It started with an 11 p.m. curfew for everyone under 18.Then there were the "No Swimming" signs by the ferry dock, where generations of youngsters had gone swimming, and the $10 tickets for bicycles parked on the sidewalks. And, finally, a proposed ordinance that would outlaw loitering.
Through it all, there was little vocal opposition to the so-called "children's ordinaces" enacted by the Oxford town fathers to preserve peace and tranquility. Then, a few weeks ago, an Oxford commissioner made a racial remark, singling out black teen-agers for criticism, and suddenly the quiet was shattered.
In the ensuing uproar, the proposed loitering ordinance was tabled and some self-examination began. Looking around, more than a few people wondered if the meticulous care that has made Oxford one of the lovelist towns on the Eastern Shore has not also transformed a once bustling port into a place where only the wealthy are welcome.
Downes Curtis thinks it has. A master sailmaker who plies his art from a second story loft here, Curtis, 68, remembers when Oxford had more blacks like himself, families with lots of offspring and men who worked on the water or in the seafood and packing houses that thrived here.
"I'm not running the town down, but it ain't worth a damn now, so far as people," he said the other day. "You'd like to live here if you didn't have anything to do and had a lot of money."
His brother Albert agreed. "Now, it's mostly for retirement age. They want to keep the community quiet." And Seth Hetherington, an 18-year-old apprentice, piped up, "It's not a town for anybody to grow up in."
It was a noisy, boisterous, bustling place of weathered buildings and weatherd faces when the Curtis brothers were young, the quintessential working watermen's town. Now, a block or so from the sailmakers' loft, the houses all have been restored inside and repainted outside -- "pseudo-colonial quaint" is how one resident describes it -- and aging residents and tourists dominate the scene.
A few youngsters still appear from time to time in what could be called downtown, but more often or not they are outnumbered by the multitude of signs designed to restrict their movements.
Other signs serve a different purpose, reminding visitors that Oxford was mapped out in 1683, that the ferry across the Tred Avon River to Bellevue has run continuously ever since, that the restored Robert Morris Inn was built in 1710, that the cemetary dates to 1808. But old Oxford -- which makes a virture of its vintage -- is really a new Oxford in period dress.
Little by little, the human heritage has slipped away, the watermen dwindling from more than 100 to fewer than a handful, the black oysters shuckers and crabpickers virtually all gone.
Many of the homes the old-time residents once rented and sometimes owned have been sold to the wealthy newcomers. Just last spring, the black-owned Aloha, a local hangout, became "The Masthead" with a menu few if any natives could afford. And soon Pope's Tavern, Oxford's last blue-collar bar, will be gone, transformed by the Johnson & Johnson Band-Aid scion who is buying it into a "nice restaurant" without the pool table, juke box and men in gumboots who smell like oysters and crabs.
"If it weren't for the people who moved in with some money, I have an idea the places wouldn't have looked so good," said Epps Abbott, 67, one of four or five semi-retired watermen of Oxford.
Repairing his crab net the other day, Abbott recalled the Oxford of another time.
"There was close to 125 crab and oyster boats, at least eight or ten dredge boats -- skipjacks, bugeyes, even one schooner -- and three buy boats. There were eight big oyster and crab houses. They had a couple of boatyards here but they didn't have any such thing as a marina.
Now, the town's got nothing to sell anymore but service -- food and sailboats," he said.
The passing of the old Oxford is mourned not only by the dwindling number of natives -- said to account for no more than 20 percent of the town's 800 residents -- but also by the newcomers whose growing presence is responsible for the change.
"The ones of us who really think about life in this town," said Charlanna Harrington, 54 and a seven-year Oxfordian, "want it to stay as it is with a contented mixture of black, white, young and old, instead of an enclave for wealthy widows and aging couples who can no longer get help for their big estates or for extremely well to do younger couples."
"We really need the watermen -- that worries all of us -- you want the local person," said Mary Hanks, a resident and a Realtor who sells tiny lots for $80,000 and stately houses for upwards of $300,000.
"Everything here is really a plus," she hastened to add. "The whole town is a family. You've never been in a big family that didn't have a controversy."
In this feuding family, the children -- black and white -- are practically an endangered species. A shrinking enrollment forced the closing of the town's public school several years ago. Now, countering the children's ordinances is a movement to reopen the old school for young and old.
The controversy over the ordinances came to a head if not a conclusion the other week because of the remarks of Fletcher Hanks, a cantankereous commissioner who said during a discussion of the loitering measure one September night that he wondered "how you're gonna get these blacks off the street."
When someone proposed providing free movies for the teen-agers, Hanks added, "Those people are illiterates. We have a group, all you're doing is going to show films [to] these people that are supposed to be studying at night time, and they're illiterates and are gonna be a burden to us taxpayers for the rest of our lives."
The Easton Star-Democrat reported the remarks made at the poorly attended town meeting, and the reaction was volcanic.
Eventually, 270 citizens, led by Johnson Fortenbaugh Jr., a 31-year-old yacht broker, signed petitions seeking Hanks' replacement. At a stormy town meeting attended by some 200 residents last month, Hanks said he was sorry some people "misinterpreted" his remarks, but he did not resign.
Hanks a shoreman on his mother's side, left Oxford to fly for foreign governments during World War II, then returned home to patent a clam dredge and operate a seafood business. Now in semi-retirement, he is a self-styled ultra-conservative who decries what he considers permissiveness among today's youth, including his five grown children.
He was elected by a plurality of voters in June 1979. He won with black votes and on a platform that included adamant opposition to more marinas, another touchy issue in a town that welcomes sailboaters and their money but is wary of overdevelopment.
Hanks blames the current flap over his anti-marina stance. "I don't mince words, so I've naturally made enemies," he said.
The three town commissioners imposed the 11 p.m. curfew on minors in April.
In July, they got tough on bikers, posting signs and enforcing an old ordinance banning them from sidewalks. Eight citations were issued, including one to a 13-year-old boy who made the mistake of parking his bike in front of Doc's Quick Shop Market.
The anti-loitering ordinance came in September, along with another bill banning derelict cars and boats from public view. The series of actions prompted the Star Democrat in Easton to suggest sarcastically in an editorial that there be one all-encompassing law establishiing residency requirements in Oxford.
"As the population changes, we have to have change in the way we run the town," said Hanks. "Like the curfew. The commissioners didn't just dream it up, They respond to pressures. Then everybody says, 'Hey, you're against kids.' No, I'm not against kids, but we do have loitering."
In the wake of all the controversy, however, James Farmer, the head commissioner who previously championed the loitering ordinance, announced that it has been "tabled indefinitely." The father of five, Farmar added during a recent town meeting, "I'd like to go on record as defending the young people."