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Volume 15, Issue 21 ~ May 24 - May 30, 2007

Castles in the Sand

story and photos by Bethany Rodger

Sandcastle Lady Lynn McKeown doesn’t mind that, like dreams, her masterpieces melt into the sea

Lynn McKeown can see the fairy tale wonderland buried in a pile of sand. As summer rolls around, McKeown grabbed her shovels and headed to North Beach to help children and their grandparents mold sand into the spires and turrets of their imaginations.

Wearing a blue swimsuit and a flowered straw hat, McKeown mingled with her students, teaching the basic tenets of sandcastle construction. First, McKeown doesn’t like digging unsafe holes, so she recommends gathering a mound of sand and building the castle into it.

Lynn McKeown, The Sandcastle Lady, and one of her finished masterpieces.

After four-year-old Hailey Croce finished making her pile, McKeown helped her splash water on it and knead it into the correct consistency, or what McKeown calls “meatball sand.”

Then she started Hailey building with a series of molds marked The Sandcastle Lady, McKeown’s nickname among the children she helps every summer in her home beach in Lewes, Delaware. This square turret mold will help build “a tower or house for Princess Hailey,” McKeown says.

It’s her style to keep her apprentices entertained by encouraging the imagination as she goes. “I tell them I would live in a village house and sell eggs or flowers in the castle,” she says. She thinks of herself as a storyteller rather than artist or architect.

For the next step in construction, McKeown demonstrates making balls of meatball sand and punching them tight into a bucket mold. Then, she flips the bucket over and gives it a brisk tap. When she lifts the bucket, the first part of this castle stands, repeating its mold detail for detail.

Hailey Croce fills a mold with meatball sand, above.

Removing a mold, Ethen Hammer, below, reveals a sandcastle wall.

Meatball consistency and tight packing are the secrets to success.

Add stairs by scraping a ramp of sand, then cutting steps in with a shovel.

Hailey and her grandmother take McKeown’s advice, but they also find ways to customize their castle, decorating the towers with seashells and smooth rocks. Another family adds an artistic flourish by building a sand bridge with a piece of siding. Hailey, finished with her own castle, helps them scoop out a swimming pool.

Building sandcastles encourages creativity, says Karen Croce, Hailey’s grandmother. It also helps make and refresh memories. Croce, 58, says sculpting sand reminds her of “being at the beach with little children. Being carefree.”

Just the associations the Beach Business Group hoped to find in a sand castle master — they Googled to find her — to invite to the party on Beach Weekend, as one of the Western Shore’s few public Bay beaches begins summer.

Playing on beaches helps keep McKeown youthful at heart, too, and she hopes to still be doing it when she’s 81. “You should not be afraid to do this,” she says, holding up her very sandy leg. Not afraid, that is, to get messy and have fun.

When not teaching young and old, McKeown is busy sculpting her own castle out of a mound of sand the size of a small car. She works quickly with a shovel and spoon, getting her inspiration from the contours of the sand. “You just take away what is unimportant, she says, scraping houses and walls into existence.

At the end of the day, each child-sculptor receives a miniature gold trophy commemorating hard work — though their castles in the sand suffer when unwitting wanderers walk through them. McKeown doesn’t mind that her creations will inevitably fall prey to wind, water or careless feet. “Nothing lasts forever,” she says.

Bethany Rodgers, a rising senior in journalism at the University of Maryland, is a Bay Weekly intern. Her last story was Public Figures: Round Two (Vol. 15, No. 19: May 10).

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