Tuesday, June 17, 2014

“Forget me not is all I ask. I could not ask for more.”

One of the three cemeteries on Holland
Island.  Photo compliments of
Sometimes Interesting 
Everyone wants to be remembered.  Thirteen-year-old Effie Wilson was no different.  On her tombstone she requested, “Forget me not is all I ask.  I could not ask for more.”  Effie Wilson's short life began in 1880 on Holland Island in the Chesapeake Bay and ended in 1893.  Little did she know almost a hundred years later a final battle to preserve her memory would be undertaken by one man and his wife.  A house built when Effie Wilson was eight-years-old would come to symbolize the final struggle to preserve her memory...and a struggle for a lot more.

Built in 1888, little did this family
know the house would defiantly stand
against the Bay for 122 years.  Photo
compliments of Sometimes Interesting
Holland Island was one of the largest and most populated islands of the Chesapeake Bay.  By 1910, the island boasted a population of 360, a thriving fleet of work boats - including 55 skipjacks, several general stores, a grade school, Red Men's Hall (a community center), a post office, a full time doctor, a full time minister, and, all total, about seventy buildings on the five-mile long island.  Twelve years later, the last full time resident abandoned the island when the Church collapsed in a storm.  Relentless waves, storms, and rising sea levels took its toll on the island.

Stephen White's playground in 1953.
The 1888 house stood proudly, but vacant.
Photo compliments of Sometimes Interesting
Long after all the people had left the island, Stephen White would visit to play.  Holland Island was his boyhood playground.  Most of the houses were gone.  Residents had dismantled them piece-by-piece and relocated them on the mainland, primarily in Crisfield, three or so decades earlier.  A few houses remained as well as three cemeteries, including the one where Effie Wilson was laid to rest.  What boy wouldn't love to play in a ghost town?

Stephan White grew up and fished the Bay like generations of his family before him.  Eventually, he went on to become a minister, but he never forgot his roots nor his childhood playground, Holland Island.

In the early 1990's, Mr. White visited his childhood playground and was dismayed at the sight he beheld.  Most of the island was gone.  While visiting one of the cemeteries, Mr. White came upon Effie Wilson's tombstone.  “Forget me not is all I ask.  I could not ask for more.”  As he raised his camera to take a picture of the grave, he thought he saw a ghostly girl standing nearby.

“Forget me not is all I ask.  I could not ask for more.”  The words haunted him.  The Bay was taking his playground from him and erasing all memory of the thriving watermen community that once lived on Holland Island.  Despite Effie Wilson's final plea, the Bay would take the memory of her, too.

The impending tragedy inspired Mr. White into action.  In 1995, he bought what remained of Holland Island for $70,000, including the only house that remained - the one built in 1888.  Over the next fifteen years, he and his wife, Diane, fought the rising waters of the Bay.

They built breakwaters of wood only to watch the waves devour them.  They sand bagged the island, but the hot summer sun baked the bags, splitting them open.  The waves took the sand and the emptied bags out to sea.  They hand carried 23 tons of rocks and dropped them along the shoreline in an effort to save the house, but the Bay took the rocks, too.  They sunk a barge just offshore to act as a breakwater, but to no avail.

Despite the White's efforts, the Bay
kept coming.  Photo compliments of
Sometimes Interesting

Mr. White earned the name, Sisyphus of Dorchester, as residents snickered at his efforts.  (Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, was the King of Ephyra, who was condemned for his chronic deceitfulness by being compelled to roll a huge boulder uphill, only to watch it roll back down, and doomed to repeat this action for eternity.)  Despite the snickering, he and his wife waged their battle to save the island.  They held out hope that a donor or the government would step in and help them in their efforts.  Stephen estimated that they spent about $150,000 to save the island and the house, but the hoped-for-help from government never came. 

Their efforts were doomed from the start.  The government and the Army Corps of Engineers were battling the Bay to save Poplar Island a little further to the north.  At a cost, so far, of over two-thirds of a billion dollars, the project will cost an estimated $1.6 billion when completed in 2041 - a forty-five year project.  A retired couple stood no chance of saving an island by themselves and the government was in no position to help them.

Oct. 2010, the house built in 1888
collapses into the Bay.  Photo
compliments of Sometimes Interesting
In 2010, Mr. White fell ill with hemolytic anemia, a near deadly drop in red blood cells.  At eighty-years-old, Mr. White couldn't fight the Bay any more.  "It's a struggle that the strongest wins. And I wasn't the strongest," said White.

He sold the island to a local venture capitalist group, the Concorde Foundation, in hopes they would continue the fight to save the island.  A mere months after selling, the last remaining house succumbed to the Bay, collapsing in a heap in Oct 2010.

Holland Island today.  Somewhere
under the waves rests Holland Island
and the final resting place of at least
62 former residents, including Effie
Wilson.  Photo compliments of
Sometimes Interesting
Over the next few months, the Bay continued its relentless assault on the collapsed house.  Piece by piece, every remnant of what once was Holland Island disappeared forever under the waves.  The house was gone.  The land was gone.  And all three cemeteries, including the one where Effie Wilson was laid to rest, became part of the sea floor. 

“Forget me not is all I ask.  I could not ask for more.”

Effie Wilson's final words on her tombstone, somber words for a little thirteen-year-old girl, are haunting.  There is no cemetery for future generations to walk through and read Effie Wilson's words in remembrance.  There is no island to walk on or community to stroll through as a reminder of our collective heritage and strong link to the Bay. 

The Bay may have taken an island, and even Effie Wilson and her somber words, but one thing the Bay didn't take was the indomitable spirit of one waterman and his wife, an indomitable spirit shared by native Eastern Shore men and women across the generations. 

Despite the snickering across Dorchester County by some over Stephen White's perceived fruitless endeavor, he knew he only had to fight to save the island long enough until he could convince the government to send in the Army to save his childhood playground and the memory of a girl he only knew through the words on a tombstone.  His wife, Diane, stood by her husband faithfully and lugged sandbags and rocks unquestioningly if, for no other reason, than the task was important to her husband.  Unfortunately, the Army never came.

Some say I'm a drunk redneck with no talent, but if I had the talent (and probably the money), I would devote the rest of my life to creating the Holland Island Lighthouse.  I would make the lighthouse as a life-sized replica of the 1888 house that stood against the Bay in defiance for 122 years.  On the porch I would hang a plaque saying:

Dedicated to Stephen and Diane White
who fought to save Holland Island, 1995-2010,
And to the indomitable spirit of our native Eastern Shore
men and women that the Bay will never wash away

On the left corner of the lighthouse, I would place a tombstone, which would read:
 Effie Wilson
Daughter of John W. & Annie A.
Born January 16, 1880
Died October 12, 1893
Forget me not is all I ask.  I could not ask for more
That I could be cherished by my friends so loving and so dear
Dearest Effie thou has left us and our loss we deeply feel
But as God that has bereft us, He will all our sorrows heal

Then I would enlist the help of as many watermen as I can find to tow that memorial lighthouse and anchor it to the exact spot where the 1888 house stood.  The Bay may erase the land, but we shouldn't let it erase our culture, heritage, and memories.

Last known video of Holland Island and Mr. White's battle in 2007 - three years before the house fell

Editor's Note:

01/19/15: YouTube video added

Posted by Five Drunk Rednecks

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