Can three friends visit one Havre de Grace museum for every restaurant they visit? It’s more than a city’s culture that gets weighed in the balance!
by Jody Argo Schroath
If you want to talk people into coming up the Bay to visit four museums in two days, you’d better have the right stick and julienned carrot. “I’m sailing up to Havre de Grace next week,” I began, when my daughter Colby, good friend Kathy and I were gathered one weekend. “Come on up and visit me. There are some nice little museums there I want to see.”
This was the stick, and it was met with the anticipated reaction, which is to say, none. But then I waved the carrot: “And I thought that each time we visited a museum, we’d reward ourselves by then eating at one of Havre de Grace’s dozen or so nice restaurants.” That did it.
“Oh . . . well, that might be fun,” Colby said.
“How . . . big are these museums?” Kathy asked.
“Big enough so that you can work up an appetite between meals, but not so big that you’ll starve,” I assured her. She was in, too—I knew my audience. So I outlined my plan, and we set the date. I would bring the Moment of Zen up during the week from Annapolis, and they would drive up to meet me over the weekend and stay on the boat. On Saturday, we’d visit a museum, go to lunch, visit another museum and go to dinner. The following day, we’d repeat the process. In between, we’d walk around, exploring the town. Then they’d go home, and I’d continue my cruise. Perfect.
The following week, I set my part of the plan into action. Accompanied by Skipper, the ship’s dog and docking consultant, I left Port Annapolis Marina on a Thursday in mid-July, motoring across a glassy, windless harbor. Above the Bay Bridge, the morning wind piped up, and I soon had the sails up and the motors off. On light winds we ghosted past Rock Hall, Swan Creek and Tolchester. We had just passed Fairlee Creek when the wind slackened and then petered out altogether. I drifted into Still Pond on the last of it and dropped anchor not far from the entrance to the creek.
The next morning, Skipper and I sailed and then motored the rest of the way up to Havre de Grace, cutting west near the entrance to Elk Creek to follow the deep and well-marked channel around the edge of the Susquehanna Flats to reach town. On previous occasions, I had stayed at the city Yacht Basin and at Tidewater Marina, so I had decided to stop at Log Pond on this visit. All of Havre de Grace’s marinas are convenient to town, from town dock on the south to Havre de Grace Marina on the north. It’s one of the town’s many charms that it’s so easy to get to by boat and to get around once you are docked.
Havre de Grace Marina at Log Pond (its official name) is located behind a condominium complex, just south of Tidewater Marina. The docks are older but floating, which is always nice. With Skipper barking directions to me from his position aft, I docked Zen at the shore-end of the long main pier, which made for a short walk ashore. And since everyone had to walk by the boat to get to or from their boats, I met a lot of people during my stay. Or rather Skipper did. They would stop to talk to him as he kept an eye on things, and then I would show up to keep up our end of the conversation. As a social ploy, it worked pretty well.
The first to fall into my trap were Ivan (a Cape Dory) and Jerry (a trawler named Whole Lotta Love), both of whom have kept their boats at Log Pond for years but don’t actually live in Havre de Grace. (In fact, no one I met seems to actually live in Havre de Grace.) “I’m looking for some culinary advice,” I said as an opening gambit. I needed to do some quick decision-making about where to eat in the weekend’s museum/food marathon. Havre de Grace is positively littered with good and interesting restaurants, so how else would I decide? Ask the people who live here, of course—or at least the people who eat here. Ivan and Jerry were simply the first victims. Their answer: Price’s Seafood. “It’s the only place we ever go, so we don’t know about any of the others,” they said. Well, I thought, I have one.
Then the choice for a second restaurant was made for me, because someone took me there . . . and, here’s the bonus . . . did so after a visit to a museum we were going to visit, the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum. It came about this way: The museum had recently acquired a charming little shad shanty and were keen on learning about the history of shanties—or fishing arks, as they are also called—and looking for funding for restoring theirs. Museum Board of Director’s treasurer Toni Bench happened on a story I’d written several years ago on arks, and e-mailed me for information. Despite the fact that I wasn’t much help, she offered to give me a tour of the museum when I was in town, which I was. So that’s how I ended up visiting the first museum before Colby and Kathy had even arrived, and got a restaurant thrown too, which meant I had to consider it part of the weekend package.
One of the things I especially like about Havre de Grace’s museums—which I’m not going to describe in great detail in this story, since I think a good part of visiting a museum is the discovery of what you didn’t know you wanted to see—is that they all give you something special, something you won’t find elsewhere. For example, the largest of the four, the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, while featuring more than a thousand wildfowl decoys by the Bay’s most famous carvers (the Ward brothers, Charlie Bryan, Evans McKinney, etc.), also features an exact reproduction of an A. Aubrey Bodine photograph in the form of a “talking” life-sized tableau of several famous Havre de Grace decoy carvers gathered around a wood stove. The whole thing is both riveting and spooky. You don’t find that kind of thing just anywhere. And although neither can boast its own talking tableaux, the Concord Point Lighthouse and Keepers Dwelling and the Susquehanna Museum at the Lock House are also unique on the Chesapeake.
All of this is particularly true of the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, which offers bite-sized exhibits of Bay history that I have never seen in any other Bay maritime museums—not that I’ve seen them all yet, though I’m working at it. The museum has fascinating exhibits on Coast Guard safety equipment, ice-harvesting on the Susquehanna (once very big business), and the decimation of the waterfowl population in the Susquehanna Flats by large-scale hunting methods (kind of the “yin” to the Decoy Museum’s uncritical duck-hunting “yang”).
After the tour, I had dinner with Toni Bench and several other museum board members at the Tidewater Grille—which made nearly everyone’s list in my informal name-the-best-four restaurant poll. The Tidewater Grille is also the only Havre de Grace restaurant that has its own dock so you can boat in for dinner. Its décor is light, airy and open, and the service is friendly and fast. There is a wall of windows that looks out on the Susquehanna bridges and the Flats. I ordered jambalaya, which was loaded with shellfish, chicken and Andouille sausage and spicy enough to make a Cajun cry. Others at the table had blackened mako shark, flat-iron steak, and linguini and clams, among other things I can’t remember because I was concentrating on not spontaneously combusting from my jambalaya. It was a lovely meal, and we talked about fishing arks.
Back at the boat, Skipper and I set off for a long walk through town. Log Pond Marina is located about equidistant from Millard E. Tydings Park and three of the town’s four museums, as well as the main business district with its restaurants and shops. Havre de Grace is a marvelous hodgepodge of architectural styles, from 1950s storefront to 1890s High Victorian houses— and everything in between. The main business streets are bordered by lovely tree-lined neighborhoods and book-ended north and south by parks that border the water. And its inhabitants are friendly to a fault. As Skipper and I walked through the long summer twilight, we never had to wait for cars to cross the street; they invariably stopped to let us go first.
The next day, Colby and her dog Lacey were the first to arrive, so she and I got right to work. Leaving the dogs on the boat, we walked south along Concord Street to the Decoy Museum, just off the city’s promenade, which meanders along the waterfront from Tydings Park to Concord Point Lighthouse. We spent an hour absorbed by exhibits on duck punts, punt guns, sneak boxes (boats that sat so low in the water they were undetectable to waterfowl) and myriad other duck-hunting paraphernalia. And by decoys, dazzling in their craftsmanship and variety. And, of course, the aforementioned talking decoy-maker tableau. When we had finished our tour and re-emerged into the summer sunshine, Colby said, “Let’s not have anything related to birds for lunch.” I agreed, and we set off for downtown. We had no sooner started than we decided to detour to the lighthouse and keepers house, since it was practically next door. As a bonus, Colby pointed out, that would at least earn us a dessert.
The Concord Point Lighthouse is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in Maryland. It is also an unusually handy one to visit because it sits not only on land but right in the middle of town. Built of local granite in 1827 John Donahoo, the light was the city’s own War of 1812 war hero, John O’Neill. Perhaps you’ve heard of the brave Irishman who kept firing a heavy cannon at the invading British long after his fellow militiamen had retreated. That was O’Neill. He was captured but soon released by the Brits, and after the war, the story goes, he was rewarded with lifetime employment as lighthouse keeper, and a member of each succeeding generation of O’Neill served as keeper as long as the light was manually lit. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1975 and now belongs to the city of Havre de Grace. The keeper’s house, built at the same time and also of granite, sits behind the lighthouse and has been restored, leaving the original roof line visible from the outside. Both are open to visitors, though in truth, the telling of the lighthouse’s story takes longer than the visit.
“A dessert-sized museum,” Colby said, as we set out once more for lunch. I pointed out that Kathy had better get here soon because we clicking off museums at top speed. At Girard Street, we cut over two blocks to Washington Street, one of Havre de Grace’s two downtown business streets (the other is St. John Street). We were on our way to Laurrapin Grille, another place that seemed to be on everyone’s must-try list. In contrast to the airy and bright Tidewater Grille, Laurrapin was dark and cozy and intimate. Even with two museums under our belts we were early into the lunch hour and so had no trouble getting a table. Laurrapin (pronounced LAIR-a-pin) is, according to owners Bruce and Sherife Clarke, an Appalachian adjective used to describe especially delicious poor-folks food. Their take on it involves dishes made using locally produced ingredients and then kicking it up and over the top. Colby went with a seafood wrap of shrimp and crab with bacon while I took an American Spicy Tuna Roll, which was deep fried and served with pickled ginger and pineapple mayo. We shared an order of pork-fat fries with jalapeno ketchup. By the time we were done, we were so far over the top we could see Pennsylvania.
Just as we returned to Washington Street, we got a call from Kathy. She had been caught in traffic out of D.C., but was now well on her way. We gave her directions for getting to the boat. Colby and I set out for the boat too, but were brought up short by the sight of a little bit of Paris, stuck onto the end of an otherwise basic American downtown building. Through its shop window we could see a tower of brightly colored macarons. No, not those chewy cookie things; those are macaroons, which are no more related to macarons than McNuggets are to coq au vin. A macaron is a cream-filled cookie sandwich. The cookie part is made with almond flour and the filling is made with . . . well, mostly magic, I think.
Les Petits Bisous (little kisses) the shop sign said. It might just as well have said Come In and Eat Yourself Silly, because that’s what we did. But not before we chatted for a few minutes with owner Wanda Hall, who learned to make macarons when she was home-ported in Paris while working for an international aid organization. After ending up in Havre de Grace (her military husband was posted at Aberdeen Proving Ground), she decided the town needed a first-class maracon shop. Colby and I agreed and picked out a generous selection of flavors. We meant to save some for Kathy, but before we had reached Girard Street, we had eaten every one. Oh, dear!
Kathy, of course, arrived hungry. We handed her a protein bar from the galley cupboard and told her she’d have to wait. “Museum first,” we said righteously, explaining that we’d already done two of them while we were waiting for her (leaving out the part about lunch and macarons). And so we set off for the Lock House museum, all the way uptown.
This time we went up Market Street to St. John and then zigged up Water Street, all the while paralleling the shoreline. We zigged a final time at Conesteo Street, but not before we had to drag Kathy past Price’s Seafood. “Museum first,” we insisted. Later, we had to pull Kathy away again, but this time from the museum, where she insisted on asking the docent questions about this old-time bed-warmer and that 19th-century potato masher. Meanwhile, Colby and I kept looking out the second-story windows at the river and the broad lawn once bisected by the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal, which ran 45 miles from Havre de Grace to Wrightsville, Pa. The brief heyday of the canal system—mid to late 1800s—ended with the coming of the railroads. The Havre de Grace lock keeper’s house was considerably bigger than most because it housed not only the keeper and his family but the tax collection office as well. The canal itself had been long ago covered over, except for some stonework where this first (or last) lock in the system stood. I was fascinated with how the water, cut in to form the basin of present-day Havre de Grace Yacht Center, still flows from there to the old lock foundation.
Now it was Kathy who did the dragging. “Museum done, dinner now,” she said simply, making a beeline for Price’s Seafood. Colby and I followed dutifully behind, and we were soon studying the menu, deeply regretting that last half-dozen macarons. All around us we could hear the crack of crab mallets as dozens of steamed crabs were reduced to piles of broken shell. Price’s is a Havre de Grace institution (it opened in 1943) and is still as popular as ever. Kathy made short work of her order of mussels and seafood gumbo, while Colby did a remarkable job on her crab imperial, made a little less grand by spectacularly overcooked green beans. I got so busy eating my seafood mac and cheese that I nearly forgot I was already full. Kathy reminded me and offered to finish it off. She’s such a good friend.
Once back at the boat, we rallied enough to feed the dogs, and we all set out once more to give them a walk. “Let’s get ice cream at Bomboy’s,” Kathy suggested. “But we’ve run out of museums,” I protested. “No,” she said, “there’s a kind of tree museum in Tydings Park. I read somewhere that pretty much every tree there is a different type, and they’re all labeled. That’s worth at least a scoop of Rocky Road!”
So, of course, we stopped at Bomboy’s, another Havre de Grace institution (founded in 1976), with Bomboy’s Traditional Home Made Candy on one side of Market Street and Bomboy’s Ice Cream on the other. A few minutes later, we could be seen strung out along Market Street, trying to walk the dogs and keep our ice cream from melting in the July air. I was a complete failure at the project and returned to the boat an hour later looking more like a two-year old learning to self-feed than the dignified adult I try so hard to be.
Footsore and full-bellied, we retired early. The next morning, over coffee, we discussed our situation. With no more museums to visit, could we justify yet another restaurant? Silly question. An hour later, we were first in line for MacGregor’s Restaurant’s Sunday Brunch. MacGregor’s is located on Saint John Street, just above and behind Tidewater Grill, so it too has a fine view of the water. My asparagus and crab quiche was delicious, as was Kathy’s shrimp omelet and Colby’s rockfish Benedict. Satisfied with a job well done, Kathy left soon after brunch to avoid the Sunday rush back to Washington. Colby and Lacey lingered only a little longer before they too headed south on I-95. Then it was time for Ivan and Jerry and everyone else I’d met that weekend at the marina to stop by to say good-bye as they headed for their respective homes. Skipper and I spent a quiet night on the boat, walking around town once more at dusk, and eating very little for dinner. Before going to bed, I started thinking about what other towns would work with my boat/museum/restaurant scheme. Surely there were quite a few, I thought, and then remembered I was still really full.