Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: Deltaville, VA

Deltaville Virginia boating  
Most boaters know Deltaville, VA for its sheer "boatiness"--good 
location, easy in and out, a bazillion marinas... But to visit the 
maritime museum, shows you where the town's heart is. [November 2011]

by Nica Waters
photographs by John Bildahl

Sculptor Charles Reed saw me ogling the gorgeous bowl on display in his tent. We'd been at the farmers market for barely a minute and already I was head-over-heels in love--with a one-of-a-kind, hand-hewn poplar bowl. "You never know what you're going to find," he said. He was talking about the swirls of topsy-turvy grain in the wood, but he might as well have been talking about the market--or the museum itself. 

Every fourth Saturday in the summer, there is a farmers market here at the Deltaville Maritime Museum, a relative newcomer to the family of museums that celebrate Bay maritime culture, from Havre de Grace to Norfolk. Set against the backdrop of the tidy screwpile lighthouse-shaped museum, the market buzzes with energy and color--and with product, not just produce. There are tomatoes, cucumbers, blackberries; pottery, cheese, hand-carved bowls (did I mention the beautiful bowls?); books, flowers, salsa. You name it. It's quite a scene, and that morning I again asked myself the question that had prompted me to come in the first place: Why had we never been here before? 

Most boaters don't come to Deltaville for the maritime museum; they come because it's an extraordinarily boat-friendly place--small town, but huge on marine amenities. It has 16 marinas and/or boatyards, two West Marine stores, and lots of beautiful anchorages and lovely creeks. And, sitting on the peninsula between the Rappahannock and Piankatank rivers, minutes from the open Bay, it's a convenient stopover for cruisers. 

But Jeremy and I are not "most boaters." We don't stop by once a season, or once in a while; we spend almost every weekend here. We may live in Charlottesville, Va., but our 28-foot Bristol Channel Cutter, Calypso, lives right here, at Fishing Bay Yacht Club, just off the Piankatank, and has for the past eight years. So what's our excuse for never having visited the museum? Well, there is none, I told myself not long ago, and I resolved to remedy the situation immediately. 

And so it was that I found myself paddling away from the yacht club on a warm June morning, strapped into a red lifejacket and perched on our blue plastic kayak. Heading off into the unknown waters of Mill Creek on what would be about a 20-minute paddle, I felt very intrepid--not unlike Captain John Smith, who had explored these very waters four centuries ago. Well, maybe not that intrepid. "If I'm not back by dinner," I'd told a friend earlier, "call the Coast Guard." 

The wind was at my back as I went, mixing the sounds of lawn tractors and wheeling seagulls with the chop of the water and the splash of my paddle. Salt spray tickled my nose as sun warmed my shoulders. Sweat made my bathing suit stick to my stomach, but I was about as happy as I could be. I paddled almost due north across Jackson Creek, then paralleled the shore heading east, staying out of the deeper channel. Then came the thrum of a diesel engine, growling louder by the second. I moved faster, debating waving my paddle in the air so I could be seen. The crab boat, deck piled high with pots, turned and headed west, and the noise receded. 

I turned north into Mill Creek, a tiny tributary off of Jackson Creek, noting with satisfaction the "DMM" sign that told me I was heading in the right direction. Then I turned hard to starboard. Something wasn't quite right. My paddles were churning up mud with every stroke. I could see the houses I should have been gliding past, but I couldn't get there from where I was. "I really am exploring," I thought. "Good thing it isn't low tide." I backtracked, breathing a sigh of relief when I found the proper waterway to follow. Doesn't count as exploring if you don't get lost, does it? 

I followed the curve of the creek around, past marshy shallows to starboard, higher banks with well tended houses to port. I scared a blue heron, startling it from its fishing, and it flapped off with those impossibly long wings. The rhythmic pull of the kayak paddle was hypnotic, and it was almost with regret that I pulled under the power lines that make this the end of the line for sailboats. I had to slow down as I went past the museum's docks. There must be 300 feet of dock space, or more. I glided past the Lillian B, a Potomac River dory used by the museum for creek tours, then ogled my way along the museum-restored buyboat F.D. Crockett, its large Deltaville Maritime Museum sign visible from the water. My destination, the kayak landing, was just beyond the Crockett. Small, red-tipped sand crabs scattered everywhere as I came ashore. I shed my life-jacket, slipped on a T-shirt and headed up the hill. 

Passing a wooden rectangular structure that looked like it once was a boathouse, I soon came face-to-side with the Explorer, a full-scale replica of the rowing/sailing "shallop" (Smith called it a barge) that Captain John Smith and his crew used to explore the Bay in 1607 and 1608. One of the museum's first projects, the shallop was built several years ago as a part of the statewide celebration of the 400th anniversary of Virginia's Jamestown settlement. Just 28 feet long and about seven feet wide, it struck me as alarmingly small. I shuddered to think how inhospitable she must have been for the 12 explorers who sailed and rowed every single day for all those many months, from one end of the Bay, and back again. And people say I'm crazy for cruising to the Caribbean and back with my husband and two children on a 28-footer. 

I looked beyond the trailer to the museum's "boat shop," an open shed where boats are built, my eyes drawn to the shiny white hull that turned out to be a 17-foot Wright skiff recently built by Middlesex County School students. Wright skiffs are classic Deltaville boats. Designer John E. Wright, known for the graceful lines of his crabbing boats, was a prolific Deltaville boatbuilder in the early 20th century. While this was the first year the museum built one of these beauties with local school kids, the museum has held its annual Family Boatbuilding Week, in which families come together to build a skiff, since its opening in 2003. What better way to make history come alive, to make it feel very much a part of the present, than to have local students and families build a boat designed in their own backyard? 

The next boat to catch my eye in the outdoor display was the W.A. Johns, a three-log canoe built around the turn of the century, probably in Poquoson, Va. She plied the waters around Deltaville as an oyster tonger before being donated to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Md. When this museum opened here, the former owners requested that the boat return home. This boat was a little rougher than the Wright skiff, a little more of its work heritage showing. A buyboat, a shallop, a skiff, a log canoe . . . how many different kinds of boats can a small crabbing/oystering community need? 

A little farther along in the yard, I found an intriguing hands-on exhibit of sailors' knots--six of them, all with tidy step-by-step instructions how to tie them. I can't resist a coiled line, and nobody was around to laugh at my clumsy efforts, so I tried my hand at each one. It made me realize just how long it had been since I tied a flying bowline. The first time I'd done it, in fact, at a booth at the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis in 1997, I'd won a prize--a subscription to this very magazine, as I recall. But could I still tie it? Hold the line, whip the other end around it, pull the loop through . . . hmmm, not perfect. Do it again. And again. After 10 tries, I swear I broke the world record for tying this knot. There is a Guinness book category for that, right? 

But as intriguing as the outside displays were, it was time to see what I could find inside. A muted chime sounded as I opened the door of the lighthouse-shaped building. The cool quiet hush made me feel as if I had walked into a library. A friendly volunteer at the front desk introduced himself as David and then ushered me into the first exhibit hall with solemn grace, almost bowing as he backed out of the room. Then I was alone with the exhibits. 

The room is the size of a cozy living room, maybe 15 feet square. Natural light spills in through the huge north-facing window, making the spotlighting almost unnecessary. The east wall showcases the workboats of the Chesapeake Bay, complete with spectacular models, many by local craftsmen. I peered at the descriptions under the bugeye, the skipjack, and the deadrise, trying to get the design progression straight in my head. All of these boats stem (no pun intended) from the log canoe. My back ached at the thought of the hard labor that went into each one of those boats; from felling the trees to hand-carving the keel to drilling holes to connect the logs, every single step involved a lot of elbow grease. The worn tools in the glass display case spoke volumes about how hard the work was; the simple descriptions, words like "adze" and "foot ax," don't come close to capturing what working with one of those must have been like. But the display suits the tools; flowery prose would have been out of place. Those were their tools. They did their job. End of story. 

I'm a sailor, so I know a fair amount about the pleasure boats out there on the Bay. But for me, until today, a workboat has always been just a workboat. Take the deadrise. Of course I had a general sense of what a deadrise workboat was, but after exploring that first exhibit room I finally understood the design of this most quintessential Chesapeake Bay craft. The museum explained the name as describing how the side planks join the keel in a straight rise--no curves on these babies, not underwater. The models invited close inspection, showing the difference between the box-stern boats and the round-stern deadrises that were the pride of Deltaville, explaining how the deadrise underbody was so perfectly suited to the waterways of the Bay. I leaned in to read the caption under one of the models, then leaned closer. Virginia has a state boat? It's true--the Virginia state boat is the deadrise. Who knew? Another discovery. 

Here also I found the photos and placards documenting the restoration of the F. D. Crockett, the buyboat I'd passed at the dock. Sometimes called "deck boats," these craft were designed and built for the middleman. Buyboat operators would buy oysters and crabs right on the water, saving the watermen a trip to shore to sell their catch. The Crockett is one of the last of her kind still afloat, a nine-log boat built specifically to be powered by diesel. Many of those boats were initially built for sail, and most of them were much smaller. She'd fallen into disrepair and was given to the museum to be restored in 2005; the restoration took four years and over 7,000 volunteer hours. In 2007, the pilothouse of the Crockett pilothouse traveled to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., to be part of the festival's "Roots of America" exhibit. 

The sheer number of boats and projects I looked at that day, from the boats outside to the indoor exhibits--and even the building itself--belied that fact that this museum is only nine years old. It took over 14 years of planning and organization to bring it to reality, but the Deltaville Maritime Museum officially opened in 2003. Private interests coordinated with the county in a well choreographed dance to create the museum, designed to showcase boatbuilding history in Middlesex County and Deltaville itself. The idea was to make the history of the area accessible, to keep it alive and relevant. 

Moving on to the next room, about the same size as the first, I found a display dedicated primarily to the town's once-thriving boatbuilding industry. The south wall in this room sported a couple of beautiful hand-painted murals, their pencil sketches still visible in the background. These paintings detailed the boatbuilders associated with each body of water in Middlesex County. I was floored to realize that over the years, Deltaville has been home to 67 boatbuilders--a number that approaches 100 if you include the rest of Middlesex County, reaching north to Urbanna and beyond. That's a lot of boatbuilding. I was beginning to see why Deltaville was called the boatbuilding capital of the Chesapeake Bay. 

My brain was filled with more information than I imagined existed about these boats and Deltaville's part in the history of boatbuilding on the Bay. There were three more rooms to explore in the museum, but I didn't think I could fit any more wonder into my head at this point. And besides, my stomach was starting to rumble. I had forgotten Intrepid Explorer's Rule #1: always take snacks along. It was time to head for the kayak and the upwind paddle home. I'd have to see the rest on my next visit. 

Three days later I was back, dragging Jeremy along with me. It was the aforementioned Saturday, that of the farmers market, and I was anxious to see the museum with other people around. We were exploring by car this time, not boat--for several reasons, not least being that I was sure I'd buy more things than we could carry in kayaks. 

Cloudless blue sky formed a picture-worthy backdrop to the splashes of color at the museum's Holly Point Nature Park. Weaving through couples and families, people walking dogs, parents pushing strollers, kids riding bikes, we moved from one display to the next, oohing and aahing at the crafts and artwork, smelling the flowers and fresh fruits and vegetables, coveting the homemade salsa and goat cheese. We stopped at the stand where Charles Reed had set up his beautiful wooden bowls and hand-carved spoons, some of them huge paddle-like things used for stirring vast batches of apple butter or Brunswick stew. I couldn't imagine the ladder I'd have to stand on to actually use one of those, and I've never made apple butter or Brunswick stew, but that didn't stop me dreaming of owning one of those functional pieces of art. 

As we wandered through the market, the museum's main building in the background, I overheard snippets of conversation. "A dollar a minute," said the woman offering massages. "Come back at about 12:30 and I'll take care of you." From the salsa booth: "All the money goes to the SPCA." But the real salesman there was the very cute and sociable pit bull mix, who had an irresistible way of rolling on his back to invite belly scratches. The man at the Kemper Nursery stand tried to talk me into buying some of his gorgeous hostas. And everywhere we looked, we saw smiles and heard easy conversation. 

I was standing in line at Billz Bistro, waiting to order my coffee and breakfast sandwich, when the man in front of me caught my eye. His slight stoop didn't quite hide his six-foot-plus height. Graying hair curled around the arms of his glasses. He moved as if he had all the time in the world, exactly the way he talked. "Hello! Welcome to the museum," he said, welcoming me to what was clearly his domain. A smile bloomed on his face as I introduced myself and told him what I was up to, and before I knew it I was in a golf cart, being taken around to the places I hadn't yet found on my own. 

This turned out to be Bob Kates, the current president of the museum--an affable man whose easy cadence of speech and movement belies the amount of energy and passion he has for this place. He is justifiably proud of what has been accomplished here in less than ten years. "It's all real people doing things for the community," he explained, waving to friends and acquaintances as we motored silently along. "It's all done by volunteers. And our volunteers are second to none." 

Golf carts are a wonderful, if slightly bumpy, way of getting around. We wound our way past Bubba, the wildflower garden. . . . Yes, you read that right, the wildflower garden has a name, and it's Bubba. It stopped me in my tracks too, until I learned that, when viewed from above (indeed, visible even on Google Earth), the garden is fish-shaped. Ergo Bubba--in honor of the famous mounted singing fish. We weaved along the pine needle-strewn paths in the sculpture garden. There are 32 acres of property in all, and there are plans for much of it. All, though, is meant to provide a place for people to explore and learn about the area they are living in or passing through. I heard about Halloween in the Park, a trick-or-treating and scare-fest for families; and about the Family Boatbuilding Week in July, when families come to build traditional skiffs they can take home. 

Kates explained the events, which seem to overstep the traditional bounds of a maritime museum. "I'd guess we'll have between 1,500 and 2,000 people come to the market today," he said, estimating that to be nearly half of the summer-weekend population of Deltaville. "We've become a social hub for the community--both for the 'stuck-heres' and the 'come-heres.' " 

I'd love to be a stuck-here (though I could never earn that title). Who wouldn't want to live in a place where almost half the population will wind up at the market on a given Saturday? I'd already seen a former colleague from Charlottesville; apparently I have to travel 150 miles to the farmers market in Deltaville to catch up with her. Social hub indeed. 

Eventually I planned to catch up with Jeremy at the museum, but next on the agenda was a boat tour of Jackson Creek. I headed for the museum dock and found Pete Cardozo, captain of the Potomac River dory Lillian B, ready to head out on the creek. With seven passengers aboard, he fired up the dory's six-cylinder diesel engine and soon we were weaving through the red and green-tipped stakes that serve as channel markers. The first order of business, of course, was to explain to us the difference between this boat and a bona fide Delta-ville dory--and it was easy enough to understand. The hull of the Potomac dory, he said, has longitudinal planks; on a Deltaville deadrise the planks are latitudinal--which is to say, in boatbuilder parlance, it is cross-planked. It may seem like a small difference to some, but clearly it's important to the museum, which plans to sell the Potomac River dory and restore a recently donated Deltaville deadrise, the Miss Ruth. 

Despite her utterly inappropriate longitudinal boards, ol' Lillian B did a fine job carrying us around the creek. "That used to be a general store," Cardozo said as we passed one house near the shore. "Economics made it impossible for the people to keep it going, so it's a private home now." The flags lining the wrap-around dock, once used to entice watermen customers, were a remnant and reminder of times gone by. Watermen still work the creek, but the predominant economy is more tourist and pleasure boat-based than it was even 30 years ago. We powered past boats at anchor, many of them with wind generators and dinghies, a good indication that they're long-distance cruisers. How many of those boaters, I wondered, knew about the rich history of the area? And how many understood that this favorite anchorage was once a working man's area, not the pleasure center it is now? I'd never expected a short boat ride could underscore the changing nature of a place, but Cardozo's tour definitely made me think about the changes here in Deltaville. 

We pulled up to the dock, and I found Jeremy still in the museum, looking at the Civil War room. Still a work-in-progress, the exhibit showcases life in Middlesex County during the Civil War; pencil marks on the walls indicate the same detail will soon be in place here as it is in the rest of the museum. 

"Wasn't Jefferson Davis the President of the Confederacy?" my British husband asked me, peering closely at a deeply polished leather chair that hadn't been there earlier that week. The exhibit was simple, a chair with a piece of paper on it. There were no chains or security glass or KEEP OUT signs. I read the paper. This was a Campeche chair that once belonged to Jefferson Davis. It was on loan to the museum from a local family. Seeing the chair, displayed so simply, so accessibly, made me feel like history was right there in front of me--that I could quite literally reach out and touch it. 

Our minds whirling from all we'd learned, we made our way back through the market. I filled a backpack with tomatoes and cucumbers, salsa and goat cheese. I reluctantly realized I didn't have time to wait for a massage, and I passed on those hostas. But the bowls at Charles Reed's stand caught my eye again. 

"This would be gorgeous on our table," I wheedled. Jeremy was caught too, always ready to appreciate good woodworking. He ran his hands over the bowl, feeling the fine sheen of well sanded wood. 

"Do you want this for your birthday?" 

"Are you kidding?" Did I want this piece of art for my birthday? I could fill it with tomatoes and cucumbers. I could use it to display seashells. I could fill people's minds with stories as I filled their bellies with food. I could . . . 

"Well?" Jeremy asked, snapping me out of my reverie. "I'll get it for you for your birthday if you want." Tongue-tied, I merely nodded. The plastic bag we put it in didn't make it any easier to carry, but it did help; if we hadn't stashed it in the bag, I might still be standing in there, caressing the silky smooth poplar. 

On our way out, we were reminded about that night's music, part of a series of concerts called "Groovin' in the Park." The Skipjack Band would be firing up their amps at six. We could bring a picnic dinner and enjoy music by the water. Not tonight, though. We had a stack of crabs waiting for us back on Calypso. 

And there was a method to this madness. Leaving now meant we'd just have to come back some other Saturday. I wonder what we'll discover next time.