This excerpt from the new book, "Maryland Lost and Found: People and Places from Chesapeake to Appalachia," written by Washington Post staff writer Eugene L. Meyer and published by The Johns Hopkins University Press, is adapted from a chapter about the life of Eastern Shore gentry in Talbot County. The chapter touches on the life styles of wealthy, duck-hunting landowners who commute by plane and on the conflicting communities of interest in such bayside towns as Oxford. Once a bustling waterman's port rivaling Annapolis, Oxford in the early 1980s increasingly had become a port for weekend sailors. Gentrification growing pains were beginning to wrack the town, which has a year-round population of several hundred, as newcomers were discovering its charms.
When change comes to this self-styled "Land of Pleasant Living," it's glacial at most.
In the larger scheme of things here, even the gentry are, after all, newcomers. Still, the natives are often out of sight and out of mind of both gentry and tourist. The sailboats anchor in St. Michaels harbor, their occupants coming ashore to the Crab Claw Restaurant or the Maritime Museum. Meanwhile, a few remaining watermen cling to a dwindling number of public slips, their work boats outnumbered by pleasure craft. In Oxford, there is hardly a waterman left in what was once a waterman's town. Yet, oddly, Oxford looks old, unchanged.
The signposts of history are everywhere, reminding the visitor that Oxford was platted in 1683, that the ferry across the Tred Avon to Bellevue has run ever since, that the restored Robert Morris Inn was built in 1710, that the cemetery dates to 1808.
But what appears to be Old Oxford, a town that seemingly makes vintage a virtue, is really New Oxford in period dress.
"Hardly any of the people who knew are still here," said Hazel Newnam, who lived there with her husband, Bill, just before World War II. They still attend the Oxford Methodist Church, of which he was a trustee, but know few of the town's residents. It had been so different once.
Bill Newnam drove a visitor down Morris Street, the main road, one drizzly March day, pointing out the houses formerly inhabited by a slew of aunts. All the homes were painted white then, a familiar color in a familiar town. Now they bore bright pastel shades chosen by strangers.
Newnam's father had owned a grocery store, and his mother took in summer borders in their 12-room house with its 18th-century grapevine on Morris Street. The grocery store burned down during the Depression, along with the drug store, the doctor's office and the combination firehouse-police station.
The police chief, Newnam recalled, was the town's principal bootlegger. He kept his hooch under the cot in the jail, where, the story goes, the prisoners drank it. What was left went in the fire. Afterward, a new town hall and police headquarters was built on the site of the old grocery.
"I hate to see Oxford the way it is," Newnam said. "It's almost like a small city, the way people treat each other. They don't make any effort to find out who lives next door."
One of the few old-timers who remained was William Benson, Newnam's brother-in-law. Benson ran the ferry from 1938 until 1974. "I couldn't afford to buy a home in Oxford today," he said as he piloted the ferry across the Tred Avon River one day in a brief respite from retirement. "What few ordinary workingmen live in Oxford today couldn't buy a house here if they didn't already have one."
Even as the buildings were spruced up, the human heritage slipped away.
The number of watermen had declined from more than 100 to just a few, and the black oyster-shuckers and crab-pickers were all but gone.
Epps Abbott, one of the four or five semiretired Oxford watermen, had made a living for years trotlining for crabs in the nearby rivers and creeks. He recalled that "there were close of 125 crab and oyster boats, at least eight or 10 dredge boats -- skipjacks, 'bugeyes,' even one schooner. There were eight big oyster and crab houses.
"They had a couple of boat yards here but they didn't have such thing as a marina. There were 15 stores on the main street -- hardware, drug store, butcher shop, two barber shops. You didn't have to leave Oxford. Now, the town's got nothing to sell anymore but service -- food and sailboats."
The life of master sailmaker Downes Curtis also spanned both eras. Curtis at 68 remembered 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. "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," he said. "They want to keep the community quiet."
"The ones of us who really think about life in this town want it to stay as it is," a recent arrival said.
He said he and others want to preserve "a contented mixture of black, white, young and old," rather than having Oxford end up as "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."
Yet despite such sentiments, two restaurants owned by and catering to natives were replaced in a single year by restaurants only the affluent could afford. "We really need the watermen -- that worries all of us," said Realtor Mary Hanks. "You want the local person."
Said her former brother-in-law, town Commissioner Fletcher Hanks, of Oxford's evolution: "We took the wealth out of the water and educated our children. The bright ones left. The more ambitious ones left. The others stayed. It stratified society without improving it."
In the view of Fletcher Hanks, a former seafood business operator, the influx of wealth, of educated, older people, saved Oxford, and protecting gentry became his mission in administering the town and enforcing its ordinances.
Toward that end earlier in the 1980s, an antiloitering ordinance -- aimed without subtlety at the town's black children -- was proposed by the town commissioners, as were rules imposing an 11 p.m. curfew for anyone under 18; no swimming off the ferry dock, where generations of youngsters swam before, and $10 tickets for bicycles parked on sidewalks.
In the face of a backlash against the flurry of legislation, however, the antiloitering ordinance was tabled indefinitely, but it is still a town where bike riding on the sidewalk is forbidden.
"Older people like peace and quiet," Hanks declared. "As the population changes . . . there must be a more orderly form of government."
"I think it's nice to be some place where you can close up every bar in town and still be in bed by midnight," said a visitor from Connecticut.