These were the hallmarks of Winson Gott's childhood:
Trapping muskrats at the creek that ran past his house. Catching tadpoles in the nearby pond. Running down unpaved streets that were covered with broken oyster shells instead of asphalt. Lying in his bed and hearing the whippoorwills cry all night.
"Every spring," he says, "you'd hear the frogs sing."
A real country boy, you may be thinking. Not quite. Winson G. Gott Jr. grew up in Annapolis right off Church Circle, just yards from what was then and is now the heart of Maryland's capital city.
Gott, a prominent local real estate attorney just a few months shy of his 90th birthday, still lives on Franklin Street, just a few doors from his birthplace. As such, he offers a sharp perspective on how the city has changed since the 1910s and '20s, when the craft that filled the waterways were crabbers' workboats or modest canoes, and the quiet shoreline was shrouded in tall grass.
Gott's name is a familiar one in Annapolis. His own legal career in the region spanned more than 60 years; when he retired from full-time work last year, county Circuit Court officials named the land records office of the new courthouse in his honor.
His father, in his own time, was equally well-known around Annapolis as a lawyer, politician, banker and real estate speculator. Gott Sr. owned Beverly Beach near Mayo when it was a popular bay-side resort for weekending urbanites. And he owned a block of Calvert Street row houses known as Gott's Court that were home to several working-class families. The houses were torn down long ago, remembered by only a dwindling number of old-timers, but the name remains on the parking garage that took their place.
Except for law school at the University of Maryland and a wartime stint as a sheet-metal inspector at a Baltimore factory, the younger Gott has spent most of his life in Annapolis.
He remembers the political intrigue of its small-town days. When his father, a Democrat, ran for mayor, he was opposed by his sister-in-law's father-in-law. "Don't campaign against him!" Gott remembers his aunt telling his father. "He needs the job more than you do."
He remembers the 1920s, a fun time to be young, when he took banjo lessons from a St. John's College student and started playing dances and frat parties with a saxophonist. At one party, the chaperon greeted him with a half-pint of liquor at the door. Liquor, of course, was banned in those days. Yet Prohibition never seemed to slow things down much for Annapolitans. Gott remembers a little restaurant outside the gates of the Naval Academy that "served a beautiful crab cake" and a glass of beer, with little or no attempt at secrecy.
Today, more than 33,000 people live in Annapolis, but in 1910 there were only 2,600. In those days, it seemed, you knew people in every restaurant, in every store. "You go downtown now, you don't know anybody," Gott says.
Today, he notes, Annapolis has gone the way of many downtowns, the basic services of middle-class life all moved out to strip malls and shopping centers, while the heart of town is high-priced and quaint. "Another thing about Annapolis is we have no drugstores," he says. "There used to be two on Main Street, one on West. Now all the people who don't have cars can't get their prescriptions." Few doctors still practice downtown; the hospital is soon to move to the suburbs.
The theaters on Main Street, State Circle, West Street, that used to be jammed with children watching Tarzan matinees--"all gone," he sighs.
Yet most regrettable to Gott are the changes to the waterfront and woodland that used to lie within the city.
"I think they ruined Spa Creek," he says bluntly, "through ignorance, greed and poor planning."
In his boyhood, you could walk all around the shoreline of Spa Creek at low tide. You would see people paddling around in rowboats, passing nets through the sea grasses to scoop up the soft crabs that lived there.
Today, "there's no shoreline" at all. The grasses are gone, for the most part, replaced by seawalls that waterfront landowners have used to protect and extend their turf, and to hold their boats.
Across the way, Truxtun Park was nothing but trees, he says, home to bobwhites, quail and the whippoorwills. They left, he says, when city officials cleared many of the trees to install boat ramps, ball fields and parking lots.
"The creek used to be full of eels, catfish, snapping turtles, perch," says Gott. "You'd see big schools of alewives. No more."