It's all the way up the Tred Avon River, but if you're okay in
five feet of water and don't mind a one-mile walk or bike ride,
the jolly old town of Easton can be your oyster. [March 2010]
By T.F. Sayles
Photographs by John Bildahl
Here's an interesting coincidence: Easton, Md., that lovely old town on the Eastern Shore, seat of Maryland's Talbot County, was founded in 1710. And, as it turns out, that was also the year I first mentioned in an editorial planning session that Easton might actually be a decent boating destination, despite its apparent distance from the nearest deep water. The subject has come up in every planning session since 1710--and there have been several--and the conversation has always gone something like this:
Me, pointing at the map:
"See, it's actually only a mile or so from downtown Easton to the Tred Avon River, which is definitely navigable this far up. So, if you could tie up there, or anchor out and find somewhere to leave a dinghy, it wouldn't be all that long a walk or bike ride into town."
"Sure . . . you could do it in a powerboat, but not in a cruising sailboat, because you're down to four or five feet of water there. Also, that's a pretty small marina there and it's kind of an industrial spot, with fuel storage tanks all over the place. And to get into town from there you have to go through a pretty rough neighborhood. I wouldn't want to walk it at night."
"Hmm . . . Oh look,
! We haven't done Oxford in a while, have we? . . ."
And so it would go, year after year, century after century--until last summer, when I was driving through Easton, on my way from Salisbury to Annapolis, and decided to scout out this theoretical boater's back door. I'm delighted to say I was right, because (a) it always delights me to be right, and (b) I now knew exactly where I'd be going on my upcoming and much anticipated September cruise: Easton. My spur-of-the-moment scouting trip revealed that, yes, the mile or so of Port Street that takes you from the river to downtown Easton is not exactly scenic. But it's not a "rough neighborhood" either, at least not in my vernacular. A bit down at the heels, yes. A modest-income neighborhood, yes. But rough? No. The scouting trip also revealed the funky but sublimely hospitable little camp store of a place that would be my beachhead for the trip--Easton Point Marina, which, according to owner and manager Kathy Meehan, did indeed have some open slips in early September and would be happy to reserve one for me. All that remained was to jigger my early-September schedule a bit, reserve one of the Chesapeake Boating Club's Albin 28s for, say, a Thursday through Saturday, and get my 15-speed Huffy out of the basement. The latter was important because my walking distance is limited these days, thanks to the ol' trick hip, which goes for only a quarter-mile or so before I start to toddle like Walter Brennan. (It's official, I'm old; not only do I have an arthritic hip, but my cultural references include Walter Brennan.) So I'd need a bike. But, on second thought, maybe I could rent one, which would save me a lot of bike-schlepping--lashing it to the car, lashing it to the boat, etc. Enter the Eastern Shore Bicycle Company, which was happy to rent me one of its very civilized and blessedly simple single-speed, coaster-brake, fat-tire Electra cruising bikes. The charge for three days was a reasonable $68, which included a helmet, a cable lock and, best of all, delivery to and pick-up from the spot of my choosing. Clever chap that I am, I chose the marina.
Oh, and one more thing: I should book a room somewhere in town for at least one night of my stay. No, let's make it two nights. Yes, I know, that would be wasting a perfectly good V-berth . . . but what am I, an Explorer Scout? Yes, I could sleep on the boat all three nights. I could also dine every night on canned Vienna sausages from the Wawa, but I'm not going to do that either. No, given the choice, I'll go with mints on the pillow every time. The Tidewater Inn, with its $120 Labor Day special, was the hands-down winner of the price wars, so I booked it for Friday and Saturday nights. I'm a weenie, but I'm a frugal weenie.
And so it was that, after an uneventful three-hour cruise across the Bay, through Knapps Narrows, into the Choptank River and finally up the Tred Avon, I found my helmeted self pedaling eastward on Port Street, headed for dinner at Mason's Restaurant on Harrison Street--though not directly, because I had half an hour to kill before my seven o'clock reservation. I happily squandered the time exploring this pretty old town, learning the street names, relishing the perfectly temperate September air, and coming to a near-religious appreciation of the beauty and simplicity of a fixed-gear bicycle on flat land. Down Harrison Street, back up Washington Street, across on Dover, up Locust, down Harrison to South Lane and . . . oh, look, there's Mason's. And there's a bit of sturdy picket fence where I can chain the bike. Ah, how civilized I am, how light my carbon footprint on this fine summer evening.
Mason's, it turned out, was a very good place to start. What had begun in the 1960s as a small knickknack shop with its own line of chocolates gradually evolved over the years into a popular lunch spot. Now, after two significant expansions in the last decade, it has blossomed into one of Talbot County's best restaurants--still with its own line of chocolates, and a lovely new coffee bar to boot. And chicken piccata to die for. That's what I ordered, though it's a miracle I had room for it after the "ciabatta tower" appetizer--a little orgy of toasted ciabatta bread and Gorgonzola. Add a glass of pinot grigio to that and you had one happy little scout riding his retro red-and-white bicycle back to the boat, whistling the theme song to "Leave It To Beaver" and having a good laugh at the nickname I'd come up with for the bike: Mrs. Cleaver. I know, it's not that funny. But to me, that night, under the influence of Gorgonzola, it was hilarious.
I had a lot on the agenda for the next day, so I resolved to get up at . . . nine-thirty? How did that happen? Oh well, up an at 'em at the crack of nine-thirty, then. I found Mrs. Cleaver exactly where I'd left her, chained to a post behind the marina building (egads, that doesn't sound right), and off we went, straight up Port Street. This is a quiet stretch of road nowadays, but it was designed to be just the opposite. Straight as a string, it was laid out in 1711, only a year after the town--originally named Talbot Courthouse--was established by the colonial General Assembly. As it does now, the road led from Easton Point (once called either Cow's Landing or Cowe's Landing) to Washington Street just south of the courthouse, and it was of course the town's very lifeline. Easton Point was "the wharf," where the schooners and clippers and steamships came and went, where the lumber and lampshades came ashore and the oysters and canned tomatoes went aboard, and abroad.
So, with all that history passing under my wheels, it was appropriate that my first stop that morning would be the Historic Society of Talbot County's (HSTC) Museum and Gardens on Washington Street, to see about signing up for the weekly tour (Fridays at 11:30) of the restored 1810 James Neall House next door. But--my bad luck--only moments before I arrived the volunteer docent who normally does the Neall House tours had called to say he had a family emergency and wouldn't be coming in. Sorry, said the museum volunteer. Rats, said I. Maybe some other Friday. So I grabbed a self-guided tour map and struck out on my own, vowing to come back to the museum later that day to have a closer look at what looked like an intriguing exhibit on Talbot County during World War II.
As with so many towns of its age, fire has re-written much of Easton's architectural history, erasing most of the wood-frame structures of the early-18th-century chapters and replacing them with the less vulnerable brick buildings of the Federal period (the Market Place Fire of 1878 must have been a big one; it's mentioned repeatedly in the self-guided tour). But that's not to say it's all brick or Victorian-era wood. Indeed, way down Washington Street, past the hospital and nearly out of the city proper, is what is thought to be the oldest frame building in all of Maryland: the 1684 Third Haven Meeting House, still used by the local Quaker community. And in the center of town there are a number of late-18th-century frame houses still standing--the 1789 Mary Jenkins House on Washington Street, for example, home of the HSTC's own revenue-generating consignment store, Tharpe Antiques.
After tooling around town for an hour or so, I began to see that everything I needed or wanted to see in Easton was in, or within easy walking distance of, what I came to think of as the Historic Rectangle--the four or five parallel blocks of Harrison and Washington streets between Goldsborough and South streets: the HSTC museum and historic properties, a dozen restaurants, three or four bars, at least four B&Bs, countless shops and galleries, the Avalon Theatre (where I planned to see a jazz trio on Saturday night), the Academy Art Museum (which a friend had told me not to miss and was on the next day's itinerary) and of course the Tidewater Inn.
I stopped for a late-breakfast nosh at the Coffee Cat, a sunny little corner cafe at the foot of Goldsborough Street, which had been known as Coffee East until late 2008. Now, under new management, it's the daytime half of a very popular commercial duet. Right next door is the Night Cat--a 60-seat nightclub that features local and regional music three or four nights a week, depending on the season. That night's act didn't ring a bell, but on the list of upcoming shows I saw more than a few names that did--Deanna Bogart, Tom Principato, Danni Rosner. Clearly not a musical backwater by any stretch.
Fortified with a breakfast sandwich and three cups of really good Guatemalan medium roast, I mounted Mrs. Cleaver again and. . . . Okay, I'm thinking maybe this whole Mrs. Cleaver thing isn't such a good idea. I think from here on I'll just go with "the bike." You'll know which bike I mean. There was only one. . . . So, anyway, I hopped on the bike and headed north on Washington Street, intent on visiting the HSTC Museum's World War II exhibit--before I realized that this would probably be my best chance to scoot out to the bike shop I'd looked up the night before--Easton Cycle and Sport--which, according to Mr. Google, was straight east from here on Goldsborough, out near Route 50. Mr. G was right, as he usually is, and I found the two things I was looking for at the bike shop: a rear-view mirror and some kind of hey-here-I-am-on-a-bike-please-don't-run-me-over flashing light or reflector strip. Twenty minutes later, with the help of a disposable hex wrench and my Swiss Army knife, I was all set--a side-view mirror attached to the left handlebar and a flashing light Velcro'd to my helmet. (I didn't realize it at the time, in the sunlight, but it was a damned powerful little light. I caught a glimpse of it that night in the reflection from a store window, and I looked like a channel marker on wheels. I imagined a boater groping his way up the Tred Avon two miles away: "Is that the red 16?" First mate: "No, it's some guy on a bicycle. He seems to be having fun.")
Anyway, safety issues resolved, I worked my way back west to the Historic Society Museum, eager to have a closer look at the World War II exhibit. I'm a sucker for World War II history, so it doesn't take much to get my attention . . . but this was really a fine exhibit. Taking up a good two-thirds of the museum's narrow but deep space, it was an intriguing glimpse of the war from the homefront, from the citizen's point of view, with most of the artifacts and photos donated by or on loan from Talbot Countians: plane-spotting and civil defense, boatbuilding (Oxford Boatyard built 126 boats and repaired 71), scrap-saving, sugar rationing, tire rationing (Price's Tire Shop switched to retreading and recapping for the duration), war bonds, victory gardens, blackout window shades, military uniforms, weapons, food packages for allied POWs, and, to my great surprise, a display about the German POW camp right here in Easton--from which, during the growing season, prisoners were sent out to work at local farms.
After a quick browse through the aforementioned Tharpe Antiques, across the street from the museum, I hopped back on the bike and rode a block south and then east to the Academy Art Museum at the corner of South and Harrison streets. I'm glad I listened to my friend and didn't miss this. It's a splendid old building, for starters, built just after the Civil War as the town's first public high school. Now its large, bare rooms and halls are filled with art--mostly photography during my visit, which coincided with an exhibit called
Picturing America, 1930-1960--Photographs from the Baltimore Museum of Art(Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Walter Rosenblum, et al.). Supplementing that was an exhibit featuring photographs from the museum's own collection, calledAmerican Photographs from the 1950s Until Now. It was all quite absorbing, as was the small (12-piece) but well chosen survey of paintings by Baltimore painter and academic Bennard Perlman.
Back out in the fresh air, strapping on the helmet once again, I was tempted to just head vaguely northeast and see what I might see, but good sense intervened, telling me it was time to move my base of operations from the boat to the Tidewater Inn. I pedaled back down Port Street, jammed two days worth of clothes into a backpack and locked up the boat. An hour later I was sprawled across the bed in my rather small room on the second floor of that lovely old 1949 hotel. But the term "small room" is relative, is it not? Indeed, to me, a 6-foot man having spent the previous evening in a 5-foot-10-inch V-berth, this room seemed quite nearly cavernous. I took a shower, because I could. I took a nap, because I could.
Later, after a leisurely twilight ride around town (that's when I saw my flashing head reflected in the store window), I ventured only as far as the hotel's own restaurant for an excellent dinner of wood-grilled pork chops, accompanied by a warm apple and blue cheese slaw and marvelous, lemony German potatoes. Yet another splendid meal. Then it was off to bed, to that acreof mattress and embarrassment of pillows that awaited me in room 303. I drifted off to sleep, thinking how grand life would be if every day had such an easy, nourishing cadence: eat, ride the bike, absorb culture and/or history, ride the bike, eat, ride the bike, absorb culture and/or history, nap, eat, ride the bike, rinse, repeat. This I could get used to.
It all came to a lovely crescendo on the third day, and I use the musical term intentionally, because the day ended with a concert by jazz pianist Monty Alexander. That was at the Avalon Theatre, Easton's homegrown Art-Deco movie theater from 1921 to 1985 and now its lively and very successful performing arts center. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The day--another perfect one, headed for the low 80s, with no discernible humidity--started with a tasty French toast breakfast at Darnell's Grill, a homey cafe next door to the Tidewater Inn, then a pleasantly aimless bike ride up and down the streets of the mostly residential neighborhood east of the historic rectangle.
Then I moseyed down to the north end of the rectangle, looking for the Saturday morning Farmer's Market I'd read about in one of the brochures I'd brought along to breakfast. The map had showed it at the north end of Harrison Street, just before it bends west and merges with Washington Street. And sure enough, that's where I found it. Actually I heard it before I saw it. That's the thing about bicycle touring; you hear things you'd never hear in a car. From a bike, a well attended farmer's market is audible from a block away. And this was well attended indeed. I didn't stay long though--not because there wasn't plenty to see and buy, but because there was no point in it. Whatever I bought here would have to survive transport by bike, boat and car, and that seemed like unnecessary vegetable cruelty to me.
So off I went for a bit more aimless exploring, then a light lunch (hummus and grilled naan) at the organically minded Out of the Fire restaurant on Goldsborough, and then back to the Tidewater Inn for a quiet afternoon of reading and people-watching from a rocker on the hotel's shady wrap-around portico.
Soon it was time to get dressed for dinner and the show. Of course by "dressed" I mean merely a shirt with an actual collar and pantlegs that reached all the way to my ankles. Resplendent in my grown-up shirt and largely unwrinkled khaki pants, I strolled (if it can be said that Walter Brennan ever "strolled" after riding a bike all day) to the Inn at 202 Dover--a beautifully refurbished 1874 mansion, now a B&B that quietly dominates the corner of Dover and Hanson streets a block east of the Tidewater. There, at the inn's Peacock Restaurant, I enjoyed a splendid meal of free-range chicken, served with sea-salt-sprinkled asparagus and a heap of macaroni and cheese (clearly the retro side dish de rigueur these days) and a nicely matched glass of organic French sauvignon blanc. Okay, what the heck, two glasses--I'm on foot tonight.
Then it was showtime at the Avalon--two mesmerizing hours under the spell of jazz great Monty Alexander, the Jamaican pianist who has shared the stage and studio with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Dizzy Gillespie.
It was the perfect coda for my Easton adventure, made all the more memorable when I ran into Alexander and his drummer the next morning at the Coffee Cat. They were grabbing a quick bite before heading to the airport and, eventually, Chicago. I was grabbing a quick bite before heading to Easton Point Marina, and, eventually, Annapolis.
Speaking of which . . . have I mentioned that Easton is in fact accessible by water? That's what I've been trying to tell people since 1710. Turns out I was right, and I like being right.
Some of the author's snapshots of his Easton trip:
The Tharpe Antiques store on Washington Street, owned by and operated by the Historic Society of Talbot County, whose museum and gardens is right across the street. This building dates back to the 1790s and is also known as the Mary Jenkins House.
The Historic Society of Talbot County Museum and Gardens on Wasthington Street. The permanent exhibit here is a general history of the people and cultures of Talbot County. In the rear exhibit hall through April is an exhibit featuring the town of Trappe several miles south of Easton.
The lush gardens between the Historic Society museum and the James Neall House.
The new and elaborate carpeted children's playground in Idlewild park near the south end of town.
A bird house at the beautiful and truly tranquil Frances Plate Memorial Children's Garden at the south end of Idlewild Park.
The focal point sculpture at Frances Plate Memorial Children's Garden at the south end of Idlewild Park.
Federal Street just west of its intersection with Washington Street.
The late morning crowd at the Saturday farmer's market.
A Bennard Perlman painting at Easton's Academy Art Museum at 106 South Street. This was part of a solo exhibit of the Baltimore painter work, but several of his paintings are part of the museum's permanent collection.
The 1794 Talbot County Courthouse, which anchors Easton's historic district along Washington Street.