Though it's close to D.C. and home to more than a few
Beltway fugitives, the insular hamlet on Rockhold Creek
is still a great place to go nowhere and do nothing. [March 2005]
By Michael Brown
Photographs by Scott Sullivan
The year was 2004, the world was going to hell and my 61-year-old body wasn't so hot either. I knew all of that, but as we putt-putted up Rockhold Creek into the bosom of Deale, Md., I could have sworn that we were back in the 1950s, Ike was in the White House and I was once again a kid all excited about the newest Studebaker.
This little community on the western shore of the Chesapeake, 20 miles south of Annapolis, has a way of doing that to people. "You know that dinosaur movie that kids watch—The Land that Time Forgot?" Captain Jim Brincefield asked after we had tied up for the night. "That's what this place is."
Maybe it's the fleet of traditional, low-slung charter-fishing boats, like Brincefield'sJil Carrie, that line Rockhold Creek, competing for space with a gob of modest pleasure craft, many of them old and well preserved, some just old. Maybe it's the small houses and old crab shanties that sprout comfortably along the shore, as if Mother Nature herself had sowed them with the marsh grass. Maybe it's the absence of self-conscious cute on the main drag, Deale Road, where an eclectic assortment of small commercial enterprises and vacant lots join in harmony to tell the visitor, "You ain't in Annapolis, fella."
Whatever the reason, Deale is wonderfully evocative of a simpler, easier time decades ago when America—or at least the white middle-class America I grew up in—had little to worry about beyond surviving nuclear war with the Russians and catching the weekly "I Love Lucy" installment, not necessarily in that order.
Four of us arrived in Deale on my little sailboat one stunning Saturday late in the summer. In addition to my wife, Margaret, the crew consisted of Angus and Nancy Robertson, dear friends of great intellect and, more importantly, the ability to fold themselves without complaint into our wee V-berth, a remarkable talent given Angus's six-foot frame. The purpose of our visit was to experience Deale, nothing more involved than that.
Our immediate destination was Sherman's Marina, an unassuming operation on the east bank of Rockhold Creek, hard against the bridge that carries Deale Road (Route 256) over the water. The bridge is a little less than a mile and a half up the creek's dredged channel from Herring Bay, the soup-bowl-shaped dent in the Bay's western shoreline south of the Shady Side peninsula. Beyond the bridge lie a couple more marinas, but the fixed span's 14-foot clearance marks the end of the line for sailboaters.
Sherman's, with room for 32 boats, is one of a number of relatively small local marinas that take transients if and when they have an open slip, a condition by no means guaranteed. The joke goes that there are so many boats on the creek you can just about walk across it. Which brings us to another key fact. In addition to a strong sense of yesteryear, Deale has what any self-respecting real estate agent kills for: location, location, location.
Thanks to the gods of geography, Deale is the Chesapeake Bay harbor closest to metropolitan Washington. Drive out of the nation's capital on a weekend day, and you are dockside in Deale 35 minutes later without breaking the speed limit, at least not by much. No surprise, then, that many slips are the full-season province of weekend skippers who live in D.C. and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Deale's two big, full-service marinas—Shipwright Harbor and Herrington Harbour North—generally do have slips for overnighters and are the surest bet for visitors. Each has a swimming pool and other amenities as well as a location close to Herring Bay. Shipwright Harbor, with about 250 slips, is on the point that separates Rockhold from the community's shorter liquid thoroughfare, Tracys Creek.
Herrington Harbour North, which has some 600 slips and a host of marine-related businesses, is on Tracys Creek—to be precise, on the west bank, which puts the marina outside of Deale and in an area named Tracys Landing. The distinction is relevant only if you are expecting mail; Deale and Tracys Landing, both unincorporated, are served by different post offices.
On a weeklong cruise earlier in the season, my wife, daughter and I had stopped overnight at Shipwright Harbor. For this second, more in-depth look at Deale, I purposely sought out a spot farther up Rockhold Creek. This time I wanted to stay "downtown."
Sherman's Marina does not have a swimming pool, but it does have Frank Sherman, which for my money is more than a fair trade. He is an energetic, friendly soul whose speech still carries hints of his native Boston, even though he settled in Maryland back when Ike really was in the White House. In 1973, after living 20 years in Montgomery County outside Washington, he moved to Deale to fulfill a lifelong hankering to be on the water, a common refrain among the community's many transplants.
"Do you know how to drive a shift?" Sherman asked, when I said we were going to explore Deale and its offerings, gastronomical ones being of greatest interest. "Take the Trooper," he said, checking to make sure the keys were in the ignition of the vehicle parked near his house behind the dock. Although I appreciated this unsolicited generosity, the four of us had planned to walk and were looking forward to the exercise. I told him I would confer with my crewmates and let him know if we decided to use his car. Employing unassailable logic, he waved off the need for such formality. "If I look out and see it's gone, I'll know you took it."
As a grizzled inside-the-Beltway refugee myself, I was unprepared for this kind of trust and transparency from strangers. Openness, however, seems to be congenital in Dealeans. We certainly didn't meet all of them. (Indeed, since Deale is unincorporated and has no fixed boundaries, there is no firm count of just how many there are to meet. What can be said is that the Deale post office delivers to about 1,400 addresses and rents 385 boxes.) But whatever the exact number of residents, those we talked to were unfailingly genuine and full of personality—and stories. The reason to come to Deale, we learned, is to meet the people.
People like 85-year-old James K. Jackson, for example, one of the first we met on the docks. "I'm hanging in there," he tells us. "Every day above the ground is a good one." Although he lives in adjoining Prince George's County, Jackson has been a fixture on the Deale waterfront for decades. His first job was helping Noah load animals, his colleagues joke. If he doesn't recall the Great Flood, Jackson has no trouble remembering "the good old days." That would be back in the 1940s, when, he says, you could count the number of local charterboats on one hand. Today, Deale is home to about 20 of them. Jackson also remembers when fishing parties paid $35 for a full day's outing (an all-day trip now costs somewhere around $500). Although he retired three years ago, Captain Jackson still has his Coast Guard license and helps out regularly on a friend's charterboat. As we walked along the dock at Happy Harbor Inn, where most of the fleet ties up, he pointed to a 46-foot wooden vessel. "Right there is the boat I ran back in the 1960s," he said, explaining it was built in the Eastern Shore town of Wingate by the late Bronza Parks, a craftsman of note. The boat, like her former skipper, is still going strong.
After an onboard conference facilitated by Angus's concoction of rum and ginger beer, the four of us opted to use our feet instead of the Trooper, and we began walking east along Deale Road. We wanted some kind of dinner somewhere, but otherwise our objective was inexact. Before leaving home, I had told a long-time Deale resident by phone about our plan to sample the delights of her community and write a magazine article about the area as a destination for boaters. The woman, who shall go nameless for obvious reasons, expressed puzzlement at the idea, saying in so many words that the gruel we would be tasting was pretty thin. "There's no place to stay and nothing to do," she had said—an evaluation echoed by a number of other Deale inhabitants who are otherwise positive about their environs. It's the inverse of what they used to say about New York City: "Nice place to visit but wouldn't want to live there."
True, Deale has not exactly gone supine for the tourist trade. There are no inns or B&Bs to spend the night in, no town square ringed by cafes and boutiques to stroll through, no neighborhoods of stately old Victorians to tour. What you get are fishing and boating and more fishing and boating. And that, thank-you very much, suits many, if not most, of the Deale citizenry just fine. "Don't write a good story about Deale. The last thing we need down here is a Starbucks," said Frank DuBois, whom we met in the pizza parlor next door to Good Deale Bluegrass. Several years ago DuBois, an international-business professor at American University in Washington, D.C., sold his house in Northern Virginia and moved to Deale, where he kept his 30-foot Catalina. Isabel, the big 2003 hurricane, eliminated the sailboat but left DuBois's zeal for his relocation untouched. "Wouldn't you rather be close to recreation and far from work than close to work and far from recreation?" he asked before driving away.
Jim Brincefield, the charter skipper we met when we first arrived, is a one-man welcoming center, it turned out. Combining infectious enthusiasm for the community with a capacity to analyze its characteristics (and characters), he put Deale's minimalist approach to life this way: "This ain't no Beltway. We're easygoing down here." He spoke as he tidied up his 50-foot custom Bay-built deadrise following a day on the water. "We don't have any stoplights. We don't have sidewalks. We don't have any police. People come down to relax and enjoy the beauty of the Bay."
That does, indeed, appear to be the prevailing view, at least according to a completely unscientific sampling of local opinions, anecdotes and stray dogs. However, the four of us had not sailed to Shangri-la, only to southern Anne Arundel County. We discovered that, like most places populated by human beings, disagreement and discord are not unknown to the good people of Deale. The issue of growth—how much and what kind—is a particularly potent source of controversy. Deale made headlines a few years ago when residents split over plans by the Safeway grocery chain to build a 55,000-square-foot store plus adjoining retail space a little more than a mile from Rockhold Creek. In the urban world, another food store generates about as much passion as another park bench. Not so in Deale.
Opponents of the new store, led by a group called South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development—S.A.C.R.E.D. for short—blocked the project, successfully arguing that its size was incompatible with Deale's physical environment and small-town lifestyle, that it would be a step down the slippery slope to big-box stores, fast-food restaurants, housing developments and congestion. "[We] don't want Deale to be another Edgewater," says Amanda Spake, president of S.A.C.R.E.D. and a resident of the adjoining community of Churchton. Safeway would have been Deale's first full-size food market, and its proponents saw the addition as a needed convenience as well as a boon to the local economy. Claire Mallicote, president of the Deale Merchants Association and owner of a number of vacant commercial lots, is not happy with the outcome of the Safeway fight—or the similar outcome of other, lower profile development battles. "Deale is dying a slow economic death," she says from behind her desk in the office-supply business she operates on Route 256, a god bless ronald reagan sticker firmly affixed to the front door.
A proposal for change, no matter how slight, is sure to draw debate, Brincefield says. The town's one bow to modern traffic engineering is a blinking yellow light at the west end of the Rockhold bridge—an effort, he says, to keep wayward motorists off the lawn of an adjacent property owner. "It's a blinking yellow caution light, and that was a major deal," he says. "Oh, my God. You would have thought the sky was falling."
One point on which there does seem to be widespread agreement is the need for more recreational facilities and, especially, waterfront access. Currently, the only publicly owned facility on the water is a small county wharf on the western bank of Rockhold Creek just downstream of the bridge. "All the time, we have families coming in with kids and wanting to know where they can crab. All I can do is send them down to the county pier," says Jeanette Huckleby, the owner of JJ's Tackle Shop located at Deale Marina off Deale Road (the
marina does have a boat ramp).
The four of us can attest to the fact that sidewalks would be another nice addition. We made our way cautiously along the shoulder of Deale Road, detouring into the grass at the approach of a vehicle. There weren't many cars, but the few we encountered were moving at a good clip. Thankfully, the walk to the center of town, if there is a center, was short. Among several commercial establishments, the most eye-catching is Good Deale Bluegrass, a music store that hosts a regular Friday-night jam session. This night, a Saturday, the store was dark, but several weeks later I dropped by during business hours and met owner Tim Finch, a happy man with a quick laugh.
"This is a midlife crisis," he said as he showed me around. The store's decor follows a theme best described as early attic. A 1918 Maryland license plate on the wall immediately got my attention, followed by an old Coleman camping lantern. Church pews, arranged in a large rectangle, provide seating while guitars, drums, amplifiers and klieg lights are plentiful. Finch, another Montgomery County emigre, moved to Deale in 1998, opened the store and formed the Good Deale Bluegrass Band, which appears at various festivals and entertainment spots in the Washington-Baltimore corridor, including the acclaimed Birchmere music hall in Alexandria, Va. He also launched the annual Deale Bluegrass Festival, an outdoor concert at Herrington Harbour North every September on a Saturday. Well, almost every September; Isabel scuttled the 2003 festival. Last year Ivan tried to do the same, but the cold, wet, miserable weather was powerless against the faithful, if small, audience and the hearty performers, headlined by the Osborne Brothers.
Not counting carry-out and short-order places, Deale has four restaurants within walking distance of Rockhold Creek. The best known is Happy Harbor Inn, a bar and lunchroom-style eatery with an outside deck overlooking the creek just below the bridge. If Good Deale Bluegrass is at the town's physical center, Happy Harbor is the social center, or at least considered such by many. deale. a small town is like a big family, reads the wall plaque next to the cashier's window. Happy Harbor draws watermen, pleasure boaters, fishing parties and a wide swath of other locals and visitors, some on two wheels. attention bikers: no colors, rags, club attire, exceptions, says the sign outside the bar door.
Farther west on Deale Road—just across Tracys Creek, next to Herrington Harbour North—is Calypso Bay, a waterside restaurant and sports bar. The Caribbean motif extends to a liberal pro-vision of sand and palm trees, not something you see a lot of in southern Anne Arundel County. The other two restaurants are on the east side of Rockhold Creek—both on Drum Point Road. Skipper's Pier is a waterside crabhouse with inside and deck dining and a dock bar. Isabel caused extensive damage, followed by a major renovation. Petie Green's is right on the road, away from the water. We chose it because it is slightly closer to Deale Road and our stomachs were close to mutiny. The straightforward decor is light on ambiance, but the staff was personable. At the conclusion of the meal, the four of us had no argument with the little signs that grace each table: it's all good. Nancy, whose enthusiasm for life is accompanied by a solid grasp of the superlative, was especially taken with her dish, declaring, "This crabcake deserves an ode."
Sometimes what you don't know can hurt you—or, in this case, your feet. As we learned later, Deale has a weekend water taxi that will pick you up at a marina (or just about anywhere else, for that matter) and deliver you to one of the waterside restaurants and, when you are finished eating, take you back. The service is free, although "tips are always nice," says Judy Carney, who ran the taxi with her husband, Jim, for 21 years. The couple got paid by the restaurants and for carrying advertising on their 24-foot pontoon boat. Last spring the couple sold the business to Jeffrey Bresnahan, who had always wanted to have his own water taxi. Like the Carneys, he operates, weather permitting, on Saturday and Sunday, noon to 9 p.m., from Memorial Day through September.
The idea that Deale is changeless can be overstated. John Meneely, owner of Shipwright Harbor, says the town is becoming increasingly popular with boaters, and even without condo developments the resident population is growing as well. "There are a lot more people in Deale now," says Pat Pruitt, the postmaster for the last dozen years. With the growth have come new realities. Terry Whittington, a developer whose family has been in Deale for decades, says the days of leaving your house unlocked and your key in the car ignition are gone. He understands it's a change that came to most places long ago, but he misses the old way nonetheless. "It sure was convenient," he says. His wife, Debbie, remembers how she used to be able to drive out of their driveway onto Deale Road without bothering to even look for oncoming cars. "Now you have to sit there and wait," she says. But despite the influx, the newcomers and old-timers seem to be living in harmony. Kristl Hathaway, who owns a weekend retreat on Herring Bay in Deale's Masons Beach neighborhood, says commuters like herself and full-time residents get along well. "Driving just forty minutes from Alexandria each weekend takes us back in time about fifty years," says Hathaway, a federal worker in the Washington area.
Marlin Fitzwater, probably the community's most famous adoptee, first came to Deale in the late 1980s. The presidential press secretary to both Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush wanted a weekend escape from the rigors of the White House, he explains. On a map he drew the shortest possible line from Washington to the Chesapeake Bay and, as they say, the rest is history. "Pretty soon we were here all the time. It was a wonderful change because the culture is still focused on the watermen," Fitzwater says. "It still retains its country charm. The people are just terrific." In 1995 Fitzwater and his wife built a house on Parkers Creek and became full-time residents. Fitzwater, now an author and lecturer, says one of the defining characteristics of Deale is the diversity of the people. He notes that his own neighbors include a working waterman, a retired U.S. Forest Service employee, a security expert, an electrician and a doctor. "Around here, people don't care about how much power or money you have. They care about whether you're a good person," he says.
Back on the Happy Harbor dock after dinner, we met Frank Carver, captain of the charterboatLoosen Up. Carr considers Deale's past and looks ahead at its future, and in both he sees pretty much the same thing. "When you think of the scheme of things, nothing much has changed here. Nothing's changed at all," he told us. "Deale is caught in a time warp. The vast majority of people don't want change. They want to keep it just the way it is."
It's All Inside
If you want to know about--and see--Deale in the good old days, get a copy of the book A Ripple on the Wind by Lois Nutwell. The 80-page volume is full of old photographs that the author, who grew up in Deale, collected from friends and residents. Along with the photos, the book provides a good bit of local history, including how Deale got its name.
Nutwell explains that the town used to be called Cedar Grove, the name that the local Methodist Church still carries. But Maryland had another Cedar Grove, and so in the early 1900s the town's first postmaster, John Leatherbury, selected a new name: Deale, his mother's maiden name. There were Deales in the area at least as far back as the 1730s, when James Deale bought 240 acres in what is now the town.
Nutwell worked three years on the book and self-published it in May 2004 with no expectation of making money or even selling any copies. "It was a labor of love," says Nutwell, an amateur archaeologist and retired Department of Defense employee. Her late father, Oregon "Peck" Nutwell, ran fishing parties out of Deale as a young man. "It was my little piece of preservation," says Nutwell, who now lives north of Deale in Harwood.
To Nutwell's amazement, her first printing of 1,000 sold out in a matter of months, and she ordered a second batch. Copies are on sale at a number of Deale stores (including Deale Florist & Gifts, Happy Harbor Inn, Herring Bay Paints, Mali Discount and Park's Liquors) and at Barnes & Noble in Annapolis Harbour Center. The price is $14.95.
Who's On First?
Is it Tracey's Landing, Tracy's Landing or Tracys Landing? "It depends on whom you ask," Janet Beckner, executive director of the Southern Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, says with a laugh. Indeed, you can easily find all three spellings for the unincorporated area adjacent to Deale. There's a story there, of course. Beckner explains that originally the community was Tracey's Landing, named for Thomas Tracey, an early settler. Then, in 1870, the post office dropped the "e" and the apostrophe, she says. But not everyone went along with the change, and the variations continue today.
Herrington Harbour North, the large marina and boatyard, is in Tracey's Landing while Weaver Boat Works is in Tracy's Landing, according to their respective websites. Local schoolchildren go to Tracey Elementary, while watermen, according to the federal navigational chart, ply Tracys Creek.
The postal service itself seems slightly schizophrenic on the issue. The post office that serves the area is the Tracy's Landing branch, which is how it's spelled on the postmark (pictured at left). But the town itself is called Tracys Landing, Md., according to the USPS website.
Cruiser's Digest: Rockhold Creek, Va.
Herring Bay has 3,145 acres of water, but it also has a shallow bar running down the middle from the north shore to within about 600 feet of the shoals on the southern shore. Appropriately enough, it's called Long Bar, and it makes a direct approach to Deale impossible for any boat with much of a draft. Depths over much of the bar range from 1 to 4 feet. The southern end has 5-foot soundings, and locals say sailboats that draw less than that can cut across that section without worry.
But I do worry, and so even though my little Pearson Ariel has less than 4 feet beneath the waterline, I played it safe and gave the bar wide berth. Coming from the north, I could pretty much ignore Herring Bay green "1", which is located in good water about a half-mile off the Holland Point shoals. But I kept my eyes firmly on the GPS mark for red "2", making sure that it stayed off the starboard bow. Red "2" is at the southern end of Long Bar in about 5 feet of water. The structure is 16 feet high but can be hard to see against the shoreline cliffs in the late afternoon sun. Also, don't be confused by the series of navigational aids just to the south; they mark the channel into the Herrington Harbour South marina at Rose Haven.
With the wind coming from the east at a manageable speed, we jibed around "2" and headed due north for Deale. Between Long Bar to starboard and the Fairhaven shoreline to port, the channel there is about 600 feet wide with charted depths of 11 feet or so.
The next mark, green "3", is almost 2,000 yards from "2" and hard for old eyes to find. Make sure to keep it on the port bow, since it sits on the very edge of the shoreline shallows. Once abeam of "3", turn to port and head for the 14-foot-high green "1" structure that marks the entrance to Rockhold Creek.
The dredged channel through the creek's shallow mouth is well marked, and once you get past the confluence with Tracys Creek, boat-lined banks leave no doubt how to proceed up Rockhold Creek. The dredged channel officially has a 7-foot depth and extends as far as the county wharf just before the highway bridge.
Despite Deale's reputation for constancy, there is one change coming to the Rockhold Creek entrance that boaters will have no trouble noticing. After much discussion, the Corps of Engineers is proceeding with plans to build a 1,070-foot-long breakwater from Town Point on the western side of the creek's mouth to the edge of the channel. The construction schedule calls for completion of the work before the end of the year. The addition is supposed to reduce storm damage to marinas and boats in Rockhold and Tracys creeks and increase the dredging cycle from 6 years to 20.
Once in and settled at one of Deale's marinas (there's really no good anchorage), there's not much to do but eat (see restaurant listing below), fish (find a listing of Deale charterboats on the Deale Captains Association website:www.dealecaptains.com) or check out Good Deale Bluegrass (410-867-2400;
www.gooddealebluegrass.com). Fuel is available at Deale Marina (gas and diesel; 410-867-2398); at the dock behind Skipper's Pier restaurant (gas and diesel; 410-867-7110); and, above the bridge (14-foot clearance), at Harbor Cove Marina (gas only; 410-867-1600). Deale Marina also has a bait and tackle shop and a launch ramp, and Harbor Cove Marina, a full-service yard, offers dry storage. Gates Marine (301-261-9200), above the bridge, is a full-service yard. The water taxi (240-304-0053) runs Saturday and Sunday, noon to 9 p.m., from Memorial Day through September, weather permitting.
Unless otherwise noted, the following marinas offer overnight slips, electric service (30 and 50 amp), showers and pump-out.
Herrington Harbour North (301-261-5515); full-service yard, pool.
Rockhold Creek Marina & Yacht Repair (410-867-7919); full-service yard.
Sherman's Marina (301-261-5013); launch ramp.
Shipwright Harbor (410-867-7686); full-service yard, pool.
Calypso Bay Restaurant (410-867-9787;www.calypsobaydockbar.com) open daily for dinner; lunch is served on Saturday and Sunday; live entertainment on weekends.
Happy Harbor Inn (410-867-0949; 301-261-5297) open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Petie Green's (410-867-6436) open daily for lunch and dinner; breakfast served on Saturday and Sunday.
Skipper's Pier (410-867-7110; 301-261-9322;www.skipperspier.com) open daily except Monday for lunch and dinner; brunch is served on Saturday and Sunday.