1917 — Kent Is­land vs. the United States

Record Observer - - News - By BRENT LEWIS

It was one hun­dred years ago. 1917. The end of sum­mer. Kent Is­land, like most of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay’s Eastern Shore, was still very ru­ral, its sparse pop­u­la­tion liv­ing in close-to-the-soil agri­cul­tural com­mu­ni­ties based around fam­ily farms and coun­try stores, or in rough-and-tum­ble wa­ter­men’s en­claves.

Most peo­ple didn’t own a car, a tele­phone, or an in­door bath­room.

The aver­age na­tional an­nual in­come was less than $1,000 per year. One in a thou­sand mar­riages ended in di­vorce. Life ex­pectancy was 48 for men and 51 for women. Pro­hi­bi­tion loomed. War was con­sum­ing most of the world around us, and that past April, the United States had joined the fight, the Great War, the global con­fla­gra­tion that would be­come for­ever known as the First World War.

One hun­dred years ago. 1917. End of sum­mer.

That’s when Kent Is­land went into bat­tle against their own fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

The United States War De­part­ment was look­ing to build a prov­ing ground to test the mod­ern weaponry be­ing devel­oped to fight the war, and that sum­mer, Kent Is­land was tar­geted, ac­cord­ing to at least one ac­count, by no less an author­ity than ad­viser Thomas Edi­son.

The Sec­re­tary of War, New­ton D. Baker, de­ter­mined that the al­most the whole of the Is­land, at least 19,000 acres, would be re­quired if the plans were to be im­ple­mented, and out of the $3,000,000 the gov­ern­ment had to spend, it was re­ported that 5,000 acres had al­ready been op­tioned. If the deal went through, and the gov­ern­ment threat­ened to ex­er­cise the right of con­dem­na­tion and seize the is­land if it didn’t, 3,000 res­i­dents of the largest is­land in the Ch­e­sa­peake would be dis­placed from their homes and liveli­hoods.

A group of Kent Is­land civic lead­ers met at re­tired Mary­land State Se­na­tor James Kir­wan’s store on July 3.

One of the pri­mary par­tic­i­pants in the Is­land up­ris­ing, Henry Palmer, kept a diar y of the sub­se­quent events, and as be­fits a man rep­re­sent­ing res­i­dents of a com­mu­nity where so many made their lives from the land and wa­ter, Mr. Palmer’s en­tries all be­gin with a note on the day’s weather:

Wind-S. Date 3-Tues, The peo­ple of the is­land called a meet­ing to elect del­e­ga­tion of 5 to go to Wash­ing­ton to see Sect. Baker & try to get him not to take the is­land for prov­ing grounds. Names of com­mit­tee: W.E. Denny, Roland Carville, H. A. Palmer, J.R. Den­ton and James E. Kir­wan.

Wind SW. Date 6-Fri, We went to Wash­ing­ton to see (Sec­re­tary of War New­ton D.) Baker & (U.S. Se­na­tor from Mary­land) John Wal­ter Smith…we were cor­dially re­ceived and Sen Smith would have us take lunch with him and (we) stayed in Balt(imore) that night.

The Kent Is­lan­ders laid out their sim­ple ar­gu­ment for choos­ing some other lo­ca­tion:

Not only would the gov­ern­men­tal takeover of their home­land cre­ate hard­ship for so many, but a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the lo­cal crab and oys­ter busi­ness would be de­stroyed, as would 250,000 bushels of grain, and acres of fruit, veg­etable, and animal pro­duc­tion.

The com­mit­tee re­turned home on Satur­day morn­ing’s Love Point Ferry and held a public meet­ing that drew a “big crowd, ac­cord­ing to Palmer.” Through­out July and Au­gust, while the com­mit­tee con­tin­ued to meet with var­i­ous fed­eral and state of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Mary­land Gov­er­nor Emer­son Har­ring­ton, the de­bate roiled on.

On Thurs­day, Aug. 16, a del­e­ga­tion of about 100 Kent Is­lan­ders trav­eled to Wash­ing­ton, and on Fri­day they, along with Con­gress­man Price, went be­fore the House Com­mit­tee on Ap­pro­pri­a­tions to make their case.

The Kent Is­land Com­mit­tee of five were again in D.C. from Sun­day, Sept. 9, through Satur­day, Sept. 15, when they were joined by a del­e­ga­tion of 500 con­cerned cit­i­zens from the Eastern Shore. At a con­tentious hear­ing be­fore the Se­nate Com­mit­tee of Mil­i­tary Af­fairs, Sen. Smith and an Is­land rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Dr. John R. Ben­ton were scolded by Sec. Baker for re­sist­ing their coun­try’s call dur­ing a time of war, and warned if seizure of the is­land were go­ing to hap­pen it would hap­pen quick and soon. From Henry Palmer’s Diary: Wind – NE 16 – Sun. We (the com­mit­tee) and the del­e­ga­tion all came back home on the early boat & no ser­vice at M.E. Church. Rev. G.S. Thomas in Wash­ing­ton.

Wind – NE 17 – Mond. We (com­mit­tee) went back to Wash­ing­ton & the mil­i­tary de­cided not to take K.I. as a prov­ing ground about 3:15 PM & we at once tele­phoned the good news home to Kent Is­land and thanks to God.

The Bal­ti­more Sun re­ported: “The se­nate Com­mit­tee on Mil­i­tary Af­fairs, at a special meet­ing held that af­ter­noon, had de­cided by unan­i­mous vote that “nei­ther Kent Is­land nor any part thereof should be taken by the gov­ern­ment for a prov­ing ground.” It was the end of sum­mer. 1917. One hun­dred years ago. That’s when Kent Is­land won their war with the United States Gov­ern­ment.


Linda Col­lier, left, cu­ra­tor of the Kir­wan Mu­seum Store, and Jack Brod­er­ick, pres­i­dent of the Kent Is­land Her­itage So­ci­ety, look at a pho­to­graph of the 1917 Kent Is­land del­e­ga­tion to Wash­ing­ton that con­vinced the gov­ern­ment to aban­don a pro­posal for con­vert­ing Kent Is­land into a weapons prov­ing ground.

The Kent Is­land Del­e­ga­tion

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