By Brice Stump
Special to the News
For the first time since 1931, Eula Dukes has returned home. It wasn't a long journey. She lives just two miles west of her birthplace, Assateague Village. Dukes, 69, was the last person born there. Once a thriving community of 250 people, it was on its way to becoming a ghost
town by the late 1920s. Today it's almost forgotten. Dukes returned last week with sister Blanche McGee, 77, brother Roy Jones, 81, and cousin Frank Williams, 77. Only the Assateague Lighthouse marks the location of a community that once had its own school, Baptist church and store. Built in 1867 to replace an earlier less-efficient lighthouse, its automated light atop the 142-foot structure on a 22-foot bluff can be seen 19 miles at sea. Among generations of residents, one man remains legendary ú the late shopkeeper Bill Scott.
Scott was the village ``character.'' That he munched on the island's bumper crop of green-headed flies made him the topic of conversation for decades. ``He told us children he ate all the green head flies he got up with, and he probably did by the looks of him,'' said Ruby Hall, once a resident of Assateague Village. ``My father said Mr. Scott would catch every big green-head horsefly he could get on his way down to the cove and eat them. You could hear the crunching ú (I) just get sick hearin' it,'' Hall said, scrunching her face like she'd bit into a lemon just thinking of the experience. The flies may have been Scott's secret to longevity. Born in 1838, he died in 1944, 106 years old. ``He had this long beard and when he ate soup, it dripped down on his whiskers,'' Hall said, ``and his little dog, Lady, would sit on his lap and lick his beard clean.'' Able to eat enough to fill three men, Williams said, Scott always cleaned his plate. ``Mrs. Scott fix(ed) him eight Guinea bird eggs for his breakfast and fixed one for Lady. Mr. Scott ate all of his and Lady left half of hers. Mr. Scott finished eatin' that,'' Williams said.
Wearing bib overalls, he is remembered for having patches on top of patches and smoking the bowl of his pipe down to the stem. Scott and his family left the island in 1932. ``The reason we left'' When the August Storm of 1933 ú a gale so fierce it cut the Inlet at Ocean City and destroyed the pier at Public Landing ú flooded the village, what few folks were left decided to leave. ``The reason we left,'' McGee said, ``was the '33 storm.'' When it hit, flooding the houses, there were 20 people calling the place home, Jones said. As families left, a number of houses, including the church, were moved by scows or barges from the village to Chincoteague, where they remain. The village offered a way of life somewhat antiquated even by 1920s standards. There were no roads, just footpaths connecting homes. There was no electric service and just one telephone and one battery-operated radio, both at the lighthouse. Transportation was provided by boats that men rowed to and from Chincoteague, almost three-quarters of a mile across Assateague Channel. Houses, chicken pens and gardens topped many of the knolls along the ridge that runs along the west side of the island. Men harvested oyster beds in Tom's Cove, crabbed or fished. Women worked in the fish factories. The island's two fish factories south of the neighborhood processed tons of menhaden brought in by steamers. When processed they yielded oil and ``fish scrap,'' which was made into fish meal fertilizer, Jones said. The
Storm of '33 closed them, too. The community was distinctive for its mostly flat terrain, clear of trees and bushes, thanks to an abundance of cattle and sheep that grazed much of the island.
§ Sheep before ponies § Before there was the world-famous Pony Penning, said Jones, Assateague was legendary on the Shore for its annual sheep penning. A century ago, spectators came by the thousands. ``People would come from everywhere by boats to see hundreds of sheep
herded into a big pen'' near the lighthouse each June or July, Jones said. ``It was so big it would be the equivalent of what the Pony Penning is today.'' A drawing card was the chicken and dumplings, prepared in large iron cauldrons usually reserved for hog killings. A memorable meal could be had for 35 cents, McGee said. Because the place was on an island, Williams speculated, it was ideal for the first settlers to graze livestock without fear of losing them in
unknown woods. When barbed wire snagged bits of wool, William's great-grandmother would
collect the tufts, gathering enough to spin into hanks. Color was added, he said, by using dye made from island plants and bark. The island school closed in 1920 and youngsters attended classes on Chincoteague. Each weekday, just after daybreak, students boarded a 22-foot-long boat owned by the lighthouse keeper, who ferried his three daughters back and forth. Once on the other side of the channel, they walked the mile to school. There was no doctor and women depended on ``Aunt Lizzie Jones'' as a midwife. Dukes' mother paid her $3 for her services, but Lizzie's husband made her pay it back. Because almost everyone was related on the island,
it just wasn't right to take money from family, especially for delivering a baby. ``It was a hard life in a lot of ways,'' Williams said. There was a bad case of smallpox around 1900, Williams said, which may account for a remote graveyard about half a mile north of the village.
``That's where they took these people, it was called `smallpox field.' My father used to work down the bay aboard a boat and would come home on the weekend. Some man met him when he came back one day and said `If I was you, I'd get back in that boat and go down the bay 'cause they are dying around here like flies,'|'' Williams said. ``People told me, when I was a boy, that they remembered hearing a squeaking noise and a man crying. His little child had died and he put him in a little box in a wheelbarrow and was taking him somewhere to bury him,'' Williams said. ``People didn't have funerals then the way we have now.''
§ A dark day ² A dark day for island residents came in 1922 when a Baltimore investor bought up a huge chunk of the island. Then came the despised ``cowboy,'' Charlie Oliphant, or the ``cow man.'' He became the island's Wyatt Earp. With his Western-style hat, dressed in black and carrying a .44 Smith and Wesson pistol at his side, Hall said, he blocked land access to Tom's Cove and its oyster grounds from the villagers. ``He rode a big red horse and always had a big collie dog by his side,'' Jones remembered. Oliphant did his job well. ``No matter where you were on that beach, you wouldn't be there long before Mr. Oliphant would `pear up,'' Jones said. ``He was put there to rule the island,'' Hall said of the man who hailed from Oklahoma. He was an overseer for Nellie Burwell, who laid claim to much of the beach and
almost all of the village. Hall's late father, William Potts, eventually took Oliphant's position
as ``foreman of the beach,'' and kept duck and goose hunters and treasure seekers away. The area east of the lighthouse was called ``the levels,'' full of ponds ideal for poaching ducks, Jones said. ``Oliphant was always driving people off the property and little by little, people got fed up with him and left the island,'' Jones said. In 1944, the Virginia portion of Assateague was sold to the federal government as a refuge. Only two residents fought the forced sale of their
land, Jones said. Twenty years later, a bridge brought the first of 1.5 million annual visitors to Assateague. ``If it wasn't for that little bit of Mr. Scott's store left,'' Jones said, ``you couldn't find anything left of Assateague Village.''²
Reach Brice Stump at 410-749-7171, Ext. 243, or