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Chincoteaguers hold fast to island heritage

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 3, 2014 at 9:06 am •  Published: May 3, 2014
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CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. (AP) — Carlton Leonard unties the dock lines to his pontoon boat amid a backdrop symbolic of his island heritage.

Adorned with a white, cursive "L'' on the front, a red barn stands about 50 yards from Leonard's house, the same home where he and his three siblings grew up in the early 1960s.

The barn, which once served as a makeshift hospital for injured Chincoteague ponies, is now a reminder of Leonard's deep ties to the land he has always called home.

"I don't know of any other place I'd rather grow up or would be any better than here," he says.

"I'm not saying Chincoteague is the best, but it had to be one of the best because everybody knew everybody. Everybody looked out for everybody," Leonard, 62, adds.

Throughout the years, he has seen considerable change to his hometown, namely how tourism has replaced the seafood industry as the main driver of the local economy.

Today, the small island off the Eastern Shore of Virginia is considered one of the top tourist destinations in the country, due largely in part to its wildlife refuge, which averages more than a million visitors each year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The other two big draws are Pony Penning week, which is organized by the local volunteer fire company, and neighboring Assateague Island National Seashore.

Leonard, who owns Daisey's Island Cruises, said islanders could see "the handwriting on the wall" back in 1963 after the bridge connecting Chincoteague to Assateague was built, allowing visitors to drive to the beach for the first time.

"Once the beach was open by road, you could just see the transition of people getting into the tourist business and the motels and the restaurants," he says.

At the forefront of that transition was Leonard's late father, Donald, who started a scenic boat tour business with his good friend, George Taylor.

His father would later open a marina and adjoining motel, as well as the Refuge Inn, which is now owned by Leonard's brother, Arthur, and sisters Jane and Donna.

After working on sea clamming boats for several years, Leonard took a short retirement but eventually followed in his father's footsteps, opening a scenic boat tour business on the island in 2011.

Talking above the pontoon's engine hum as he cruises the calm waters of Oyster Bay, Leonard mentions how he and fellow locals have adapted well to Chincoteague's transformation into a tourist town.

"Chincoteaguers, they're smart guys. They're smart people. Most of the people that build motels and restaurants here, their wives are involved. Their kids are involved," Leonard says. "Chincoteaguers are very adaptable. They'll go with the flow."

As more and more tourists have come during the past 50 years, there has also been an influx of seasonal visitors and retirees from other areas buying homes on Chincoteague.

And these new residents have created another vehicle of change to the island — community involvement.

An example of that involvement is displayed the second Saturday of each month during the 2nd Saturday Art Stroll. Organized by the Chincoteague Cultural Alliance, it draws residents and visitors to downtown shops and galleries where special events like art exhibits, wine tastings and arts and craft demonstrations are offered.

John Beam, president of the nonprofit group, has been displaying personal works at his Main Street gallery, called "aNoPheles Blues," for the year-round stroll since its inception in 2004.

"2nd Saturday has been the flagship of the organization, but it certainly now is not the whole thing at all," says Beam, who still lives part-time in Baltimore. "It's really blossomed quite amazingly."

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