The Times and Tides of Ocean City, Maryland
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Georgia Kelly, 1901-1992
by Christina B. Kelly
2001


Georgia Kelly
My grandmother Georgia could never understand why I wanted to leave the Eastern Shore, where I was born and raised. She said to me time and time again: " you may not like it, but you were born with sand in your shoes, and try as you might, you can't shake it out!" Heedless to her words, though, I impatiently bided my time until the day when I could leave Worcester County far behind and embrace the big wide world. After graduating from high school I left home and subsequently lived and worked in various cities throughout the United States and Europe. Upon each of my visits home, my grandmother would always say, "Oh honey, when are you going to come back here where you belong? Remember, that sand is in your shoes!" It took me 18 years, but last year, at age 36, I finally understood the wisdom of her words and settled back home. I see Worcester County, and, in particular, Ocean City, with a newfound appreciation; I am grateful and proud to call this area home again. Now that I am settled, there is only one thing missing: my grandmother. Oh, how I wish she were here so that I could finally tell her that I've come home, and those sandy shoes aren't coming off.

My grandmother was born Georgia Elmira Dennis in Newark, Maryland, in 1901. Her mother was crippled and wore a leg brace. She never knew her father, although she learned later that he was a married doctor from Richmond, Virginia, with five children of his own. She had no brothers or sisters and was raised in part by her maternal grandparents. She attended the one room schoolhouse in Newark, and completed her studies up to 8th grade, which was as high as the classes went at the time. During the early 1920s she met and married James R. Kelly, Sr. of Sinepuxent. Shortly thereafter, they purchased a modest home on the north side of Talbot Street between Philadelphia and St. Louis Avenues. It was in this home that their two sons, William E. Kelly and James R. Kelly, Jr., were born.

Any dreams she may have had as a young bride for a better life soon vanished, for, while her husband operated a dump truck and a series of gas stations in Ocean City, his true "professional calling" seemed to be that of a spree drinker ("Oh honey, he loved that bottle" she used to say). Georgia instead labored tirelessly to make ends meet. For many years, she washed and ironed laundry for the local residents and hotel owners. As was common at the time, she began renting rooms in her home to the tourists. When this proved successful, she had an old garage on their lot converted into a guest house, and later moved a home from another location onto the property to use as a seasonal rental. She christened her establishment "Kelly's Cottages." With her meager savings she purchased property at 52nd Street in -----, where she built 12 more units, also calling them "Kelly's Cottages." Ocean City was so undeveloped at that time that the cottages, my father recalled, were truly "up the beach."


Gerogia Kelly home
on Talbot Street
Throughout this time, my grandmother somehow managed to do it all: the laundry, cleaning, reservations, check-ins and outs, and book-keeping of both properties, with her only help being my father Jim as a boy. Georgia never learned how to drive and my father recalls shuttling her back and forth between the properties in an old dump truck, his feet barely able to reach the pedals. Her husband James proved to be more of a hindrance that a help. My grandmother described his drunken sprees as "Nor'easters" because they would last for 2-3 days, and would usually coincide with a big holiday weekend, when she needed his help the most. He wore a wooden leg as a result of a childhood hunting accident, and my grandmother was known to hide his leg on occasion to prevent him from going out on yet another bender.

She loved her sons fiercely, and sometimes to embarrassing degrees. My father Jim tells a story about the day he was playing as a child with Fish Powell, the future mayor, whom he said was called "Hard Crab" as a boy. They were playing marbles on the street in front of Fish's house when they got into a skirmish. Fish's mother came out and beat my father with a broom in order to break up the fight. Well, when my grandmother heard about this, she marched over to Mrs. Powell's house and proclaimed, "You leave my Jimmy alone! No one hits my boy!" Later, when I was a teenager, I recall that she used to lovingly describe her sons as "Billy with the brains, and Jimmy with the beauty." I thought this was an insult to them both, but to her it was only meant as the most loving of compliments.

My father recalls that Georgia was so frugal that they were one of the last people in the town to do away with an outhouse. And, indeed, they only did away with it when they were forced to with an ordinance from the city. While she may not have cared much about indoor plumbing, she did believe strongly, though, in a good education for her boys. Both of her sons attended college through the G.I. bill. My uncle Bill served in the air force and was a cryptologist during World War II, decoding messages from the Germans and Japanese, while he was stationed in Central and South America. He attended Goldley Beacom, the University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University. He became an accountant and real estate developer in Ocean City. My father was stationed in Japan during the occupation, and attended the University of Maryland and Goldley Beacom College. He was an Ocean City and Ft. Lauderdale lifeguard for 6 years, and later owned and operated the Islander Hotel on 20th street.

She divorced her husband when his drinking became too severe, and unfortunately lost the 52nd Street cottages in the settlement. At that time there were no divorce lawyers representing women, and she was happy to be rid of him, no matter the cost. Throughout the 50's and 60's she often earned extra money as a babysitter to many of the local residents, including Garland and Rhem Lane, John and Dorothy Rolfe, Janet and Danny Trimper, and Ann and John Dale Showell. My grandmother loved to tell us about the times when she would take the Showell children for walks down the lane. Invariably the Showell donkey, goat, pig, dog, cat, and duck would follow them in a line faithfully down the road. "It was quite a sight!" she would say.


The Kelly Cottages at 52nd Street
She continued to run the Talbot Street cottages until the late 1960's. There, she was known as "The Flower Lady" because of her lovely garden. She was especially proud of her hydrangea bushes, which bordered her fence along the sidewalk. One day she spied a gentleman picking the blossoms from the bushes. Outraged, she ran up to him and proclaimed: "Sir, it is not nice to steal. Now, if you would have politely asked for a flower, I would have given you the whole bush!"

My sister and I recall wonderful days spent with her at Talbot Street: exploring the attics in her cottages, filled with treasures just waiting for a little girl's imagination; walks with her along the Talbot Street docks, ice cream sundaes at Perdue's soda fountain on Baltimore Avenue, and, the best treat of all, Fisher's popcorn on the boardwalk.

Georgia sold her property during 1969 and in that same year, much to the surprise of many, she married Mr. Otis Northam, her childhood friend, and moved to his farm in Snow Hill. I recall her few years with him as joyous ones, and like to think that she had finally found a partner who truly loved her and was worthy of all she had to give. My grandmother was a large woman, due to her unabashed love of food, and she was always ashamed of her size. Mr. Northam, though, seemed to love every ounce of her. I recall one meal in particular: she was enjoying her second helping of chicken and dumplings, but exclaiming that she should be watching her figure instead. Mr. Northam tenderly placed his hand on her shoulder and lovingly said, "honey, I just want you to be happy, and if food makes you happy, I don't care if you grow as big as a house!" Unfortunately, Georgia was only with Mr. Northam for a short while before he passed away.

In spite of all of her misfortunes, she was never bitter in the least. On the contrary, she was the most loving, warm, and funniest person I have ever known. She loved people, meal times, pretty flowers, a good bargain, and a funny tale. From her humble childhood and tumultuous marriage, she learned early on that the only person she could rely on was herself. Born poor and illegitimate, she was worth over a half a million dollars upon her death, though you would never know it from her modest ways. My sister and I had the responsibility of cleaning out my grandmother's home in Newark after her death. Throughout our depressing task, there were moments of sheer hilarity with our discoveries. Among them; a closet full of used aluminum foil, stacks of used paper and plastic cups, about 5,000 sugar packets from English's Diner, and, sadly, drawers full of expensive gifts, never used, because of her frugal mentality. She never felt comfortable with the luxuries or lavish gifts bestowed on her by "her boys" in their adulthood. Indeed, the brand new microwave oven and color T.V. sat gathering dust in the corner, while she whipped out her trusty old iron skillet or adjusted the antennas on her tiny black and white T.V.

It's been 30 years since the last guest stayed at Kelly's Cottages, but this summer I felt her memory live on. I was working in the museum gift shop one evening with Gennette McCabe (who also knew my grandmother), when a visiting tourist asked if we remembered Mrs. Kelly from Talbot Street. After I joyously informed her that I was her granddaughter, she told me that she and her family had stayed at her cottages every summer for twenty years. She had wonderful memories of my grandmother, which she shared with me. Listening to her, a stranger that seemed to love my grandmother Georgia nearly as much as I had, brought back memories of her in her kitchen and the smells of fried chicken, fresh peaches and salt air. I could almost feel her hands again, so tender and smooth from years of hard labor, and I could hear her singing again my favorite childhood song, which she would lull me to sleep with: "I love you, a bushel and a peck." I sing that same lullaby to my own infant son now, and when he is older I will tell him about the sand in his own shoes. I will pass on to him a love and appreciation for this area, the importance of hard work and perseverance, the need to always see the funny side of things, and to always love. Thank you, Mom-Mom.


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