“When I was younger, I couldn’t wait to get out of here,” said Kwiatkoski, sitting at a table in the marina’s convenience store on a recent weekend. “Not realizing, I guess, how good you have it.”
The community, once dependent on the oyster harvest and the fickle nature of the crab population, now features only a handful of full-time watermen. Today, many Broomes Islanders work elsewhere but embrace the charms of a lifestyle that lacks the bustle of traditional suburbia. The river is still the big attraction, but not the only one — you can take a short walk to Len’s Marina and end up making an afternoon out of it.
On a warm fall Saturday, business was steady at Len’s, as Shannon, 38, chatted with residents picking up groceries, while Len helped push out boats for weekenders such as Danny Chambers looking for one last day on the water before winter. Chambers, a Montgomery Village resident, keeps his boat at Len’s and has been coming to Broomes Island for 25 years. “It’s peaceful and quiet,” he said.
Broomes Island, actually a peninsula, got its name from the Brome family, landowners back in the 1600s. The community, with a current population of about 400, grew up in the late 1800s as houses were built on the river and along the nearby coves and inlets. Today, residents often greet one another at Len’s, as well as the community’s tiny post office and the Broomes Island Wesleyan Church, which held its fall dinner at the old two-room schoolhouse that now serves as a community center.
Lori McCarty, who grew up in Broomes and heads the local civic league, says the school is often used for gatherings after a resident has a death in the family. “It’s nice to have a place to go and talk and unwind,” she said.
McCarty’s father, James “Tony” Pitcher, like his father before him, has been on the water most of his life: “As soon as I was big enough to get in the boat with my dad,” he said. Pitcher, 74, who worked as an electrician during the day and as a waterman the rest of the time, says he has cut back his hours on the water but remembers “when I could work daylight to dark and not get tired. . . . You can do so much more when you are doing something you really love.” He and his wife, Jackie, have been married for nearly 55 years and raised five children.
The water still has its appeal for today’s younger generation in Broomes Island, but there are other diversions. “I’m sure my son is playing Xbox right now,” Kwiatkoski said with a laugh.
McCarty, 51, who lives a few doors away from her parents and near several other relatives, says Broomes Island has always been a place where children could run around and play “and you don’t have to worry.” She and other longtime residents still talk about the businesses that once fronted the east side of the peninsula along Island Creek: Sadie’s Place and the last oyster house, Warren Denton Seafood, which had “piles of shells you wouldn’t believe how high,” McCarty said. The oyster house closed for good in 2001, a victim of the species’ decline in the region. Those properties are now part of Stoney’s, a seafood restaurant that draws crowds in the warmer months, some arriving by car, some by boat.
“A lot of people find Broomes Island because of Stoney’s,” said Sally Showalter of Re/Max One Realty, who has lived in Broomes Island for seven years. Showalter, a former Prince Frederick resident, and her husband had been looking for a waterfront property for about a decade. They said they “jumped at” the opportunity in Broomes Island, where their home lies on a seven-acre lot with a pier and a covered boat slip.
Housing styles and prices in Broomes range widely, from modest ramblers away from the waterfront to modern contemporaries with piers on the creeks and the Patuxent. Showalter said that waterfront homes, depending on home size and acreage, can run anywhere from $600,000 to more than $1 million. By contrast, a single-family home off the water was listed in the fall for about $200,000. Showalter said that while the number of “weekender” homeowners has likely increased, “there probably are more primary residents than weekenders.” Many of those residents commute to jobs around the region, including an hour and a half to Washington.
While Len’s Marina serves as a convenience store, the closest shopping area is 15 minutes away in Prince Frederick, “which is not a negative in the Calvert County world,” where residents are used to driving long distances, Showalter said.
Charlotte Wentz lives next door to the post office, built by her father; her mother was the first postmaster. Wentz, 72, who grew up in Broomes Island and has spent much of her life there, remembers how residents made their fun as well as their living on the river. Her late husband liked to race boats. “We would go out on the weekend and run [boats] from one end of the river to the other,” she said. One year, when the Patuxent froze over, people rode motorcycles on the ice, Wentz said, but one car driven by one of her cousins broke through and sank.
The lower portion of the peninsula features a low section prone to flooding when storms hit, though McCarty says you can still get an automobile through the water most of the time. Buildings have been flooded during mega-storms such as hurricanes Hazel and Isabel. But that’s part of life on the water, residents say. The island is served by wells and septic systems, and septic upgrades, when needed, include nitrogen-removal systems to reduce pollutants that eventually run into the Patuxent.
Members of the McCarty and Pitcher families intend to join others in cultivating “oyster farms” on submerged acres in the river, which if successful will not only repopulate the species but improve the water quality. They would like to preserve the lifestyle they’ve enjoyed for generations, and they’re not interested in the type of waterfront development that has taken place elsewhere in Calvert County. “We don’t want to be Solomons,” Pitcher said, referring to another Patuxent River community that attracts sizeable weekend and summer crowds.
“People who move down [to Broomes Island], they don’t want to leave, that’s for sure,” he added.
Jim Brocker is a freelance writer.