On Maryland's Eastern Shore, a writer revisits her childhood haunts—the farm stands, the rickety boardwalks, the timeless small towns living off the sea

Jim Franco

MY LOVE FOR THE EASTERN SHORE GOES BACK TO MY CHILDHOOD, when each summer we would pack two cars to the gills with everything that seven people swore they couldn't live without for two weeks. We were on our way to Dewey Beach, Delaware, which 40 years ago was just a few cottages behind the dunes south of Rehoboth. Our supplies included seven suitcases, a box of towels, an old horse blanket for sunbathing, a few decaying beach chairs, a smoked ham, Grandmother Raver's black-walnut cake, Mother's raisin cake, enough beach books to fill a library, two bikes, a couple of tractor-size inner tubes, crabbing and clamming gear (old tennis shoes, buckets, net, rake), and Grandmother's medicine bag, which contained enough pills and powerful liquids to stave off the heart attacks, asthma, arthritis, constipation, and migraines of a small army.

My father, who was trained as an engineer, defied the laws of physics by getting us, our dog Joe, and all our stuff into two cars, whereupon we would wait for what seemed like forever while Mother ran through the old farmhouse making sure no one had left a light on or a toilet running or shut Babyface, our cat, in a closet. Finally, she would back out of the house, slam the door, and dive into the car saying, "We're off! And Mrs. Raver fainted."

This was our little family joke, as we left the farm in western Maryland, inhabited by four generations of Ravers, for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and the flat, sandy land that was my mother's home. She had grown up in Denton, Maryland, a quiet town on the banks of the Choptank River, in a rambling Victorian that always smelled of Grandmother Moore's fresh-baked potato rolls and whatever good food she and Annie Taylor, her cook, had prepared for our lunch.

The five-mile Bay Bridge, arching over that sparkling water, its steel towers rising above our heads like ship masts, was the gateway to a kind of paradise unknown to my father's landlocked clan. We were entering a world of gulls and terns cawing in the wake of fishing boats; of sandpipers skirting the hissing foam of the Atlantic Ocean; of farm stands piled with juicy, orange cantaloupes, white peaches, and Silver ¤ueen corn; of little inlets where you could wade into the shallows with a wash bucket floating in an inner tube, and feel for the hard-shell clams with your bare feet.

We'd pull up to Grandmother Moore's house to find Grandpop and Reverend Turkington rocking on the porch, swapping dog stories and tales of either Grandpop's business, which was to bury everybody in Denton, or the reverend's, which was to bless their souls. Grandpop always set out the funeral/no parking signs to save room for our caravan, but sometimes the signs were for real, and we would arrive to find one of Denton's departed citizens in the front parlor, amid a sea of gladioli and lilies. We'd try to get a good look before Grandmother shooed us into the dining room, sliding closed the big oak doors and seating us at a table laden with sliced ham, fresh corn and lima beans, ripe tomatoes, coleslaw, potato rolls, and Aunt Stella's watermelon pickles. After we'd downed a few glasses of iced tea, a big piece of Grandmother's angel food cake, and a couple of Aunt Dolly's brownies, Uncle Charles would hand Dad the ancestral beach umbrella, we'd check on Grandmother Raver for any signs of a heart attack, and then be off.

Those rambling stories on the front porch, the sensuous pleasure of eating too much, the sound of bees droning in the pink blossoms of the crape myrtles all around town were as much a part of the Eastern Shore to me as the boom of waves hitting the beach at night as I fell asleep on the screened porch.

Last summer I returned to some of my childhood haunts to see how they had changed in 40 years—to walk on the boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach and ride the waves at Bethany Beach, where dolphins play just beyond the breakers. I spent one afternoon at Chincoteague Island watching the wild ponies, and another bird-watching in the marshes of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, near Cambridge. I took in old towns like Oxford and St. Michaels and went down to Crisfield, from which I caught the boat to Smith and Tangier islands, where watermen have been making a living from the Chesapeake Bay since the 1600's.

I was moved by what I learned about Maryland's early history, and about how those precious soft-shell crabs come to my table. I was glad to find that I could still sail down a creek near Chestertown with my cousins on their old oyster boat, a Chesapeake Bay sharpie, watching great blue herons and hawks flap out of the trees. But those cantaloupe fields of my youth are fast turning into subdivisions, and condos now line the shore of Tilghman Island.

As I rambled through this watery land—the light and the salty air still quickening my heart—I had to admit to uncomfortable realities not understood as a child. In those days, riding toward Rehoboth (where, I am glad to report, the honky-tonk boardwalk still has bumper cars and saltwater taffy), we would pass black farmers hoeing their sweet corn, and little girls in tattered dresses playing in dusty yards outside tar-paper shacks. I never connected their hard lives with the comforts of my grandmother's house: the bacon Annie cooked so perfectly that we called it Annie bacon (it has been the standard for all other bacon since); the ironed sheets; the curving banister polished within an inch of its life.

Sometimes we would give Annie a ride home to her little house on Fourth Street, on the black side of town; but though Grandpop helped out her family, I never played with any of her children. That sense of separation—of almost no one crossing the color line—is, sadly, still palpable to any visitor to the Eastern Shore, which is as Southern in its soul as western Maryland is Yankee.

There is still a segregated feel, for example, to small towns like Denton, where I walked over to the courthouse green with Uncle Charles. We met up with cousin Randy (who has taken over the funeral business from Uncle Charles, who did the same for Grandpop) and his friend Jok. They told me how they had dragged Annie's little Federal house—abandoned for 10 years after her death—to its original site behind the green, blasted out the pigeon dung, and transformed it into a museum for Denton's newly formed historical society. Inside, we stood staring at a grainy, wall-size photo of black men planting seeds in the wake of mule-drawn plows.

It seems likely that Annie's ancestors were brought to America by William Potter, a grain merchant and slave trader with a plantation about five miles outside town. They became sailors and small farmers, and Annie herself worked in a cannery. My ancestors, meanwhile, plowed the fields owned by the nefarious slave trader Patty Cannon, and dreamed of canning empires that never quite got off the ground.

I CARRIED UNCLE CHARLES'S RASPY VOICE AND HIS SLOW, PLEASURABLE LAUGH with me on my way to Crisfield, once a vital port and still the jumping-off point to Tangier and Smith islands. I wanted to get a glimpse of life on these islands in the bay, where Captain John Smith first observed, in 1608, "such an aboundance of fish, lying so thicke with their heads aboue the water, as for want of nets . . . we attempted to catch them with a frying pan . . ."

All but 5 percent of the nation's soft-shell crabs—those succulent delicacies plucked from the eelgrass as they shed their shells—still come from the shallows around Tangier Sound. The blue crab is also holding its own, with more than 100 million pounds produced each year. But the bay's once-famous oysters, now plagued by parasites, plummeted from 14 million bushels a year in 1875 to 140,000 last year. Island populations are dwindling too, as young people leave for jobs not tied to the vagaries of nature. But they still speak with traces of the rolling dialect, with rounded vowels, that harks back to Elizabethan England. And most of the people I boarded the boat with had broad English faces, ruddy complexions, and blue eyes. They also share an independent spirit. When decisions have to be made, people meet at the Methodist church, which keeps the island dry, by the way.

"I come over every day," said Captain Rudy Thomas, whose father and grandfather captained the mail boat before he took command of the wheel. "The only time we miss is in a sixty-mile wind. If the water freezes, my brother cuts the ice with a steel boat."

EVEN IN THE RAIN, TANGIER ISLAND IS A LOVELY SIGHT. Its low-slung crab shanties sit on stilts in the shallow waters, and the spire of the Methodist church rises over white clapboard houses, which are huddled on three ridges. Joined by wooden footbridges, these strips of land, each 11/2 miles long, are marshy places surrounded by a sea of spartina grasses.

Tangier's streets are barely eight feet wide, so most people either walk or ride bikes with balloon tires and pedal brakes. The lanes are flanked by tiny houses with tinier yards bounded by picket fences. If you can't exactly reach out and touch the porch across the street, you can see what's going on. A Monopoly game was in full swing on the porch of Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House, where I had reserved a room, and inside an elderly man was napping on an old couch in front of the TV. My quarters were clean but spare: cotton-poly quilt on the bed, frameless mirror, an ancient air conditioner, which happily didn't have to be turned on because of the sea breeze coming in. I peeked into the bathroom down the hall, which had no lock, and I felt like a rich American traveling in the Amazon, thankful for clean sheets and running water.

It was a few hours before dinner, so I decided to take a walk in the mist. I peeked into yards filled with gravestones because there is no other place to bury the dead. ("And we don't like to walk far to visit," Eva Pruitt told me back at the Chesapeake House.) Islanders share only a handful of names—like Dize (or Dise), Crockett, Pruitt—and they're running out of people to marry.

As I crossed a footbridge, an orange-beaked oystercatcher flew low over the marsh. I realized what a beautiful place this would be to paint, or explore by kayak or canoe. I passed a little house with a flotilla of bikes out front, and had the sudden urge to ride one. A few deep red roses bloomed by the gate, on a bush that perhaps had been brought as a cutting from England. I knocked at the screen door and in a few minutes Euna Dise appeared. Take any bike you please, she said, and ride all afternoon for two dollars. So off I went down the narrow lanes, pedals creaking, until I got to the beach, where I took a walk beside the wind-whipped waves. Then I pedaled into town and tried the soft-shell crabs at the Islander Seafood Restaurant—greasy but as fresh as they come.

By the time I got back to the Chesapeake House, I was kind of sodden. Monica, a pathologist from Washington, D.C., whom I'd met on the mail boat, was rocking on the porch with her husband, Ernie, and their son, Travis, who held a fat island cat in his lap. Monica offered me a little Chablis, which she had spirited onto the island in her suitcase. "Ernie's afraid we'll get kicked out," she said. But we both had noticed a few islanders riding by with six-packs in their bike baskets, so we settled back into the cushions until it was time for dinner, which was served promptly at five.

The Chesapeake House was founded in 1939 by a feisty woman named Hilda Crockett, who started by putting up traveling salesmen for the night and feeding them her home cooking. Her daughters carry on the tradition. About 10 of us sat church-supper-style around a big table as our teenage waitresses brought out dish after dish. The meal seemed to disturb Ernie, a cardiologist, as much as it pleased his wife. We started with ham and warm rolls and moved on to clam fritters and fried crab balls (doled out two to a person, because the tourists used to slip them into their purses), with plenty of corn pudding, hot beets, string beans, applesauce, and mashed potatoes with gravy.

In the morning, pounds heavier, I was glad to be back on the mail boat. Was it the rain or the narrow streets that left me with such a feeling of claustrophobia tinged with melancholy?Or was it having stepped into a life on the verge of vanishing?

By noon I was on the Island Princess to Smith Island, heading for Ewell, the largest of three towns, each on its own scrap of land. A wooden bridge connects Ewell with Rhodes Point, where sturdy workboats have been built for generations, but you have to take a boat from Ewell to Tylerton. That town has the most shade trees and Victorian houses on the island, and, until it closed in 1996, Maryland's last functioning one-room schoolhouse. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is also in Tylerton, and it conducts environmental education programs for students and teachers.

While I watched the thin sliver of land take shape, I talked to a woman from Baltimore about the writer Anne Tyler. As the wind blew our words off the bow, and salt water sprayed our hair, we tried to remember the name of the book conjured up by this landscape. "She walks down the beach with just her beach bag and leaves her children lying on their towels," the woman was saying. The wreckage of an old hunting club on stilts slid by our starboard side. "Yeah," I said, "she ends up at some town in the middle of nowhere, rents a room, and buys herself a dress at a thrift shop."

A grassy island signaled our entrance into a quiet harbor lined with long, low houses where crabs about to shed their shells are kept in tanks. I got off the boat and found my way to the Smith Island Motel, which has seven little rooms all in a row, with identical décor (ersatz paneling oddly interspersed with strips of mountain-scene wallpaper) and his-and-her bathrooms down the hall. There are also two bed-and-breakfast places in Ewell, but fine accommodations are not what Smith Island is about. So what do you do here?Nothing, really. Except walk and ride a bike, watch the waterbirds fly in and out of the marshes, and take in the glorious light. That's why most people beat it back to the mainland before nightfall.

I BORROWED ONE OF THE MOTEL'S CREAKY BIKES AND RODE by little bungalows with screened porches surrounded by crape myrtles, fig trees, and bushes loaded with big red balls. Pomegranates! I'd never seen them growing before; they are a clue to how balmy island summers can be. Hungry for crabs, I checked out Ruke's Seafood Deck; its weatherworn appearance had declared it the real thing. The screen door opened with a whine and slammed shut with a vengeance. I found Ruke (whose real name is Ruthman Dize) manning the cash register in a jumbled room where everything from bubble gum to fishhooks is sold. His wife, Chart (Charlotte), was frying crab cakes for her customers, including the woman I'd chatted with on the boat, who waved from a picnic table on the porch.

"It was Ladder of Years!" she said as I sat down beside her. But crab cakes, not Anne Tyler, were on our minds now, and I soon sank my teeth into one of the best of my life: almost all crab, with just enough bread crumbs and egg to hold it together. Or was it mayonnaise?I asked Chart, but she wasn't giving away any secrets. A bit of dry mustard, I'm guessing, and a drop or two of Tabasco. But nothing to overwhelm the voluptuous, rich flavor of fresh crab.

By the time I finished lunch, I had a date with a waterman at dawn. Morris Marsh, a crabber for 42 of his 57 years, had agreed to take me out on his workboat, Darlene. The next morning I made my way through the dark streets and followed a little path past the general store to the diesel tanks, where Morris had told me to wait. I had the uneasy feeling that I was at the wrong gas tanks, until I heard the chug of a motor.

Morris, in a faded blue-and-red plaid flannel shirt and big blue Keds, helped me aboard with a friendly lack of ceremony. His arms were the size of young tree trunks, and later I would see why, as he pulled the scrape—a long steel frame that literally scrapes the shallows, gathering crabs and eelgrass into a twine bag attached to the frame.

While the morning drifted by, Morris pulled up scrape after scrape, and each time the twine bag was full of eelgrass crawling with crabs. He threw the babies back, tossing the big blue jimmies (mature males) into one basket and the sooks (mature females) into another. Others in various stages of molting went into live-boxes: green crabs, which show a white rim on the back fin; peelers, whose white rim has turned to blood red; busters, literally busting out of their shells; and soft-shells, which have just completed the process. The latter are handled gently because they fetch $20 a dozen, compared to $25 a bushel for sooks and $45 a bushel for the big male jimmies.

It was peaceful out on the water as the sky pinkened to the east, and in another hour there was nothing but blue sky and the flat green pancakes of islands half a mile out in the bay. Morris took a swig of black coffee from his Hellmann's mayonnaise jar. "This looks like a two-bushel day. I've gone as high as ten, but two to three is a good day."

That afternoon Morris deposited me on the town wharf. As I boarded the mail boat to Crisfield, he was heading back out to check the peelers in his crab shanty.

HAVING ROUGHED IT FOR TWO DAYS, I WAS READY FOR THE HONEYMOON SUITE at the Robert Morris Inn in Oxford. I took a bubble bath in a deep tub and stretched out on a canopy bed wide enough for a wedding party. My quarters were in the Sandaway Lodge, around the corner from the original house and wonderfully secluded, with porches overlooking the Tred Avon River and some lovely trees, such as a towering horse chestnut and a weeping bronze beech whose branches have rooted themselves in the ground. The whole place breathes old-fashioned luxury, from the crab cakes at the inn (well seasoned and perfectly cooked, though Ruke's still reign supreme) to the courtly service of the waiters, who will try to talk you into the strawberry pie (don't bother).

The next day, I passed up the crab omelette at the inn—it was far too dark in there for such a glorious morning—and set off down Morris Street to see what I could find. The best thing about Oxford may be its gracious old houses, where the front porch swing is not on the endangered list and venerable magnolia trees thrive in front yards. The town is a gathering place for the yachting crowd, and I watched a sailboat race as I tried out a big tree swing. But there's something too tweedy about Oxford for me, as if everyone here has shopped at Talbots since birth. So I drove northward to Chestertown, picking up some white peaches at a farm stand. I had arranged to meet my Aunt Fran, who knows the streets of the pre-Revolutionary town backward and forward (and can trace her ancestors to Martha Washington), and Uncle Robert, who knows dogs and boats and once befriended a turkey buzzard.

My 75-year-old aunt practices yoga and stands on her head every morning. I could hardly keep up with her as she charged down brick sidewalks. Chestertown was laid out in 1706 on a grid rather than on old cow tracks, which sufficed for most 18th-century towns. The town's fine Federal houses were built by merchants and sea captains. As you stroll by, you can look through parlor windows that are often kept graciously uncurtained, and peek over walls into gardens that roll down to the Chester River.

The place to stay in Chestertown is the elegant old Imperial Hotel on High Street. If you prefer a bed-and-breakfast, try the White Swan Tavern (ask to stay in the original kitchen, which has a huge fireplace and a door leading to the garden), and don't miss high tea there. Uncle Robert and I dined at the Imperial Hotel, on corn-and-crab bisque so rich you hardly need anything else. Uncle Robert also attests to the rack of lamb, and I to the rockfish, a local variety that had been scarce for 30 years and has miraculously come back in force.

ST. MICHAELS, ONCE A ROUGH SAILORS' HANGOUT, is now quite a tourist spot, with restaurants serving mesclun salad and roasted goat cheese. The antiques stores are good, too; I almost left with a $400 pie safe. Instead, I made my way down to the superb Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and got embarrassingly teary-eyed with patriotism in front of the clipper-ship exhibit. Then I had a fabulous bowl of corn-and-crab chowder at the Bistro St. Michaels on Talbot Street.

By the time I reached the Black Walnut Point Inn, at the very tip of Tilghman Island, the sun was slipping into the bay like a fat, ripe tomato and fishermen were silhouetted against the sky. The inn occupies an old farmhouse with a working jukebox in the sunroom and rockers on the front porch, from which I watched an osprey carry a mouse across the water. Two Chesapeake Bay retrievers greet you at the front door, and there is fresh lemonade waiting in the refrigerator. I could imagine renting one of the inn's two cottages for a few days with friends, cooking fresh fish, and watching the sun rise on the Choptank and set on the bay.

That evening, back in St. Michaels at 208 Talbot, I ate roasted oysters—plump, jumbo beauties, with a hint of pistachio and bacon—and soft-shell crabs. Boring, I know, but it was my last night on the Eastern Shore, and they were perfectly cooked. A man with a ponytail was discussing Windows 95 with his girlfriend as my lemon tart and espresso arrived. I felt worlds from Ruke's on Smith Island.

I drove the 10 miles back to Black Walnut Point with my windows open to the sound of crickets, and took a walk under the walnut trees. The stars were out, the wind rustled the leaves, and I could hear the lap of the waves. I lay down on the grass and let the feel of the solid earth seep into my bones. Then, after looking around to make sure no one was about, I hugged a black walnut tree.

Seven Wonders of the Eastern Shore

  1. The crab cakes at Ruke's Seafood Deck. As fresh as you can get.
  2. The Black Walnut Point Inn, a farmhouse turned B&B at the tip of Tilghman Island. Unpretentious atmosphere, good sailing and kayaking advice, and a wildlife sanctuary at the back door.
  3. The 25,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (410/228-2677), for birding, canoeing, kayaking, crabbing, and fishing. This is migratory-waterfowl heaven.
  4. The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (Mill St., St. Michaels; 410/745-2916). The place to soak up a little Eastern Shore history. See the only log-bottom bugeye in existence; crew on a skipjack during the annual May and September races on the Miles River.
  5. Chestertown's sea captains' manses along the Chester River. On the third Saturday in September, there's a candlelit tour of 16 dwellings in the historic district. For info, call 410/778-0416.
  6. The wild horses that roam free at Assateague Island National Seashore (410/641-3030) and nearby Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (757/336-6122), in Virginia. Keep an eye out for dolphins and gray seals offshore, where you too can ride the rollers.
  7. The roasted oysters and pan-fried soft-shell crabs at 208 Talbot. The intimate bar is perfect for a martini.

The Facts

Imperial Hotel 208 High St.; 410/778-5000; doubles $125, including breakfast; dinner for two $60. The second-story porch affords fine people-watching; the food is first-rate.
White Swan Tavern 231 High St.; 410/778-2300; doubles from $100, including breakfast. Check out the archaeological finds from the tavern's own dig.

Breakfast at Jacqueline's 202 S. Morris St.; 410/ 226-0238. In an old bank building, Jacqueline's serves up eggs, scrapple, and great coffee.
Robert Morris Inn 314 N. Morris St.; 410/226-5111; doubles from $90. Request a river view.

St. Michaels
Bistro St. Michaels 403 Talbot St.; 410/745-9111; lunch for two $30.
208 Talbot 208 Talbot St.; 410/745-3838; dinner for two $70.

Smith Island
For ferry info, call 410/968-3206.
Ruke's Seafood Deck 20770 Caleb Jones Rd.; 410/425-2311; lunch for two $13.
Smith Island Motel 4025 Smith Island Rd.; 410/425-3321; doubles $50.

Tangier Island
For ferry info, call 410/968-2338.
Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House Main Ridge; 757/891-2331; doubles $80. Fabulous if you like Monopoly and church suppers.

Tilghman Island
Black Walnut Point Inn Black Walnut Rd.; 410/886-2452; doubles $120, One-bedroom cottage $140.

Best Books
The Chesapeake Bay Book by Allison Blake (Berkshire House)—Scores of entries describing hotels, restaurants, shops, and things to do in the area.
Day Trips in Delmarva by Alan Fisher (Rambler Books)—Extremely useful touring information, covering southern Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia.
Maryland: A New Guide to the Old Line State (Johns Hopkins University Press)—A 1976 update of the WPA writers' project travel guide.
Beautiful Swimmers by William Warner (Little, Brown)—A Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the nature, history, and ecology of the Chesapeake. Written from the vantage of the watermen who make their living catching the bay's famous blue crabs.
Turning the Tide: Saving the Chesapeake Bay by Tom Horton and William M. Eichbaum (Island Press)—For a basic understanding of how the bay was formed and the problems it faces.
—Martin Rapp