A Good Box of Dirt

We met them while we were out walking looking for birds near our rental.

It was January and it was cold – had been in the 30’s since we had arrived. I hadn’t figured this part of Georgia to be this cold even in the dead of winter.  We were on our way to Florida where it was much warmer. Believe me, the sun in Florida is a much deeper yellow – not this tepid light barely yellow that we were seeing here in the lowlands of Georgia.

We stopped for a week to visit with our daughter who lives just up the road a piece. She was coming down for a few days and we were idling a bit, waiting, and taking the opportunity to check out the birds at the two refuges nearby. All in all, it was a good place to stop, a small condo complex in an out-of-the-way place on a salt water marsh just about halfway between Savannah and Brunswick.

On this particular afternoon, it was sunny outside and a bit warmer so we decided to take a walk around the complex so headed up towards the fishing pier just to see if any birds were about that might be fishing in the creek. That’s where we saw them – up by a big pile of dirt over in the back corner of the lot.

She was 87, he was 95.  She was shoveling dirt from the dirt pile into a cardboard box sitting on the back of her golf cart. He was sitting in the cart watching her work.  

We walked on over and Jerry offered to shovel for her.  Without a thought, he reached for the shovel to take over the job for her.  Oh, my goodness, she pulled that shovel away like he was trying to snatch one of her grandbabies right out of her arms.  Jerry stepped back and stammered out an apology of sorts and looked at me like he really didn’t know what to do at this point.

She politely told him, she didn’t need any help, thank you anyway, explaining that this was her exercise and that a person needs projects like this to keep healthy especially as they are getting a bit older.

As we talked, she continued shoveling. We told them what we were doing there, and she told us why she was shoveling dirt into the box on the golf cart.  I had assumed she might be dressing out her flower beds around their condo but that was not it at all.

She also explained that he had a pulled shoulder and couldn’t shovel and that’s why he wasn’t helping. She really seemed to want to make sure that we knew that he was not just some no-account husband who would just sit watching his hard-driving wife do all the grunt work. It hadn’t crossed our minds to question his watching her seeing as she had told us right up front how old they were.

All in all, she was immaculate, all the while shoveling dirt.  She was just about four foot nothing and wearing neatly ironed jeans with knife sharp creases down the front and back. People rarely iron jeans anymore let along crease them like that front and back.

She had on a sweater set like a good Southern woman of her generation would wear (or, maybe any generation for that matter) – a print blouse with a nice pastel tropical print and a color matched sweater. Tropical but tasteful; you know, light yellow hibiscus rather than bright red ones. Her hair was beautiful – naturally white with soft curls framing her very well-made up face. One should always look one’s best when going out to work in the yard, I always say. (Okay, not really. I work outside in torn jeans and stained t-shirts.)

As noted above, I had assumed that she was getting that good dirt for her flower beds or, maybe to fill in a hole or two in the yard. She said no, that wasn’t it and, just to make sure we knew she wasn’t taking the dirt without permission, told us that the HOA folks brought the dirt in here, dumped it, and said that anyone could use it to fill up holes and all in the yard.

He laughed right out loud and said she wasn’t gonna be filling up any holes with that dirt. She was bound and determined to go building a ramp down to the creek from her back yard so she could get down to the creek to go fishing.

‘Need mind that she could ride her golf cart up to the pier – about ¼ mile all told from her doorstep – and go fishing in the creek anytime she felt the urge.

And, ‘need mind that the tide coming and going turned that stretch of water into a mud flat at least twice a day. 

And, ‘need mind that that same tide would wash away all her efforts at building a ramp just about those same times every day. It would explain why the bank was washed out in the first place.

But, never mind all that. She had a project to do. She had set her mind to it. And, she was determined to get it done. Pronto. No need to be messing around and jaw-boning all day about it.

Now, in my world, being who I am, I think I would just have run up to the big box store and bought one of those fancy pre-made concrete steps they make for mobile homes and such. I would have paid them an extra $35 and had them deliver the steps and plop them right down in place up next to the bank.  Project conceived; project done.

The box was about half full of dirt now (or still half empty depending on whether you’re an optimist or pessimist). I wondered how full she would go and who would be lifting that box off the back of the golf cart….being he is 95 and has that hurt shoulder and all. I didn’t dare suggest that we might follow them home and provide some bit of assistance.

He said she’d never catch any fish in that creek anyway. What fish were there came in with the tide and went out with it…..everyday. But I have to say, we knew there were fish in the creek because we’d seen the Hooded Mergansers and Great Egrets out there fishing. Okay, they were little fish…but they were fish, nonetheless.

She said she would too catch fish – she just knew it. How could anyone doubt her? She’d grown up fishing and I reckon she knew what she was doing.

We asked if she’d eat the fish that she caught. Well, of course, she would. Why would she ever go to all that trouble to catch a fish and then just throw it back? Why, that would be just crazy! Of course, she was gonna eat any fish she caught.

While we watched her work, he gave us the lowdown on other things. He said she’d lived there (at the condos) since her husband died about twelve years ago. She’d moved up from Darien down yonder to the south.  He said she’d had two properties and got tired of mowing and taking care of things at the big house where she’d lived with her husband and raised her babies. So, she was living up here now in a condo that was much smaller and easy to keep up.  

Her daughter lived just up the road – you could see her house from right there where we were standing. Looking out over the marsh to the southeast, he pointed out a blue house on the point where the creek curved its way out to the river.

The box was really getting full now. She was barely getting half a shovel of dirt each time she lifted so I knew she’d never lift that whole box of dirt off the cart. Maybe she would just tip it over dumping it into the yard and then work from there.

We asked how they’d met…they had both mentioned previous spouses that had died. She said – she had started doing most of the talking now – that they met in church. They had gone to the same church for years and had known each other only in passing when their respective spouses were alive. They had continued to sit in different parts of the church after they died and then, just like that, one day they started sitting together on the same side…he’d moved over to her side….and that was that. Make a long story short…. they became a couple.

Well, the box was full of dirt now and that ramp was waiting. They had to go. Nice to meet you fine folks. She plopped the shovel into the back of the golf cart, hopped onto the front seat and, with a last wave back in our direction, drove on off across the field.

Later, we spotted her working at the edge of the yard building her ramp. I wondered how long it would take for her to ramp up the four foot drop down to the water’s edge or how long before the incoming tide would wash it all away. It was a gonna be a crap shoot as to which thing happened first.

But a project is a project and you gotta keep at it or it ain’t ever gonna get done.

I was absolutely 100% sure that this was one woman that was gonna keep at it until she could take her fishing pole and march right down that new ramp to the creek and catch a fine big ole catfish just ready to be battered up and fried in the skillet with some hush puppies and cole slaw on the side. It’d make a fine meal for the two of them.

That was just how it was gonna be. I didn’t doubt it for one minute.


Sometime around a hundred and fifty years ago, give or take a few, a farmer named Charles Bishop and his wife, Mary, broke ground on a farm in eastern Maryland about five miles south of Snow Hill. According to the old family stories, Charles girdled a beech tree while clearing the land for the farm. Now, that must have been a pretty big tree for the act to have gotten everyone’s attention and, ultimately, provided a name for the community that grew up around the farm.  Girdling is a process of cutting bark away in a circle around the tree that pretty much results in the death of the tree; it just takes a little time for nature to take its course but, eventually, the tree dies and falls. Why he didn’t just cut it down, we will never know. But he didn’t and family and friends noticed, and the new village became known by as Girdletree.

Girdletree was and is a “crossroads” village. The particular roads being crossed are Maryland Route 12 and Onley & Boxiron Road. It started out as a sleepy little village until the Worcester Railroad came through in 1876 connecting Snow Hill and Franklin City. The railroad brought prosperity and the town grew becoming a shipping point for oysters, crab, and fish from Chincoteague Island just down the road in Virginia’s eastern neck. Chincoteague has the reputation of having the sweetest and best tasting oysters on the eastern seaboard of the United States…if not the world. Ask anyone who lives year-round on the island. They will be happy to tell you about their wonderful fish and seafood. It seemed that the world wanted those oysters and the good folks of Girdletree were right there to help by shipping it all out from Taylor’s Landing. At one point there were seven canneries processing seafood out of Girdletree…oysters were not only good business for Chincoteague, they helped feed the families around Girdletree too.

George Barnes Bank of Girdletree

Things were going great economically…. good enough for George L. Barnes & Co to build a brand spanking new brick bank in 1902. Most every other building in town was “stick built” or primarily built of wood which was typical for homes in the 18th and 19th centuries. Unfortunately, prosperity didn’t last. In 1929, the Great Depression hit and the economy of Girdletree failed.  People probably weren’t gonna buy fancy seafood when they couldn’t buy bread. Barnes Bank closed in 1930. I suppose the canneries closed too soon thereafter. The old bank building is still standing as a museum and historical building on MD 12 in what’s left of the town of Girdletree.

Fast forward that hundred and fifty or so years and we (my fellow wanderer and I) found ourselves on a road we hadn’t taken before. We’d been down to Chincoteague looking for birds. We try to go at least once each year in autumn or winter after the “summer people” have gone on back home and the island once again belongs to the locals. Things quiet down in winter and the beach clears and it’s a good time to go birding at the seashore and on the refuge (Assateague Island). We’d had a good day birding and were on the way home using a new GPS which directed us to make a turn we hadn’t taken before. It was a beautiful day, and we love nothing more than to meander around so we decided to just go with it.

Girdletree Methodist Church

We were heading up the road towards Snow Hill when we caught sight of a lovely old church by the side of the road. We passed it but then turned around and went back to get a couple photographs. I love taking pictures of old churches and this church was a bit unusual as the steeple was just to one side of the church and not in the front center like most other churches. It definitely needed to be photographed.  Turns out we were in the once-again sleepy little community of Girdletree and the church was the Girdletree Methodist Church, one of two churches originally established in the town.

Side View of Belltower & Steeple

I got out of the car to take a few pictures of the church. I noticed the Barnes Bank across the highway and walked over to the roadside to get a photo of the bank. When I turned back, I was met by a nice older lady with a small can of paint in her hand. She wondered if I was from the paper because she had seen me taking pictures and thought maybe I was going to do an article on the fund-raising efforts to get a new roof for the church. So, across the street she came to see what exactly I was up to. I told her that I wasn’t from the local paper or anything and that I just liked old churches and this one was nice because the steeple was on the side and somewhat unusual to me.

Belltower & Steeple

“Well”, she says, “That’s not the original steeple, it burned in 1940 and it was replaced in 1960.”  

She said that the church hadn’t had a steeple when it was first built, and it was added maybe around 1929. A bad storm caused the fire in 1940 and she remembered her granddaddy and grandmama talking in later years about when the steeple burned. (The church itself was built in the late 1800’s and enlarged with the bell tower (steeple) and front addition at the later date.)

She had noticed that I had noticed the small paint can she was carrying and told me she was painting her granddaddy’s store across the street. I had not wanted to be rude and ask why she was carrying that can of paint around.  She pointed over at the old store front and said that she had painted the trim around the window a few days ago but she didn’t like the green paint she had used so was now painting over it with white. 

I asked if she lived in the house by the old store and she said she didn’t; she lived in the large old faded yellow house that was two buildings up.  She was born in 1938 and grew up around here as she circled her arm indicating right there around the old store. I asked if she had been born there but she said she hadn’t and she pointed somewhere off to the west and said she’d been born out at the family farm over there.

Front Window of the Old Store

We continued to chat, and I finally got around to asking her name which was Sandra. She told me all about the church and her childhood repeating some things like those of us who are a little older are apt to do.  The old church, while not abandoned completely, needs too many repairs and, no, they don’t have church there anymore.

Girdletree Methodist Church Cornerstone
Girdletree Methodist Church Sign (unusual to have stained glass tokens on a church sign)

Ms. Sandra said the church closed in 1969 and had been deeded to the Historical Foundation who was trying to raise the funds for the new roof.  The congregation has moved on to another church in the area although the old fellowship hall out back which is newer and a bit more restored is rented out by another church for its services. The other folks from that other church had done a lots to fix it up…you just wouldn’t believe all they’d done and how nice it looked.

Ms. Sandra had to get back to her painting so she headed on back across the road and we had to get back on the road headed home but her shared memories left me with a warm feeling for the town and church and a little girl named Sandra who’d been born there and never left. I imagine her going to church with her granddaddy and grandmama way back when the steeple was newly built after the first one had burned. I see them there standing in the sanctuary singing hymns and bowing their heads to pray as the sunlight filters through the stained-glass windows painting the air with the beauty of the Lord’s love and goodness. All that remains now are the blessings and prayers that once filled the church and the memories of that young girl that have sustained her for all the days of her life.

Sources for Factual Information:

Maryland Historical Trust Inventory # WO-321: Girdletree, Maryland.