"If you've always wanted to have your own island, your patience has been rewarded," the advertisement proclaims. "Barren Island can be yours."
It is the stuff of fantasies, the lure of a quiet setting surrounded by water and far removed from civilization and the burdens of life in the fast lane. But after more than two years on the market, this seemingly idyllic piece of real estate off Maryland's Eastern Shore is still for sale.
It is, for all practical purposes, the island nobody wants.
The families who had lived here for generations abandoned the island around the time the school closed due to declining enrollment. The last family left in 1916.
Afterwards, it belonged to Consolidated Engineering, a Baltimore building firm, then to Victor Frenkil, a politically influential Baltimore contractor. Maryland Comptroller Louis Goldstein owned a share of it with Frenkil in the early 1960s. Consolidated Engineering bought it back for a few years. Then James F. Jackson 3d, an entrepreneur currently based in Frederick, acquired it in 1978. Jackson put it up for sale the next year.
Jackson could not be reached for comment on why he put the island up for sale, but his real estate agent, Rebecca Lowe, had a simple explanation. "He doesn't use it," she said.
The only prospective buyer to bid for it seriously since it went on the market May 30, 1979 tried to convince the state the island would make a great place for a prison -- sort of an Alcatraz by the Bay. The state declined and the investors backed out of the deal.
Nature doesn't seem to want it, either. Over the years, the island has been steadily eroding. The birds left more recently, after storms washed away their habitat of underwater grasses and marsh.
Along with the birds, the hunters left, according to natives of Hooper Island, when the government banned baiting within 150 yards of a duck blind, a practice formerly permitted for up to 10 days before the season.
"It's a sporting man's paradise . . . an ideal choice for a sportsmen's club . . . the finest duck, geese and fishing water," the brochure boasts nonetheless. In fact, an Army Corps of Engineers channel dredging project may result in some new waterfowl habitat nearby, created with the spoil, but for now the ducks and geese go elsewhere.
"All the fowl's in the fields," said John Phillips, who was a hunter's guide on the island a decade ago. "The geese go where they can get feed." His wife, Kitty, recalled, "It was one of the best hunting places in lower Dorchester County . . . . Today, there's hardly a feather."
Left over from its days as a premiere hunting spot is a lodge built in 1929 from the remains of a stately old Baltimore hotel. The living room has a huge fireplace and faces the main shipping channel of the Chesapeake.
"Over 8,000 ships a year will pass by the second floor living room," the literature says. To some, that might seem like living by the Capital Beltway with a view of all the truck traffic. It only seems to bother Mickey, the caretakers' watchdog, who barks at the freighters.
It was once six or seven miles long, with 13 families, a school and a church. The families farmed the island and worked the water. What's left is a shoreline that totals four miles and a graveyard with stones dating back to 1803. Despite its name, it is not completely devoid of life: there is said to be some deer, and stands of trees still dominate the place, although in decreasing numbers.
"Nothing can save it now," says Mildred Ruark, whose family was the last to go, although her mother cooked and cleaned for the hunters years later. "I wouldn't buy it if I had $10 million because it's washing away so fast."
To shore up the northwestern end, where the lodge sits, 1,000 feet of land was bulkheaded a year ago. To turn the shallow water on the island's northeastern side into marshy flatlands, dredging spoil is being pumped over from the nearby channel. The newly created marsh is "not long-term protection but might provide some short-term stabilization" of the eroding island, said Col. James W. Peck, the Baltimore District Engineer.
Lowe, the Cambridge agent handling the sale, acknowledges the erosion problem. It is certainly not a selling point, and even the number of acres left is a matter of conjecture. A 1967 tax map shows 347 but island watchers on Hooper guess the number is now no more than 200.
But, for $495,000 -- reduced from $595,000 -- Barren Island can be yours. The owner will even finance part of the price. There have been three nibbles but only one bite, earlier this year.
A Falls Church, Va., health management group offered $300,000. A counter bid of $350,000 was made and rejected. "It seems like a therapeutic environment," observed Charles H. Robbins Sr., head of the corporation that had wanted, among other things, to build a prison here for lease to the state. Maryland officials said they had other plans.
"It seems like things just fall through," Lowe said.
Now, it seems, the only people who want the place are the caretakers, Joe and Meredith Egry. "It's kind of quiet but we like it," said Meredith Egry. Should a new buyer come along, the Egrys have let it be known, they would be happy to stay.