With the seafood industry in decline, Crisfield, Md.,
may soon profit from a different kind of catch. [July 2007]
By Jody Argo Schroath
It was a perfect spring day—presidential blue sky, congenial 10-knot breeze straight out of the heart of Dixie, temperature comfortably in the porch-rocker 70s. In fact, it had all of the ingredients you would throw into your January daydreams to produce the ideal first cruise of the year. Of course, it had taken its sweet time getting that way. Dense fog had kept us—my cruising buddy Hal, ship's dog Skippy and me—cooling our heels since early morning, first at the mouth of the Yeocomico and then at the mouth of the Potomac, waiting for visibility to improve before poking our nose out into the Bay. But our patience had been rewarded at last, and here we were in the middle of the Chesapeake—with Point Lookout aft and Smith Island fore—on our way to Crisfield for the very first time.
Now, among Chesapeake Bay boaters, having never been to Crisfield is like a French person never having been to Paris. No, that's not right. Annapolis has got to be Paris for a Chesapeake boater, so that would make Crisfield more like Marseille. Crisfield, like Marseille, was built on maritime trade and it is on the southern end—of Maryland, in this case, instead of France. Okay, and it's not on the Mediterranean, either. Look, forget I brought it up.
Crisfield, which is known everywhere on the Bay as "the town that used to be known as the Seafood Capital of the World," was built on the triumvirate of oysters, terrapins and crabs. Only crabs, that Julius Caesar of seafood, have survived in any useful numbers. But Crisfield, too, has survived, though it has long since been demoted from seafood capital to quaint former seafood capital. But that in no way has diminished its appeal to boaters on the Bay. In fact, quaint, plus easy access to town, a truly great marina, down-home people with some quirky yet charming habits, and plenty of places to satisfy the inner boater have made Crisfield one of the Bay's favorite destinations.
So Skippy, Hal and I were fairly humming in anticipation. (Actually, Skippy is fairly humming to be on his way anywhere, so he doesn't count.) There was only one issue that threw a shadow over our happy project. Were we too late? Had Crisfield already gone from quaint to wall-to-wall condo? That was certainly the talk I'd heard from Solomons to Salisbury: It's all over, they said, they're building condominiums in Crisfield! Or, alternately: They're building all these condominiums in Crisfield, but I wonder who's going to live there? If you can't find blue cheese or a good dry cleaner anywhere in town you may not be able to sell condominiums.
That last comment came in a round-about way from Whitey Schmidt, a 10-year Crisfield come-here and cookbook author with a title of his own, the Blue Crab Guru. I had called him when I decided to make Crisfield my first landing site of the season. "They have started building a few highrises wherever there's waterfront and a view," he confirmed. "So, it's beginning. New life is coming to Crisfield." Crisfield is a quiet town now, he continued, but once there were a hundred or more oyster-shucking houses at the dock; now there is one. Terrapin soup was found in every restaurant in America; now we don't eat terrapin. The trains are gone, and a lot of the fishing industry has left. So, all things considered, Schmidt says, the condos may be a move in the right direction. "Besides, someday you might even be able to buy blue cheese in Crisfield."
But were recreational boaters and other tourists going to be happy about the Crisfield come-heres, or at least with their outward and visible sign: condominiums? I threw off that shadow as Solomons Lump light passed to starboard and I started listening for the bell at green "5". Pretty soon we would turn to head south in Hal's 17-foot cutty until we reached the entrance of the Little Annemesex channel to Crisfield and Somers Cove Marina.
Somers Cove is definitely one of the big attractions for boaters visiting Crisfield. With more than 400 slips and famously easy to maneuver around, there is nearly always plenty of room for everyone. The marina was built in the late 1950s, while Crisfield's favorite son, J. Millard Tawes was governor of Maryland. The state still owns and maintains it and, over the years, has expanded its slips and facilities. The marina is now also the site of the J. Millard Tawes Museum and Visitors Center. And it was here that Hal and I made our first stop, after tying up at a transient slip and arranging for the ship's dog to cool his heels with a big bowl of water and a bully stick in the shade of the nearby picnic pavilion.
The museum is a great place to get a handle on Crisfield's history. If you can do it, be sure to take Crisfield Heritage Foundation curator Tim Howard's walking tour, which leaves the museum every morning at 10. Thanks to the fog, we didn't manage to make it, but it's going to be a prime motivation for my next visit to Crisfield. Howard, a Crisfield native, has an enthusiasm for the town and for history with a capitalH
running deep in this veins. Like so many men in Crisfield, his beginnings are inseparable from the water and the seafood industry, but like so many men in Crisfield he has been forced to look elsewhere for a living. In Howard's case, he went back to school and discovered history. He returned to Crisfield and began volunteering at the museum. When the opportunity for a paying job turned up, he jumped at it. Now he leads tours, works on the foundation's new Cedar Marsh Wildlife Preserve—which will soon have a new kayak trail—and changes lightbulbs, as needed. He also works with legions of school groups that come through, the dozen Elderhostel programs the foundation hosts each year and now cruise ships.
"Cruise ships?" I exclaimed.
"Two years ago there were none," Howard explained, "last year there were a couple, and this summer there will be eight to ten cruise boats stopping at Crisfield." He left to take a call from the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Va., as foundation director Chris Tyler came in. "They are calling to confirm arrangements for an Elderhostel cruise that will leave from there and will stop here," she said, before also leaving to field a call.
"Many of these cruises ships are Americana Cruise Line ships and were built right next door in Salisbury," Tim Howard said when he returned. The foundation, he explained, arranges programs for the cruise passengers, including trips to nearby Smith and Tangier islands. Some cruises are birding excursions and some geared toward history.
After perusing the museum and its exhibits, which range from arrowheads to all manner of maritime artifacts (including some decoys by Crisfield's world famous artists in wood, the Ward brothers), Hal and I retrieved the ship's dog and strolled into town. Meandering through the residential areas, we saw relic after elegant relic of oyster prosperity: many dozens of Victorian homes in varying states of both decay and restoration. "They represent the oyster money of the 1920s and thirties," Howard had told us. The brick ranchers on the fringes of town, he said, were built by crab money in the 1950s and '60s.
Howard's voice continued to echo in our ears as we made our first stop downtown, slipping into Goodsell Alley near the city dock for ice cream and a hands-on approach to history. "If you actually put your hand on the old oyster house, you can feel the rough [cinder] blocks it was built with," Howard had said as he told us about the tour we were not going to get. "Then you can put your hands on the next building, where the ice-cream shop is, and feel the smooth blocks. You can feel the difference in time." So Hal and I did that, while Skipper did something else I don't want to get too specific about. Then we docked the ship's dog at a post outside and went in to get some ice cream. The purveyor of ice cream came back out with us, carrying a bowl of water for the dog. With all hands happy, we decided to get a better look at the old oyster house. MeTompkins is one of only a few seafood houses still operating in Crisfield. We walked between its two buildings, the larger of which lies in the shadow of a block of condominiums. To the left, out on the old dock, sat a wrecked car, with an oyster boat tied up next to it. I would have asked, but saw no one to tell me the story.
Goodsell Alley itself could tell a few tales. Late in the 19th century, during the heyday of the oyster trade and when Crisfield was the second largest city in Maryland, Goodsell Alley was the home to bars and bawdy houses, not demure ice-cream parlors. To deal with the ramifications of this new rip-roaring lifestyle, Crisfield established its first police force in 1872. I mention this particularly so that I can share that the town's second police chief was named John S. "Pigtail" Sterling. Its third: Isaac T. "Scapper" Powell. Things must have calmed down after that, because the nicknames seem to end there. (You can find the names of all the police chiefs as well as many other bits of information inCrisfield, Maryland, 1676–1976
, an endlessly fascinating and thoroughly opinionated 1977 book by Woodrow T. Wilson—no relation. Wilson, a Crisfield native and retired career Army officer, wrote three books on his beloved hometown, this last to celebrate its bicentennial.)
Hal, Skippy and I retraced our steps and turned right to the city dock, still very much the center of activity for Crisfield residents and visitors alike. This is where you go to find the boats headed for Tangier and Smith islands. This is also where you go to find people waiting for boats, watching boats, catching up on news. And what was the center of attraction on this day? A cruise ship! Yes, tied up alongside of the dock was a three-deck passenger ship of about 200 feet. And it was creating a certain quiet stir among Crisfielders, who in any case keep a close eye on all things maritime. It was hard to tell which was greater—the cruise ship passengers' curiosity for Crisfield, or Crisfield's curiosity for them. I was pretty interested in both, myself. I stopped to chat with a woman sitting in a car parked just where the dock turns into the two-tiered city pier—or the sunset viewing stand, as Whitey Schmidt calls it. She told me she had sent her husband up the dock to find out what the ship was. In the time it took to confirm that she was a born Crisfielder and that she and her husband come down regularly to watch the boats, he returned with a brochure. American Canadian Caribbean Line. Two- and three-week tours up and down the Bay and the East Coast. He was ready to sign up, his wife was not. Getting on a boat to visit her sister on Tangier Island was more than enough seafaring for her, she said. What did she think of the condominiums, I asked her. "Crisfield is changing," she replied. "We natives don't see it yet, but it will be good in the end."
That Crisfield is changing seems to be accepted wisdom all around. Sterling & Son Hardware offers a good example. That business, which began in the 19th century as a tin shop, has already made plans to change with the times. It was Skippy's idea that we stop in. We had just spent a few minutes admiring the wide blue beauty of Tangier Sound from the sunset pier and had started walking uptown when the store's open door, the cool shade and the happy odor of hardware and marine supplies drew Skippy in. "He's welcome to come in," Susan Sterling and Karin Schneider called out, encouraging his trespass. I followed suit, while Hal wandered up the street. The store, actually two stores—one predominantly hardware and the other marine supplies—is planning some changes to meet what is expected to be a wider market in recreational boaters, Sterling told us. "We will be carrying more recreational boating supplies," she said. "Perhaps the store will be divided into a part for watermen and part for recreational boaters." (The urge to protect the watermen is a determined counterpoint to Crisfield's acknowledgement of the need for change—or at least its inevitability.) At the hardware store, Sterling said, there are plans to add polo shirts and other leisure items, "kind of the softer side of hardware."
Skippy was ready to spend a lot more time with his new friends, but we still had something of a hike before we got up to Crifield's main business section. When most of the town as it exists today was built, the oyster houses and other seafood plants crowded around the docks, many built on pilings over the marsh that separated the land from the water so that the boats could offload directly to the plants. In time, the plants' tons of discarded oyster shells filled in the marsh to make dry land. That left the main part of town strung out at a diagonal to the highway—and, far more importantly at the time, the railroad, which ran right down to the docks.
It was the railway that gave Crisfield its name—the one it has now—and assured its position as seafood capital of the world, because it was able to hustle fresh oysters, crabs and, for a brief time, terrapins to major markets from Baltimore to the nation beyond. John W. Crisfield, an officer with the Eastern Shore Railroad, had seen the importance of the project and had pushed for the extension of the line. The railhead was named Crisfield in his honor and, soon, so was the town. Its earliest European name had been Annemesex Neck, for the local Indian tribe, and was founded as an English town in 1666 by Benjamin Summers. Its port was called Somers Cove (spelling was an inexact science back then), and eventually, since nearly all its comings and goings were maritime, that became the town's name—until Crisfield came along. Somers Cove lives on, of course, as the marina, and the Indian word survives in the Big and Little Anne-mesex rivers. The tribe, alas, does not.
Downtown—or would it be uptown?—Crisfield is an energetic mix of historic architecture, empty storefronts, long-established businesses, discount stores and intriguing upstarts. It is also the home of one of the locals' new favorite restaurants, Mi Pueblito Grill ("It's not just Mexican. They really cook there," Susan Sterling told me. "I've even been served quail.")
Mexican-style quail would have to wait; I had an appointment with the mayor. So Hal and Skippy went off on their own, and I headed for the village offices, which are near the top of Main Street. Two years ago, Mayor Percy Purnell rode into office on a wave of public indignation that brought a record number of voters to the poles, ousting the incumbent mayor and most of the council. Not surprisingly, it had to do with change. Purnell and his allies objected to a public/private revitilization project that would have been privately funded, but would also, Purnell said, have given the private interest too much control. And, yes, condominiums were an underlying element. It was four years ago that the first condominiums were built, Purnell continued, and before the election more than 400 new units had been approved. Not that the new mayor opposes condominiums. "Condos are not a bad thing," he said, "they improve the tax base and allow the city to do things it wouldn't otherwise be able to. Would I have done it? Perhaps a little differently."
Purnell is one of Crisfield's many been-here-befores. Twenty years ago, he was mayor. Then he moved away to work. Recently he returned and ran for council. "All of my best memories center on Crisfield. I feel it needs to be protected. Times are going to change, but it needs to be done so people here won't," Purnell said. With an average annual income of less than $18,000, Crisfield's residents would soon be left behind, he said. The city is just completing a comprehensive plan and is seeking bids for the development of its own revitalization plan, aimed at finding that elusive balance between encouraging growth while preserving a way of life (fishing) that is becoming increasingly untenable. There are also plans for trying to help watermen with legislation. One of them is to make sure that the Small Boat Harbor stays in their hands. If passed, the ordinance would allow those recreational boaters who now own docks in the harbor to keep them, but when they do sell, it must be to someone in the marine industry.
Skippy and Hal were just coming back down Main Street when I stepped out of the mayor's office. "Go scout out the perfect place for dinner, while I make one last stop," I called out, ducking into Heart of the Home Fine Foods. Whitey Schmidt had suggested that I talk with its proprietor, Susan Linyear. "She's part of the good change that's coming," Schmidt had said. The shop certainly looked like a change for Crisfield. Coffees, teas, specialty foods. Cheese. Hmmm, I thought, I think I see what's coming.
Linyear is definitely a Crisfield come-here. Before she saw an ad for retail space on the internet, she'd never even heard of the place. "I had been a personal chef and caterer for several years, and I was looking for some space in D.C. to open my own shop," Linyear said. "I saw the Crisfield ad and came down to take a look. I loved the ambience of the town, and I absolutely loved the price." She opened Heart of the Home this March. As the weather has warmed up, so has her business. "People are asking for specific things, like apple or vanilla tea, or a particular barbecue seasoning, and this gets my juices going, thinking of things." And cruise ships. Earlier in the day, she and the owner of Debbi's Chocolate and Gift Shop next door, and the owner of the Captain's Galley had put on a demonstration for the passengers of the cruise ship I had seen earlier. Passengers learned to shuck oysters. The local businesses made some sales. Everyone was happy.
"It is small business that is going to grow Crisfield," Linyear said. "A new plant isn't going to open up." So she and other local business owners have formed a marketing group to make Crisfield and their businesses better known to recreational boaters and other potential tourists.
And cheese? (I had to ask.) "I will be carrying a variety of new cheeses beginning next month, like feta, goat cheese, blue cheese." Say no more, I said, and ran out to find Hal and Skippy. I felt a sudden urge to check out a few condominium prices before we settled down for dinner.
It only takes one building to alter a skyline, and in Crisfield that deed is already done. More than a dozen additional buildings are on the drawing board, but whether they will ever be completed depends on whether superb views, great fishing, a charming population . . . and blue cheese . . . will be enough to draw come-heres down there. So far the few dozen people who have come have made little impact on the town itself. Then how would I answer my question: Have condos spoiled Crisfield? You'll just have to come on down and judge for yourself.
Cruiser's Digest: Crisfield, MD
On our visit to Crisfield, we simply strolled through town, visiting the shops and talking with everyone we came across—Crisfield's friendliness is very much part of its charm. This was more than enough to keep us entertained during our stay, but if you have the time and the inclination, there is much more to do and see. Visitwww.crisfieldchamber.comfor information about everything Crisfield.
Crisfield has three museums, all under the auspices of the Crisfield Heritage Foundation. Check in at the Visitors Center/J. Millard Tawes Museum, located adjacent to Somers Cove Marina, to arrange for a visit to the Ward Brothers Workshop, where they created hundreds of world famous waterfowl carvings, and the J. Millard Tawes Library, housed in his family home. Also, be sure to arrange for the escorted walking tour, leaving from the Visitors Center daily at 10 a.m.
Crisfield is the jumping off place for visits to nearby Tangier and Smith islands. Boats leave from city dock. Take the mail boat, if you have the chance, for a better chance to visit the
Fishing is still a major draw for visitors to Crisfield. Arrange for a few hours or a daylong excursion with any of the city's charter captains.
June 22-–24 21st annual Scorchy Tawes Pro-Am Fishing Tournament. Registration and party at Side Street Market, Fri. June 22, 7 p.m.
July 18 31st annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake. All-you-can-eat steamed crabs, clams, and fish as well as plenty of politicians. Somers Cove Marina, 1–4:30 p.m.
August 31–September 2 60th annual Hard Crab Derby and Fair. Includes crab races, crab
picking contest, parade, boat docking contest, swim meet, and plenty of fresh seafood, of course. Somers Cove Marina, Fri. 6 p.m.; Sat. 9 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sun. noon–10 p.m.
October 19 Crisfield Waterman's Festival. Oysters, crabs, clams and landlubber food. Somers Cove Marina, Noon–5 p.m.
(More information about all events, can be found atwww.crisfieldchamber.comor by
There's only one, but it's a great one, with 100 transient slips, room for boats up to 150 feet, electric, fuel, free pump-outs, swimming pool and laundry. Slips range from $1.50 to $2 per foot. Somers Cove Marina (410-968-0925;firstname.lastname@example.org).
There are plenty of restaurants within walking distance of the marina. Here are just a few: Captains Galley, 1021 W. Main (866-576-6412;www.captainsgalleyonline.com); Cove Restaurant, 718 Broadway St. (410-968-9532;
www.coverestaurant.net); Mi Pueblito Grill, 333 Main St. (410-968-9984;
www.mipueblitogrill.com); Side Street Seafood, 204 S. 10th St. (410-968-2442;
www.crisfield.com/sidestreet); Watermen's Inn, 901 W. Main St. (410-968-2119;