By BRICE STUMP
The Daily Times of Salisbury
ELLIOTT ISLAND, Md. (AP) — With just one road connecting this island with the mainland and only 70 residents or so, folks just seem to know all the happenings in their community.
“There are no secrets on Elliott Island,” said Ann Foley, longtime resident and island historian.
Not now, maybe, but 20 years ago, there was a secret that was so well kept only two men knew about it. It had the island abuzz with speculation — who was putting Christmas trees in the marsh six miles from the island?
Year after year, a stark and humble Charlie Brown-styled Christmas tree suddenly appeared in the open marsh, near the
winding ribbon of asphalt that cuts through almost 12 miles of marshland. Each year, the tree appeared and was always decorated with homemade ornaments.
“Islanders kept asking each other, `Who is doing this?’ Then the people visiting the island were asking us who were putting the decorations out, and nobody knew,” Foley said.
Nobody but Chet Martinek and the late Bill “Bull Dog” Harrison, who kept a store there.
“Bull Dog and I were settin’ in his old store, `bout 20 years ago, chit-chattin’ and drinkin’ a few beers,” said Martinek. “He
had a whole basket full of empty plastic squeeze lemon and lime shaped containers. He said, `I hate to throw these away.’ It was near Christmas and he started paintin’ some of `em; he had some red, yellow, silver and gold paint. So we went out and cut a little 4-foot cedar tree and put it out in the marsh with the painted lemons and limes. That was our first Christmas display.”
From the beginning, the two thought the appearance of a decorated tree in the marsh would be a hot topic of discussion
among islanders the next morning, if they could keep the “who done it” a secret. So, working under the cover of darkness, the deed was done year after year.
The location of the Christmas tree in the marsh, six miles from the island, was not by accident.
“Everybody could see it where we put it and it was on private property,” Martinek said. “When Bull Dog got too old to do it, I took it over. He’d still ride down there in the truck with me when I put the tree out by myself, year after year, always at night. At first we had it closer to the road and people shot the Christmas balls off, that’s why we have moved it farther back and put up private property signs.”
Every Christmas, a tree appeared in the marsh. Then one spring, when the dried foliage fell from the tree, Martinek began decorating it with colored eggs for Easter.
“That’s the way it went for a while, then when I got married in 2003, my wife and I added little decoration to the display.That’s when my neighbors, the Osheskes, started helping us put things out like pink flamingos that we decorated at Thanksgiving with feathers and Pilgrim hats,” Martinek said.
“When I got involved, I started helping. I’d go out and cut the tree with Chet and decorate it, but I told him it needed more stuff than a few balls,” Melissa said, laughing, “but whatever my man wanted to do, we did it. Then we started putting the flags up, and real Christmas balls, solar lights and then we started decorating for holidays and adding more things. Donna and her family found patterns for us and from there it has come to what we have today. This is so great to have things out here. People come by and they really enjoy it, and that’s why we do it. And it’s fun for us. Who else would decorate the marsh?”
When Paul and Donna Osheske came to the island 11 years ago, the Martineks had marsh art partners. After Donna’s father, Art Kaiser, 90, moved there five years ago, the displays in the marsh took on a whole new look.
“David Gray made us a snowman that was put out with the Christmas trees one year. By the end of the season, there were 21 bullet holes in it that needed plugging up,” Donna said.
That’s when her father got involved.
Kaiser, a former house painter, government project inspector and long-time amateur artist, repainted the snowman.
“And that’s how I got into this,” Kaiser said. “My friend, Melissa, said she wanted to do something different
and we found this life-size reindeer pattern. My husband and I bought the plywood,” Donna explained, “but everybody chips in for supplies.”
Kaiser traced the pattern onto the panel, then Paul and Donna cut it out with a jigsaw. Primed and painted, it is on its way six miles to the site, and with the Martineks and Osheskes holding an antler or a hoof, they carried the seasonal decoration to the site.
Then came a Santa, with sleigh and reindeer. Designs more than 8-feet tall were made from pre-drilled, pre-screwed sections.
They worked on the next marsh art presentation during the kinder months of spring and fall, with the one-time house painter Art painting the panels on the porch of his home.
“This gives me something to do. And it’s fun. We really enjoy doing this,” Kaiser said.
As for the ever-changing display pieces, the Martineks store them at their home.
As they have since the beginning, decorations are placed at one specific site in the marsh.
It is on marshland privately owned by the Savannah Lake Gunning Club, Paul said.
To take down and set up displays, the party has to walk the marsh.
“Boots are required, as are long-sleeved shirts,” Donna said, “and `Elliott Island perfume,’ which is insect repellent.”
When there’s a gap between gusty strong winds, marsh mosquitoes come from the mud and reeds as plentiful as grains of sand on the beach. Brown clouds of ferocious, starving mosquitoes are sentries on duty, threatening to devour any would-be thief or vandal.
For at least a century, the ferocity of island mosquitoes has been legendary, so much so that the island’s volunteer fire
department has adopted the biter as its official logo.
“Just about everyone on the island is a member of the fire department, and we decided we weren’t going to have a logo that had oysters, crabs and chicken that other departments have. We asked ourselves, `What is it that everyone knows that’s associated with Elliott Island?’ The bugs down here are horrific, the mosquitoes the worst,” he said.
The image of a fire-fighting mosquito, with hose, is now prominently displayed on department items.
It has yet, though, to be a featured character in the tableaus in the marsh.
There are two things that protect the display: The soggy marsh with its abundance of natural booby traps that can have the intruder slipping into mud up to their waist and the chiggers, ticks, savage biting flies and mosquitoes. Islanders count on them to keep the decorations safe.
Here, in the vast solitude and remoteness of the marsh is Eastern Shore Americana at its best. Islanders agree that every
time the pass the display, they look.
“It just makes you smile or laugh or feel proud,” said Dee Harrison, daughter of the man who help start the tradition more than 20 years ago.
“It seems everyone who comes down here for a muskrat dinner, fish fry, church homecoming, everybody comments about the display. They think it’s neat,” Donna said. “It’s a long ride down the road and when people see it, they laugh. It’s come from an almost bald little Christmas tree to this.”
“One year, we had a feeding doe and a standing buck, and somebody stole the buck. But that was the only time something was stolen because word got around,” Paul said. “This is a small community, and when someone comes down here to hunt, they have to hunt on somebody else’s property. And when the word went out about the shooting of the snowman, especially through the fire company, nothing has been touched since.”
“It’s not there to be destroyed. It’s a community thing, leave it alone,” Donna said. “When we put our hunting scene out there, we thought the hunters were going to shoot it or that it would be gone in two days. But they found it really funny and laughed at it.”
That’s because the display showed a deer with a gun holding a hunter upside down as his bagged trophy.
“What makes us smile is that when we are out there working on a display, people riding by will stop and wave or ride by and blow their horns,” Melissa said. “Sometime, when we are driving the road ourselves, we will see a car stopped and people out taking pictures, hoping they don’t think we are nuts for putting this stuff out in the marsh.”
“It makes me feel good knowing it makes people feel nice just looking at this thing, and they always are anxious to see what we are going to do next,” Art said.
No question about it, the marsh art has become the No. 1 most-photographed icon of the island area. From a distance, a
motorist will suddenly see a single high-flying American flag in the marsh. Introduced years ago, it has become a permanent figure marking the display site.
The flags, too, are purchased out of pocket by the team, and at $30-plus per flag, they are replaced at a rapid rate. Because of the high winds, said Melissa, a flag only lasts about a month.
“When the flags get tattered and worn, Chet will bring them in to me. I turn them over to the American Legion,” Paul said.
“The marsh display became a source of pride for island people. It just seems to delight people. We kind of take it for granted, but people coming down here always seem to be `gob smacked’ when they see it,” said Foley, who is also a substitute mail carrier for the island. “You can’t get away with much around here, but that was one secret that was really kept well.”
Daniel Martinek said he didn’t even know, in the beginning, that it was his own son putting the stuff out in the marsh.
“Every time I go by it, I look, and I salute the flag,” he said. “Yes I do.”
When he rode by recently, he found that strong winds toppled a flag pole and the flag was laying in the marsh. He made his way out to the display and retrieved the flag. He dried it off in his shop and gave it to his son, who put it back up.
“Years ago people on the island were asking each other who was doin’ this, and now strangers comin’ down here started pointin’ it out to their friends, and they ask `Who’s doin’ this?’ ” Chet said. “People come down here now just to see what kind of decorations are in the marsh. I can’t really tell you why we do this. It just makes people happy. They enjoy it. People are all the time asking us what will we be putting up next. It has become part of what Elliott Island is about. It’s a quiet place. There are nice, wholesome people down here. It’s a good place to live.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)