- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2005

TYLERTOWN, Md. - This island has no cars, no fast-food joints, no school, no streetlights, no crime. What it does have is crabs — bushels of them. The Chesapeake blues are hauled from the water every day from June to November by the Smith Island watermen who make their living selling shellfish to retailers and restaurants.

But somebody has to pick the meat from all those crabs, and that’s where the women come in.

Men don’t pick crabs; their wives do. They used to pick in buildings set back on scrub grass behind shingled houses with weather vanes. But then Janice Marshall got the idea to form a women’s co-op. They acquired a building and a long stainless steel table, and agreed to ante up $2 for each pound of crabmeat they picked five days a week to maintain their picking site with the huge steamer, sinks and linoleum floor.

That was 10 years ago. The Smith Island Crab Pickers Co-op, the only one of its kind in the world, had 15 members. That number now has dwindled to eight.

If the crabs and oysters in the Chesapeake Bay are an endangered species, so are the crab-picking women of Smith Island. When they go, a way of life will be lost.

Some have left for the mainland — Crisfield, Md. Some just became too aged or too arthritic to pick. Most of their daughters are not interested in sitting for hours every day with a crab knife, painstakingly carving the meat from the steamed red shells while singing hymns. They have other jobs, and husbands, on the mainland.

Tylertown, one of three communities on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay, has only 57 full-time residents, including one bachelor, three children and three babies.

“Everyone knows everyone, from birth to death,” one resident says.

There is no liquor store and no drugstore. At the one Methodist church, the minister arrives by boat on Sunday mornings.

The owners of the only bed-and-breakfast inn have announced they are leaving.

QVC is shown on television, and the co-op members are devoted customers.

The residents are wary of outsiders and treat tourists — who arrive via a 30-minute boat ride from Crisfield — with a hint of disdain and suspicion. The folks in Tylertown, all related to one another by birth or marriage, speak in a dialect reminiscent of their 17th-century forebears from England.

The women are fiercely proud of their crab-picking skills.

“If my husband had to pick, we’d starve to death,” drawled Tina Corbin. “My husband is a very pitiful picker. I think they’re all spoiled. I’d rather do it for him than sit there watching him eat nothing but shells.”

The men wake up before dawn, and their wives make them breakfast. They get on the water by sunrise and return by 2 p.m. The crabs are taken to the co-op, where they are steamed and put into baskets.

The women start work early in the morning, take a lunch break and return in the afternoon, often staying until midnight or later. They sell the crab for $15 a pound, but the Asian crab invading the market is cheaper.

“Phillips [seafood chain] opened their own factory in Asia,” said Janice Marshall, “where they take the crabs and bleach them to make them white. They call it ‘Chesapeake Bay-style’ crabmeat, but I tell you, none of them crabs has ever seen the Chesapeake Bay.”

Machines can clean crabs, but the meat gets shredded.

On a muggy night inside the co-op, Robin Bradshaw, Mrs. Marshall’s 40-year-old daughter, is facing another three hours or so of picking. It’s 10 p.m., and she is behind. All the crab baskets have the women’s names on them: “Dora,” “Tina,” “Louise,” “Donna” and “Patty,” and are set on the table in front of the women.

Sometimes they break into song: “He walks with me and He talks with me. …” They share news, gossip a bit, laugh a lot and tease one another.

One of the women is asked what she did before picking crab. “She was a belly dancer,” another pipes up. The women roar with laughter.

Smith Island is actually a string of islands in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. The Ewell and Rhodes Point communities are connected by land, but Tylertown is separated from the other two by a mile of water.

They pride themselves on the quality of their crabmeat. Smith Island crab is sweet lump meat with a little claw and no shell. The women make sure of that.

They learned from their mothers how to pick the jimmies, or male crabs, by tossing the shell, the fragile gray lungs, the appendages and the cartilage into huge trash containers. The only problem is getting this perishable commodity to restaurants and stores. They tried sending it via FedEx from Crisfield, but that didn’t work. Now the meat is refrigerated and taken by boat.

Co-op members can make $1,000 a week, depending on the weather and the catch. Crabs prefer hot, dry weather and don’t like rain.

Robin Bradshaw, who has been picking since age 15, once cleaned 30 pounds of crabmeat in one day. She usually picks a pound every 15 minutes. She is the youngest picker. The oldest is in her 60s.

“I don’t think it’s a dying art; it’s just people don’t want to do it,” said Mrs. Marshall. “You see how it is. It’s hand work. You can’t get young people interested in it. We don’t have a generation coming up.”

Dora Corbin, 49, started picking when she was a teenager. She earned enough money to pay for her wedding. Now she has three sons who aren’t interested in crabbing. “There’s no security in it,” she says. “I’m glad, really. It’s a hard life. I don’t see this lasting.”

Patty Laird, 41, started picking at 17 when she got married. “I pick my son’s crabs now.” Her husband, Willard, Mrs. Marshall’s brother, got a job last spring as a truck driver on the mainland.

The Lairds are planning to sell their house on the island and move. She points out that their home probably will be bought by an “outsider.” The islanders can’t afford it.

Like the rising tide, the change has been gradual. The reality is that there are only 22 weeks a year to pick, and the job carries no benefits, no retirement plan and no health insurance.

That is why Mrs. Marshall took a job at a minimum-security prison on the mainland as a guard. She and her husband, Bobby, have decided to sell their house in Tylertown.

One man came by ferryboat to see the Marshalls’ house, with its cozy kitchen and hand-painted island scenes. But Mrs. Marshall had a funny feeling. In the end, she refused to sell.

“He was mean,” she said over the din of cracking shells. “I didn’t think he’d fit.”

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