Long before gated communities began dotting the suburban landscape, Cape St. Claire had a station at its entrance in 1949. Residents had to show a pass to get in and were required to inform the guard when they were expecting visitors.
No one seems to remember exactly when the guardhouse was vacated, but the small, redbrick structure still famously flanks the entry to the covenanted community, which is just off U.S. 50, nestled between the Magothy and Little Magothy rivers and the Chesapeake Bay in Anne Arundel County.
Building lots in the late 1940s and early 1950s sold for $300 to $500, and the first homes were mostly weekend and summer cottages. However, the community, surrounded on three sides by water and referred to by locals as "the Cape," is anything but pretentious.
Residents describe a close-knit and colorful community whose biggest annual events are not yacht races or even sailboat regattas; rather, the most celebrated days of the year are homecoming weekend in October and the Strawberry Festival in June.
For years Cape St. Claire had a volunteer sheriff, Bud Ayers, also known as the "Law of the Cape," according to a Silver Anniversary Strawberry Festival publication dated June 1983. Ayers had a red wooden post outside of his house at the corner of Greenholly and Rolling View drives, the publication said. "If there was a fire or any other trouble nearby, you could push a button on that red post and Bud would come running. He was always around when anyone needed help."
Today, Anne Arundel County provides most law enforcement services, though the 2,321-home community employs three part-time, off-duty police officers and has a volunteer fire company. Anne Arundel County also maintains Cape St. Clair's 22 miles of roadway and provides sewer services. Drinking water still comes from wells.
Cape St. Claire has an Annapolis mailing address, but in 1987 the residents successfully petitioned Anne Arundel County to became a special tax district.
"We had to do it because we couldn't pay our bills," said Elaine Barnhart, a 32-year resident and office manager of the Cape St. Claire Improvement Association. The association is made up of a 12-member board of governors and oversees a fiscal 2006 budget of about $219,500.
In addition to the $10 annual maintenance fee that residents have paid since 1949, the special tax status allows the CSCIA to collect an additional $60 per year per household, which finances maintenance and upkeep of two boat piers, a fishing and crabbing pier, three beaches, parks and picnicking areas, and a clubhouse. The clubhouse includes the CSCIA offices and doubles as a meeting and social hall.
The community also owns 210 boat slips that rent from $84 per year for a mud slip to about $470 per year for a deep-water slip. But with 234 people on a waiting list, it can take a boat owner several years to get a slip.
The amenities; the waterfront; the convenience to Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington; good public schools; and relative affordability -- a wide variety of homes are listed in the $300,000-to-$600,000 range -- combine to offer "a lifestyle hard to duplicate," RE/MAX real estate agent Mona LaCovey said.
Doug DeLost, whose family moved to the community in 1959 and was one of a handful at that time to reside in Cape St. Claire year-round, agrees. "I would never consider living anywhere else," he said.
DeLost talked about growing up in Cape St. Claire as he sat with his friends Walter and Anne Warner, whom he joins every day for lunch at the Broadneck Grill. The Warners, both in their eighties, live in nearby Arnold, but they like coming to the Broadneck Grill because "we don't have to drive on the highway to get here," Anne Warner said, adding, "and I don't like to cook."
"This is our social club," said Walter, a World War II Air Force veteran who is in a group photo of the 100th Bomb Group, 8th Airborne, on the restaurant's wall.
The Warners invited DeLost to join them at their table about 12 years ago when they noticed him sitting alone. He had dined at the restaurant for years every day with his mother, but then she died.
"He's become our honorary son," Anne Warner said.
DeLost never left Cape St. Claire; he lives in the house he grew up in, and his own son, Doug Jr., sleeps in the bedroom his father slept in as a boy.
Cheryl Lopez also grew up in Cape St. Claire, but she moved to Florida for a decade before returning. As she stood in the checkout line of the Cape True Value hardware store, Lopez recalled her teenage years boating and jet skiing with friends around nearby Dobbins Island.
She decided it would be a good place to raise her own children, and she said she thinks the schools are among the best in Anne Arundel County.
According to county data, Broadneck High School had an average combined SAT math and verbal score of 1,098 last year, the third-highest average score in the county.
The school also has an award-winning marching band, the Bruins, which the CSCIA assistant office manager Bonnie Cage described as a "huge source of pride" for the community. Directed by Sandra Balderson, the band gave Cage's sons, John and Jason, direction, taught them discipline and "changed their lives," she said.
There are few serious complaints here, but there are challenges. There are environmental concerns associated with water quality and beach erosion, for example. The lure of the water also means escalating home prices, and, like in many desirable communities, it means smaller, more modest homes are being torn down to make room for much more imposing ones.
Lucetta Atwell sat watching a football game between the Cape St. Claire Cougars and the Severna Park Green Hornets during last month's community homecoming. She and her husband bought a starter home in Cape St. Claire in 1973 and found it so comfortable they have stayed in it.
The community has grown and changed around them, which Atwell accepts, but she hates to watch as the old beach cottages along River Bay Road disappear. She doesn't think much of the large, new houses. "I call them institutions."
Barnhart of the CSCIA sees it differently. "It depends on your point of view . . . [but] I think that's progress," she said.
Regardless of the mix of housing types and what Barnhart called a "smorgasbord" of white- and blue-collar workers, what matters, she maintained, is that Cape St. Claire is "really a place where people like each other."
The lure of waterfront property has brought new people to Cape St. Claire, and new, larger houses are being built in the area, replacing the original beach cottages.
Homes along River Bay Road in Cape St. Claire back up to the Little Magothy River. The community has some environmental concerns related to water quality and beach erosion.