The town at the top of the Bay has gone through a sea change,
and whether you're there for a poker run or history, you'll find
something to fit the bill. [January 2007]
By Paul Clancy
Photograph by Scott Sullivan
On a bright fall Sunday morning, several dozen people are digging in to truly heroic breakfasts in the vast hall of the North East Fire Company. The aromas of sausage, bacon and muffins mix with the murmur of conversation and laughter, and servers keep coming with platters of eggs and vats of chipped beef and sausage gravy.
Suddenly there's a sound that everyone in the building recognizes—the long, rising howl of the fire alarm. A tall man rushes out of the kitchen, stripping off his breakfast apron and heading for the engine room. "House fire," he says. About five minutes later, after other volunteers have arrived in their cars, the big firehouse door rises and a pumper emerges, siren wailing, and lumbers up the road. In the wake of the hullabaloo, the breakfast resumes with gusto.
Like the bingo, hold 'em poker, craft shows and other events at the station, the semi-monthly North East Fire Company Breakfast is an imperturbable ritual in this small town at the top of the Bay. People flock here from North East and surrounding communities on the second and fourth Sundays of every month, year-round. "It just seems like to me it's big hometown, where everybody knows everybody," says Ruth Gonce, who's been working the breakfast for as long as anyone can remember.
North East, the town that marks the navigable limit of the river with the same name (or very nearly the same; unlike the town, the river is spelled as a single word, Northeast), is quin-tessential American. It's the kind of place where you feel at home even if you've spent much of your life in a big city. I sailed here in early October as the leaves were changing on the northern Bay, catching a break in the weather after a punishing northeaster drenched the region. It was a long trip from Norfolk (180 miles or thereabouts, with a few detours along the way), and the broad harbor, big marina and restaurant dead ahead, as well as the town park and new docks to port, were one heck of a welcoming sight. I pulled up to the docks and tucked into a slip just before sunset. A couple of fellows were casting for fish, and another was throwing a small drop net off the dock.
It was great to be here. I went immediately to the nearby Nauti-Goose Saloon, with its western view of the harbor, sipped a glass of wine and watched the setting sun drench the water with liquid gold. A go-fast boat growled as it pulled up to the docks at Anchor Marina next door before silence fell again. As night came on, the light on top of the gazebo in the park overlooking the docks flashed a welcome, an Amtrak train hustled by off to the west and a jet etched a pink contrail across the dark blue sky. An almost-full moon bathed the scene. I hadn't seen the town yet, but I already felt at home.
After a peaceful night in the harbor, the next morning's first order of business was, naturally, breakfast. The walk from the town dock into downtown was an easy 10-minute stroll, and I made a beeline for the North East Grocer—an all-purpose store on Main Street that serves among other things, excellent breakfast sandwiches. Quite a few locals stop by to chat and exchange pleasantries. Next door is a bait-and-tackle shop with a vending machine out front that dispenses not soda or candy bars, but live bait.
After breakfast, I made my way down Main Street to the 5 & 10 Antique Market—two stories with about 80 dealers. Inside I perused old photos of the original Cramer's five-and-ten and, before that, the Cecil Hotel. At the old five-and-ten you could get anything—kerosene lamps, bolts of fabric, hats and shoes. And, of course, penny candy.
"I wish I had a dime for everyone who came in here and said 'I used to come here for penny candy,' " says Ginny Cole, one of the shop-keepers. "People who come back are delighted to be able to come in and see it again." Today, at the main register, shoppers will still find jawbreakers the size of lacrosse balls, a counter of gourmet chocolates and coffee, and penny candy, five cents each (darned inflation). Not much has changed—not even the floor, worn smooth by decades of people standing at the counter.
A few doors up the street is Logan Electric. "I am a Frigidaire Refrigerator," says a placard on the door of an old floor-model fridge. "I was sold in 1938, the same year that Logan Electric opened their business. I was sold by Ted Logan Sr. I have been keeping food cold and making ice cubes all these years. I am an old timer, but I can still beat some of the refrigerators that you can buy today."
Also here on Main Street is East of the Bay Gallery, with vibrant works of art by locals; Beans, Leaves, Etc., with coffee and tea aromas that waft out to the sidewalk; and Highborne Cafe (in which, on another morning, huge, fruit-laden pancakes were consumed by yours truly). Across the street are more shops, among them Where Butterflies Bloom, with whimsical gifts; the Shops of Londonshire, with fine furniture and dress stores; and more antiques shops. It seems that no two stores are alike. The place was bustling. So what was the story, I wondered?
Someone told me that North East got its name from the far-traveling Captain John Smith, who while exploring the Susquehanna River noted there was a second river to the northeast that he didn't have time to check out. Thus, the Northeast River. And North East, the town. The town isn't well known, and people who say they're from North East, Maryland, often get the response: "Where in northeast Maryland?" But it is very much a place of its own, with a distinct, sometimes raw, character and history.
It was a place of gristmills and iron works in the early 18th century, where frequent interactions with Indian tribes, including the not-always-cooperative Susquehannocks, kept things on edge. The town itself was not exactly known for its social amenities, as William Black, a one-time visitor from Virginia, observed in 1744: "About sundown we came to anchor before North East town, which is composed of two ordinaries, a gristmill, baker house and two or three dwellings," he wrote. "Notwithstanding we were lying before a town, the [ship's] company chose to be on board, as the place by its appearance did not promise the best of entertainment." What it did have, Black noted the next morning, was the best cask cider he'd ever tasted.
What it also had by then was religion. In 1706, the colonial legislature established the North Elk Parish for the founding of an Anglican church. Henry Harford, the illegitimate son of Frederick Calvert, the sixth and last Lord Baltimore, set aside four acres of his land, and sometime around 1709 a wooden church was erected. Originally called St. Mary's, the name was expanded to St. Mary Anne's, after Queen Anne bequeathed a Bible, a Book of Common Prayer and a silver chalice to the church. In 1743 a brick church was built on land stretching down to North East Creek, a tributary of the river that rolls through the town. The church remains a prominent structure in town, with ancient gravestones nearby. Many are faded, but several smaller stones are thought to mark the burial sites of Indians. The oldest gravestone I could read belongs to Jeremiah Baker, who fought in the Revolution with Washington at Monmouth and died in 1811.
One of the buildings that originally occupied part of the church property was a saloon, and, according to vestry minutes, it was "the official duty of the rector to go into the saloon no later than 10 o'clock on Saturday evening to clear out all those who 'part-took of too much of the evil beverages.' " No such duties are expected of the rector these days.
One block north, across Main Street, stands the North East United Methodist Church. The first congregation goes back to 1781; the first Methodist parsonage in the country stood here. By 1877 there were two blacksmiths, a dry goods store, a notions store and a place for "gents' furnishings," according to an atlas of that year. George Simcoe & Sons were dealers in general merchandise that "will be sold at the smallest margin possible." Another establishment sold furniture and provided undertaking services. There was a telegraph operator and a livery stable that offered "horses and carriages for hire at all hours at reasonable prices."
The atlas that describes the North East of 1877 now belongs to Nick and Lucia Demond, who live in a restored mill house next to North East Creek. The mill house, dating to the early 1700s, had wall panels that were removed and reassembled for display at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, as the "Cecil Bedroom," an example of prerevolutionary war Americana. Now the bedroom, minus paneling, serves as the Demond's living room, where I sat and chatted with them as a 1790s grandfather clock ticked and chimed away the hours.
In its early years, as now, North East was a gateway to the Elk Neck peninsula, snagging visitors heading to Elk Neck State Park and a number of camps and religious retreats. Beyond being a bedroom community for workers in munitions and engineering plants near neighboring Elkton, Md., the mainstay of its economy was fishing. The prominent player in that game was the H. L. Harvey's seafood company, with its own fleet of boats and repair yard. The annual haul of herring and shad was prodigious.
So were the numbers of ducks bagged by hunters. Using duck blinds and sink boxes and armed with guns that looked more like cannons, they made the nearby sprawling Susquehanna Flats world famous for waterfowl hunting. "The old timers would say that the sky was just black when these flocks of ducks came through," says Bruce McQuillin, president of the Upper Bay Museum and owner of South Main Antiques. The museum, located in a former fish house near the waterfront, has extensive displays of the fishing and hunting cultures.
Eventually, though, pollution killed off the primary food source for the waterfowl—eelgrasses—and almost overnight the hunting industry collapsed. The fisheries also began to decline, and with hunting and fishing ruined, so was the livelihood of the town. North East became rough around the edges, with rough bars and rough characters.
Then a funny thing happened about ten years ago. Peter Wood, who had never owned a restaurant, took one of the roughest places in town and turned it into Woody's Crab House. It was immediately and immensely successful; these days it's not unusual for the place to have a waiting line of an hour at least. At about the same time that Woody's arrived, the first of several antiques shops, galleries, clothing stores and other restaurants opened, most of them setting up shop in the town's original buildings. The old post office became an antiques shop. Other stores occupied the old fish house, the doctor's office, the former five-and-ten. Somehow, the town didn't lose itself in the process, and North East quickly went from a place to drive through to a place to drive to.
As for waterfowling, there's been some limited success in restoring the Susquehanna Flats as submerged aquatic vegetation has begun making a comeback. Some of the waterfowl have returned, though nowhere near the same numbers or diversity of the past, and it's a popular place these days for fly-fishing.
The commercial fishing culture endures. Down Church Point Road on North East Creek I found Henry "Pip" Pratt cleaning out his crab pots after his 30th season on the water. I sat on the bulkhead, feet resting on the gunwale of his deadrise boat. "I still like fooling with it," said the 66-year-old fisherman. "Hell, I'll always do it." As for the town, he said, "North East has changed drastically. I mean drastically."
Just down the creek a ways, near the park, I met Fred Kline, wearing a TGIF (Thank God I Fish) hat, and his friend Morrie Shaffer, who were discussing the finer points of fishing. And he told me the story he'd undoubtedly told a hundred others, how he recently landed a 10-pound rockfish, took it home and slapped it in foil, with lemon and salt and pepper, right on the grill. "That's good eatin'," he said.
After two days in North East it was time for me to head south again, but I didn't feel I'd had quite enough of the town yet. So two weeks later, my wife Barb and I returned via land yacht, this time staying in the lap of luxury at the Inn at North East Creek, a new bed-and-breakfast on Main Street, owned and operated by Caye and Franco Ciabattoni. In 1998 the couple was traveling from Wilmington, Del., and impulsively detoured off I-95. And there it was on Main Street, backing to the water: a charming Victorian home. The next day, after an exhausting night of discussions, they made an offer. Franco, retired as a barber after 45 years, is a skilled carpenter and gardener, and he was ready. It would take years of painstaking attention to detail as he restored the home's exterior and added a kitchen and carriage house out back. Now they've bought a run-down house a few doors up the street, and he's restoring that, too.
"My mother said, 'When you wake up in the morning, fill your pocket with patience, and when you need it you pull a little bit out,' " he told me, with an accent and grin that come straight from his boyhood home on Italy's Adriatic coast. "Work puts meaning in my life."
Barb and I fortified ourselves with a real B&B breakfast: orange-pecan French toast dusted with powdered sugar, with strawberries and sausage. (Caye is a retired occupational health nurse, with obvious gifts in the kitchen.) Then we headed off to the part of town that my craft-crazy wife came all the way from Norfolk to see, the Day Basket Factory.
Among those who value handmade oak baskets, these are legendary, and although the baskets now have many cheap imitators, the factory is still going strong here in North East after 130 years. Edward and Samuel Day, brothers from Massachusetts, took advantage of white oak forests along the Susquehanna and set up shop here. Business boomed, with workers turning out as many as 2,000 baskets a week during World War I. They were used for everything from dinner rolls to laundry. Before plastics, oak baskets were the container of choice. Now, they're a container of price, but still sought after by those who appreciate quality.
The factory came close to closing in 1981 and then again in 1990, and Bob Friedrichs, the current owner, realized he couldn't let that happen. "I hated to see a company like Day Basket going out of business," he said as he showed me around the factory where big slabs of straight-grained white oak waited to be split into the thick ribbons that weavers would make into baskets (Barb had her eyes on a medium, $51 market basket with drop handles). There were also wooden basket molds that are used to shape the pieces, and shelf after shelf of samples.
Friedrichs realizes that people can buy perfectly serviceable plastic baskets for a couple of dollars, but there's a difference. "You know, what really makes me happy, the kids that come in here, and they can see that there are things that people actually make with their hands."
What makes me happy is to visit places like this on the Bay. Whether on my own or with my spouse, it's like signing a page of the town's guest book, and then checking out, richer for the experience. Two weeks earlier, on the late afternoon when I was getting ready to sail south again, I ambled through the park by the gazebo and picnic shelters. Elementary school kids were home from school, and it seemed they were all out here, kicking soccer balls, playing on swings and climbing on the playground. A girl in pigtails climbed up on a slide and plunged down again and again. A mom with a double stroller took a picture of a kid on a dinosaur rocker. In this place, at least for that moment, time seemed to have stood still. And it was true: I felt I was home again.
Cruiser's Digest: North East, Md.
One of the most welcoming sights on the Chesapeake has to be Turkey Point light. It was built in 1833 to guide ships approaching the Elk River and the C&D Canal, with the added bonus of showing you the way to the Northeast River. Sitting on a high peninsula bluff, the Turkey Point structure has the distinction of being the highest of the Bay's 74 lighthouses.
The real Northeast River doesn't begin for almost 5 miles beyond Turkey Point, but for navigation purposes, you might as well consider yourself in it as you begin to skirt the vast Susquehanna Flats. Off to port you get a nice view of Havre de Grace, with its many bridges and trestles, and then in the distance, the yacht basin at Charlestown. I arrived at near low tide and it was a bit dicey passing shoaly green "5" (my boat draws 5 feet), and then attention-grabbing as it narrows to a mere thread. Off to starboard are a number of sailboat basins and, finally, dead ahead, North East. There's one last gulp as you pass the last entrance marker, green "17". Next time I plan to come in at mid-tide or better.
To port, near the town park and gazebo, there are new town piers and enough depth for most boats. There's no water, toilets or electricity here, so you're on your own. Directly ahead is Anchor Marina and free piers for customers of Nauti-Goose Saloon. It's an easy 10 to 15 minute walk to the main village from the marina or town piers.
Unless otherwise noted, these marinas have fuel, electric and transient dockage. Anchor Marina (410-287-6000), dry storage, boat ramp; Bay Boat Works (410-287-8113); McDaniel Yacht Basin (410- 287-8121) pool; Shelter Cove Marina/Jackson Marine Sales (410-287-9400).
North Bay Bed & Breakfast, 9 Sunset Dr., 410-287-5948; The Inn at North East Creek, 219 South Main St., 410-287-8927.
Beans, Leaves, etc., 33 South Main St., 800-774-8033;
Bella Pizza, 4 West Cecil Ave., 410-287-6300;
Highborne Cafe, 13 South Main St., 410-287-3300;
Nauti-Goose Saloon, 200 West Cherry St., 410-287-7880;
North East Grocer, 131 South Main St., 410-287-3415;
Pier One, 1 North Main St., 410-287-6599;
Steak and Main, 107 South Main St., 410-287-3512;
Woody's Crab House, 29 South Main St., 410-287-2541.