving the Oyster House Road riddle. "They just tore it down." Like Fowler, she attended the two-room schoolhouse, which was closed in 1975 and reopened later as a civic center. "When I was little we still didn't have electricity, the whole island," she said. "Nobody had cars. Everybody had a boat."
She too remembered years when the island's waters supported an astonishing quantity of fish, crabs and oysters--and everyone knew how to catch them, of course. "When I was younger, a teen-ager, and we'd be sitting here and say, 'What should we have for dinner tonight? Let's have soft crabs.' And you could go down and in a half an hour have enough for dinner."
Then, as now, people took their seafood seriously. She told me the story of the late Tina Lowery, who had owned Lowery's Seafood, which was next door to the marina until it closed in the 1980s. "Bless her heart, she passed away and would not give up the batter recipe for her fried clams. I used to beg her, and she would say, 'No, that's my secret and if I told anyone, anyone could do it.' My mom and I both for years have tried to imitate it."
Janice Kwiatkoski's mother, now 88, is one of the last of the oldest generation of natives still on the island. "It's really grown up," she said. "Most of the natives from here are gone. We're some of the last ones left."
It's the same story that's playing out in communities like this all over the Bay: People who have come from outside (they call them "foreigners" here) and have discovered what a wonderful place it is to live. "People come here to visit and they fall in love with it," she said. "It's a quiet, peaceful place. You don't have the sirens." She noted that when she was working at the Broomes Island post office in 2000, the official population was still only about 300. She pointed out her sliding glass doors looking over the marina and, beyond that, the sparkling Patuxent and the distant shoreline, thick with trees. "There is no sunset, I do not believe, in Maryland prettier than when the sun goes down behind those trees there."
After my talk with the marina matriarch, my crabcake jones was getting serious and I figured the same was probably true for the rest of my crew. I hightailed it back to the Bertram, rounded up the troops, and we cruised around the tip of the island and pulled into the outer pier at Len's, where Len "Lenny" Kwiatkoski Jr. was right there to help us in.
The first thing my kids spied was a tire swing hanging between two big pines near the boat ramp. Kwiatkoski assured us that sure, they could swing on it; he has a four- and six-year-old, and it wasn't long before my son Kaeo was zooming around on a borrowed Big Wheel and my daughter Kailani was looking around for the sidewalk chalk that someone had used to draw a hopscotch pattern near the store's back door.
Because it was a late fall day, Kwiatkoski was able to take a few minutes to talk. In high summer, he said, the boat ramp and fuel dock is nonstop. Even so, the marina was plenty busy, with people hauling boats, some winterizing and covering, others hoping for another day. "Growing up here," Kwiatkoski told me, "mostly everybody was related. I could go anywhere on the island and everybody knew me, and I knew everybody." Now, he said, he's more cautious with his own kids; "There's just a lot more people in and out. The population has at least doubled in the last thirty years." His son Ty, though, has found his calling already on the water; at six years old "he keeps the whole family in soft crabs," Kwiatkoski told me. "He sheds out the peelers, that's his favorite thing to do."
Over the years Kwiatkoski has seen the boat traffic coming into the marina shift from mostly smaller boats--16 feet or so--to boats averaging 25 feet. "We never advertise, we're not in the phone book, but we're full all the time," he said. "We're getting into generations now. Some people are keeping boats their parents had." (Indeed, the marina itself is a multigenerational affair. Kwiatkoski's father, known alternately as "Big Len" and "Ski," co-owns the business with his son Lenny Jr. and still works here, though he's not around today.)
For this end of the island itself, the marina store is obviously a coffee and communications hub. There's a small table in the back near the cooler, the coffee and the microwave, with stacks of the Salty Dog and the Nor'Easter next to Len's Suggestion Box, a wooden box decorated with painted fish and palm trees. "This is the headquarters," Kwiatkoski said. "This is where everybody comes with all the gossip. They know I won't tell anybody. Every morning I have at least ten guys come in here and have coffee and solve the world's problems."
At the moment, though, my problem was still crabcakes. Enter Jerry Gainey, hands full of those very things. Gainey has been coming to Broomes Island for about a dozen years and, it turns out, happens to be one of Maryland's crabcake kings (type "Jerry's Seafood crab bomb" into Google and you will get about 181,000 hits). He got into the seafood business years ago selling oysters out of the back of his '68 Chevy; he went on to found Jerry's Seafood in a shopping mall in Lanham, Md., where he invented the "Crab Bomb," a 10-ounce softball of lump crab held together with nothing but Old Bay and mayonnaise. Jerry's Seafood went on to become locally famous for its fare; he retired in 2003, and he and his wife Peg moved to their house just off Broomes Island. But Gainey, see, is one of those guys who never actually retires.
"It's nice, but you know I got a lot of energy and this is my passion; I love to feed people," he told me. Gainey has been dropping off his famous crabcakes at Len's all season, but beginning this year will be making them on the spot, in the marina's new kitchen. "We got something good going on here." He handed me a Jerry's Original, a healthy-size crabcake in the appropriate container--a potato roll (not whole wheat, either, it goes without saying). "I just made 'em up. One minute in the microwave." I popped the little devil into the nuker, gave it one minute, and moments later my crabcake problem was finally resolved, and then some. There was enough to share with Johnny, too.
It was late in the day when we ended our visit to Broomes Island with a walk over to the meadow and beach where Bernie Fowler has his wade-in. Next door, a beautiful post-and-beam structure was going up, and while Johnny went to try for some perch off a nearby dock with Jerry Gainey (who still fishes with an old bamboo rod), I stopped to talk with the new house's owners, Bill and Debbie Tochtermann. We had seen the structure on our way into Island Creek and wondered what it was. Bill Tochtermann explained that it's going to be their home--and it's going to be a lighthouse. The tongue-and-groove frame is made of Douglas fir, and will have a circular staircase going up the middle to the light.
The Tochtermanns, who until recently lived and worked in Washington, D.C., also owned a small marina on this site for about eight years, with a boat ramp, ship's store and transient slips. Hurricane Isabel wiped it out, and when they rebuilt they decided to scale the operation back to 18 slips with permanent tenants, all on lifts. The disheartening experience of Isabel, though, didn't dampen their love for the island. "We like it down here," Bill Tochtermann said simply.
The kids were playing on the beach next door, Johnny was still fishing off the dock, and I walked along the strip of sand facing east toward tomorrow's sunrise. The river was supple and soft in the late afternoon light, tiny waves lipping the sand, and all I could hear were crickets, birdsong and the far-off rumble of a boat motor. I had found crabcakes after all, and a good bit more, on Broomes Island.
Cruisers Digest: Broomes Island, MD.
Though small, Broomes Island pokes prominently into the Patuxent River on the northern side, and it's an easy 8 nautical miles up the deep, well marked river from Solomons Island to red "2", a flashing red mark that denotes the entrance to Island Creek. Look left as you turn into the creek and you will see the beach where Senator Bernie Fowler holds his wade-in every year on the second Sunday in June; often boats will anchor off here in about four to eight feet of water to dinghy in and take part in the festivities. Just past red "2" you will see the Tochtermann's private marina and their lighthouse home to port, and as soon as the creek narrows, Stoney's Seafood and Crab House (410-586-1888; www.stoneys seafoodhouse.com, open seasonally), also to port, with a dock out front with plenty of room for visiting.
Island Creek stretches about a mile northward before it forks; both forks end quickly in shallow water. The main body of the creek is about eight feet deep and offers good protection from the summer southerlies that can barrel up the river. If you're in a deep-draft boat, this is where you will want to anchor to dinghy in and explore the island.
Len's Marina (410-586-0007), which is the only marina here with transient slips and services, is on the opposite side of the peninsula, less than a mile up from the island's tip. Depths here range from 3 to 10 feet, more toward the former than the latter. We tied up in 4 feet of water at the outermost dock here. Len's has a boat ramp, a well stocked small store with groceries, fishing and marine supplies (including, of course, Jerry's crabcakes, as well as steamed shrimp, soft-crab sandwiches and fish sandwiches), gas but no diesel, inboard engine service and a pump-out.
The downside to Len's is its exposure to the Patuxent's northwest fetch; it pays to keep a weather eye out here, especially in the summer months when squalls are prevalent. As Janice Kwiatkoski, who has lived here her whole life, succinctly puts it: "This river gets nasty when a storm comes. It takes about five minutes for it to look like the Bay out there."
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