Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: Little Wicomico River

It was billed as a holiday tour of homes on the Little 
Wicomico River, but just cruising on the boats that 
got you there was worth the price of admission. [December 2005]

By Wendy Mitman Clarke
Photographs by Starke Jett

It's not even 10 a.m., and already Cliff Ames, chairman of the Reedville Fishermen's Museum's building and grounds committee, is busier than the proverbial one-armed paperhanger. In one hand he grips a hot cup of coffee—this Saturday morning in December has dawned raw, gray and breezy on the Little Wicomico River, and warm beverages will be the order of the day—and in the other a VHF, which already seems like an extra appendage. Near his feet sits a box of Dunkin' Donuts, its top flicking open now and then in the breeze. "It's number six," he barks into the radio. "It should say number six with a green buoy on it. You got your map don't you?" There's a long, static-filled pause.

"Okay, I see it, this is it," comes the answer. "Everything's cool, Cliff."
Ames drops his VHF hand to his side and allows himself an ironic laugh. "Buddy, the consummate fisherman, can't find the house!" 

Ames is standing on one of the docks at Cockrell's Marine Railway in Ophelia, Va., one of two embarkation points for the museum's annual holiday house tour. The other one is across the creek at Little River Seafood. Ames himself is at the center of the three-ring, or more accurately, five-ring circus. Several hundred people—myself included—have signed up to ride around the river on five boats today (and four tomorrow) to visit five homes whose owners have opened them to the public. Each $20 ticket raises money for the museum. It's up to Ames to keep everyone moving in generally the right direction—boats and people. As you can imagine, there are times when this is a lot like herding dust bunnies.

"Rescue 1, come in," Ames calls into the VHF, paging Rescue 1, a seriously tough 42-foot hunk of fiberglass put together in Canada and used by the Smith Point Sea Rescue. "I think I see you coming up the river. You lookin' at Cockrell's?"

"I'm looking at Cockrell's."

"Will you go to the Dost house, it's number three on the map, and pick up people there?"

"Where do you want me to take 'em?"

"I'll let you know once you get them," Ames says.

As it turns out, this weekend's event is as much a boat tour as a house tour, since you get to spend the day riding around on a variety of sturdy and beautiful vessels, also donated to the cause. In all, about 250 locals have volunteered to make this weekend happen—driving boats, serving as hostesses in the homes, decorating the homes with fresh greenery beforehand, delivering hundreds of bag lunches and making cookies, among other jobs. For a place as laid back as the Little River, as it's known, this is fairly big doings.

"Rescue 1, you know about that sandbar heading into the Dost dock?" Ames asks worriedly into the VHF. Myles Cockrell, the latest generation to take up the family practice at this 75-year-old railway and marina, has joined us on the dock. We're all watching Rescue 1across the creek, near the home of Karen and Dickie Dost (who is also volunteering a boat for the weekend, running his 42-foot fishing boat Hooked II). "He's too far over, there's a bar there," Cockrell says in the way of a golf announcer explaining the perils of a particular shot. "Used to be an island with pine trees and everything. Yep, there he goes."

Rescue 1 stops suddenly as it runs aground. The boat backs off, tries again a little to the left, hits again, tries again, hits again. "He just can't satisfy himself, wants to go back for more!" Cockrell says. "Tell him to just miss the docks, they should almost run into it. He needs to start back there and he's got to hang to the shore."

Eventually, after a little more back and forth,Rescue 1makes it around the sandbar and safely into the dock. Ames heaves a sigh around a doughnut. I climb aboard the Admiral III, which has been tied up and waiting for a group of visitors to gather. The stereo pipes out "Joy to the World," and off we go into the river. When I look back, the doughnut is gone, and the VHF is back up to Ames's mouth.

The formal name of this annual tour is Christmas on Cockrell's Creek. That's because until 2004, the tour alwayswassomewhere on that creek off the Great Wicomico River just south of here, which is home to the town of Reedville and the Reedville Fishermen's Museum. "We started doing these tours in 1995," says Susan Tipton, the museum's president and the chairman of the 2004 event, "but we ran out of houses. This is the first year when the whole thing was out of Reedville." At first the tours were all land-based, but in 1999 museum officials got the idea to add the option of visiting the homes by boat. Some people still choose to tour only by car, but I think they're missing half the fun. 

The holiday house tour is the museum's second-biggest fundraiser (the first is the annual oyster festival). More than 600 tickets were sold for the 2004 tour, netting the museum $9,500; since the tour began it has raised almost $90,000, Tipton says. It's also the museum's most labor-intensive event. The Chesapeake Garden Club, based in Reedville, decorates all the homes with fresh greens—magnolia and cedar, pine roping and ornaments. Volunteers stand hostess duty for hours each day in the homes. The boatowners and their crews are all volunteers, as are the people who bake cookies, pies and cakes for the all-important bake sale. "It's a huge effort," Tipton says.

Our first stop is the Hammack House, which tops a hill on the river's southern shore overlooking the Sunnybank side of the Sunnybank Ferry. I'm looking forward to seeing this house—it's one of the oldest and most notable on the river—but first I can't help wanting to know more about Admiral III, a 1958 Owens Flagship owned by Lin Carneal and his wife Mary Frances. ("We're in this together," Lin says right off the bat.) Lin is at the helm today, making sure the stereo is steady with the holiday tunes and is eminently pleased to talk about his boat, which he and Mary Frances have owned for 20 years and keep on Ellyson Creek, a Little River tributary. "My wife and I love to cruise and we use it all year round," he says. "It has so much mahogany, it's all wood, so it takes a lot of work." He allows as how he entered it in the classic boat show in Reedville last year. I ask how he did. "Well, we made it back!" he laughs.

It's a pleasant cruise downriver aboard Admiral III, and in no time we're pulling alongside the dock at Hammack House, where Carneal slides her in without so much as a rub, even in the tricky breeze. Hammack House dates from 1844, and the Hammack family became owners in 1899. Charles C. Hammack ran the ferry and owned a general store at Sunnybank, right across the street from the family home. There's nothing left of the general store but stories and the occasional treasure you might find in the shallows, as I had done two weeks earlier over Thanksgiving; prowling along the little patch of beach I found half of an old medicine bottle and the white porcelain disc of a tomato canning lid, which are almost as ubiquitous here as oyster shells. The ferry's still running (the state operates it now), and the family house still stands. Today it's owned by Kathy and John Elsden, who bought it in August 2002 and have been restoring and modernizing it ever since.

Walking around in someone's house is always a little weird, I think. I'm always grateful to people who are willing to let a bunch of strangers in, but I always feel a bit like a voyeur, peeping into someone else's space. But oh, what a space! The Elsdens have completely remodeled the old home's kitchen and fitted it out with top-drawer appliances, countertops, lighting, the works. But they've retained a bit of the home's old feel in the artwork they have chosen—old tomato canning labels, for instance, framed on the walls. There are old tools, such as a rolling pin, a hand mixer and half-moon and star cookie cutters, and next to each hangs a delicate watercolor of the same. In the parlor, the wood flooring dates from 1901, and a piece of leaded stained glass hangs from two iron hooks on one wall. Upstairs walls have been knocked down and moved to make more commodious commodes and bedrooms. Everywhere, windows look out onto the river.

Which is, at this point, looking even grayer than before. It's drizzling and the breeze is coming on when we leave Hammack House, walk to the dock and board Fishing Buddy II, a lovely traditional deadrise in impeccable condition. Rods hang neatly from racks in its cockpit canopy, and the cabin is tidy and cozy. Awkward as I sometimes feel walking around in a complete stranger's house, I'm never shy on a boat, and so I waste no time getting up into the small pilothouse and asking owner Buddy Sylvia about this one. He's not shy about talking my ear off, either. The 38-foot boat was built in 1959 by the renowned Reedville builder George Butler. With a 101/2-foot beam and powered with a 120-hp Ford Lehman diesel, it served as a crabbing and clamming workboat for the first part of its life. In 1985 George Butler Jr. stripped her to the hull and put a new cabin on her, changing her from strictly a workboat to a boat you could do a little cruising on. Buddy Sylvia, who moved here from Richmond in 1990, bought her in 1996.

"I gave up a Grady White and my wife thought I had lost my mind," he says. "But I got tired of getting beat up out there. See all these waves right here? The deadrise just goes right through it." He admits the boat is a lot of work. "It's something you've gotta love, wood boats," he says. "But Wednesday I took this boat thirty miles down the Bay with a friend and caught a good big rockfish. I saw the sun come up and the sun go down, but we went in comfort. . . . The best thing is going down the river with my wife and friends and eating hard crabs and throwing the shells over the side, and then cruising home."

Indeed, even on a day as nasty as this, cruising up the river on the Fishing Buddy II is a pleasant way to go. It doesn't take but a few minutes to get to Flood Point and to a house of which I am particularly fond and familiar, the farmhouse of Miss Lucy Haynie, now owned by my brother Bill Mitman and my sister-in-law Cathy Wilson. They've been steadily restoring this house, and one of the big upgrades over the summer was a brand-new copper roof, which even on a gray day shines like a million new pennies. We walk past the enormous magnolia tree, which my kids swear is the best climbing tree on the Bay (I must agree), and onto the porch trimmed with gingerbread.

This house was built around 1905 by Harry Haynie, an affluent menhaden captain, and his wife Lucy. The home has a commanding view of the river as it bends around Flood Point, so it's only through your own sloth or negligence that you miss a sunrise or a sunset. There have been a few modifications over the years—the remodeled kitchen, for instance—but the basic structure and room layout is original, as are the hardwood floors, the lovely staircase and the all-important porches, one facing the river to see the water traffic, the other facing the road to see the land visitors. One of my favorite things about this house are the enormous double-hung windows, which upstairs stretch nearly all the way to the floor.

I take a little time out at Miss Lucy's house (which is still what everyone around here calls it) to grab a snack, but as it turns out, there are bag lunches and hot cider at the next stop right across the river, the home of Ron and Betty Steger. We get there aboard yet another wonderful boat, a 1956 Matthews called Seaboard owned by Wendell Haynie, who is just three weeks out of a double knee replacement. On bone-chilling days like this my ex-ski-racer's knees ache as soon as I head for the coffee pot, so I can't believe how tough and spry he is, but he also has his daughter Becky and her English setter Charlotte along to help out (Charlotte keeps the seats warm for guests). "Wanna see ma scar?" Haynie asks, unabashedly rolling up one pant leg to reveal a deep red crevasse over the mountain of his knee. I grimace sympathetically and ask about Seaboard. "It was donated to Sea Rescue by a lady up in Washington," Haynie tells me as we chug across the river, "and we tried to sell it, but nobody wanted it. So I bought it." That was about 15 years ago. Since then he's repowered the boat with new MerCruiser 454s and has meticulously maintained its rich wood interior. "She's old," he says affectionately. "She's an old lady."

Haynie expertly pulls up to the Steger's dock and it's immediately clear we're in for something completely different. For one, it's the first contemporary house on the tour (although people do the tour in different order; it was the first for me), all glass and porches to drink in the southerly view over the river. Behind the house is an enormous garage where lunch is being served. I purchase my $3 bag lunch (Subway sandwich, chips, soda) and enjoy some delicious (and free) homemade Christmas cookies and hot cider while ogling a 650-hp Jersey skiff, an 800-hp sprint car and a huge Harley. Ron Steger is on hand to explain just what, exactly, is going on here.

Turns out, he was quite the racing fanatic when he was a mite younger, competing in just about everything—hydroplanes (the Miss Tide), Jersey skiffs, sprint cars and motocross, to name a few. The shop has its own hydraulic lift that can hoist up to 10,000 pounds, where he still works on the machinery. These days, he uses the boats as promotional draws at schools and events for the Race Against Drugs, Operation Firesafe and similar programs.

His house is as intriguing as his garage, an interesting amalgam of Chesapeake and Native American artistic influences (Betty Steger has a consulting firm that works with various tribes). For instance, Steger used fish-trap poles that washed ashore to make a balcony over the fireplace and the stairway railing and banister. And, Steger says, one of the vertical supports for the stairway is an old skipjack mast he found at Cockrell's. "I told Dandridge [Cockrell] I wanted it to put in my house," Steger laughs. "He said, 'You know, you come-heres are really weird.' ''    

The living room has a distinctive southwestern flavor centered by a white stucco fireplace and a hardwood floor mixed with southwestern tile. The balcony above the fireplace leads out from a bedroom and overlooks the living room, as well as huge windows facing east.   

Downstairs is blokey territory, the "racing room," with a black-and-white tiled floor conjuring up images of checkered flags, plus model cars, photo after photo of Steger racing and smiling with various racing luminaries, and helmets signed by the likes of Richard Petty and Bill Elliot. The prop from Steger's hydroplane is here, as are the wheels from one of his racing cars.

It's a good thing I had that hot cider at Steger's, because I now stand on the dock with a few other tour-goers in a persistent drizzle awaiting my next ride; it seems the dust bunnies have got the better of Cliff Ames for the moment. Eventually, Hooked II shows up, and it turns out to be worth the wait. Owned by Dickie Dost, who has lived on the Little Wicomico for 20 years, Hooked II is a 42-foot Provincial, built on Canada's Prince Edward Island. This is a true fishing machine, powered with a 450-hp Cummins and with an underside cockpit roof lined with rods. "They're good boats—real good boats," Dost says. It could easily be a charter fishing boat, but he uses it strictly for angling pleasure; it's obviously a boat that can get you there and back again with a minimum of muss and fuss.

It's going on 2 p.m. and, if the chatter on the VHF is any indication, things are getting a little chaotic on the tour route. We make a quick stop at the Cockrell dock and Dost leans out the side door of his cabin to toss a line over the piling. "You got a tough job, buddy," he says to Ames. We take on a few passengers and head across the creek to Dost's home.

It's hard to pick a favorite with so much variety on this tour, but at the risk of being haunted by Miss Lucy when I sleep in her house, it's Karen and Dickie Dost's house that really knocks me out. They designed it together, and it is an extraordinarily elegant and beautiful timber-frame blend of light, space and wood—the latter not surprising, since Dost owns a mill in Zion Crossroads, Va. The full length of the ceiling is timbered beams and wide open from one end to the other. All the beams are from Dost's mill; white, red and willow oak, they're fastened in many sections with wooden pegs. At the center of the living room is an enormous slate fireplace. Floor-to-ceiling windows face the river, and antique benches support a wide cast of plants and greenery. Despite the wide-open feel of the house, snug and thoughtful rooms branch out here and there, like the library on one corner of the house with built-in bookshelves and windows looking onto the river.

Upstairs, I spot a rockfish mounted above two framed citations Dost won in the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament; the first in December 1998 (47 pounds, 3 ounces), the second on November 17, 2002 (45 pounds, 9 ounces).

Tempted as I am to crawl into a corner of a couch here and spend the rest of the afternoon, the day is winding down and I still have one house to go. Down at the dock I board Seaboard again and head back downriver to the home of Ernie and Maribeth Memmo. We walk up a long lawn to the ranch-style house surrounded by gardens—there are camellia and rose bushes and, remarkably, a flurry of geraniums still in blossom. In the corner of the yard an old skiff serves as a big planter. The Memmos ---retired here five years ago from Pennsylvania and had the house custom built. The whole place has a very easy-going, beachy feel, with a screened porch overlooking the river.

What's most remarkable here is not the house itself, but what is produced, in a small, spotless shop off the kitchen with river-facing windows that invite natural light. With a background in furniture making and construction, Ernie Memmo in 1992 started turning wood after a friend gave him a small lathe. In its motion, he found his muse. About eight years ago, he started seeing his art in a new way, adding acrylic to the designs. Today, his turned wood-and-acrylic pieces are prized by collectors, and several stunning examples of them are on display around the house. I know a little about wood-turning and I've never seen pieces like these. Memmo laminates different colored acrylics with the wood he has chosen, then turns the whole piece. The results are beautiful, exotic and utterly unique—vases made of tiger maple shot through thin, vertical streaks of blue and smoke acrylic; a votive bowl made of purpleheart, tiger maple and zebrawood with slender, curved stripes of blue and green acrylic. When light shines through these pieces, the effect is magical. I ask Memmo what made him start using acrylics. "Temptation," he says. "There are a lot of really talented people out there, and to get into the shows you have to be doing something different."

Ending my tour at the Memmo's house seems perfect, I think, as I board Fishing Buddy II to head back to Cockrell's. All day, I've been seeing art in different forms, whether it's the gorgeous timber framing inside the Dost's house, the fine gingerbread trim on Miss Lucy's porches, the intriguing way the Stegers used local elements like a skipjack mast and fish-trap poles, the small prints of the old cookie cutters at the Hammack House. And that's just the houses.

As Fishing Buddy II cruises us smoothly back to Cockrell's, the late-day sky all around is growing wild and bruised with the oncoming edge of a cold front. The VHF starts crackling with talk of a hailstorm just south of here, and Ames encourages whoever's still out on the river to come on in for the day. Above us, clouds are shredding in the wind, while to the west, the setting sun finally breaks through the overcast and streams gold against the black, storm-torn sky. Tomorrow will dawn beautiful and clear for the second day of the tour. But for now, it seems that Nature is giving us the art of her own dwelling to admire and ponder, and I am reminded how we are ever held in her sway.