Despite a strong hankering for steamed crabs, the author and
her friend manage to explore Cambridge, Md.’s museums,
waterfront icons, colorful downtown area and restaurants without
ever wielding a mallet. Now that’s determination. [May 2013]
by Jody Argo Schroath
I am sitting off Cambridge, Md., watching the Choptank River change colors like a lava lamp as the angle of the sun vis-a-vis the water opens up and another early spring morning gets under way. I am sitting on Zen, watching the river for telltale riffles that will mean the land has warmed sufficiently to allow the cooler water of the river to suck air out of the marshes and crop-fields of low-lying Dorchester County and out across the dead-still water, filling my sails with welcome wind. The watermen who skate by me on either side have their minds on the work ahead. In my idleness, I fancy they look Wagnerian, like Vikings astride great white swans, slipping out to sea.
Zen rocks gently in their wake, before resettling herself for the wait. Boats have all the patience in the world; it is we who chafe at inactivity.
Zen is not without a small degree of lateral motion, however, because the ebbing tide is tugging us slowly past Long Wharf—where the skipjack Nathan of Dorchester lies at her slip, rosy in the morning sun—and then by the new Choptank Lighthouse at the edge of the municipal yacht basin. These we pass at magisterial speed as we are push-pulled like a glacier out toward the main channel. Another six hours at this speed, I think, and Cambridge will be gone from sight altogether, sunk into the water like the drowned city of Ys.
Time has not always been kind to Cambridge, a major deep-water port in the 18th and 19th centuries—and, in the 20th, home to the largest canning operation in the world, Phillips Packing Co. By mid-century, though, the troubles began piling up: economic depression, labor disputes, racial strife, the crash of the oyster population, job losses. Cambridge fell into a kind of slumber, sleeping beauty style, through the final decades of the century. But things have changed. With the help of a determined group that began in 1988 with the Committee of One Hundred and which has branched out into arts committees, downtown committees, financial boosters and a battalion of small-business owners, the city has been working its way steadily out of that slough of despond and created something very special. Indeed, I would hazard a guess, with no statistical evidence whatsoever to back me up except a few visits and a lot of talk, that Cambridge, with its new restaurants, shops and galleries, as well as events that run the gamut from arts nights to scuba-flipper races—is the fastest growing boating destination on the Bay. And one of the best parts, at least to me, is that through it all Cambridge has managed to keep its splendidly varied old homes and commercial buildings pretty much intact. Its High Street, which novelist James Michener famously called the loveliest street in America, still charms with its grand old sycamores shading brick streets lined with fine old homes: Queen Annes, Gothic Revivals and American Foursquares, to mention a few.
A few blocks up from the river, High Street still shifts gracefully from residential to commercial, with the high Victorian Gothic architecture of Christ Church and its picturesque cemetery (resting place for five Maryland governors), followed by the High Spot Gastropub, the Dorchester Arts Council (an old furniture store), the Richardson Maritime Museum (an old bank) and so forth.
The first time I visited Cambridge with the goal of actually seeing something other than a nice quiet berth for the night and a restaurant menu was last October, when I made the trip with Kathy, my longtime friend from college days, and, of course, Skipper, Zen’s dog of record. I must point out that they were both a bad choice for doing something that doesn’t involve a lot of restaurants and doggie bags, but they both had a couple of days to spare, so Kathy and Skipper it was.
“The thing I like about Cambridge is that it’s still real,” Kathy declared, as she, Skipper and I were concluding our opening walk around downtown. “It isn’t all dressed up like something it’s not—like a South Sea island, or something. And it’s not loaded down with developments.” We had begun by following High Street from the municipal marina as far the Richardson Maritime Museum, where we had turned up Poplar Street and walked past Jimmy & Sooks Raw Bar and Grill, the Provencal blue Joie de Vivre gallery and Bistro Poplar before pausing at the skewed intersection of Poplar, Race and Gay streets in front of the bright yellow Sunnyside store with its assortment of eco-friendly products. At the brick building housing W.H. Webb Oyster Company and Crabi Gras spices and seasonings, we crossed Race Street to wander through a little pocket park between buildings and to study a long mosaic depicting a Cambridge water scene, with a racing log canoe and a bright yellow and red clad oyster-tonger, against the deep blues of the water. All along our walk, we had seen new shops co-existing with older work-a-day enterprises like insurance agencies, real estate firms and jewelry stores. The storefronts that were empty bore either Coming Soon signs or posters for programs that fund local start-ups. Downtown Cambridge’s will to succeed was palpable.
We continued along Race Street past the Harriet Tubman Museum, then turned back and followed Gay Street past the public library. We circled around to the Dorchester County Court House before recrossing High Street and wandering off through the residential area again—and finally back the marina and the boat. We had decided it was time to do some actual visiting of shops and choosing of restaurants for a late lunch and early dinner, so we left Skipper on the boat, where he could pass the afternoon patrolling the decks and trying out all the bunks in turn like Goldilocks.
This time Kathy and I turned off High Street onto Commerce Street and followed our noses to J.M. Clayton Company. Ever since we had arrived, the presence of Clayton’s famous crab-processing operation had been inescapable, thanks to the southerly wind that made thinking about anything other than steamed crabs nearly impossible. “Let’s (steamed crabs) walk over (steamed crabs) to the other side of (steamed crabs) Cambridge Creek to see Ruark (steamed crabs) Boatworks (steamed crabs, steamed crabs),” I had suggested as we jumped off the boat to begin our excursion. “Fine (steamed crabs),” Kathy had replied, “but first I have an irresistible to desire (steamed crabs) to walk by Clayton (steamed crabs, steamed crabs).” Which is why Clayton was our first stop. We arrived in time to see small mountains of crabs, fresh off the boats pulled up to the unloading docks, being sorted with remarkable speed and dexterity for processing. And we ran into Joe Brooks, one of Clayton’s owners, who showed us around.
After our tour, and reeling slightly from looking at so many crabs, we wandered farther along Cambridge Creek to the public bulkhead, sandwiched between Snapper’s Waterfront Cafe and a small enclave of condominiums. Here boaters are welcome to tie up to the public bulkhead for up to 48 hours without charge. There is no power or water and the climb up from the boat can be a steep one, but it’s well protected and within an easy walk of all the good stuff downtown. And at 10 to 12 feet, the water is plenty deep. The creek itself is busy with boats—workboats, recreational boats, the occasional cruise boat and, on this particular day, a handful of lovely old schooners that had arrived early for the annual Schooner Festival scheduled for that weekend (which we were going to miss). Across the creek, we could see the busy complex of Yacht Maintenance, with its basin and large marine railway. Yacht Maintenance works on everything from research vessels to dinghies. Two mini-mega-yachts lay along its bulkhead.
Kathy and I crossed the Maryland Street drawbridge, passing Portside Seafood on the upstream side before coming to the largely vacant field occupied by Ruark Boatworks. Its buildings, including an old basket factory—all that’s left of Cambridge Manufacturing Co.—sit in the far back corner. As we labored across the field in that direction, we paused to look at the old skipjack Helen Virginia, which sat, propped up on jack stands, a bit forlorn and considerably the worse for wear. Suddenly a voice piped up: “She needs about fifty thousand dollars worth of work, which the owner doesn’t have, so we’re doing what we can with volunteers.” Startled, we looked around to see who was talking, and spotted a slight figure in paint-stained work clothes and bright red ball cap walking toward us from the workshop. This turned out to be Dan Cada, the Boatworks’ operations manager and a retired yacht designer. He introduced himself, and then, before you could say “Bob’s your uncle,” we were getting a tour. Cada pointed toward Cambridge Creek, which forms the western edge of the lot, and explained that things wouldn’t always look like this. “We’ve gotten some money to build a wood walkway and a brick sidewalk to the bulkhead,” he began. But there is much more than that in the works, he told us. If all goes well, and the money is forthcoming (always a crucial factor), the vacant lot will eventually be transformed into the Richardson Maritime Complex, a masterplan that will encompass a relocated Richardson Maritime Museum, the Ruark Boatworks, Brannock Education & Research Center and Richardson Maritime Heritage Center. All of this will be located in a series of buildings designed to combine the look of a 19th century manufacturing building (along the lines of the Cambridge’s old brick factory) with a classic agricultural mill building. Another voice: “We will also create a marine railroad with a 400-ton winch from the Naval Academy so that we can service the large non-profit-owned schooners that now go to Norfolk.” Kathy and I turned to see a tall figure in a bright orange polo and fly-away hair walking toward us from the parking lot. This was architect Jay Corvan, who volunteers a lot of his work time for the museum. It was he who created the site-appropriate factory/mill design for the new complex. “But first we’ll need to build a quay for the railroad,” he added.
“Next year will make a big difference in our survival,” Cada said. “We’ve given a lot of thought about how the Boatworks can contribute, and we think we’ve come up with an answer. We want to create a boatbuilding school, not just an old boatyard.” The school would teach things like laminates, plastic and West System, Cada continued, things that have made wooden boatbuilding feasible. The Boatyard has already taken some steps in this direction. “We started with having some juvenile offenders spend their service hours spent here,” Cada said, “and then we took five youngsters who had done something seriously foolish. When they came, they couldn’t read a ruler or do fractions, but eight Friday afternoons later, they had learned fractions and to work together.” Now a local school that has no shop facility is talking about holding a regular class at the Boatyard.
As Cada and Corvan talked, we walked into the workshop. A local waterman had come to them and asked them to build a boat for his son, who wanted to start working on the water, they explained, showing us the result—a graceful 18-foot strip-planked, glassed-bottom crabbing skiff. From there we moved on to Calvert Thompson’s famous Wildcat, a 1940s Pacific one-design, which the yard has been rebuilding. Corvan pulled back the cover to show off the sleek craft, with its bright yellow and black hull and deeply varnished deck.
Moving outside again we peered into the old barn that had been moved recently to the site and was being brought up to code for use as the new workshop. “All of the windows are recycled from other buildings,” Corvan said, “and I’ve designed clerestory windows to give plenty of light.” It will also have a dirt floor so that it can be dug out to allow deep-keeled boats up to 44 feet to be pulled inside.
“You’ve done it again,” Kathy complained a few minutes later as we were high-stepping it back through the grass toward Maryland Avenue and the bridge. “Now we’ve spent the entire afternoon talking about boats and not eating.” I hung my head and tried to look contrite, then offered: “We’ll just eat an early huge dinner.” Before Kathy could perk up, I added: “Right after we visit the Harriet Tubman Museum before it closes.” Kathy’s next remarks are best left unquoted. But we did go the Tubman Museum, where Kathy sat and watched a video (which, she later admitted, after she had stopped being hungry and annoyed, she found very informative and enjoyable) while I talked with Bill Jarmon, a charming and knowledgeable Harriet Tubman activist and museum volunteer. (You can find out a lot more about the Harriet Tubman Museum, Underground Railroad Trail and new national monument and state park in the March issue of Chesapeake Bay Magazine.)
It was only an hour or so later when we left the Tubman Museum. Really, it wasn’t even dark yet. We walked up Race Street, which becomes Poplar Street a block later, and came at once to Bistro Poplar and went in. Bistro is a restaurant so French that I only glanced at the menu before ordering the simple Steak Frites with caramelized shallots. When it arrived a few minutes later, I took a bite and—had I closed my eyes—could have easily believed myself to be sitting in a Paris café. I didn’t close my eyes, however, since I thought the chances were good that I would lose a sizeable portion of my steak and/or frites to my dinner companion, who had made short work of her shrimp and grits with chorizo and was watching my progress, in a way that reminded me of Skipper eying pizza crusts. A couple of years ago, chef Ian Campbell’s Bistro Poplar was chosen as one of the state’s five best restaurants by the Maryland Restaurant Association. Little wonder, it was magnifique! One slice of orange olive oil cake and one piece of pine nut and pistachio baklava with honey yogurt sorbet later, we were ready to totter back to the boat. The next morning we were due to head back to Annapolis. “But we’ve left so much undone,” I complained, as I ordered Goldilocks out of my berth.
Ah, all these months later, I still remember that perfect steak and its haystack of crispy yet tender French fries. What I wouldn’t give for a doggie bag from that meal right now, I think wistfully, as Zencontinues to drift downstream at plate-tectonic speed and the bright morning marches silently on. I’ve passed Hambrooks Bay, but I figure I still have plenty of time before I need to worry about drifting too close to the shoal off Howell Point over on the other side of the river. I’m two visits down now, though, and can tick off both Richardson Maritime Museum and the Choptank Lighthouse.
I stopped first at the lighthouse, which sits red-roofed and decorative off the tip of the municipal marina’s A dock. There is a 20-step climb from the dock up to the harbormaster’s office. “What a view!” I exclaimed a little breathlessly after I had said hello to harbormaster Scott Fitzhugh, and then at once walked around to look out the windows.
The lighthouse is, justifiably, Cambridge’s pride and joy. It is a replica of the hexagonal cottage-style screwpile lighthouse that stood near the entrance to the Tred Avon River, between Castle Haven and Benoni points, until 1964, when it was dismantled by the Coast Guard. The replica is not a model of the original Choptank Light, built around 1870 and destroyed by an ice flow in 1918. Rather, it is a replica of the lighthouse that replaced that one, which had originally been the Cherrystone Bar Light at the entrance to Cape Charles, Va. After the original Choptank Lighthouse was destroyed, the Lighthouse Service dug into its figurative storage closet and found the decommissioned Cape Charles light, which they barged up the Bay and attached to the surviving Choptank screwpiles.
The replica light was dedicated last September and now houses not only the harbormaster’s office, but also a small museum of lighthouse artifacts. This year, it will become part of the U.S. Lighthouse Passport Program, with its own special stamp for visitors. It will also be a bonus stop in this year’s Maryland Lighthouse Challenge on September 21 and 22.
All very well and good, I thought, but after my climb I had a more practical question for Fitzhugh. “Isn’t this a little, um, inconvenient for boaters docking on the other side of the marina?” I asked, peering at the little toy-sized boats at the far piers. No problem, Fitzhugh said. Transient boaters will be able to swipe their credit cards to pay at the bathhouse (and former harbormaster’s office), so they don’t have to come all the way to the office. I turned the conversation to more general matters, like what he considered fun to do around here. Fitzhugh, a Cambridge native, turned out to be an enthusiastic cheerleader for the town. “There’s the farmers market on Thursdays right here in the park,” he said. “They have everything you could possibly want to provision your boat. There are the restaurants, all within easy walking distance and a new brew pub coming, he continued. Groceries? Simmon’s Center Market is right downtown. “They have their own butcher, and if you have a heavy load, they’ll even give you a ride back to the marina.” There are also taxis and community buses that will take you to the shopping plazas. “It’s a convenient area for boaters,” he concluded. “Some people come five or six times a year.” Well, I could see why, I thought, as I scurried up High Street to make the Richardson Maritime Museum’s opening hours.
“Every boat begins with a dream,” wrote Jim Richardson at the opening of his 1985 memoir cum boatbuilding instruction manual, The Jim Richardson Boat Book (Ocean World Publishing Co., Baltimore; 1985). “There you are in bed with your feet sticking out of the bottom of the covers and dreaming about all these boats going by,” he wrote. “After awhile, you will settle on the very one, and it will be standing there in bright lights.”
Reading that, I always figured that Mr. Jim’s boat parade, even a somnambulant one, was likely to be a great deal more interesting than just about anyone else’s. After all, 300 years of boatbuilding in your ancestory has just got to give you a considerable leg up. It was Richardson who built the 68-foot pinnacle Dove, a replica of one of the first two ships that brought settlers to Maryland from England, as well as skipjacks, bugeyes, log canoes and other traditional Bay craft. Richardson’s last boat he built for himself, a scaled down bugeye called the Jenny Norman. Her trailboards, carved by another Cambridge boatbuilding legend, Harold Ruark, dominate the corner dedicated to his work in the museum that bears his name.
My guide was Herm Kramer, manager of the museum, retiree, come-here from Baltimore, model-carver and all-round enthusiast. He has also restored his retirement home, a 111-year-old late-Victorian foursquare brick near Long Wharf Park. We started our museum tour with the Richardson corner, which features some of Mr. Jim’s old woodworking tools, models and photos.
We moved on to a work in progress, the Dickerson Yachts section. Dickersons were built just outside Cambridge on Church Creek for several decades before the company moved to LaTrappe. “The Dickerson Owners Club will rendezvous here on June 14, come see their new exhibit, and the next day race to Oxford,” Kramer said as we moved on.
Over the next two hours, Kramer guided me through each exhibit—from the boatbuilder’s workshop in one corner to the ship models that line the old bank vault. And for each he had a story—the display, for instance that came to them courtesy of the widow of a local boatbuilder. Inspired by her first visit to the musuem, she had returned with photos, models and memorablia from her husband’s years of work.
And so it went. We chatted about everything from Dorchester skipjack-builder Bronza Parks to Ohio’s clinker-built Lymans. By the time I said good-bye to Kramer and walked out of the museum, the afternoon had been laid waste. Above, a rag-picker’s sky full of grit-gray clouds blotted out the late afternoon sun, and a knife-sharp wind reminded me that I was pushing my luck with spring. I had meant to idle away a few hours in the galleries and shops that Kathy and I had missed, but once again time had gotten away from me. So I turned back up High Street and walked back toward the water. I would just have to keep coming back until I got the job done!
I nearly reach LeCompte Bay before the science is finally right and a soft breeze sets out from shore and finds Zen and ruffles her sails. It’s not much, but enough to dissuade me from starting the motors. I resist the urge to trim the sails, making myself wait until the sheets creech in complaint. Cambridge is still well in sight behind me, but the Choptank ahead is full of fine anchorages, and I can pretend for a little while that I’ve all the time in the world.