An Island For Sale

I try not to get maudlin over vanishing bits of America, but sometimes it is hard. Smith Island is essentially going on the auction block this weekend. The island community was done in by a collapsed crab industry and the lack of attraction of the waterman’s life to young people.

It’s a shame, really. But unavoidable. The island has been inhabited since about 1659, largely by the same families. According to the Washington Times:

Retired city-dwellers are among the primary invitees to today’s auction, arriving at Smith Island to buy homes left by longtime residents. Many residents who descended from centuries of Smith Islanders have left because they couldn’t survive on the declining crab industry.

“The older residents are slowly moving off the island, so I think there’s a slight bit of change,” said John Brown, chief operating officer of Baltimore-based Express Auction, which will oversee the sales. “There is a new audience coming out there and that’s who we are trying to focus on.”

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Mr. Brown expects buyers from across the mid-Atlantic region to take a look at waterfront properties that range in price from about $50,000 for fixer-uppers to $200,000 for liveable dwellings.

So Smith Island seems fated to either abandonment or to becoming a vacation community.

In a way it is a metaphor and a microcosm for a lot of rural America. Farming is simply not profitable and it is damned hard work. Many natural materials are being replaced with synthetics and the number of people needed to extract minerals and timber decreases each year through technology. Large swaths of America are being denuded of people and farms and homesteads reverting to wilderness.

From an economic and environmental standpoint, large aggregations of people in cities supported by a very small number in the hinterlands is the way to go. If one farmer, through technology, can manage a thousand acres then those others, who in a different era would have been farmers, can find a better use for their talents. For all the sniveling by environmentalists about agribusiness, agribusiness is infinitely more friendly to the environment than a large number of small farms.

Who knows. Maybe Willie Nelson will show up for a “Smith Aid” concert to keep the watermen in business. But I doubt it.

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