You won't hear longtime residents of Deale talking too much about the good old days. That's because the small, unincorporated waterfront town in southern Anne Arundel County has tenaciously resisted change during its 15-year transformation from a vacation retreat to a year-round community.
Set on the Chesapeake Bay between two creeks and located 31 miles east of downtown Washington, Deale still closely resembles the fishing and farming village it was at its founding 332 years ago. The working watermen have mostly been replaced by government workers and business owners, but there are still more boats housed there than people.
"Mom and Dad brought us down here because they wanted us to be more of a family," said Retha Venable, who moved to Deale from Wheaton in 1957 and now sells real estate there. "It's a family place, and that hasn't changed. Because you have to drive everywhere, you really have to do things with your kids."
Unlike Annapolis, located 20 miles to the north, and other waterfront communities that have witnessed a surge in popularity, Deale has also not lost its determinedly casual air. Closely spaced, renovated two- and three-bedroom cottages make up more of the housing stock than do sprawling contemporary styles. The most ostentatious displays on homes are birds' nests and the towers residents erect to improve their views of the water.
The Happy Harbour Inn, a tavern on Rockhold Creek where ducks graze on the grass outside and customers can get a $8 seafood buffet and a charter boat to go fishing, remains the center of social life in Deale, just as it has for 57 years. Two years ago, a fancy restaurant was opened at Herrington Harbour North, a new 500-slip marina, and had to close within six months. People just were not attracted to a place that required a coat and tie, said Bob Inzer, a 34-year Deale resident.
"People come here because they know they can just be themselves," said Barbara Sturgell, the Happy Harbour Inn's owner since 1977. "We aren't anything fancy and no one bothers them. If we're busy and they want to help themselves to coffee, they can do it."
While many communities like to boast about their quiet country atmosphere, in Deale the boast is not an idle one. Locals point to the things Deale does not have when asked what they like about it. There are no traffic lights, four-lane streets, buses or taxis, no movie theaters or large shopping malls, and little crime. In fact, the nearest police station is about 12 miles away.
At the same time, it is better serviced than most resort towns, with a supermarket (another one is expected to be built within the year), a bookstore, several gift shops, at least seven restaurants, four gas stations, a pharmacy and several marine equipment enterprises. The town also has its own 157-student elementary school, library and a volunteer fire department.
"It's a self-contained town. You don't have to leave to get other things," said Larry Thomas, owner of the Deale-based Chesapeake International Power Boat School. Because of its low-lying land and the relatively shallow waters of Rockhold and Tracy's creeks, Deale has attracted more power boaters than sailors, although Herrington Harbour is helping to change that.
Deale's proximity to Washington, which is about a 50-minute drive, Annapolis, about 25 minutes, and Prince George's County, about 15 minutes, has helped bolster its claim to "country living with city conveniences," Venable said, and the majority of residents commute to jobs outside Deale.
In addition to its full-service atmosphere, what separates Deale from other waterfront communities in Anne Arundel County is the price of housing and the fact that most of the town is hooked up to a public sewer system. Although housing costs have not fallen due to the recession, there are still deals to be found in Deale.
According to Inzer, an agent with Schwartz Realty, the average price for a three-bedroom frame house in Deale is around $125,000, although it is still possible to find a place for less. Homes on the water are generally higher, usually $200,000 to $350,000 and as high as $975,000. But there are exceptions and those prices are still lower than in other waterfront communities.
There is a waterfront shack on the market selling for $137,000, although the structure will have to be torn down and replaced. Homes with water views can be had for $150,000 and up.
Last year, former Silver Spring resident Catherine Rivera, 29, a math education student at the University of Maryland, spent slightly more than $50,000 on a former country store with a view of Rockhold Creek and renovated it into a 1,600-square-foot, three-bedroom home for another $60,000. Rivera said her fears about being an unwelcome newcomer were allayed when her neighbors stopped her father while he was checking on the property one day.
"They wanted to make sure he was someone who was supposed to be there, but that said a lot to me about the town and the effort people make here to look out for each other," Rivera said.
According to Inzer, home buyers who are committed to moving to Deale must be patient, though, as the vacancy rate is extremely low, especially within the 240 acres that is considered Deale proper, which has a total of about 600 homes.
This week, for instance, there are only 15 homes listed for sale within Deale, and only one each in the popular neighborhoods of Owings Beach and Mason's Beach, which front directly on Herring Bay, an estuary of the Chesapeake.
Inzer said there are several reasons that so few houses are available. First, vacant land is extremely limited, both because of previous building and because of state regulations limiting construction in areas with large quantities of wetlands. Two important local institutions, Cedar Grove Methodist Church and the Elks Lodge, both own large tracts but are unlikely to give them up. The Elks plan to build a set of ball fields on theirs.
Another reason is the fact that once people are in Deale, they are unlikely to leave. Homes and lots are passed on from one generation to the next. Inzer and his four siblings, for example, have all remained there to raise their families.
Kathy Johnson, a former Chevy Chase resident who now lives in Churchton just outside Deale, where new homes are more plentiful, understands why. Johnson, 42, was raised on a farm and after so many years in the city "just needed to get away from the hustle-bustle." Being in a house that overlooks a pond and the bay has taught her "how to look for the sun again," as well as the joy of bartering for services -- such as tree cutting, painting and raking -- with her neighbors.
"What I like here is the diversity of people ... everything from artists and professors to doctors and electricians and postal workers. There are old people, young people, high-income, low-income. Everyone is tied by their love of nature," Johnson said. "It's like a real melting pot of how it used to be instead of the yuppie homogeneity you find in Washington. My son's two best friends are the sons of a waterman and a man with three PhDs."
Asked whether her 8-year-old son is bored by life in the country, Johnson laughed. "He was bored in Chevy Chase. Here, kids can just be kids. There is no shuttling them between lessons and the stress is much less. They can run around and yell and play in the mud and water and build forts in the sand. He has just blossomed," she said.
As for her own entertainment needs, Johnson has found a solution for that, too. Last month, she founded a philosophy discussion club in her home called the "Thinkers and Dreamers Group." The club now has 16 members.
"All my life I've been lonely for kindred spirits, people who like to read and think and discuss ideas of an existential nature," she said. "I've finally found them ... . People here, they have the time, they are not so uptight. They will cash your check at the grocery store."