America: Parable of a man who built upon the sand

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-2010_09_01_dcrm_webres_Demise_of_Sinclair_Tangier_southern_end_of_the_island_fish_hook.jpgTANGIER ISLAND, Virginia. These few planks are all that remains of Robert Sinclair’s seaweed-processing plant, which he set up in an old ship he had run up against the beach. Photo: David CrummTANGIER ISLAND, Virginia: When journalists described this tiny island as “fabled” in the 1960s, they really should have called it “a community cut from the parables of Jesus.” That phrase more accurately reflects the island’s famously evangelical faith and the dramatic, sometimes tragic, turns of events on Tangier.

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-2010_09_01_dcrm_webres_Robert_C_Sinclair_of_Tangier_Island.jpgTANGIER ISLAND, Virginia. More than 30 years ago, Robert Sinclair shows off his plans to process Chesapeake Bay seaweed as a gardening supplement and sell it by mail order in 5-pound bags.Consider the fate of Robert Sinclair, also known as the “newcomer” or the “man at the end of the island,” and our search in recent days to uncover his fate.

Our 9,000-mile, father-son journey retraces my own first assignment as a journalist in 1976, circling the U.S. and writing for a regional Michigan newspaper. That journey included a week on Tangier Island, where National Geographic had celebrated the residents’ unique culture in a 1973 cover story written by the principal of the island’s school. Tangier families represent such a deep slice of American heritage that their unusual accents still reflect their roots in England centuries ago.

On a hot and sunny day in 1976, I set out on a long walk to meet Robert Sinclair. Amazed at the insular nature of the population, I had asked residents if anyone on Tangier was not a part of the handful of long-standing families with names like Crockett, Dize, Pruitt and Parks.

“Well, there is the newcomer,” one said. Another called him the “man at the end of the island who’s just come over from the mainland.”

I expected to hike to the southern tip of Tangier and find some brave soul still lugging his suitcases up from a dock. So, I crossed more than a mile of sun-scorched beach that day toward a tall house, dock, outbuilding and what appeared to be the enormous hulk of an old ship. I knocked on the door and a cheery, white-haired man greeted me. I explained my work and asked if he was the “newcomer.”

He roared in laughter. He’d lived there for a decade, he said. But Sinclair was, indeed, from the Virginia mainland and envisioned himself a blend of Thomas Edison and P.T. Barnum. Back in Virginia, he owned bowling alleys, but Sinclair was bound for far greater things and Tangier’s southern tip was both his workshop and his stage. Depending on the tides, he owned more or less than 100 acres, he said.

He purchased his end of Tangier Island in a complex legal arrangement that residents of the island hotly contested, especially when they learned that he planned to subdivide and sell dozens of vacation homes. This was hallowed ground—a portion of the famous beach where a local pastor, in the War of 1812, risked his life preaching to the British that they had no chance of capturing Baltimore.

At the time, a Tangier town councilman was so angry with Sinclair that he was quoted in a local newspaper as saying, “Why let a couple of people who don’t give a damn about the island sell it to strange people, make their money, and then pull out?”

But, Sinclair never planned to pull out. He wanted to be a part of Tangier’s closed world and he relentlessly moved ahead by opening a store, which turned out to be the dark outbuilding I had passed. “When people do come, I’ll be ready,” he said as he proudly unlocked the door to his store.

Instantly, I began to see more of the Barnum than the Edison in him when the lights in the store didn’t work that day and the whole place reeked of mildew. “This hasn’t worked out quite like I thought,” he told me as he opened a now-warm cooler and pulled out two soft drinks, adding, “But it will!” I noticed with dismay that some of the labels on the shelves were sliding off the cans in the dank atmosphere. But, our soft drinks still fizzed when he snapped off the tops on a metal bottle opener bolted to the wall, so we drank and talked some more.

The ship was part of his grand plan to harvest seaweed from the bay, dry it, pulverize it and sell it as a gardening supplement by mail order in 5-pound plastic bags. Apparently, he had made peace with enough of the islanders so that the seaweed-processing idea was toggled together with a sort of loose part-time partnership involving boys collecting the seaweed and local men processing it. I never managed to nail down whether Sinclair was actually making money or had ever sold much of the stuff, although he talked about “pilot” sales efforts that were showing great promise.

“Can you turn a profit on this?” I asked.

His answer: “Soon.”

On this trip to Tangier, in the local museum, I found a 1969 clipping in which Sinclair in his prime easily had his way with a local reporter. Like Barnum himself, Sinclair knew that a promoter never yanks away the curtain from a tantalizing mystery too soon. He is quoted as saying to the reporter, “I can’t tell you much about other further developments yet.” But, great things were in the works, he said, then hinted that seaweed plays a role in everything from ice cream processing and livestock feed to Japanese cuisine that one day would be popular in the U.S. Endless possibilities lay ahead, but he couldn’t say much about his pending deals. Too hush hush.

Through talking with various residents today, we did learn that Sinclair had died in the 1980s, after returning to the mainland in ill health. No one had clipped an obituary or knew his exact date of death. An hour of online research turned up no further records, except a very brief obituary that reported his wife had survived him for more than a decade before she finally passed away on the mainland.

Once again on a blazing-hot day, my son Benjamin and I walked southward past the last home inhabited by longtime Tangier families, past the last neatly painted picket fence and the last ornamental tree carefully tended in someone’s front yard. We hit the marshy, treeless beach and we hiked the mile to what once was Sinclair’s domain to find:

Nothing.

Well, there was plenty of sand. Grass. Seagulls. Beached jellyfish. Shells. Driftwood. But no sign of human habitation. In fact, Sinclair’s “100 acres, give or take the fate of the tides” was just a narrow spit of sand, not more than a few acres at most.

We searched and finally, over a grassy rise a few feet high, we found the remaining wreckage of Sinclair’s factory ship, just a few planks marking the spot where an entire processing and packing plant once stood.

We took photographs, made notes, then walked back to town desperate for a cold bottle of water. The sun on that white-hot sand had fried our hopes to find out any more of what had become of Sinclair’s empire. And a note to all future Tangier tourists: There is no store where you can find a cool, or even a warm, drink at the end of the island any more.

Lest you think this real-life parable is about utter foolishness gone awry, consider this: As we climbed the steps into the local museum one last time, I began to examine more carefully the enormous map of the island in the lobby. My eyes followed the map’s labels all the way to the southern tip and there it was. In bold black letters, the tiny spit of sand and dots of wrecked planks are labeled “Sinclair’s Beach.”

The newcomer who built his house upon this sand and always was regarded as a newcomer in life, now is forever a part of Tangier as long as this tiny island remains above the hungry waves.

(Today’s photo and story by readthespirit.com Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)

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