In Tiny Md. Town, Everyone Has a Say

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006

Mathematically, democracy in Port Tobacco approaches perfection: Two-thirds of all households have members who sit on the governing body and have a direct voice in municipal affairs.

And when there are such affairs -- the mayor's goats are running loose or the road needs a good graveling -- the other three families in the Charles County village are not without recourse.

"Folks in the town tell us, 'This is what we have to do.' And I say, 'Okay,' " said Mayor John T.E. Hyde, technically the president of the Village Commission. "I just do what I'm told."

Hyde, a mortician, said he is perhaps the only Democrat in Maryland's smallest municipality (population 18), but that will not prevent him from staying in office this election spring. The budget last year had six times as much revenue as expenditures. And there has been nary a scandal since the courthouse mysteriously burned down 114 years ago. Besides, no one else wants the job. "If someone campaigned for it, I'd say, go right ahead and take it -- be my guest," Hyde said.

Village Commissioner Dorothy Barbour put it this way: "We don't work like your larger places."

But in the verdant 60 acres of Port Tobacco, with its eight homes and one-room schoolhouse, one question always arises: Can a small town be too small?

"It kind of flies in the face of logic to even have an incorporated town of less than 20 people," said James L. Barbour, 81, who has lived in the same house for 53 years and has been calling for the abolition of the government at least since 1989, when the town had twice as many residents.

"Maybe they could meet in a telephone booth somewhere," he said of the village commissioners.

"We don't even have a telephone booth, shucks," said his wife, Betty Barbour.

Across the town square, his sister-in-law, Dorothy Barbour, who lives alone in her 18th-century house, begged to differ. In her living room, adorned with Hungarian china and white roses in the fireplace, Barbour, 89, said the mission of the town should be to maintain the historical integrity of a place that was Charles County's largest and most important town for two centuries until the 1890s.

The land around Port Tobacco, which in its heyday had 80 buildings, three hotels and two newspapers, has produced signers of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. After Abraham Lincoln's assassination, the Confederate sympathizers in town were said to have turned down large sums of money as they kept the whereabouts of John Wilkes Booth secret. The furnishings of Dorothy Barbour's Colonial living room -- and even its floorboards -- were once put on display in a Chicago museum.

"We guard our town. I would say zealously guard it," she said. "We are living amid tremendous history." As for the push for town abolition: "That was never taken seriously. That would never happen."

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