Mike Ashford relaxes in the shade of his hangar, watching birds and butterflies dart above a perfectly manicured grass airstrip. It is a clear and cool August afternoon, at least by Maryland standards, and he is in no rush to see it slip away.
He sips a root beer, tells an airplane story or two, and munches on a handful of peanuts. He contemplates getting up to fetch a cigar, then leans back in his lawn chair and looks longingly at a nearby hammock strung between two trees.
Ashford had planned to go flying in his shiny 2006 American Champion Explorer but scrapped the idea when he got stuck in a traffic jam. He doesn’t seem to mind how the day turned out. Ashford says that in these lawn-chair moments, workplace stress melts away. He treasures his backyard runway and neighboring soybean field and the sanctuary feel of Kentmorr Airpark, a Chesapeake Bay community that has catered to aviation enthusiasts for six decades.
“This is my oasis,” says Ashford, a 71-year-old restaurant owner and former airline pilot. “This is a little micro-universe, only 19 miles from my work. You could measure my blood pressure and see it just drop. This is really a garden of a place.”
Though Ashford owns a fun airplane and lives on a grass airstrip, it seems like flying doesn’t really matter that much around here. But, like other residents, Ashford says the lure of Kentmorr has more to do with an airplane state of mind than actually flying.
It Can be difficult to spot Kentmorr’s 2,400-foot-long runway from the air as you cross the Chesapeake Bay and circle above Kent Island, a 32-square-mile spit of land that has evolved from a farming community into a pit stop for people racing to the Atlantic beaches and a suburb for Washington- and Baltimore-bound commuters. Kentmorr is bordered by the bay and residential developments, a mix of working-class homes and shorefront mini-mansions with swimming pools and long docks for sailboats.
One of the oldest of the nation’s 300-plus residential airparks, Kentmorr was founded in the late 1940s by Nathan Morris. A poor kid from east Baltimore, Morris picked up the nickname “Bill” after being smitten with Buffalo Bill stories. He dreamed of being a pilot, and built a soapbox airplane with roller-skate landing gear that he raced down steep Baltimore hills. True to his barnstormer inspiration, he sold rides to neighborhood children for a penny. He got his pilot’s license in 1938 after taking lessons, for $4 a half-hour, at a suburban Washington, D.C. airport. Eventually, he would fly his single-engine Cessna 182, which he named The Spirit of Maryland, to Paris in the 1985 Lindbergh Rally. When the
Cessna experienced mechanical problems over the Arctic Circle, he landed and was sheltered by Eskimos. A few months after his 90th birthday, he flew 8,000 feet above Cuba on his way to the Cayman Islands. The following year, he flew across the Atlantic for the eighth time. In Spain, where he tried to rent a car, recalls Kentmorr seasonal resident Joel Levin, the rental clerk refused, citing Morris’ age. Levin adds: “He was larger than life.”
In 1945, looking for a holiday and vacation home with a small airstrip, Morris was flying with his wife, Lillian, in his new single-engine Stinson 108 when he spotted Kent Island. According to a family biography, he was taken with the farm fields and jagged shoreline. He, Lillian, and their two children took a ferry back the next week. Morris bought a 140-acre farm and plowed a 2,000-foot path through a potato field and planted it with Kentucky bluegrass. He built a house, and soon friends were flying in or taking the ferry to visit, and Lillian would cook for them and visiting strangers alike. Bill built guest houses. Eventually, friends started buying lots along the strip.
Morris dredged a marina and built a restaurant that became known for its crabs, crab cakes, crab pretzels, and crab imperial. On summer weekends, Kentmorr Restaurant still bustles with families and boaters. Over the years, television reporters and print journalists have wanted to do stories on Morris. But he usually demurred.