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70 years ago at Cedar Point, businesses and homes condemned to make way for Patuxent River Naval Air Station

By NICOLE CLARK

Staff writer

Nell Levay was born and raised on Cedar Point 89 years ago. “I was a farmer’s daughter,” she said. “We had 130 acres on Harper’s Creek, and we loved it,” Levay said Wednesday night from her St. Mary’s City home.

Her father might have owned a total of 245 acres of land and 17 more in tidewater, according to SlackWater, an account of area history recorded by St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Cedar Point, now Patuxent River Naval Air Station, was prime farmland, with more than 70 documented landowners and even more tenant farmers and sharecroppers. They grew wheat, corn and tobacco and raised cows, turkeys and chickens. Watermen made their living harvesting fish, oysters and crabs.

“It was quiet. It was simple. It was safe,” Levay said. “And, all of a sudden, the Navy said, ‘You will be moved out of here.’”

This year, Pax River is celebrating its 70th anniversary. A parade is scheduled to mark that occasion tomorrow, Saturday, beginning at 10 a.m. in downtown Lexington Park, and will be hosted by the Community Development Corporation, which focuses on revitalization of the area.

Last month at the base, Pax River held a ceremony commemorating its beginnings and its success. And St. Mary’s College of Maryland anthropology professor Julia King spoke, to a packed room at the Leonardtown library, about the changes in St. Mary’s County since the Navy arrived.

Decades ago, the Navy was looking to consolidate its dispersed Washington offices to improve a focus on aviation, which began to intensify after 1917, during World War I when the United States was at war with Germany, according to Navy installations command history.

By September 1941, the government was searching the East Coast from New York to Charleston, S.C., for land close enough to Washington but isolated enough for extensive testing. Cedar Point was recommended on Nov. 6, 1941, according to SlackWater.

A month later, Japan’s aerial and sea-based attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II. The Navy went into overdrive to beef up aviation operations.

Within days of the attack, surveyors began condemning the land at Cedar Point. Families saw letters nailed to their front doors. That’s how they received orders to vacate.

“We didn’t get it in the mail,” said Anne Lancaster, 86, now of Leonardtown. “That part didn’t sit too well with some of the people, as I can recall.”

Lancaster’s father, Frank Aud, ran a post office and owned a store that sold sugar customers would scoop from a barrel and weigh on a scale. “Daddy had all kinds of vegetables,” Lancaster said, as well as bolts of fabric, shoes and snuff. Aud’s notice to vacate was nailed to the door of his store, Lancaster said.

Ultimately, the Navy purchased 6,412 acres for $712,287. The land had been appraised in the dead of winter, when properties looked their worst. And, landowners felt they didn’t get a fair price.

Levay’s parents, George and Martha Quirk, “did not like it at all,” she said. “They were one of the many that went to court and sued the government for what the property was worth, rather than what they were given. I don’t remember what they got,” she said. But “they were not satisfied.”

Something positive did come out of the change, Levay said.

Today, Pax River, by far, is the county’s largest employer, and a lifeline for the local economy. The average federal worker earns $105,508 and the average contractor, $81,224 a year, according to St. Mary’s County’s economic development office.

Seventy years ago, the Navy hired between 6,000 to 8,000 construction workers to build Pax River and nearby Lexington Park, which became known as the “Instant City.” There was so much work that people who grew up or worked during the 1940s in St. Mary’s County say they remember dust clouds that hung over construction areas and spread into town. Pedestrians couldn’t see what was happening inside the murky air, and once they stepped into the clear, a bus or car might be rushing by.

With the economic boom, rattling changes continued, Levay said. “It just wasn’t conducive to good living.”

Marine Corps security workers came to Pax River to conduct background checks, after workers were already on the job. The town had become a Wild West of sorts. Guards made some 2,204 arrests, according to SlackWater, which added that these background checks indicated that “confidence men (or swindlers), draft dodgers, felons, liquor smugglers, prostitutes, robbers, and gamblers were employed by the base.”

Businesses sprouted up to cater to the newcomers. Bars, strip clubs, gambling and brawls became commonplace in Lexington Park, just outside Pax River’s gates. Tension rose between “outsiders” and “natives,” SlackWater said. And men often protected themselves in such establishments by keeping their guns on the tables.

“I know my dad was very bitter. And for years, he would not go back on that base,” said Audrey Pratt, now of Ridge.

Her father, Henry Cullison, was a tenant farmer, who raised hogs, cattle, turkey, wheat and hay. She was only 3 when the Navy came. So, she mostly remembers the stories. “It was very traumatic,” she said. “Especially when you had six kids and not knowing where you’re going.”

After leaving Cedar Point, her family lived in Leonardtown. Then, they moved to Ridge. And things got better. Children played in the creek and helped on the farm. Women stayed in the house, cooking, or would go to market to sell eggs and butter.

“It was like a barter,” she said. There were always three meals a day, often with homemade biscuits, vegetables and crabs. “You knew you were loved,” Pratt said.

She doesn’t hold any resentment. She was too young to remember most of it. Without the base, St. Mary’s County “would be a ghost town,” she said.

Agnes Cullison Bean was 13 when her family was forced out. “Everybody had to find a place to go,” she said. “It was such a traumatic time,” especially for her.

Bean was just becoming a young woman at Cedar Point, and remembers dances held with banjos and fiddles playing in the background, and card parties and conversations on the pier. She remembers friends heading off to war.

“You had to be patriotic and all that,” Bean said. “But it was taking a part of life.”

After families left, her father followed farming work to Leonardtown. Eventually, Bean went off to college, got married at 20, then traveled, living and working Baltimore and Colorado before coming back to St. Mary’s at about 25 years old. “I did not go back on base until many, many years later,” she said.

Nowadays, things are different, Bean said. Life has gone on. Families have grown, careers have been built and new homesteads have been established during the past 70 years, she said. “You just make the best of life as it comes to you.”

Levay took several long pauses as she weighed whether the change was mostly good or mostly bad. Her family moved to Park Hall and purchased a large farm there. But, she said, she often felt a sadness inside of her, “most definitely,” she said.

It was a sense of innocence lost. And, it swelled up from time to time when she traveled past Pax River, or when she thought of times long ago. “I couldn’t come home,” Levay said, “like I had been coming for years, all my life.”

nclark@somdnews.com