In wandering through old newspapers I sometimes come across a piece of writing that kinda blows my mind. Such is the case with the story novelist Lucy Meacham Thruston wrote for the Baltimore Sun on July 21, 1912, in which she tells the tale of what happened when she decided to make one of her travel dreams come true.
Some extended excerpts:
STARTING OUT: THE HOUSE OF DREAMS
“Everybody has a house of dreams hidden in his or her heart. Now and then the door swings on its hinges like a sigh; now and then a dream slips out to live like a butterfly, winged and bright; sometimes the owner of the house of dreams is courageous enough to open the door for himself and take out a dream boldly and live it. So I went to Chincoteague.
“I had always intended to go. I went to school with a girl whose father was a circuit rider, and he was stationed then at ‘the islands,’ and whenever the girl’s tongue tinkled over ‘Assateague’ and ‘Chincoteague,’ her eyes lit with memories. I talked with a fisherman at Ocean City, who told me tales of his island home with the same love of the place shining on his lean sunburned face; and when a [newspaper recently] published an account of the annual pony penning, that particular dream stepped outside the door, never to be shut within it again. It had to be lived.
GETTING THERE 1: THE BIG BOATS
“But to get to Chincoteague! A route to Europe, to Africa, were far easier. … Letters and messages and inquiries at steamboat headquarters and railroad offices all established one thing–Chincoteague was somewhere; it could be reached, and the only thing left to do was to head in that direction.
“With Baltimore for the starting point and the steamer to Norfolk the first stage, the trip was ventured. Then a New York, Philadelphia, and Norfolk boat for Cape Charles–you know, the Capes–the long, hazy stretch of blue, the misty shore and toward Cape Charles, the skimming waterfowl, and the thought, which always comes with the ocean swells of those hardy, romantic first seekers, who came sailing in through these Capes with eager eyes 300 years and more ago, and at Cape Charles itself the southern look of dunes and myrtles and pines.
GETTING THERE 2: THE RAILS
“There was an express waiting under the sheds and a local. The express went gayly out. The local, a half-hour afterward, pulled slowly along, singing carelessly upon its rails. And that local hobnobbed with every crossroads; it visited whenever there was a cluster of houses; it stood on the track and waited, while conductor and brakeman went strawberry hunting in the strawberry patch beside the road. And all the leaves and blossoms and all the grass by the roadbed waved in the wind, the very emphasis of leisure, while the soul of the passenger was the acme of haste.
“All possible hours for dinner went by. The dream was looking an ugly and bedraggled thing when the point nearest to the island was reached and the passenger stepped down to hear a welcome cry: ‘Chincoteague, lady; Chincoteague express!’
GETTING THERE 3: THE WAGON RIDE
“The ‘express’ waited behind the shed which served for the station. A bay horse, afterward known as Minnie, a wagon with body and top the color of the sandy road. The one passenger inside, the express started.
“Miles through the sands the wheels ground on. After a while there were woods. A pink haw bush, wild honeysuckle, and when the passenger broke into an exclamation of delight at the sight of a rare wood orchid the discovery was made that the driver was asleep.
“The passenger tried to arouse him–at a forking road, at a gullied hill, and where a potato planter had left his water hogsheads beside the way, with burlaps flapping from them. But a grunt was the only response and Minnie plodded on. The lone passenger folded her arms upon the suitcase on her knee and wondered if she were a fool.
“At the end of some six or seven miles the sheen of open water showed through the pines. Minnie brought up before a deserted packing house beside the water, the passenger alighted, and, besides herself, there was nothing living in sight, or moving either, except for the motorboat bobbing low beside the wharf.
GETTING THERE 4: LITTLE MOTORBOAT
“The captain of the little boat finally materialized; the passenger, again the only one, embarked; and the little boat was running out between green bars of rushes to wider water, and here and there a fisherman’s shanty stood on stilts where the land was firmer. Marsh hens and gulls and sandpipers whirred from the reeds or went skimming above them.
“Wallops Island was on the right, with its big clubhouse on the ocean end and the pen for the wild ponies, like black lines etched above the sands; Chincoteague Inlet, where the ocean rushes through; Chincoteague Bay and the line of Chincoteague itself lifting ahead.
“A long hour yet running toward it, and as the boat skirts the outline, dunes and ponies alone in sight. Distinctive of Chincoteague, the ponies seem the fitting things to be first seen. They are wandering and grazing up and down the sands, wild, yet suggestive of peace.
“The dunes are left. Trees begin and houses, for three miles the waterfront is set with houses like a village street, and wharves are thick and motorboats slip by and punts and dories and sailing craft, and finally the motorboat slides up to its own particular wharf and the passenger takes a long climb up by way of piles with the aid of the captain’s friendly hand and finds she was not the only passenger aboard after all–a peacock lifts its crowned hear above and imprisoning crate, and the peacock is assigned to the wild goose farm.
AT LONG LAST, CHINCOTEAGUE
“Chincoteague itself is full of surprises. There is nothing with which to compare it. It is one of those cases … in which a community has worked out its own development. And in doing so it has gained a uniqueness and preserved a flavor possible in no other way.
“The long line of houses facing the inland sheet of water has grown into a street four miles long at least. Close-set, the gates of the little yards open on an oyster-shell street, across which are the wharves. And back of this street is yet another, and, crossing these, many more, some crossing the island from side to side, 45 in all.
“Where the houses are thickest and stores most frequent is Chincoteague town, with its bank, its churches, its school of 500 pupils, its mile and a half of acetylene-lighted streets, its halls and mayor and City Council. Seven miles long and averaging a mile and a half wide, Chincoteague houses 3,800 people.
“… The islanders have the characteristics of no particular state, but are distinctively themselves. Their closest kinship might be with Cape Cod folks; yet they are Southern through and through, as is the nature of their island.
“… Clams, oysters, fish–the men, a lean, hardy race, are veritable ‘toilers of the deep.’ All of these industries pay; there is plenty of ready money among the islanders. The women are fond of dress and ready to spend money freely upon it. The houses are bright as the new paint can make them–and the foundation for all this is [money made] the reaping of the sea.
“… “Men born and brought up together and keeping to the same home place always retain something of their boyhood and return to it readily. Boyish light-heartedness is distinctive, too, of the hard worker in his hours of rest, and is distinctively characteristic of the islander.
“At sunset, the day’s work done, the people throng the long street. Laughter is easy and neighborliness evident. It is easy to understand why the islander will never emigrate. He is as homesick [when] elsewhere for that sinuous street as is the Swiss for his hills.
“If he lives on the side of the island toward Assateague, [he is homesick] for the sight of the blue water threads and the Assateague light, a tower like an exclamation point against the sky. Or, [if he lives] in the interior, for the dark pools and shading pines and winding tracks and paths–and maybe the little white wagon of the free delivery route dodging in and out, but most of all, and after all, for that long curving street upon the shore, with its stores and bank and acetylene lights, with its close-set houses and tumbled wharves; for the dory coming in with the fishermen clustering about its sides and … and for the motorboats darting like dragonflies about the channel.
THAT ‘REAPING OF THE SEA’
“… The fishing is better nowhere along the Atlantic Coast than in Chincoteague Bay, and there is deep-sea fishing at the mouth of the inlet. Shipments of mackerel from Chincoteague last spring ran as high as 250 barrels a day–and that [was] when mackerel were bringing 60 cents apiece in the wholesale markets. One fisherman made from his sturgeon catch $1,100 in three weeks.
“The biggest shipper of clams in the world has his wharf neighboring the one at which passengers are landed, [It is] in oysters, however, that the most dependable industry of the islander is found. … At Franklin City, across the bay, a motorboat run about equal to the one the passenger made, this perishable freight is put aboard a branch of the New York, Philadelphia, and Norfolk railroad, and so on to New York.
“The harbor is full of loaded motorboats setting out or motorboats towing bateaux.”
A NOISY REVOLUTION
“… The gasoline engine has revolutionized the life of the island. The eight-mile run to land by canoe, when the sail might flap idle all day, was too uncertain for shipping; the motorboat now takes the fisherman to his seine, the oysterman to his beds, the catch of both to a railroad terminus. … The incessant throb of the motorboat before the island is like a drum roll, a constant call to action.
“[As a result,] the ponies for which the island has always been famous have come to be a side issue, a fad on which the islanders look with tolerant eyes. … But they are beautiful ponies–black, for the most part–white sometimes and, prettiest of all, a dull mahogany red. They are remarkably intelligent and docile and faithful when once broken, and it is this docility which makes the annual pony-penning not the wild thing it might be supposed.
“For, however the islander has loved his home since its first settlement toward the end of the 17th century; however his isolation has preserved his identity and deepened his traditions; however he has kept himself apart to his own life–wild for the most part, and daring–the thrift of present, the money coming into the island, .. the altogether new outlook, are all resultant upon a revolution in … power. The beat of the motorboat is the music of the island. Chincoteague of today is a gasoline development.”
–posted by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC in May 2023.
NOTE: If you are curious about who Lucy Meacham Thruston was, here is the Wikipedia page that gives a brief summary of her career as a writer and her work as a peace activist.