Once one of the Bay’s most productive shipbuilding centers,
Mathews, Va., today is working toward a maritime comeback
with hopes of reviving its waterfront for recreational boaters. [August 2004]
By Paul Clancy
Photographs by Starke Jett
Where we start out, Wayne Hudgins and I, the creek is gentle and wide. It's spring and the ospreys are back, hovering, calculating, checking us out. A dog barks—startled, I imagine, at our passage. We're making no more than a knot, maybe a knot and a half, in my inflatable dinghy, but there's no hurry. Helped by the rising tide and a gentle wind, we could drift all the way to town.
"Four years ago," says Hudgins, riding in the bow as I row, "my son and I sailed with the yacht club to Onancock. He's an architect and he was sketching some of the buildings. They've got a marina there right in town. And he said, 'Dad, this is what Mathews needs."
The remark triggered an idea that had snuck into Hudgins's mind decades ago, when his father and a couple of prominent friends floated the notion of dredging Put-In Creek all the way to Mathews, above Mobjack Bay on Virginia's Middle Peninsula, re-creating a downtown waterfront like the community had in 1934. Back then, with help from the Civil Works Administration (the Great Depression was in full swing), strong-backed men with shovels and wheelbarrows dredged the creek. It was hard work, but people needed jobs, and about 60 leaned into the task. They scooped out a six-foot-deep, 30-foot-wide channel right to the back of Court House Green. It was great for a time. The local paper carried pictures of gracious yachts lolling in the wide turning basin. But 20 years later, after the creek silted in again, there was little momentum for reopening it and the idea died for lack of interest.
These days, however, interest is building. Hudgins, a former Navy intelligence officer
and now a marine surveyor, heads an eight-member committee that hopes to re-dredge the creek, provide a turning basin at the end and a downtown marina. They've gone to the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, Mathews County Board of Supervisors, Main Street Committee and just about everyone else who'd listen. Why not, they ask, re-create a downtown waterfront right there at the foot of that beautiful old courthouse? "It would be an avenue for getting people downtown without building more roads or parking lots," Hudgins says.
So here we are on a lovely spring morning, moseying up the creek the only way you can for the moment—by dinghy—heading for one of the most interesting but out-of-the-way places on the Chesapeake. Mathews County prides itself on being the place you don't get to accidentally. That is, it's way off the beaten track, around the corner and down the road. But it's also, its residents know, the kind of place you don't want to leave once you're here.
I was especially interested in Mathews Courthouse, the county seat and what comprises "downtown." I had heard you could reach it by water as long as you came at high tide in a boat with almost no draft. Besides, Put-In Creek (or Puddin' Creek, as it's pronounced) is about as pretty as it gets. Barb and I had sailed here from Norfolk and anchored out on the East River near Williams Wharf—an old steamboat wharf and now home to the Mathews High School rowing team and Mobjack Rowing Association. Just around the corner, at a public boat landing on the creek, I met Hudgins and, with dinghy and trusty wooden paddles, we're now headed to town.
As I row, he scans the shoreline through binoculars. It's about a mile and a half from the landing to downtown, with pretty good depth in mid-creek. Houses on both sides are stately and lovely. Most people he's talked to about deepening the creek are enthusiastic, he says, although there are some who prefer the privacy of an inaccessible waterway. "It's my gut feeling that some people just don't want any change; they want things to remain the same. Well, I tell them, if that'd been the case they'd still have a privy in the backyard."
As we poke along there are boats riding at private docks, then boats up on lifts and finally, as the water all but disappears, no boats at all. I'm beginning to wonder if we'll make it. Then as we enter a corridor of tall marsh grass my oars begin to stir up mud. The channel becomes little more than a ditch. At the end is a cockeyed pier that looks like something that washed up in a storm.
"That's the town dock," Hudgins says, not apologetically, just stating a fact. "Town Point Landing." Nearby are a fire station, an old sewage treatment plant and a car dealership with inoperative vehicles in the back lot. But here is the dream: Remove the out-of-date and over-capacity treatment plant, dredge the creek to modern, acceptable standards and build a first-class transient marina. For a county surrounded by water and with, I'm told, 200 miles of shoreline, bringing people to its lively center and letting them experience its charms is an idea with legs, Hudgins feels.
"We've got everything you could want—two or three good little restaurants, a couple of supermarkets, a doctor's office, a lawyer's office, a nice library, a hardware store, a couple of churches, art gallery, antiques store. We have everything here a weekender could want," he says.
Now we're in what seems only a couple of inches of depth and we have to pole and scootch the last few feet—but we make it without stepping in mud, and scramble up the bank. Just across the street from the old dock is the venerable courthouse square, a reminder that Mathews has deep roots in the past. We're surrounded by the courthouse itself—built in 1792 just as the county was getting under way—the "gaol," circa 1795, that surely housed some poor souls in its day, and a clerk's building.
"It's a county full of history," says Earl Soles, past president of the Mathews County Historical Society, who meets me in the square. Very few of the buildings in town have been altered, he says, so there's a feeling of history just about everywhere you turn. That history is the story of water—water as highway, water as link to the world outside, water as a living, water as community. "No matter where you are in Mathews County," Soles says, "you're no more than a mile from water."
The county is a peninsula that reaches out into the Chesapeake Bay like a lobster claw, with water all the way around, except on the western edge, where it joins Gloucester County. It was part of Gloucester way back when, but so far from the courthouse that residents were hard pressed to travel there on doubtful roads. They went to Richmond for help and got little, except from one powerful individual. Thomas Mathews, a distinguished Revolutionary War soldier and statesman, and then speaker of the House of Delegates, supported legislation establishing a new county. When it was approved in 1790, the grateful citizens named their county for him. (Sadly, Mathews died in debtor's prison on St. Kitts, one of the Leeward Islands, after saving the island from destruction at the hands of the French Navy. An account in theGloucester-Mathews Gazette-Journalsays he raised a ransom to pay off a French fleet that had threatened to destroy the island, a British colony. With assurances from the Crown, he personally signed the note. And then the British government backed out of the deal, leaving him responsible.)
Mathews became a major shipbuilding center, turning out something like 100 vessels a year, many of them small, fast, topsail schooners and clipper ships, according to a great book I've picked up in town,Mathews County Panorama, a pictorial history published by the historical society. Many ships that were registered in Baltimore, it says, carried an "ER" designation for East River—the Mobjack Bay tributary that Put-In Creek feeds into south of town.
New Point Comfort, down at the southern tip of the county, was a magnet for British warships during the War of 1812. They used the point as a rendezvous from which to seize ships attempting to run down the Bay. After the war, as the need for new ships dwindled, Mathews folk conveniently turned to farming on the land they had deforested for shipbuilding.
Fast forward a hundred years or so and Mathews would become a hub for steamboat landings. Soles tells me that communities above the Piankatank River did their trading with Baltimore, while those below ran down to Norfolk. The sidewheel steamerMobjackleft Norfolk every morning at 6:30, arriving like clockwork at East River docks four hours later. (Hmmm, she must have been
Mobjacklanded at Diggs Wharf, Williams Wharf and a couple of others, taking on live chickens, eggs, oysters, clams, fish and vegetables. She also brought merchandise to the good folks of Mathews, as well as ice that the captain usually bought at Old Point Comfort, and sold (slightly melted) in Mathews.
With all of its history, though, there's a feeling that change is coming fast. True as it may be that you have to be looking for Mathews to find it, a lot of people seem to be doing just that. And with them they are bringing an energy, creativity and love of place that is revitalizing this once remote place.
After my trip up the creek with Wayne Hudgins, Barb rejoins me in Mathews and we spend the night at Buckley Hall Inn, a bed and breakfast within easy walking distance of downtown. Beth Lewis, a transplant from Leesburg, Va., has turned the 1850 Georgian beauty into a showpiece, with all the trappings, including terry cloth bathrobes and four-poster beds that are so high your feet dangle a foot above the wide-plank wood floor. In the morning we devour amazing German apple pancakes in her warm country kitchen, chat for almost two hours, and then stroll into town.
The first thing you notice here is how muchfunpeople are having breathing new life into the community, while at the same time showing respect for its traditions. After awhile, you start walking around with a smile. Someone has bought the old Rexall Drug Store on Main Street and is getting ready to open a soda fountain, with a window for ordering ice cream and such from the sidewalk. A sign outside says richardson's old reliable drug store. It hasn't opened yet, but we can see the old stools and counter through the window.
A few doors down, in what used to be a beauty parlor, is a craft gallery operated by the Mathews Art Group, displaying work by Mathews and Gloucester artists. There are serious watercolors, stained glass, beads and pottery here, as well as the most elaborately decorated gourds and eggs I've ever seen. The shop has over a hundred artists and
supporters, a sign of the area's growing artists' community.
Part of the reason for this support of the arts lies across the street in a former farm implement store. Inside the Bay School Cultural Arts Center, a dozen or more adults are bent over easels bringing water scenes to life with acrylics. One fellow who doesn't mind my peeking over his shoulder is doing a very nice Chesapeake waterscape. The Bay School has a huge lineup of classes taught by local artists, including painting and sketching, stained glass, bonsai, faux finishes, half-hull models and even partner's massage.
There's a happy commotion in the back—a group of second graders who have been out on a field trip with Wendy Wells, the Bay School's apparently indefatigable founder. She's tall, with braids that frame her face. Her husband Morgan Wells, a retired NOAA scientist, runs Baylab, an underwater laboratory off nearby Gwynn's Island, where Wells and other scientists can study the Chesapeake's environment. Wendy has seen the budget for her school jump from $3,000 a year in 1997 to $270,000 today. "Who would have thought," she marvels, "that there'd be a four-thousand-square-foot facility like this right here in Mathews?" But the demographics of the new county, with an influx of people who have both the time and the interest, is creating a demand. And that's great by her. "I love to see people get excited about doing art."
Nearby is Sibley's General Store, established in 1898 and now Annie Rooney's Antiques. Owners Neil Webber and Annie Wortham moved from Richmond to an old farm outside of town. She travels to Europe several times a year to buy antiques. He's a computer scientist who recently wrote a guide to the Mathews Blueways Water Trail, a 90-mile system of kayaking trails that surround the county. When I meet Neil, he's hanging an antiques sign outside. But the main sign, Sibleys, stays right on the building where it belongs. "I think they'd lynch us if we took it down," he says.
One of the town's hands-down gems is the Mathews Memorial Library. It moved into the old Farmers Bank of Mathews in 1978 and, 20 years later, the citizens of Mathews raised $1.3 million to restore it. Today, soft southerly light pouring through its tall Palladian windows makes the interior warm and inviting. Out back, in the children's wing, a volunteer in bunny costume reads a book to several grade-schoolers. Upstairs is the Chesapeake Room, which houses an extensive local history and genealogy section. "A family tree has a life all its own," says a sign.
The library's mission, says director Bette Dillehay, is to be a center for local culture, history and quality of life. Dillehay grew up here, worked for the state in Richmond and was lured back to take the job. She says the county has "a huge reservoir of talent." One example that comes to mind is a world-class astronomer who one night recently had nearly a hundred people out in a field looking at the stars. "You start slicin' down and you find an intriguing community," she says. And at the core of anyone who comes from Mathews is water, she says. "There was a saying that went, 'Not a ship went to sea that didn't have a man from Mathews on board.' ''
Back across the street is yetanothernew shop, Maggie's. Maggie and Paul Levine came here to get away from Norfolk for a day. They decided that day to quit their successful jobs, sell their downtown house and move to Mathews. "What is that expression?" she asks, knowing the answer. "Follow the heart. We fell in love with the place!" Just a few days ago she opened the clothing and gift shop, sharing the Main Street space with the Mathews Visitors Center. The center, run by Bobbi McElroy, sells local crafts. "Her soaps, my candles," says Maggie Levine. There are also a couple of aquariums with
examples of Chesapeake Bay life contributed by Morgan Wells, the Baylab
scientist. McElroy shows us a beautifully ugly oyster toadfish and some wonderful hermit crabs and shrimp. "People don't realize what's right out there in the Bay," she says. Soon, Paul Levine hopes to add a coffee and pastry bar in the back of the shop.
We have shopped until we've nearly dropped, and it's long past time for lunch. Across from the courthouse on Church Street is a one-time general store that retains a lot of its 80-year-old character, with original wooden shelves that now hold local arts and crafts and gourmet goodies. It's called Southwind Cafe, named after a former cargo schooner from Gwynn's Island. Dia and Ned Lawless, who moved to and were married on land her father owned at Chapel Creek off the nearby Piankatank River, bought the building two years ago and recently opened the restaurant. Ned shows up at about five every morning and bakes. They're out of quiche today but not pizza, thank goodness. The New Point Island pizza, with artichokes and spinach, keeps us smiling, as does the classic cheesecake.
This place is typically standing room only for dinner, even on a chilly spring night in mid-week—filled with families, couples and groups of friends, all engaged in lively debate and conversation. The vibrant gathering reflects the kind of energy that seems to be coursing through the community these days, an energy that is blending the inevitable change with the respect for, and understanding of, the place's maritime roots and history.
Nina Putt, a member of the Mathews County Board of Supervisors, is on the committee looking at dredging Put-In Creek. Moving the treatment plant is almost certainly going to happen, so Mathews has a perfect opportunity to regain its waterfront, she says. Wetlands would have to be disturbed, but she feels there's a perfect way to mitigate the effects by restoring other nearby wetlands. One interesting proposal is to use the dredge spoil to rebuild the island that New Point Comfort Light once occupied ["On the Brink,"Bay Window, November 2003]. This would be patterned after the similar but much larger Army Corps of Engineers project that is rebuilding Poplar Island with dredge spoil from the Baltimore harbor.
It will mean jumping through a lot of hoops, and probably some federal transportation money, but there's a good chance it will happen, she says, largely because of the people of Mathews who did it before, way back when. "That may be the very thing," she says, "that will allow this to happen." Next time, maybe my oars won't hit the bottom.
Cruiser's Digest: Mathews, Va.
Although going all the way to Mathews Courthouse by boat is a challenge, finding the backdoor to town, the East River, is a piece of cake. For one thing, there's New Point Comfort Light, which looks like a far-off white sail when approaching Mobjack Bay from north or south. The approach to the river itself is a wide, deep channel, with your turn just about due north at red daymarker "8". At night you'll be able to see a four-second flashing green at the entrance. I kept to the left because pilings for Diggs Wharf, an old steamboat landing, still stand near the entrance (you can see why the river, with its uniform generous depth, was such a popular steamboat destination.)
About two miles upriver you'll see the gray metal fuel shed for Williams Wharf—but not for long, if plans for starting the new boat facility go forward next spring. There are floating docks and a landing for nonmotorized boats only, and no overnight docking is allowed. There's plenty of depth near the wharf, so anchoring is a matter of
simply picking your spot.
Around the corner to starboard is Put-In Creek, with a public boat landing on the right. The only way to approach Mathews Courthouse by boat is to go at high tide, preferably a rising tide if you plan to return, in a shallow-draft dinghy or canoe. There's a green sewage treatment building at the end and a rickety old dock in what used to be a turning basin. The last few feet are only inches deep.
The major downtown event of the year is Mathews Market Days Festival. This year on September 10 and 11, the 30th annual festival will feature more than 60 booths displaying local arts and crafts.
Restaurants include Andy's Barbecue & Ribs, 804-725-9320; Irish Cottage Pub & Eatery, 804-725-7900 (they have Guinness on tap); Shun Xing Restaurant, 804-725-4682; and Southwind Cafe, 804-725-2766.
Buckley Hall Inn, 804-725-1900, is about a half-mile from downtown. Two other nearby B&Bs are the Inn at Tabbs Creek Landing, 804-725-5136 [see "Just Like Home," Channel 9, June]; and Ravenswood Inn, 804-725-7272.