ANNAPOLIS, FEB. 11 -- The earth moved. Hell froze over. Miracles, it seems, do happen. Gov. William Donald Schaefer apologized.

After steadfastly refusing last week to apologize for calling Maryland's Eastern Shore an "{expletive}-house," Schaefer made a surprise appearance before the House of Delegates tonight and said he was sorry for his remark.

"I made a terrible mistake," Schaefer said. "I said something entirely in jest and it was taken out of context. And I'm sorry."

"The governor needs the Eastern Shore and the Eastern Shore needs the governor," Schaefer said. "It's time for the governor to say he made a mistake, and I did."

Talk shows have been abuzz with angry callers, Eastern Shore residents sent the governor corn cobs, and this morning, a band of about 50 outraged Eastern Shore residents circled the State House with bags of manure and three privies on pickup trucks.

"I was surprised -- pleasantly so," said House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. (D-Kent), who got a bearhug from Schaefer as the governor got a standing ovation.

Mitchell, an Eastern Shore resident who was quivering with anger last week over the governor's remark, said Schaefer gave no warning of his plan to apologize.

Eastern Shore legislators seemed relieved by the governor's gesture and said it helped put to rest what had become a rallying point for Eastern Shore discontent.

"It's another side of the governor that's not always seen," said Del. Ronald A. Guns (D-Eastern Shore).

Schaefer, after sitting through the opening prayer, spoke for about three minutes and then scooted out of the room.

Since making the comment to some Eastern Shore lawmakers as he walked by them at a ceremonial gathering 10 days ago, Schaefer has been pressed to apologize. Instead, he insisted that the remark was "silly," "off-the-cuff" and not to be taken seriously.

But the remark produced shock in the legislature and struck some Shore residents as petty revenge for their rebuff of Schaefer in the November election, when seven of nine Shore counties supported his opponent, Republican William S. Shepard.

While insisting the comment was just a joke, Schaefer acknowledged that it has been diverting public attention from substantive issues, such as his legislative agenda.

"Clearly the governor took it as a joke, but it was also clear that people were taking offense," said Paul Schurick, the governor's press aide. "The governor felt that since this became a news story, it would be more important to concentrate on the things that affect our lives. Enough is enough." The Associated Press contributed to this report.