Whether you have serious fishing on your mind or just serious fun, there’s a place on Tilghman Island where both are served up with a big helping of home.
images and photographs by Wendy Mitman Clarke
Mid-afternoon on a late spring day at Harrison House Country Inn on Tilghman Island, and there are a few things you can count on. The fishing fleet will be arriving, those who’ve taken a little longer today to catch their limit of rockfish. Coming from Knapps Narrows, they’ll give a wide berth to the shoal that once was Devil’s Island as they make the long arcing turn into Dogwood Harbor and the docks at Harrison’s. This gives everyone sitting at the Blue Crab Deck plenty of time to note their arrival, critique their maneuvers and speculate on their luck. The boats will slide into their slips with no fuss, and the charterers will walk slowly down the dock, sunburned and weary after an early start and a long day. Armed with hoses and sponges and chamois mops, the captains and crews will groom their Bay-built deadrises like the thoroughbreds they are, until the decks and cockpits glisten, and the chartreuse and white lures hang clean, their skirts combed with more care than the men’s own hair.
Out on the wide green lawn next to the inn, there will probably be some kids playing wiffle ball or splashing in the pool, although on this day, the main attraction is the small tent village that has sprung up on the far side of the lawn. This will be the scene of a bachelor party planned for this evening; the party-goers have just come off one of the boats and are walking past the deck bar wearing tired grins and those goofy mariachi hats you get at restaurants like Chevy’s Fresh Mex.
On the Blue Crab Deck, you will likely find the picnic tables filled with people bent purposefully over a pile of crabs, steamed and fragrant, while behind the bar, Denise Cummings, who came here 34 years ago from Deptford Township, N.J. as a result of marriage, is slinging blender drinks and beer to the faithful. (The marriage didn’t last, but life at Harrison’s and Tilghman Island obviously did; all of her kids were born and raised here, and her 28-year-old daughter has been working here since she was 14.)
And at the corner of the bar, holding quiet but undisputed court, is the Boss Hog of Tilghman Island himself, Captain Buddy Harrison. He keeps it on the down low, but you get the distinct impression that not much slips beneath his radar. And while the patriarch of this Tilghman Island empire—three words that seem a little strange together if you know anything about this part of the Eastern Shore—doesn’t go out of his way to let people know who he is, that’s probably only because he doesn’t have to. Everybody already knows.
“He’s an icon,” says Cummings as she passes him a frozen cocktail that involves bananas, fudge sauce, and a smattering of liquors. “Everybody knows him. Isn’t that right, Skippy? I call him Skippy because he’s so important.”
For his part, Captain Buddy returns the compliment: “She loves people,” he says of Cummings. “A person can be a complete stranger and sit down, and in ten minutes she can know all there is to know about them and not forget.”
At 80 years old, Captain Buddy, as most everyone else calls him, has lived here his whole life and shows no sign of leaving anytime soon, though he may have slowed down some. He doesn’t have the same swagger that he did even ten years ago, but he’s still the grand poobah to whom everyone pays a visit. Captain Shannon Pickens, for instance, has just come off his handsome charter boat Working Girl and stops to chat when Captain Buddy asks him how he made out today.
“I picked at ’em all day,” he says to Buddy. “I had a lot under 18 inches. Caught a pound net pole, a couple of ice bags, so I guess I was cleaning the Bay, too.” Pickens was Captain Buddy’s mate when he was a kid. “I’ve always loved it here” he says.
This prompts a story from Captain Buddy about how one day, when Pickens was mating for him, Buddy caught a fishhook “clean through my hand.” They drove up to the hospital in Easton, where the emergency room personnel were evidently making a hash of removing the hook, and Captain Buddy was very loudly objecting “Finally [Pickens] came in through door with the right tool, and one clip, he cut it” so they could pull the shank through Captain Buddy’s thick paw. It is a cautionary tale about how a good mate with the proper tool and the know-how to use it is just as important as a good boat (or a good doctor). But it’s also a story about something that carries just as much weight around here, and that is that they have each other’s backs.
“We always take care of each other,” Cummings tells me later, when I ask her what has made her stay all these years. “It’s family-oriented, this place. It’s just relaxed. And it’s a caring community.”
And so this is something else you can expect here, along with the country music, the piles of steamed crabs, the muscular charter boats, the Tilghman Island accent that’s as thick as the cream of crab soup, and Captain Buddy at the corner of the bar: This sense of family, community, and rules that are never taken too seriously, lest they infringe on the strength and tradition of the first two. It’s why the guys with the mariachi hats can camp on the lawn and have a bonfire tonight, around which they will sing, loudly and not especially well, and nobody will get irritated; rather, they likely will join in. It’s why kids and dogs are invited—expected, really—to run around on the grass just as much as they want. It’s why even if the food can be sometimes be a bit overpriced and underwhelming, and the accommodations have a few rough edges, you’ll still probably like being here, because it’s laid back. It’s fun. It’s family. And it springs from some part of the Bay’s past that seems harder and harder to find in these days of homogenous “enhanced customer experiences,” doggie potties, and landscaping sod that comes in four different shades of green.
My husband Johnny and I arrived at Harrison’s after an easy scoot down from Annapolis on an Albin 28. “Call when you’re in the Narrows,” the voice at the other end of the phone had said when I’d called earlier to confirm our slip and hotel reservation. So we did, and by the time we exited Knapps Narrows’ eastern end and made that wide arc over the remains of the shoal at Devil’s Island, we were looking straight at the long white building that was our destination. It was easy enough to tie up at the T-head, and as I walked up to the office I noticed on the pier a rather flattened bunch of bananas someone had thrown aside in disgust. They take their fishing seriously here. Always have.
For a wonderful sense of Tilghman Island, you should read Christopher White’s lyrical, thoroughly researched book Skipjack, about the nation’s last working sailing fleet, which was based here before it slowly expired. Thirty years ago, you could cross Knapps Narrows, the thin ribbon of water that separates Tilghman from the mainland, and see skipjacks moored three deep up and down the wharves when they were taking a brief pause from their winter work of dredging oysters. When we cruised through Knapps Narrows this time, we saw restaurants, marinas, tidy, older homes and a cluster of high-end new ones that were part of a planned community, and one working boatyard. The only skipjacks we saw were two moored over in Dogwood Harbor, the Stanley Norman and the Rebecca T. Ruark.
When White moved to Tilghman Island for 18 months starting in 1990 to research his book, he described it thusly: “Detroit pickups, baseball caps, and Budweiser beer. Oxford and St. Michaels up the road had already become havens for tourists; they were enchanting, quiet, sedate. Hardly anyone made the extra pilgrimage to Tilghman, unless one was a serious sport fisherman. It was too remote, too coarse, too alien. A blue-collar town.”
This is not so much the case today. To some extent, the “enchanting, quiet, sedate” quality of towns like St. Michaels has come to Tilghman Island, the way honeysuckle covers a stubborn old shrub with invasive sweetness. Walking along the main drag on a summer Sunday morning, you’ll probably see more BMWs, Range Rovers and Priuses than pickups. Serious money is spent on some of the island’s waterfront real estate, and on the way into Dogwood Harbor on Saturday afternoon we witnessed a metaphoric moment. Along the floating docks at Tilghman on Chesapeake, a 186-acre planned community with a yacht club and marina where the elegant homes start in the half-million-dollar range, a cluster of polo-shirted men was gathered on one of the floating docks participating in a radio-controlled Laser regatta. As the model boats flitted like moths seeking the faint breeze, behind them the Rebecca T. Ruark lumbered out of Dogwood Harbor. Built in 1886, the Rebecca once made her living dredging and hauling oysters into and out of this place. The peninsula upon which Tilghman on Chesapeake is built was once called Avalon Island, where S. Taylor and J.C. Harrison operated Tilghman Packing Company. As millions of oysters were shucked and cleaned, their shells were dumped overboard, providing a place for sediment to gradually accrete into what became Avalon Island (I learned later this is also how Devil’s Island formed).
This is where Captain Buddy points a thick finger when I ask him how the inn and marina began. “The steamboat used to come in right out at that pier,” he says. “In 1899, my grandmother and grandfather opened a place for the steamboat traffic to come and have meals and stay overnight.” In the fall and winter, Captain Buddy says, his grandmother taught school and his grandfather oystered, then fished for herring and shad in spring. “In summer that left them with not much to do, so they started taking care of the steamboat people.”
Over time, as the steamboat era faded away, Captain Buddy’s father and uncles began taking guests fishing, and this sportfishing business became the mainstay of the inn. “People used to come by ferry to Matapeake [on Kent Island], then Claiborne, then here. They would stay three or four days. But then when the Bay Bridge got built, we had more customers of course, but they would only stay for a night or two.”
The ability to stay flexible and to just keep stubbornly on, through the ups and downs of the rockfish moratorium, tough economic times, and the ever-changing demographic and economic landscape of their home, certainly has to be a signature of the Harrisons. Some of his era might resent the inevitable changes here, but Captain Buddy sees it another way. “It brings people with talent that we didn’t have and money that we didn’t have, so it has to help,” he says.
That said, one of the reasons that Harrison’s continues to maintain a unique presence here is because it offers a taste of Tilghman’s past that comes straight from the family’s history, which is thoroughly entwined with that of the island and its community.
“There’s always somebody here from the family keeping watch over things,” says Levin F. Harrison IV, (“Little Buddy” or just “Bud”) who with his wife Leslie runs the inn and restaurant part of the operation. “That comes from my grandmother, she instilled that in us. Even at 91, she was sitting here, watching things.”
Bud’s brother Chuck maintains the fishing end of the business, running the Capt. Buddy, the largest of the family’s three charter boats. The rest of the boats that make up the 14-boat charter fishing fleet based here are privately owned, although some of the captains have been working from this place for 40 years. Chuck also manages Harrison Oyster & Seafood Company, a wholesale seafood business the family operates on Knapps Narrows. Not only does the seafood business help with the overall bottom line, it provides a reliable source of fresh seafood for the restaurant’s signature “family style” meals. “We shed our own soft crabs, we buy our own fish, we only buy local, and we know where everything comes from,” Bud says proudly.
And, as Johnny and I enjoyed appetizers and drinks on the Blue Crab Deck (the rockfish bites were awesome), Bud’s 19-year-old son Brooks, who’s attending Allegheny College, was running the steamer, turning out dozens of steamed crabs for guests, while his 22-year-old brother Beau (Levin Harrison V) spent the afternoon as mate on the Capt. Buddy. Bud proudly notes that Beau just passed his tests to get his Coast Guard master’s license.
Although the younger generation has assumed the largest part of the operations burden, Bud says his father remains “a huge part of it.” Over the harsh winter just past, when the inn’s business lost 31 days to snow storms and cancellations, it was Captain Buddy who was driving all over the Eastern Shore bird-dogging three skipjacks—the Rebecca T. Ruark, Stanley Norman and the H.M. Krentz—that were dredging oysters successfully for the first time in years. “Thank God we had the oysters,” Bud says. “That was what carried us through this winter. We hadn’t had a profitable oyster season in 15, 16 years. The skipjacks made all the difference for us, they caught oysters every day.”
And while the patriarch kept his hand in the family’s survival over the winter, the spirit of Bud’s mother and Captain Buddy’s wife, the late Miss Bobbie, is never far from this place either. After fighting cancer for three years, she died in August 2012.
“I’m telling you something, she was a gem,” Denise Cummings tells me. “She was the matriarch, and she was a great businesswoman.”
“We’re family,” Bud says simply. “Miss Betty, my kitchen manager, has been here 31 years, she trained under my grandmother. Denise—her whole family has worked here. We have a lot of local families who work here. It’s part of growing up here. It’s good, hard work, but they know they’re safe, they can walk home, they can make money. The kids down here still have a work ethic.”
In August 2011, a hurricane blew the roof off the deck bar and saturated the walls and carpet on the north side of the dining room and inn. So began, a few months later, $1.5 million in upgrades to the whole establishment, including new plumbing fixtures and carpeting, king-size beds and plush linens (which are extremely comfortable), flat-screen TVs, energy-efficient HVAC systems, and the reconfiguration of some of the older rooms into suites. The dining rooms were completely remodeled, as was the new sports bar, where the bar itself is built like the transom of a workboat with the name Miss Bobbie painted beautifully across it.
There are still some rough edges; if you come here expecting the St. Regis, you will be disappointed. But it’s fair to say that most people coming here aren’t looking for mints on their pillows or perfection at every corner.
“We came here to go fishing,” says Dan Cooke of Phoenixville, Pa., who has set up camp on the end of one of the docks with a cooler and three chairs. The impromptu party is for his brother Kurt Cooke, who is turning 50, and their nephew Tristan Smith of Easton, Pa., who is turning 18. “Kurt wanted to go on a fishing trip for his birthday. I Googled this place up and it’s great. We can camp out, we even brought wood for a fire.” The three had spent the day fishing on the Hard Ball with Captain Jeff Shores. “Tristan caught the biggest fish,” Dan says. “Captain Jeff was cool, he was great.”
“It’s just a laid-back place,” Kurt says, slurping a freshly shucked oyster, which is only one course of the prolonged meal they’re enjoying out here as the sun slowly slides west and wait staff from the deck bar walk plate after plate of food down the dock to them. “It’s fun, it’s friendly.”
“It’s not stuffy, is what it’s all about,” Dan says. “And the food has been excellent.”
I try to think of another establishment that will let you bring your own cooler of beer to enjoy out on a dock while serving other patrons at the bar right next door, not to mention a place that will let you camp out, build a fire, and even grill your own burgers if you want to. I can’t come up with anything.
But this is exactly the kind of thing that Harrison’s will work to make happen. Their fishing packages are made to appeal to adults as well as youngsters, including even learning how to trotline. They partner with Captain Wadey Murphy on the Rebecca T. Ruark to take guests on sunset cruises, and they try to come up with ideas that will give people a chance to experience a slice of the Chesapeake they grew up with. Which is why you shouldn’t be surprised if a ball game springs into action on the lawn, or if you ask to do something that might seem a little unorthodox, like setting up a tent village to have a bachelor party after you’ve been out fishing all day, the answer is liable to be, “Sure.”
“It’s a hands-on touch,” Bud says. “Our philosophy is relax and make yourself at home.”
Come Sunday morning, most of the charter fleet is already out by the time we emerge from our room to take a walk down to Knapps Narrows. We stop by the Tilghman Island General Store for our first cup of coffee, then circle back and find that most of the bachelor party has already finished off breakfast in the big dining room, having seemingly survived the previous night’s festivities. A great time was had by all, they say, as they head off to strike camp. After our own hearty breakfast, we do the same. We slide the Albin out of the slip as Bud and his son Brooks wave good-bye. I watch them turn around and walk down the dock together, two generations in a Tilghman Island family’s story that seems far from being finished in the telling.