Three Bay lovers whose lives have shaped our times
Hidden in the backwater of Chesapeake communities, growing old and wise, are many by whose hands and aspirations our history was made. Their view is long and memories sharp as ever, throwing the Bay they've loved into perspective for us shorter-timers.
This second installment of our occasional series, Living Treasures of Chesapeake Country, was inspired by lifetime-subscriber Joe Stewart, of Baltimore, an activist who swims rivers and estuaries to raise funds for our environment and its people.
"I'd like to recommend Elinor Cofer as a Chesapeake Country living treasure," Stewart wrote.
"I first met her when I did my solo swim across the Potomac seven years ago, and she was president of the St. Mary's County Friends of the Chesapeake. She has come to every swim since then to support the swimmers. She works tirelessly to educate everyone about the environment and is a fearless fighter and outspoken one despite her petite size," Stewart wrote.
To keep Cofer company and broaden your view, we've sought out grand-mothers from Calvert and Anne Arundel counties. Mildred Finlon turned 90 this summer, and Alice Bradshaw soon turns 96.
Mildred Finlon: Bay Teacher
by M.L. Faunce
The name tags defined the relationship: family, neighbor, schoolmate, teacher, adopted kid or, in the case of this writer, new friend and fan. On Mildred Finlon's 90th birthday summer, the partygoers looked back - reminiscing about Finlon's influence on their lives, trading thoughts and thanks - as the 65-foot headboat Lady Hooker steamed south along the Calvert County shoreline toward Parker Creek. But the trim nonagenarian still looks ahead.
In Her Element
At home in Chesapeake Beach, Finlon is in her element. She's trod this Western Shore of the Bay, in work and pleasure, since the 1920s. She learned to swim in these waters and strolled the famous old boardwalk of the town that has seen both boom times and slow times in its century of life. This summer, she drove the first nail in the new boardwalk the resurgent town will build from old Brownie's Beach up to 15th Street where Finlon's father, a railroad steward, bought lots and built six cottages back in 1922.
Finlon's clear memory stretches back to the days when Chesapeake Beach was synonymous with Chesapeake Beach Park, an amusement park with a thumping Wurlitzer band organ, a state-of-the-art Dentzel carousel and a ballroom that echoed the sounds of Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey. She has witnessed the town's history through the challenging days of integration up to its present day incarnation as an attractive year-round residential community. Finlon recounts this history with charm and accuracy.
The carousel, or merry-go-round as Finlon says, was sold in the early 1970s after Chesapeake Beach Park closed its doors. A carved carousel kangaroo is one of the few mementos left of the Chesapeake Beach merry-go-round that delighted generations of children. This kangaroo is one of two that Finlon's husband, the park superintendent, repaired countless times over the years of its working life. After the park closed, the kangaroo lived in the Finlons' basement until it found a new life at the Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum.
"Harold was in love with the merry-go-round and the Wurlitzer Organ," Finlon explains. "The only limits he'd put on the youngsters was no cotton candy. He didn't allow it to be sold at Chesapeake Beach Park because they'd lay them down and he didn't want sticky hands on the carousel figures." Finlon's sons, Harold Jr. (called Finny) and Allan, grew up in the park, and each September on Finny's birthday, the park opened free to all children.
On the same street where her father first staked out summer cottages is Finlon's own cottage. In this home, she and Harold raised their family. Entering the home with soft blue siding and tidy landscaping is like opening a time capsule
Teach the Children
Born in New York City, Finlon grew up in Washington, D.C., attended Wilson Teachers College and taught school in the District of Columbia for 14 years and then in Calvert County for 24 years. A past president of the Teachers Association, she has remained active in Delta Kappa Gamma, Epsilon Chapter, keeping in touch with other retired teachers.
Her interest in children's learning and children's lives went beyond textbooks. Swimming - which she does to this day - was not only a favorite exercise but also a legacy she received as a child and passed along in turn to other children.
Finlon learned to swim from another dedicated woman swimmer, operatic singer Inez Milton. In Finlon's recollection, "Inez came down from Washington, D.C., to Chesapeake Beach every August when I was a teenager and set up a swim and life-saving club at her own expense. Her husband was a reporter for the Washington Star and would write about the meets. We learned to swim right in the Bay and swam with the sea nettles.
"Later I got my instructor's badge and taught swimming to children at Camp Mattawaha. Today I can't remember how to spell the camp's name, but I remember enjoying teaching those children something I loved to do."
In the mid-1950s, remembering her own pleasures as a youngster, Finlon proposed to Calvert County an outdoor education program for sixth grade students.
"I felt that age group has a special need. They were too young for some things, not old enough for others. After I got approval for the program, I asked a Jewish man who headed an association of Christians and Jews in Washington for use of Camp Kaufman, a private camp in Calvert County, and got his permission for two-week sessions in the spring and fall. Teachers and principals helped with camp programs for science, wildflowers, swimming, water safety and canoeing, and no student was turned away for lack of money.
"Camp Kaufman doesn't exist now," Finlon reminds us of shorter memory. "Author Tom Clancy bought the property and built a million-dollar house there. But that was the history."
The former teacher, born before women had the right to vote, says she believes she could have done anything she wanted to do in her life. Most often, she did.
Over the years there were some things she knew that others couldn't do. "The Jewish doctor who delivered my son couldn't buy property in Calvert County," she remembers.
"During segregation, the bookmobile couldn't go into black communities here, although some ignored the restriction," she says. When one of her sons was young, he found it hard to understand why there were separate entrances to the drive-in theater because "we all watched the same movie."
In the early 1950s, Finlon became elementary supervisor of the all-white Calvert County schools from Chesapeake Beach to Solomons.
"It was not an easy time for schools," she recalls. Black students were to be integrated into the all-white system. As an integration supervisor for the county, she helped negotiate delicate issues of the day, such as the NAACP request that black history be taught in all schools and not as a separate subject. A soft-spoken Finlon worked to bridge the differences over integration and to achieve parity mandated by law.
"I don't understand the hatred some of you have in your hearts," she remembers thinking - and saying.
Marking the Way
Harriet Stout, curator of Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum, calls co-chair Finlon a "local treasure, who's really a national treasure." She says children easily relate to the retired teacher who, in turn, is wonderful with them. "I've seen her gather youngsters around the kangaroo, a colorfully restored carousel figure at the museum, telling them to notice the smile. The kangaroo is smiling because it's happy to be back where children can see it, Finlon tells them."
"I don't think kids have changed," Finlon says, "but I think parents have. Today parents think discipline is corporal punishment. And they should do what they say they're going to do, otherwise it's inconsistent. Children need for things to be consistent."
Now, she keeps tabs on her own grandchildren. Michael, 24, is studying to be a doctor. Kristen, 21, is a linguist skilled in Chinese and Russian who counsels rape victims over the summer and plans to study women's rights law.
"I call her the rebel," Finlon says, because "she says her mind. I think that's a good thing." Proudly, she says of the doctor-to-be and her rebel, "both went to Duke University on four-year scholarships."
Her granddaughter is equally proud. "My grandmother has been a great role model, which is cool," says granddaughter Kris. "She's strong-minded and independent, very much in command." Thrice blessed, the young woman who is interested in "human rights law in post-atrocity societies" also credits her mother and other grandmother as models.
On her 90th birthday, Mildred Finlon didn't wear a name tag. If she had, surely it would have read "role model," that's how the multi-generational guests on board Finlon's birthday cruise down the Bay explained what the guest of honor meant to them on their name tags.
Robin Hastings sported the nametag "adopted kid." When as a teenager family circumstances left her without a home, Finlon suggested she come live with her. Hastings recalls that when facing choices about college or working, no matter what came along that she thought would prevent her from going to school, Mildred would always say, "we'll cross that bridge when we get there." She says it was Finlon's interest and positive outlook that made her own success possible and still inspires her.
For Mildred Finlon, her 90th birthday was more a night for celebrating than looking back. The vibrant and beloved Finlon lives very much in the present, as she has all her life. She says she doesn't worry about tomorrow or the millennium.
Still, when a chorus joined her in singing favorite songs like "You Are My Sunshine" and "I'll See You In My Dreams," the songs seemed more in tune with the days of the old Chesapeake Beach than 1999. Would Finlon go back? "Nothing doing." To go back in time would be to miss other days of her remarkable life, each of which she calls "exciting."
"Everyday has its magic moments of one kind or another," Finlon read somewhere long ago, and now repeats that aphorism to friends. "I say it over each new dawn, and no day has ever failed me," the poem says, and so might she.
Elinor Cofer: Bay Activist
by Kim Cammarata
Cofer honors activist Joe Stewart after his first swim across the mouth of the Potomac River in 1993.
Elinor Cofer stands at the end of her dock on a steamy summer morning to lower a rope marked with fractions of a meter into the waters of St. Jerome's Creek in St. Mary's County. The heavy black-and-white plastic disc tied to the end of the rope sinks to the bottom.
"I'm checking the depth," explains Cofer. "It's about three-quarters of a meter."
Then she inches the black-and-white disc toward the surface, peering into the water to measure how murky it is.
Cofer performs this ritual regularly as a volunteer for the Chesapeake Bay Citizen Monitoring Program, which is coordinated by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. The data she collects - along with that of more than 145 other participants in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania - helps monitor the well-being of the waters that run into the Bay. Just as she's done for most of her 80 years, Cofer is mothering Chesapeake Bay, securing its health and longevity.
Cofer's love and concern for the Bay began early and lasted long. She has thought of herself as a daughter of the Bay since spending childhood summers of the '20s and '30s with her family at Chesapeake Beach and later at Scientist Cliffs in Calvert County.
"As children, we would come over the rise coming down into Chesapeake Beach in our old Rio Royale and say 'The whitecaps! The whitecaps!'" says Cofer, smiling at the memory. "We lived up on the cliffs. There was a path along the cliffs that came down to the amusement park. They had this wonderful carousel right there at the beach. The main pier went out almost a mile. You could walk out."
Cofer and her sisters and brother stayed with their mother in a small cottage all summer, and her father came down from the city every weekend. She reminisces how "Daddy would come down on Fridays, and he would give us each a dime. We would come down with our 10 cents and put them in the slot machine. That was such a wonderful feeling to be coming down here on Fridays. We spent an awful lot of time rattling around that amusement park."
While Cofer remembers her weekends at the amusement park with affection, the bulk of her time was spent simply enjoying the natural beauty of the Chesapeake Bay.
"The water was so clear. You could see when there were sea nettles coming," Cofer recalls. "I spent most of my summers walking along the beach looking for sharks' teeth, swimming and thinking 'What a beautiful body of water.'"
As the carefree days of early childhood gave way to her teenage years, Cofer began to notice, in ways she couldn't yet name, that the Chesapeake Bay was going downhill. She worried even then, long before "Save the Bay" became a cause célèbre, that the changes she was witnessing could never be reversed.
She told herself even then, "this Bay will need a lot of advocates."
Back to the Bay
By 1970, Cofer was looking forward to retirement from a busy life as a nurse and mother. Yearning to be closer to nature and Chesapeake Bay, she settled full time in St. Mary's County. She lived first on the open Bay, not far from her current home on St. Jerome's Creek in Ridge, where she's lived now for 12 years with husband Bill Cofer, whom she married in 1973.
Cofer's childhood love of combing the beaches for sharks' teeth became a lifelong hobby. She learned about fossils in seminars at the Smithsonian Institution and by working alongside the museum's scientists as a volunteer to salvage the fossil record in the '70s while Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant was being built. Hundreds of fossils, most of which are identified and labeled, are displayed inside Cofer's waterside home. A framed letter gives thanks for several fossils that she donated to the Smithsonian.
Also on display is Cofer's artwork, depicting the Chesapeake Beach of her youth. Her fond memories of the boardwalk amusement park, especially the carousel, and the Chesapeake Bay of days past are forever preserved in oils and oil pastels.
Cofer wrote movingly about her home in a 1991 essay entitled "Who Can Be Bored With Mallards, Loons and Cormorants for Company?" that won Honorable Mention in the Maryland Office on Aging's Maryland You Are Beautiful Senior Citizen Writing Contest: "After a lifetime of hard work and tribulations, my husband and I settled on a quiet cove of the Chesapeake Bay as our retirement haven. I thank the Lord daily that this quiet cove still remains almost untouched by the civilization only two blocks away."
Nursing the Bay
Perhaps this quiet cove would not have remained untouched without Elinor Cofer.
In 1982, Cofer formed Friends of the Chesapeake. The organization, an educational advocate for the Chesapeake Bay, published quarterly newsletters and held public meetings each year to educate St. Mary's about the Bay problems and to inspire a personal stake in its long-term health. "My love for the Bay made me decide to start Friends of the Chesapeake," recalls Cofer.
Bob Boxwell, former vice-president and most recent president of Friends of the Chesapeake, worked alongside her for many years. "Elinor Cofer woke me up to the fact that you've got to be involved on a local level to make a difference," says Boxwell.
Friends, says Cofer, was not a "fighting organization" - the group did not have the financial resources to fight for environmental protection in the courts. They did lend their support to many measures to protect the Chesapeake. In the early '80s, the group worked along with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other environmental organizations to ensure passage of Maryland's Critical Area Act, which regulates shoreline land use.
In 1988 Cofer, as a representative of Friends of the Chesapeake, worked with the committee to overhaul the comprehensive plan for St. Mary's County, the first update since the 1950s. She was also involved in the 1999 update.
In the 1990s, when the Patuxent River Naval Air Station faced a federal mandate to comply with the same environmental guidelines as private industries, Friends acted as liaison between the base and community.
The organization also sponsored the Potomac River Swim for the Environment. Remembers Boxwell: "Joe Stewart proposed the idea to several groups, but they all thought the idea was crazy. Elinor said 'Let's give it a try.' Friends of the Chesapeake was the only one willing to take a stretch."
In 1999, the swim celebrated its seventh year.
Justice For All
Cofer's role as defender of the Chesapeake stems in part from her strong feelings about justice in a civil society. Says Cofer, "You need to be ready to step in if you feel there is something wrong or some injustice. If I see abuse of something - whether it's abuse of an animal, or people or the Chesapeake Bay - I have to step in."
She'll move a turtle off the road so that it can safely complete its journey. She's been involved with the Audubon Society for 60 years. Currently she's determined that a proposed oyster aquaculture site will not trap and drown the diving ducks that congregate in that area over winter.
Vulnerable creatures have always drawn her heart and deeds. She was deeply involved with her brother's two daughters after he died young and always has time for a child in need.
"I've had so many children that I've been involved with over the years. I relate very well to children. I think it's part of my mental health background," says Cofer.
These days Cofer's slowing down a little, relatively speaking. This summer Friends of the Chesapeake turned over its membership and assets to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Still, Cofer continues to contribute her experience to protect the environment. In addition to monitoring the water quality of St. Jerome's Creek for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, following the proposed oyster aquaculture site that may threaten diving ducks, writing letters to the editor and serving as a knowledgeable source on a significant fossil find in St. Mary's County, Cofer deliberates with the Lexington Park Focus Group. Its goal is revitalization of Lexington Park. The environmental benefit lies in the hope that revitalized cities with existing infrastructure will help attract development to those cities thus preserving green space that might otherwise have been developed.
For her efforts, Elinor Cofer has earned the respect of her colleagues and gained the admiration of her community. She's won many awards, including the Izaak Walton League of America's Chesapeake Bay Conservation Award in 1992 for her efforts to preserve the environment and the American Association of University Women's Woman of Achievement Award in 1988 for her role in organizing an educational environmental symposium.
Her greatest reward, however, is knowing that she's tried to make a difference - for children, for her communities, for the disadvantaged, for the environment and, especially, for the Chesapeake Bay.
Elinor Cofer expresses it best herself in "Who Can Be Bored With Mallards, Loons and Cormorants for Company?":
"We are indeed blessed to live in this land of pleasant living. Let us hope that this tranquil waterway is allowed to remain as it is Let us pray that human predators will not destroy these unspoiled natural habitats so vital to the health of the Bay. Let us make our voice heard to the earth movers and pipe layers, and all who might unknowingly have a part in the loss of our vital natural resources, that we must remember that the survival of our human species depends on the survival of others."
Alice Butler Bradshaw: Bay Memoirist
by M.L. Faunce
Eastport's Alice Butler Bradshaw didn't know what the word fear meant until she watched the turbulent Chesapeake Bay below her for the first time. That her fear turned to awe is proof not only of the power of the Bay but of love itself.
In 1926, Bob Bradshaw, a Tilghman Island waterman, took Alice Butler by boat to a small speck of land off Black Walnut Point. With waves pounding, the two climbed a flight of stairs to the upper deck of Sharp's Island Lighthouse. There, with the expansive Bay as witness, Bob proposed to Alice. Thus began her love affair with the Chesapeake Bay and a commitment to marriage that lasted 60 years.
Artist E. Lynne Kibler painted Bob Bradshaw's proposal to Alice Butler at the base of the then-erect Sharp's Island Light.
Big Sky Country
Born on a farm in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, Alice Butler would remember more about her second home than her first, when her father traveled out to the plains of central Montana to find a homestead. Selling most of their furniture except an organ, the family packed up and moved West in 1909. Bradshaw grew up in the Little Rockies of the Big Sky State where, she says, she "had never seen trees or fireflies and certainly not a vast body of water."
Out West, she learned to ride horses and began to appreciate the beauty of nature. Once, when she mistakenly mounted an unbroken horse just off the range, she launched an interest in writing that has been lifelong. In that first written article, published by a Lewistown, Montana newspaper, Bradshaw told the story of her harrowing teenage ride on a runaway horse.
"I learned my horseback skills at a time when Barnum and Bailey Wild West shows came to town," she says. As to her writing skills, Bradshaw picked those up closer to home. "My mother liked to write. She'd write on the back of a paper bag or anything handy, then threw everything in a trunk." Years later, Bradshaw discovered her mother's first love letter - to her father - written in 1893.
If it sounds like an inspiring story, you might want to read Bradshaw's own book, A Promise of Love.
To the Shore
When the father's health dictated a move to a lower altitude, the family left Montana and settled on the Eastern Shore near Oxford. "I was this spirited girl from the plains and settled into a completely different life," said Bradshaw.
Bradshaw attended Easton High School and earned a teaching degree from Towson State University. But she had never set foot on any of Maryland's many islands until her sister went to teach school on Tilghman Island.
She remembers being enthralled by all she saw: "the trees became the essence of my life and the fireflies falling like diamonds in the sky created a sense of wonder about the island." Impetuously, she told her father, "I'll meet the man of my dreams on this enchanted island."
Before the evening was over, Bob Bradshaw introduced himself to the young Alice, blurting out, "You are the most beautiful girl in the world." The following day, she caught the steamboat at Easton Point for Towson State Teacher's College in Baltimore.
Courtship followed, and the couple courted on steamboat trips to Tolchester in between crabbing season - until the young suitor's father demanded help repairing and painting boats for the fall oyster dredging season.
When the girl he loved accepted a teaching job in Pennsylvania, the man who she says "knew the ways of the water," left Tilghman to work as a carpenter to be near her. She hadn't known he possessed this skill, but he reminded her that a waterman also had to be a carpenter - and sometimes even a farmer.
Life on the Water
At the time Bob Bradshaw proposed to Alice in 1925, Sharp's Island Light sat awash in the Bay and still had two lighthouse keepers. Only a decade earlier, marsh and grasses surrounded the lighthouse. Back in the 1800s, the light sat on 700 acres of farmed land. Local lore about the light includes ghost stories and a legend about Blackbeard the Pirate. Now a love story was added.
When the couple wed in 1927, their honeymoon was a trip to the movies in Cambridge. Then they traveled to their new home in the village of Fairbank, about a mile or so down the road from the town of Tilghman. The house had no electricity or plumbing; an outside privy took in the blasts of winter and the mosquitoes in summer. The village of 150 people had just a small country store "where the men swapped tales around a pot-bellied stove and placed bets on who would catch the most oysters and who had the fastest dredge boat under sail," remembers Bradshaw.
"A local lady, Miss Rose, taught me island cooking, spicing up vegetables with ham or bacon, and how to make shortbread, how to pick crabs and make crab cakes. I soon learned the ways of a small island community, to watch my words carefully, where sometimes words were repeated until they bore no resemblance to what was originally said," the transplanted islander adds.
The church was the center of life in the community, Bradshaw says, "and the camaraderie and quiet of that little church gave us sustenance and a place where our problems seemed to fade away." At oyster-supper time, people poured out their hearts in giving. She remembers, too, how everyone in the community helped each other during the Great Depression.
Watermen and Waterwoman
A waterman's life had three seasons: oystering in winter, pound-net fishing in spring and trotline crabbing in summer. Bradshaw came to know the ways of the water, too. About how the waterman crabbed by trotline, using one-half inch rope 100 to 300 feet long. She knew that fathers passed on the art to their sons and not their daughters. The work brought in decent money, a dollar to a dollar and a half a barrel. Lucky crabbers got 10 or 12 barrels a day, but by the time they bought bait and gasoline, there wasn't much profit.
After that first crabbing season, Bob asked Alice to go with him to freight wheat to Baltimore.
"I was afraid at first, but Bob challenged me. I was the only woman who worked on a boat, and not everyone approved. A few even thought I was a monstrosity wearing pants and rowing out in a skiff off to work. But I enjoyed it and eventually became respected. And to a certain extent, I started a trend and changed the view of what women could do," the waterwoman remembers.
Later she freighted oysters with her husband in a 22-foot sailboat, "crossing the Bay on the best and worst of days," she says. "I learned to respect the Bay's fury and the glory of its beauty while freighting oysters."
In the small island village, she scraped paint off boats and varnished boats and did whatever was needed. "I enjoyed all of it," she says.
As she became accustomed to the waterman's way of life, Alice says the beauty of the Bay struck her ever more. She loved the calmness of the Bay at night, the reflection of the moon and the early mornings when she could see a storm coming across great distances. The beauty of the Bay and life on it is one of Maryland's treasures that became hers, she says.
Her winning essay, written in 1988, on "Why Maryland is Beautiful to Me," spoke of the Chesapeake as a source of daily living and of the waterman's way of life, which became her life. The life and beauty of the Bay became inspiration for countless poems written over the years, among them "Call of the Chesapeake":
Far out the night winds call me back,
to the rolling waves of the Chesapeake,
where shadows of the setting sun,
fall against the skipjacks in the cove.
Sharp's Island Light now tilts at a 40-degree angle, a landmark not on land at all, well known to fisherman and sailors, and watermen - those still working the Bay. Looking for just the right present for her husband for their 50th anniversary in 1976, Bradshaw drew on this symbol and enlisted an artist friend to paint a picture of Sharp's Island Light. Not a leaning light, but standing straight and tall in the Bay as it had when marriage was proposed and life ahead untried. Annapolis artist E. Lynne Kibler rendered the painting and placed a young couple in a boat, tying up to the light, lightkeeper looking on.
That is not all Alice Bradshaw did to enshrine those long-distant "carriage days" of work and pleasure in island life. With her husband, Bradshaw began writing a memoir of the life she and Bob Bradshaw shared on Tilghman Island, from their marriage in 1927 until the beginning of World War II. When he died in 1987, she stopped, but she had promised him that she would someday finish the story. A Promise of Love was published in 1996 as a story of love, faith in God and community life in the small, isolated town of Fairbank on Tilghman Island.
"I learned more from living in that small island community than anything else I've ever done. It was the best part of my life," remembers the woman who took to the water to follow her husband and turns 96 as Chesapeake Country heads into another century and a new millennium.
| Issue 42 |
Volume VII Number 42
October 21-27 1999
New Bay Times
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