A photo caption with a profile of 96-year-old Alice Butler Bradshaw in some of this week's Weekly and Extra sections incorrectly identified the artist who painted the picture of the Sharp's Island lighthouse. The artist is Lynn Kibler. (Published 01/01/2000)
Two years into their courtship, Bob Bradshaw took Alice Butler out in his father's fishing boat one afternoon. It was 1925, and a Maryland farmer's daughter was about to be initiated into the Chesapeake Bay life.
"What's that?" she asked, pointing to the crawling thing on the floorboards.
"That," he said, "is a crab."
She reached down, and its pincers seized her finger so sharply that she bled. Her anxiety continued as Bob pulled up to Sharp's Island lighthouse and urged her to climb a shaking rope ladder and a tiny winding staircase, up to a frail windswept perch high above the waves. And then he asked: "Will you marry me?"
Nearly three-quarters of a century later, Alice Butler Bradshaw, 96, tells this story in her cozy Annapolis apartment. "I said, 'Yes,' really quick, because I wanted to get down off the lighthouse!"
Bradshaw wasn't born here, but as a resident of Maryland for most of the last 84 years, she has watched it change far more than most. She grew up on the Eastern Shore when steamship ferries were the only link to the other side. She married the young waterman she first glimpsed in the glow of a coal-oil lamp, and bore two of her four children before their home had inside plumbing. She almost lost her baby son to pneumonia but cured him in the days before penicillin with hot onion poultices. She came to the outskirts of Annapolis when the land of shopping centers and town houses was rolling countryside.
The tremendous changes of the last century have affected Bradshaw deeply. A prolific writer, she has dedicated her latest years to telling the story of her childhood and young adulthood, in a series of poems and two memoirs.
"Life was so different then," she mulled recently. "No one knows today. It was a simple way of living. You took time to help your neighbors, you had time to take care of yourself."
She was born in 1903 on a central Michigan farm, the youngest of seven children, two of whom died young.
The Midwestern dampness bothered her mother's lungs, so in 1909, they took the train across the prairies to Montana, where her father claimed a homestead and raised cattle and wheat.
Seven years later, his high blood pressure forced them to move to a lower altitude. Somehow, her parents chose Maryland's Eastern Shore, though Bradshaw today can't explain how it came to pass. "I don't know," she says with a faint smile. "They didn't explain things to children then."
The move, in 1916, was a shock to 12-year-old Alice. She was used to the wide-open spaces of the Montana plains. Maryland was lush. "The enormous trees that I had never seen before," she recalls, "they were sky-high."
For two years, the Butler family enjoyed life at Mistletoe Farm. School was in nearby Easton, a gracious small town that held Fourth of July picnics on the courthouse lawn, and had a movie theater where teenage Bradshaw saw her first film, "Poor Little Rich Girl," starring Mary Pickford.
School was disrupted by yet another move, when her dad got the itch to harvest maple syrup in western New York. Two years later, they were back in Maryland, and Bradshaw graduated from Easton High School.
It wasn't her choice to continue her schooling that long--she wanted to be a nurse, which in those days one could do without a high school diploma. But her mother, who had no formal schooling, insisted, Bradshaw says. "She wanted us all to be schoolteachers."
Her older sister, Jennie, already was teaching in a one-room schoolhouse on Tilghman Island, a tiny fishing village in the Chesapeake Bay.
One weekend, the Butler family traveled there to see a performance by Jennie's students. That's where 19-year-old Alice met Bob Bradshaw, a local waterman also in the audience. A long-distance courtship followed. Alice enrolled at Towson, then a teaching college, and Bob would travel from Tilghman Island by steamer and streetcar to see her.
In 1926, they were married in her parents' parlor. Alice wore a princess-line white dress and curled her hair with an iron heated in the fire of an oil lamp.
They began their married life in a small house in Fairbank, at the southern tip of Tilghman Island. Bob spent his day on the water, harvesting crabs in the summer and oysters in the winter, selling them for 35 cents a bushel.
Later, Alice wrote wistfully of those days: "Gaze far out across the harbour/ There must be fifty ships or more/ From sun to sun the crew must work/ To dredge the oysters from the Bay . . . "
During the Depression, the market for seafood dried up, and they reluctantly left Fairbank. "We were living on $15 a week with four children," she explains. And with the start of the war, there were suddenly new opportunities for Bob. First, it was a job constructing new buildings at the Army's Fort Meade in northern Anne Arundel County. Later, he built aircraft carriers at Baltimore's bustling shipyards. The family bought a home in St. Margaret's, a rural community outside Annapolis.
After the war, Bob was laid off from the shipyards, and the Bradshaws decided to return closer to their roots--back to the Eastern Shore. It was 1948, and the world was changing fast, but on remote Elliott Island, Bob could still work on a fishing boat, and Alice taught in a one-room school.
The beauty of the rural isolation inspired more poetry: "The road was built thru the marshland grass/ Often the tide rose over the wheels/ Just a one way road, with nowhere to pass."
A few years later, they returned to the home they still owned in St. Margaret's. Bob went to work in construction and later for Electrolux, the vacuum cleaner company. Alice later joined the company, working in sales until she retired at age 90. Bob died in 1987, after more than 60 years of marriage.
Bob, Alice recalls, "was a daredevil." And he never stopped tormenting her in the years after his wave-tossed proposal:
One summer night in 1952, as they drove from Annapolis to the shore, Bob abruptly veered out of the line for the ferry.
They would take the bridge instead, he explained--the as-yet-unopened Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Bob was a member of the construction team building it and had connections. Alice shrieked and prayed as they once again climbed higher and higher above the bay. But she remembered every minute of it. "The road wasn't finished--I could look right down and see the water."
And there was the old ferry, gleaming in the waves below, as tiny as a toy.
CAPTION: Alice Butler Bradshaw grew up on the Eastern Shore when steamship ferries were the only link to the other side. She has written a series of poems and two memoirs to tell the story of her young life.
CAPTION: Bradshaw painted Sharp's Island lighthouse, left, where her husband proposed. They are in the boat.