1917 — Kent Island vs. the United States
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