For over 300 years, Onancock has been a cultural
and economic hub on Virginia's Eastern Shore. And
it seems to just keep getting better. [December 2006]
By Wendy Mitman Clarke
Photographs by Jay Paul
It takes a dedicated, patient angler to work all the angles, to think like a fish, to just keep putting that line overboard. And that's what J.C. Morrison is all about. He's been working the murky waters off the pier at the historic Hopkins store on Onancock wharf steadily now for at least 20 minutes. Which, considering he's only two-and-a-half, is not an insignificant amount of time on task. He's already burned through one rod—his Sponge Bob rig has "some saltwater rust going on," says his dad, John Morrison—so J.C. is working his new Nemo gear on this weekend morning. No nibbles yet, but hope springs eternal.
Right next door, the tugboatRogue Islandis pressing a barge hard against the bulkhead at T&W Block as a bucket loader lifts scoop after scoop of gravel from the barge and deposits it on the ground. Beside the building that houses the harbormaster's office and bathhouse for visiting boaters, the regulars are gathering at the liar's bench for another morning of telling tales as they watch people launching fishing skiffs and Jet Skis at the public ramp. Beyond them some kids are crabbing off the dock near Bagwell Bridge. I have no doubt that just up Market Street, past the sycamores and pecans and crape myrtles lining the sidewalks, folks are stopping at the Corner Bakery for some of its famous Eastern Shore sweet-potato biscuits and other melt-in-your-mouth pastries. A few doors away, Rosalie Lewis is finding out what kind of fish she'll be getting this day at the House of Deals—which is ostensibly a hardware store, but who says you can't sell fresh scallops and butter beans along with toggle bolts and grass seed?
The fact is, a morning like this in Onancock, Va., makes me feel like I'm in the middle of the best kind of Norman Rockwell painting, a small-town world that doesn't leave out some of the rough edges of real life. There's no doubt that this historic community on Virginia's lower Eastern Shore is like any other small town, buzzing with gossip and politics and buffeted by the winds of fate, figurative and literal. Just two nights ago, for instance, Tropical Storm Ernesto whipped through here and peeled the tin roof right off one whole half of the Cokesbury United Methodist Church, taking the chimney with it, dumping the whole mess into the churchyard and delivering a nasty blow to the 152-year-old building's restoration efforts. But there is—and, I suspect, always has been—something that sets this place apart. Maybe it's as simple as this Rockwell morning scene, or the way the sun laid itself gently down on Onancock Creek last evening as we tied up our boat at the town dock, weary after a long, rough trip south from Annapolis.
Ernesto, in fact, was to blame for how rough that trip was. When I had called ahead to Isaac Annis, the harbormaster, to make sure we could get a slip on Labor Day weekend, we had talked about the storm that was making its way up the coast and wondered when and how hard the Bay would get hit.
"What kind of boat you got?" Annis asked.
"A Bertram 31," I said.
"Ah, well," he said. "That's a boat that'll take it. Take a lot more'n the people in it, most times."
I relayed his comments to my husband as we dodged floating trees and rain squalls and fell off some waves south of Smith Point that rattled our nerves as much as our teeth. By the time we pulled into Onancock Creek Ernesto's lashing tail had done its worst and the sky had that particular washed-clear glow that always follows wild weather. Settling as it did among the loblolly pines lining the creek's shoreline, the light seemed almost ethereal, making the welcome sight of Onancock's wharf that much more appealing. Since it was fairly late in the day we saw no sign of the harbormaster; but there were plenty of slips open, so we slid into one and cleaned up the boat while the kids splashed in the leftover puddles ashore.
After giving the sunset its due, we shouldered our bags and trundled a couple of blocks up Market Street toward the Charlotte Hotel in search of good food, good company and a good night's rest—not unlike, I reflected later, people have been doing here for hundreds of years.
In the past, it was the wealth of the creek itself that drew people, then the richness of the land surrounding it. Easy schooner access to the Bay made Onancock a shipping hub as early as the late 1600s—and it's proximity to the peninsula's rail line kept that going into the 20th century. Today, the artists, entrepreneurs, retirees and tourists drawn to this little town still love it for its water, its wharf and the flat open land of the Eastern Shore that surrounds it. The barrier islands and Atlantic Ocean are a mere half hour east by car and then skiff. Everything seems to be right here, compact and easily accessible like the town itself—history, natural beauty, cultural and visual arts, fine food—but in a package that even its most ardent residents will tell you is less than perfect, and desires to remain so.
"That's what gives this town such a neat edge; it's still a working town," says Charlotte Heath who, with her husband Gary Cochran, own the Charlotte Hotel on North Street.
"It's a special town; it's not plastic like so many places," says Anne Nock, who has lived in or near Onancock since the late 1950s. "It's real."
Not unlike Reedville across the Bay, Onancock sits poised on a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water, the North and Central branches of Onancock Creek to the north and south, and the creek proper to the west. The wharf sits on the tip of that peninsula, with Market and King streets dividing here to travel up the southern and northern sides of the peninsula, respectively. Everything is in easy walking distance.
Delve far enough into the history of Onancock and you will find, as on most of the Bay's shores, evidence of early settlement by native tribes. In this neck of the woods the locals were Algonquins, and the story goes that "Onancock" is an Algonquin word for a foggy place. The story also goes that Captain John Smith sailed up Onancock Creek during his explorations of the Bay in the summer of 1608, and that he named what's locally known as Keale's Hill—the high ground at the tip of the peninsula—for one of his mates along for the ride. [Smith's visit and the Commonwealth's 400th birthday are cause for great celebration in the town during the coming year.]
But the seeds of Onancock as a colonial town were not sown until 1680, when the Virginia House of Burgesses designated it a port of entry, and a year later the county courthouse was established there (within a few years Accomac, Va., became the county seat, as it remains today). The rich agricultural lands that supported tobacco in the 1600s and early 1700s would yield corn, wheat and produce that would, in the coming centuries, make Onancock a thriving community. By 1826 the town had a post office, by 1832 a ferry was running to Norfolk and back, and by the 1840s steamboats were regular visitors to the wharf. "The whole shore [of the North Branch] was at that time strewn with grain houses from the foot of King Street as far north as vessels could load, and there was a wharf opposite each grain house," wrote Judge Samuel T. Ross, quoted in Anne Nock's 1992 book about Onancock,Child of the Bay. "Uptown" stores included a cabinet shop, mercantile, a shoe shop and drugstore, and the town had nearly half a dozen churches by the late 1800s. In 1873, one C.W.B. Marshall started publishing the
Eastern Virginian—the Shore's earliest newspaper—in Onancock. After 1867 the Eastern Shore Steamboat Company began its regular service between Baltimore and Onancock, which continued until 1935.
Although the railroad, which was linked to Cape Charles in 1884, benefited Onancock as well, it's fair to say that the town's wharf and creeks remained its focal points, and the same is true today. This is where I find John Morrison and his son J.C. the next morning, at the Hopkins & Brothers Store building, which Morrison now operates as Mallards at the Wharf, a restaurant and small deck bar.
The building itself dates from 1842; local merchant Stephen Hopkins operated a fleet of schooners that sailed between Onancock and Baltimore, New York, Charleston, S.C., and the West Indies. Eventually the sailing ships gave way to steamboats hauling produce, fertilizer and household goods. The business operated in the Hopkins family for four generations and 130 years, but in the 1960s Addison Hopkins closed it after trucking overtook shipping as the primary means of transporting goods. Restored by the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society (ESVHS), the store retains its original wooden floors, shelves and counters; even the steam-ship ticket office next door is original.
Morrison leases the building from the ESVHS and is in the middle of his second season operating Mallards. "The location is key here," he tells me while he keeps an eye on J.C., who's doing his best to cast his line between the sterns of two charter fishing boats tied up at the wharf. "We try to focus on fresh seafood and local ingredients."
Morrison came to Onancock four years ago from Rockville, Md. "It's nice to give my son a chance to grow up in the fresh air," he says. "We like having lots of families and kids running around. And there's always bulldozer entertainment for the kids, too," he says, waving to the bucket loader next door offloading the barge tied up at T&W Block.
"The only thing that makes this town different from these other towns on the Eastern Shore is the wharf. We live and die by it," says Chuck Wheat after inviting me onto his porch—which overlooks the end of Market Street and beyond it the Bagwell Bridge across the Central Branch into the neighborhood known as Mount Prospect. From Wheat's porch, watching the comings and goings at the wharf is something of a spectator sport, and the excited yells of kids catching crabs off the dock mingle with birdsong. A former newspaperman from Oklahoma, Wheat moved here in 1999 after discovering it with his wife while exploring the Shore. "We started sucking in our breath when we saw the wharf and the little commercial district," he said. They bought their Arts and Crafts style house, circa 1917, with enormous pecan trees in front and a gigantic sycamore in back—a tree Wheat estimates is 300 years old.
His story is not unlike those of other relative newcomers to Onancock, many of whom, like Gary Cochran and Charlotte Heath, have restored old or dormant buildings and set up new galleries, restaurants and businesses that consistently surprise and delight visitors, blending upscale sophistication with the town's inherent down-to-earth nature. Cochran and Heath's Charlotte Hotel is housed in a 1907 era building that was, when they bought it in 2002, an empty storefront with some apartments upstairs. After a complete renovation, it's now an eight-room hotel with a restaurant and bar downstairs. Recently they've joined it to a building next door that doubles as a gallery for Heath's intensely detailed botanical watercolors and a separate dining room for special events.
Next door, the newly opened North Street Market offers a gourmet kitchen store and market that rivals anything you'll find in a metropolitan area (I couldn't resist a set of Riedel crystal stemless wineglasses, and don't even get me started on the fresh mozzarella and wine selection). Just around the corner on King Street, newcomer Joani Donohoe has opened her shop, GardenArt, in what was an abandoned power plant. A landscape designer, Donohoe lived near Washington, D.C., where she managed garden centers. She and her brother were exploring the Shore by car one day when they drove into Onancock. "I remember saying, 'This place is like Mayberry; I can't believe there's still a town like this three hours from D.C.!' People said 'hi.' Everyone is genuine."
She saw a house in the Mount Prospect neighborhood and made an offer on it the next day. Her wonderful store took a little more time; built in 1910, the concrete-block building with a brick front and the lot next door had become "a rat's nest of vines and garbage," but Donohoe had a vision. She cleaned the entire place out, keeping the old brick walls exposed inside and even retaining the original wooden doors, hanging them on the walls as a kind of historic art. She opened the store in March 2005, filling it with flowers, plants, garden and home art, and furnishings.
Indeed, art seems to blend with commerce in Onancock in a way that makes it part of everyday life here. The North Street Playhouse (on Market Street in what was the old Dollar General Store), which has three separate theater series and more than 60 events and performances annually, shares the building with an art gallery, a gift and floral shop, and a legal office. Across the street at Bizzotto's Gallery-Caffe, internationally known leather craftsman Miguel Bizzotto displays and sells his handbags, briefcases and leather goods in his restaurant, which quickly earned a reputation as one of the best on the Eastern Shore.
And on the same block I find the studio and gallery of Willie C. Crockett, which shares a building and doorway with the real estate office of his wife, Iris—at whom he feels free to bellow when in need of clarification on a question. "Iris!" he yells, when I ask how long he's been in Onancock, "how long we been here?" The answer is that he and Iris have been in this particular building since 1996 (it was a wholesale toy and novelty shop); he came to Onancock from Tangier Island in 1969. A born artist—as his lovely and prolific watercolors of Bay scenes reveal—Crockett is also a born storyteller who is happy to talk about his years as a waterman, a muskrat trapper, a minister. "I even worked for Perdue before I learned better," he says. Crockett teaches art all over the Eastern Shore, and he and Iris also operate a restaurant (the Channel Marker) and gallery on Tangier Island during the summer season. When I ask him why so many creative, artistic people are drawn to Onancock he doesn't need to call to Iris for any clarification. "It's this area," he says. "It's beautiful. And we have some nostalgia left. You go most places today, there's no nostalgia left."
Across the street and half a block from Willie Crockett's gallery I find out what he means, exactly, about nostalgia, when I walk into the House of Deals. Every town should have a store like the House of Deals; every town probably once did. Onancock has been lucky or smart enough to hang on to this one, owned for about 24 years now by Bobby Lewis and his wife Rosalie, a small, speedy woman with a gamine face who answers her portable phone with a lively "House of Deals!" when it rings, which is all the time. "Yes I have the turnip-green seeds and the curly kale," she tells the gardener on the other end of the line as she simultaneously shows a customer where to find wooden dowels.
Even though the sign hanging out front says Trustworthy Hardware, beneath House of Deals, it's immediately clear that this store is about so much more than just hardware. My first tip-off is the row of kids' bikes out front on the sidewalk, next to the armada of mums for fall planting, the crates of sweet corn and the hand-lettered sign that says Fresh Seafood. Once inside, I can't believe the controlled chaos and depth of the inventory—heaters, wallpaper, marine supplies, dock line, clothes, overalls, boots, wheelbarrows, oil lamps, fasteners, chimney pipe, extension cords, ax handles and heads, knives, drills, saws, hammers, fishing gear and bait in season, porch furniture, fertilizer, grass seed, house furniture, housewares . . . and that's just the standard hardware-store stuff. There's also an ice-cream freezer (across from the stacked drawers of fasteners) and fresh seafood and produce in season; today's top sellers are locally caught drum and just-shelled butter beans.
"House of Deals!" Rosalie chirps into the phone. "Yes I do. It's three seventy-five a pound, you can get whatever you want of it." Pause. "Well I just got it this morning but it doesn't stay long." Pause. "Okay. About fifteen dollars worth."
"Drum," she tells me, clicking off the phone. "I'll have produce from spring through fall. Strawberries is usually the first thing, then string beans, scallops. . . . I have just gotten my sweet potatoes and Hayman potatoes last night and then we'll have oysters and curly kale."
Rosalie grew up in Cashville, Va., just down the creek. She has some local farmers who plant potatoes and beans for her, and when I say that I'm stumped on a good veggie for dinner tonight she points to the glowing mound of butter beans on the front counter. "We've been shelling them all day," she says. "Or green beans, they go with everything."
"House of Deals!" Her voice follows me out onto the street as I make my way west toward the wharf. Along the way I pass Scott Hall, the oldest house in the town, dating from 1778. Nearby, a small sign beckons to an old graveyard behind the house that dates to the Revolutionary War. Here I find the marker of Commodore Zedekiah Whaley (or Walley, depending on where you read it), a Marylander who, in November of 1782, set out from Onancock with a group of soldiers from the Accomack militia aboard the bargeProtectorto chase off Tory ships. (Even though General George Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown a year earlier, British ships continued to maraud the Bay's coasts, and the locals built barges such as the
Protectorto fend them off.) Whaley was in charge of a small fleet of these barges, and they met up with the enemy north of Smith Point in Kedges Straits. The ensuing fight on November 30, 1782, is known as the Battle of the Barges or the Battle of Kedges Straits. Unfortunately for Whaley, an ammunition chest aboard the
Protectorexploded, killing him instantly. He was laid to rest at Scott Hall.
It wouldn't be a bad place to spend eternity, I think as I walk back down to the wharf. The light is growing late and a fresh round of anglers are launching boats at the public ramp for the evening bite. A few sailboats have pulled in and tied up, and Chip Powell is tidying up his Morgan Out Island 41Brigadoon. He and his wife Kimberly have sailed over from Deltaville, about a three-hour trip. Onancock, he says, is a regular destination for them.
"It's just a place you can come and relax, walk and enjoy the food, enjoy the architecture, enjoy the people, enjoy the food some more. . . ." he laughs. "And the history. It's like a step back in time."
A step back, yes, but also a step forward, a wonderful blending of history and a lively here and now that has managed to remain very real.
Cruiser's Digest: Onancock, Va.
Onancock Creek sits in a very big part of the Chesapeake; it's some 25 nautical miles across the Bay to the entrance to the Great Wicomico River on the Western Shore and nearly 40 miles south to Cape Charles. But unless it's blowing hard out of the southwest, once inside the creek's mouth you're quickly protected by the relatively narrow, easygoing waterway. Look for red "2" and green "3" just outside the creek's entrance; from there just follow the clearly marked channel. It's about 4 nautical miles from the creek's mouth to the Onancock wharf. Thanks to the regular visits of tugboats hauling oil and gas and aggregate barges to Bagwell Oil Company and T&W Block, the channel is kept plenty deep. It's not especially wide, though, and if you stray outside it you'll quickly find the bottom.
Just past red "36" and green "37" you'll see South Branch forking off to the right. Straight ahead are the mustard-yellow buildings of the historic Hopkins & Brothers Store on the wharf, with the launch ramp, harbormaster's office and slips of the town dock next door. To port, the North Branch forks away; this is the home of T&W Block, Davis Oil, a commercial seafood wharf and then residential docks. To starboard is the Central Branch, the green tanks and fuel dock of Bagwell Oil Company, and, just past the town dock, the green Bagwell Bridge, which only the smallest of skiffs can pass beneath.
The town dock (757-787-7911) can accommodate boats up to 90 feet and drawing 6 feet. There are only about a dozen slips, so calling in advance is a good idea, especially during special events. If no slips are available, boats can anchor in the harbor and creek area nearby and dinghy into the wharf. Fuel (gas and diesel) is available across from the slips at the Bagwell fuel depot; you'll need to have the harbormaster pump it for you. The wharf has a public shower and bathroom, but no other facilities (there are Laundromats, a grocery and pharmacy in town).
There are also fishing charterboats available here, as well as a ferry to Tangier Island aboard theCaptain Eulice(757-891-2240).
Charlotte Hotel, 7 North Street, 757-787-7400.
Colonial Manor Inn Bed & Breakfast, 84
Market Street, 757-787-3521.
Creekside Inn Bed & Breakfast, 37 King Street, 757-787-7578.
Holly Cottage, 12 Holly Street, 757-787-2726.
Heartsworth Cottage, 19000 Hermitage Road, 757-789-5915.
The Inn and Garden Cafe, 145 Market Street, 757-787-8850.
The Inn at Onancock, 30 North Street, 757-789-7711.
The Spinning Wheel, 31 North Street, 757-787-7311.
Restaurants and Eateries
Bizzotto's Gallery and Caffe, 757-787-3103.
Charlotte Hotel and Restaurant, 757-787-7400.
Corner Bakery, 757-787-4520.
Corner Mart, 757-787-4352.
Flamenco Restaurant, 757-787-7780.
Mallards at the Wharf, 757-787-7333.
North Street Market, 757-787-8805.
Onancock Deli, 757-787-7191.
Pepper's Restaurant & Lounge, 757-787-3457.
Port Scarborough Pizza Co., 757-789-3061.
Stella's, 757-789-5045; 757-789-7770.
The Blarney Stone Pub and Restaurant, 787-302-0300.
The Inn and Garden Cafe, 757-787-8850.
Four Hundred And Counting
As a town deeply aware and proud of its history, Onancock is not letting the Commonwealth of Virginia's 400th birthday celebration across the Bay in Jamestown go without notice. The town has planned a year's worth of events in 2007 to mark the occasion--the highlight of which, for visiting boaters, will be a wharfside celebration May 19–20, when the replica of Captain John Smith's shallop makes its only stop on Virginia's Eastern Shore during its summer-long trek replicating Smith's 1608 explorations of the Bay.
Also on hand will be one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's sonar charting vessels with various NOAA exhibits. The Salisbury Zoo will attend with its traveling exhibit of wildlife common on the Shore in the 1600s. The weekend will also feature a boat parade, a concert on the wharf by the town band, sea chantey concerts and a dedication of the Onancock portion of the proposed Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail.
Two other events notable for boaters will be a visit by the replica ship Godspeed from Jamestown, Va., Sept. 13–16, and an old-fashioned town picnic and worship service on the lawn at Ker Place on June 17 with Dr. Kirk Mariner officiating.
Two local artists and 11 local writers have also contributed to a new book on Onancock and Accomack County history. The book, A Voyage Through Time, was funded by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the town of Onancock.
For more information on these and other Onancock events, including the concert series at the historic Cokesbury Church (local and nationally known performers, to raise money for the church's restoration), the theater series and performances at North Street Playhouse, as well as general information on the town and visiting by boat, go to www.onancock.org. --W.M.C.
One of the most beautiful and historic houses in Onancock is also, happily, open to the public, since it's the home of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society. Ker Place, at 69 Market Street, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1799 by John Shepherd Ker (pronounced "car"), a merchant, banker, farmer and shipping magnate, the Federal style home has been completely restored and furnished to the period, based largely on the Ker family's probate inventories. Interior details include intricately hand-carved trim on the stairways as well as gesso decoration (a plaster of paris and glue preparation molded into forms and patterns) throughout the rooms. All the house's moldings, floors and trim are original; the color palette, based on paint analysis, is from between 1799 and 1803 and includes a variety of faux finishes popular at the time.
"We're fortunate to have so much evidence," says John Verrill, executive director of the ESVHS. "It was never subdivided into apartments or anything like that. Essentially, two families owned it. The Kers owned it until 1870, and then the Powells until 1960." That year, for $28,000, the historical society purchased the home and grounds.
Upstairs, the society maintains a library and archive of historical papers and photographs (more than 30,000 historic images). And outside, under a shed, is the log canoe Annie C, built in 1904 by Horace Bundick in Sanford, Va. At 45 feet long with a 9-foot-6-inch beam, the five-log canoe is the largest of her kind built on the Shore. She was built for oystering, at first operating only under sail until her owners augmented her in 1910 with a 16-horsepower, 2-cylinder make-and-break Bridgeport. Abandoned in a marsh near Saxis, Va., in the 1960s, she was rescued in the 1980s by Captain Greg Lohse and eventually came to the historical society. Ker Place is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for children under 17. For more information and a list of events at Ker Place, go to www.kerplace.org or call 757-786-8012. --W.M.C.