Tangier Island's new museum and cultural center put out the call for artifacts and got everything, including the kitchen stove.

by Diana Prentice
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller

You might say that Tangier Island, Va., is a long way to go just to look at an old stove. Maybe so, but it wasn't just any old stove we were going to see. It was the one featured, along with its owner--Miss Annie--in a photo in a 1973 article inNational Geographicchronicling the Tangier Island lifestyle. This was the stove that produced perfectly baked pies for generations of Miss Annie's family and friends. This was the stove that now holds pride of place at the island's new Tangier History Museum and Interpretive Cultural Center.

With this goal in mind (in my mind, anyway--I can't speak for my husband Randy), we left Crisfield, Md., aboard Strider on a bright Friday in October and steered across Tangier Sound on the 12-mile trip to the island. It's a trip we have made several times before, noting each time the changes, or lack of them, in this singular piece of shifting real estate. Families and island life, with the addition of modern amenities, continue on much the same course--wedding shower invitations are still simply tacked up for the benefit of all--but the shape of the island itself is continually changing at the hands of the Bay. We took no chances with the cell phone reception and made our calls while still en route. My call was to Milton Parks at Parks Marina, where we'd stayed before, to request a face dock for a couple of nights.

West of lighted "5", the sound's bottom suddenly rises from60 feet to single-digit numbers. As we carefully followed the markers through the shoal-prone channel, the mail boat My Tangier rumbled past us on its confident way along the channel, headed back to port. Soon we caught sight of the island, lying so low in the water that only its steeple and water tower mark it at a distance. Before long, we were running the gauntlet of crab shanties that line the passage through the island until we had reached Parks Marina, nearly on the other side.

Parks himself, looking as youthful as ever, was on the dock to greet us and take our lines. He also offered to give us a run around the islandin his golf cart. Randy preferred to stay behind and repack the sails, but I happily accepted the offer. And off we went at a good clip, zipping around corners and dodging the occasional sleeping dog. Because Tangier is a small place, with narrow streets, the principle modes of transportation are golf carts, bicycles and feet. As Parks navigated the island, waving to one and all, I noticed a number of changes: a series of trailmarkers for a walking tour and brightly colored trash bins topped with replicas of the old square screwpile lighthouse that once sat southeast of the island. All of these items, Parks explained, were related to the new museum. We zigzagged along Main Ridge by the post office in the center of town, where clusters of residents were gathered as usual to chat and enjoy the sunshine, then came to a halt in front of the new museum.

"My dear mother's old kerosene stove is in there, love," Parks told me, taking me by surprise. "And her picture, too, the one that was inNational Geographic." He sighed. "My, she was a good cook." In all the years I had been coming to Tangier Island, I had never connected Miss Annie with Milton Parks. Small world. Well, of course it is, I thought, this is Tangier.

I had first seen that famous issue ofNational Geographicseveral years ago, after I'd wandered into the back room of Sandy's Gift Shop, which was just a few doors down from the new museum (also at one time a gift shop). Sandy's back room was the informal repository for old clippings about the island and islanders and odd island relics. It was like rummaging through Grandma's attic. I returned there nearly every time I visited the island. When the museum was established, all those old clippings and relics were relocated from Sandy's, and a call went out to all islanders to pony up their own keepsakes, clippings and artifacts to the museum so that they could be put on display--with the understanding that they could get them back at any time.

Waving thanks to Parks, I passed through the neat white picket fence and mounted the steps of the tidy cottage that now houses the history museum and interpretive center. Inside I found a treasure trove of Tangier memorabilia, with everything from dog-eared pamphlets and hand-drawn island maps to oyster tongs and island-made dolls--even the tusk of a wooly mammoth--all of it woven into the story of island life.

I also found artist-in-residence Ken Castelli  here, hard at work on a three-dimensional map of the island that features an overlay of the island in 1866--clearly showing how much larger it was back then. Many of the island's historic sites, such as the fort occupied by the British during the War of 1812, are now lost to the waters of the Bay. Castelli explained how the island's shape is constantly changing, especially on the south side, where winds and waves continuously resculpt the sand. That meant that keeping the map up-to-date required constant work as well, he said. Another of Castelli's maps showed the entire island as it is today, with all its roads, residences, channels and guts.

Near the maps was an old-fashioned show-case with locally crafted items, books, greeting cards and other Tangier souvenirs available for purchase. To the right was a maze of displays of island lore. Other portions of the museum were dedicated to other facets of the island's past--like the British occupation in the War of 1812, the Oyster Wars and its role in aviation history (it was near Tangier Island where General Billy Mitchell, the patron saint of U.S. air power, was able to prove to a skeptical government in 1921 that airplanes could, in fact, sink ships).

And then, finally, in a recreated room of its own, I saw the old stove--an antique even when Miss Annie was using it--still in perfect condition and complete with a cast iron skillet. I thought of all the hungry mouths Miss Annie and that stove had produced over so many years. It looked so small; my galley stove aboard Strider seemed huge in comparison. But in the island's history, it's a stove that looms large indeed.

I tore myself away long enough to return to the boat to get Randy. Together we pored over the exhibits until the afternoon sun was low on the horizon. Finally emerging, I sniffed theair. Was that a fresh pie baking? Mmmm.