The largest buildings on Smith Island are its three United Methodist churches, one in each of the villages of Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton. These institutions have provided moral and political leadership in these communities for more than three centuries.
Not nearly so large but equally as important to the life of Smith Island has been the Driftwood General Store. Residents of Ewell and Rhodes Point drop in every day to pick up groceries or just to gossip, and when Charlie Evans sold the store to Steve Eades in 1997, many islanders worried about an outsider owning the last general store in Ewell.
Now Eades, who came from Ohio, has found that the Driftwood is not turning a profit -- not enough people on the island to buy his groceries -- and he wants to try selling beer and crabs on the premises seven days a week. Smith Island, however, has a 300-year-old tradition of no alcohol sales, and the United Methodist churches adamantly oppose granting Eades a liquor license. Even island moderates are offended at the thought of people buying beer on Sunday.
It isn't that Smith Islanders don't drink alcohol. The ferries bring in beer and liquor all the time, and the congregations at all three churches accept this simple fact of life. But denying Steve Eades the opportunity to sell alcohol on the island allows them to maintain an image they have of the island and themselves.
Their attitude is not just because Eades is an outsider. Evans, the former Driftwood owner, twice applied for a license to sell beer for carryout, and twice the churches protested so vocally that the Somerset County Liquor Board denied the license. When Eades and his wife, Theresa Siejack, appeared before the board on June 30, about 70 residents were on hand to object to the issuance of a license. The board listened and announced that no decision would be made until July 28.
Eades has made it clear that if the board denies him a license to sell alcohol, he will close the store. This would be an economic and social disaster for Smith Island. The Driftwood provides residents with day-to-day needs. It also has four full-time employees, all earning above minimum wage even in the slow winter months. Many of those who oppose Eades are watermen who gather at the Driftwood to drink coffee, play cards and swap stories.
The church is not entirely wrong. A tavern on Smith Island would be a radical break with the past and perhaps create more trouble with tourists than the peaceable residents of Smith Island could handle.
What is needed is a compromise. The liquor board could grant Eades a six-day, off-premises license instead of a seven-day on-site license. Selling carryout beer would make the Driftwood profitable, and the actual consumption of beer on the island would not increase much, partly because tourists who purchased beer on the island would have no place to drink it. The only real difference would be in where those islanders who do drink spend their money.
Thirty years ago, Ewell had four stores, Rhodes Point had three and Tylerton had two. Back then the island population was almost 700, and practically every house on every street was occupied. Skipjacks still could be seen in the harbors, and oysters were plentiful enough to keep watermen busy during the winter. Sixty children attended the schools at Ewell and Tylerton.
Now Smith Island's population is less than half of what it was 30 years ago. Every street has empty houses. The skipjacks are gone, and some worry that the few remaining oysters will follow them. Three years ago, the little school at Tylerton closed. When Ewell School opens this fall, it will have only 24 students.
Thirty years ago, the island did not have to choose between tradition and survival. But if Smith Island is to have a future, it is in everyone's interest -- saint and sinner, native and newcomer -- to keep the Driftwood afloat.
-- Chris Parks
is a native of Smith Island.