"There's one Coke machine and one candy machine in Public Landing," said Jim Elliott, "and I've got 'em both."
Elliott owns Public Landing Harbor Seafood, the only active commercial enterprise here where the road from Snow Hill dead ends at the edge of Chincoteague Bay. He buys and sells soft-shell crabs and clams, and rents boat slips in this town that is home, he said, to "about 60 people and a hundred dogs."
It used to be, before the 1933 hurricane, a thriving little community. "The finest family summer resort and outing place on the Eastern Shore," according to a sales promotion brochure published in 1926.
The resort had its own merry-go-round, movie theater, bowling alley, water slide, dance pavilion, shops and one big hotel.
Most of the enterprises, located on a pier that extended into the bay, were swept away by the storm. Time did the rest and today Public Landing is a sleepy village of 30 or so houses, one large parking lot, a lot of rotting pilings and one county pier with nothing on it.
"Nothing but damn fools and millionaires live down here," said Harry C. Bradford, a resident for 55 of his 66 years who did not say which group he's in. "We got a lot of riffraff down here, too," he added.
"You ain't talking about me, now, are you?" said Elliott, 45, whom "Harry C." occasionally helps sort and bag clams. Harry C. said no.
"There are 15 to 18 widows down here, too," he said. "The widowers all died off."
Elliott said Harry C. is the "unofficial mayor" of Public Landing.
"I'm retired from just about everything," Harry C. said. "I done it all: trucking, heavy equipment, construction work. A lot of destruction, too." It was near the end of the work day at Public Landing Harbor. Elliott and his friends were quaffing beers and waiting for the last load of clams to arrive and be dumped on the concrete floor of the seafood house.
Elliott buys and sells 1.1 million clams during the eight-month season that lasts from September to April. He also has 56 wooden crab floats, for the springtime, when crabbers bring in crustaceans almost ready to shed their shells. The crabs are kept in the irrigated floats until they do. Then they are harvested, packed and sold as soft shells. A sorting machine separates the clams by size: large ones for chowder, cherrystones for eating on the half shell, top necks for eating on the half shell or steaming, and littlenecks to be sold as steamers.
For three hours the next morning, Elliott, Harry C. and Charley Brewington, 43, sorted 17,300 Maryland clams. They packed them in New Mexico onion bags that Elliott buys from a company in Elizabeth, N.J. Later in the day, three trucks arrived to take the clams to Pocomoke, Md., Lewes, Del., and New York.
Elliott, who lives in Snow Hill, bought the business four years ago, mowed the overgrown grass and has pretty much made a go of it.
His harbor, including a small channel leading to the bay, has 36 slips. It is filled in the spring with work boats from as far away as Crisfield on the Chesapeake Bay. He also rents a few rowboats for recreation. There are clam rigs, houseboats and power boats, including Elliott's own 19-footer.
As Elliott steered his small craft into Chincoteague Bay, out beyond the county pier, the barrier island of Assateague appeared as clumps of low-lying trees, seven miles to the east. Sunlight glistened on the water's surface.
From Paul Jones' farm on the south to Elliott's harbor on the north, "that's about all there is to Public Landing," he said. "We had a deer swim ashore this summer. That was pretty exciting."
For real entertainment, Elliott said, the more adventurous citizens of Public Landing motorboat up to Ocean City for dinner on Saturday night. Sometimes, three or four boats travel by convoy to the resort 20 land miles and about 45 water minutes north of here. "That's our big deal," Elliott said.
"Actually, I'm the local entertainment," said Nevelyn Daugherty, Elliott's girlfriend and a sixth grade school teacher in Berlin, Md. "I play the piano for church on Sundays and for parties on Saturday night."
But Elliott and company were doing a fair job of entertaining themselves, and a couple of visitors, with their small-town banter.
"You know what a seven-course meal is down here?" asked Perrie W. Waters, retired in January from Holly Farms. "A possum and a six-pack."
Harry C. said there used to be a sign at the entrance to town announcing a population of "90 people and 68 dogs." As he spoke, a scruffy-looking little dog wandered by. "Here comes one of them now," he said, to laughter.
"He's one of the community dogs," said Elliott, his blue eyes set against a blue-and-white Public Landing Harbor Seafood cap. To which Charley Brewington added, "They got some good-looking dogs around here."
One of them belongs to Doris Dukes, 73, whose late husband William founded Dukes Seafood. The sign is still there, next to Public Landing Harbor, but, said Doris Dukes, "We're practically out of business."
Her grandson does some crabbing in summers and works as a clammer in the ocean year round. Doris Dukes spends her days "cleaning house and taking care of the ducks," about 50 mallards who waddle around the stacked crab pots in her back yard. "And the days really go fast."
Dukes arrived here in wartime. It was 1943, a time of blackouts and bay watches. "Army guys would come down and watch from that pier" for enemy ships or planes. "You weren't allowed to have too much light on at night."
Anyone who's lived here long enough has, like Dukes, lived through hurricanes. A 1962 storm "washed us out," she said.
"We had three feet of water all through the house," she recalled. "We left. Three months later we were able to get back in here."
No storm in memory tops the hurricane of Aug. 22-23, 1933.
"At Public Landing, there is a scene of almost universal destruction," said a contemporary account in the Worcester County Democrat. "Amusements, boardwalks, piers, pavilions, cottages -- all were literally torn to pieces and the wreckage piled in heaps on the shore."
But listen to an eyewitness account: "It was a doozy," said Virginia Conaway, a teen-ager at the time and now 66. "We stayed through the storm. We couldn't even walk in our living room. Waves were breaking to the top of our roof. The first thing that went down on the pier was the slide" built by her father, "then the bowling alley . . . . "
The storm did so much damage that Virginia Conoway's family moved to Snow Hill. She lives today four miles outside the town on the road to Public Landing, where she still has friends and still likes to visit. "Oh, it was some little place," she said. "It still is."