Now three centuries old, Oxford remains a compelling
and hospitable port of call. [November 2004]
By David B. Bowes
Photographs by Scott Sullivan
Knapps Narrows or Black Walnut Point? This is the threshold question when cruising to the Choptank River in general and, in my case this time around, to the town of Oxford in particular. Boaters coming up from the lower Bay and bound for Oxford usually bear right into the wide mouth of the Choptank, leaving Black Walnut Point to port. Piloting down the Bay from Annapolis as I do, I'm partial to a brief transit through Knapps Narrows, the sea-level canal that makes an honest island out of Tilghman. It's a time-saving maneuver, but there's more: When exiting the east end of the Narrows, the demimonde of Choptank Country opens before me like a curtain suddenly going up, as if the day itself somehow is beginning anew.
Either way one enters the Choptank, it's a straightaway course to the navigation platform off the mouth of the Tred Avon River, a junction that Oxford has anchored for three centuries. Having made this trip several times, though not in recent years, I steered somewhat left of the platform, leaving the green marker off Benoni Point to port, and moved upstream in the Tred Avon. I gave a wide berth to the car ferry that has plied the Tred Avon between Bellevue and Oxford since 1836. The modern ferryboat captained by Tom Bixler nurtures the sense that peninsular Oxford, like Scotland's mythical Brigadoon, truly is a world apart. The truth is otherwise. Brigadoon with crabcakes maybe, but hardly remote. Oxford is plunk in the middle of Maryland's Eastern Shore residential boom. As I was to learn during four days there, the town is winning the battle to preserve its idyllic self as is—a gated community without the gate.
I hove to in the Tred Avon off the entrance to Town Creek, the nautical Main Street of Oxford since 1658, until I'd raised Mears Yacht Haven marina on the VHF. A humble fiberglass kayak glided by as I waited. So did a haughty Hinckley Talaria. Clearly, I thought, all sorts and conditions of mariners continue to be attracted to Oxford just as they were after the sailing shipGolden Fortune, captained by one Samuel Tilghman, first took on a cargo of tobacco there. "Our forefathers had an unerring eye for a site," wrote Hulbert Footner of Oxford in his 1944 book,
Rivers of the Eastern Shore. Rephrased in a contemporary way, the colonial "Port of Oxford" (see town water tower) had and still has location, location and location. I'd read that gilt-edged Hinckley Yacht Services of Maine bought the Crockett yard and that
Sailmagazine considers Oxford "one of America's 10 greatest places to sail."
Soon Tom Gannon, resident manager at the marina, and I were up on a chat channel. Gannon talked me into one of his six "fairways." I easedDr. Rosemary, my 31-foot diesel crab yacht, into the designated slip, where a dock boy waited to handle bow lines. Mears Yacht Haven (once but no longer affiliated with other Mears marinas) is the first of several hospitable put-ins easy to identify as the visiting boater nudges into and along Town Creek. Two others—Pier Street Marina and Bachelor Point—are accessible directly from the commingled waters of the Choptank and Tred Avon on what local folk sometimes call the sunset side of Oxford. I can confirm, after much poking around this village of mastheads visible from gardens of hollyhocks and lace-cap hydrangeas, that transients can count on reasonable slip fees, decent drinks and seafood, repair help if something balks or breaks, and elbow room to stroll back in time.
Exploring afoot, one quickly learns that what Oxford lacks in diversity it more than makes up for in convenience. I began my first full day there, after a stuffy and restless night sleeping aboard, with complimentary coffee in the air-conditioned lounge and lending library adjacent to the marina office. Then I walked along the Strand, a street-cum-promenade that lies between an inviting local beach and the tidy houses that overlook it. Within several easy blocks I'd arrived at the intersection of the Strand and North Morris Street, which is Oxford's main drag. Countless articles and brochures perpetuate the image of traffic on Morris stopping while a mother duck and her babies waddle across. Because local police enforce a 25-mile-an-hour speed limit strictly, this awww-inspiring vignette actually happens now and then. Just up a rise from the ferry dock I peeked in the windows of the diminutive Oxford Custom House, a replica prompted by the nation's bicentennial. Annapolis and Oxford (first called Williamstadt, in honor of England's Dutch-born king, William III) were the only official ports of entry in a crown-grant province first given to Catholic Lord Baltimore but later ruled by William and Mary, a pair of unecumenical Protestants who bounced the lord from office. Catty-corner from the customhouse stands the celebrated Robert Morris Inn, where I stopped for eggs and sausage. The inn dates to 1730 and is named for the Oxford merchant who was one of the building's earliest owners—and whose son, Robert Morris Jr., was known as a "financier of the American Revolution."
Almost everything else to see in Oxford lies on one side of Morris Street or the other. Though I spent four days taking the pulse of the community, someone cruising Eastern Shore settlements and coves on a tighter schedule could do Oxford in 24 hours or less. Then again, most boaters don't rent slips here to "do Oxford"; they're here simply because it's so different from the paved and packed world they must call home until they stop working. A couple in point I met were Martin and Pat Torbert of northern New Jersey. Their Morgan Out Island 33 lives in a slip at Mears and is maintained by Oxford Boatyard next door. As the Torberts ponder retirement and admire real estate behind white picket fences, their happy interaction with the town is a virtual apprenticeship in all things Oxonian—meaning reserved and preservationist. Likewise Henry Hale, one of three volunteer town commissioners, who "arrived on my boat nearly 15 years ago and basically never left." The average age of Oxford's 726 full-time residents is a sedate 65.
Equally content to move at a sedate pace, I continued to saunter the handful of blocks that comprise North and South Morris Street. In fact, I did this everyday—not because it took long to get my arms around the place, but because it felt like walking through a watercolor painting in which all the clocks were stopped. Surely there's always time to browse the Shops of Morris Street—five small emporia with antiques and boutique merchandise, the closest thing to a shopping center you'll find in Oxford. And right across the street, bearing fruit on a trellis in front of 309 North Morris, is what Garrison Keillor would call the pretty big grapevine that local legend says was brought from the Isle of Jersey in 1810. Moving right along I discovered the informative, storefront Oxford Museum whose exhibits include a cheap clock nested in jumbo oyster shells—such endearingly homely folk art that I yearned to take it home.
Down along South Morris, which succeeds North Morris with no announcement that caught my eye, I paused to ponder a building that bore an inscrutable sign: "Financial Strategy Group." This was one of the hints that after several economic ups and downs since its founding, Oxford is now awash in quiet money being managed for retirees and for weekend residents who pursue hot careers in Washington, Baltimore and, yes, perhaps even Manhattan. The town's other key strategy, along with financial management, is working to keep new-home construction to an absolute minimum. The other hint is in the price of real estate, which, given the town's distance from the aforementioned career centers, is dizzyingly high.
South Morris bears left past the head of Town Creek and becomes Route 333 to Easton. Out near the town limits is where I found the Oxford Community Center, a restored schoolhouse that is home to the Tred Avon Players and site of historic preservation meetings. Just beyond the community center I happened upon the long entrance to Oxford Cemetery, which abuts what appears to be a splendid hidden gunkhole on Town Creek (a bit shallow, though, I'm told, and lined with the barely visible hulks of scuttled workboats). Before retracing my steps I paid respects at a monument to Tench Tilghman. As a young lieutenant this Friend of George carried news of the British surrender at Yorktown to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
I withheld mention of one essential stop on Morris Street because it invites extended scrutiny. In addition to being part of the town's support system for visiting boaters, the Oxford Market & Deli speaks volumes about illusion and reality in this fetching place. The market may not quite be "the center of the universe," as Martin Torbert suggested with a grin, but it certainly is the axis of town life day to day. Don't miss it for help-yourself muffins and coffee. At first glance the store appears to have been lifted straight out of Mayberry; there's even an old church pew out front where a body can set in the shade a spell with a frosty soda. But don't expect mill hands, Moon Pies and RC Cola. Not when there's a pewter colored Hummer and a pumpkin-orange Porsche parked outside and Tred Avon Yacht Sales's office across the street. Here the denizens drink Nantucket Nectar and such, and are a mix of freckled grandchildren between heats in the weekend regatta, well preserved ladies in gardening togs, and off-duty power brokers wearing Bermuda shorts and Top-Siders. Locals rent their videos here, and perhaps duck in when they run low on Veuve Clicquot, but they're more likely to shop for staples in the supermarkets of nearby Easton.
Side streets in Oxford are made for pleasant strolling or for pedaling bicycles rented from Mears Yacht Haven. Few places of special interest are to be found down these leafy lanes, but there are exceptions. The small marine mu-seum beside the entrance to Cutts & Case Shipyard at 306 Tilghman Street remains a must-see landmark of remarkable boatbuilding craftsmanship. The venerable yard is Oxford's response to the resurgence of interest in custom-built wooden boats and the restoration of rotting classic yachts once left for dead.
Farther inside the Cutts & Case property are two preserved dwellings that underscore the sometimes-unheralded age of things thereabouts. Byberry is Oxford's oldest house, dating to 1695. It has been on the shipyard grounds since the 1930s. Calico, a Tudor cottage now in private hands, was built in the early 1700s.
My own geezerhood—70 years and counting—doubtless contributes to the favorable gloss I put on peaceful Oxford and the even tenor of its days. So a word of caution is appropriate for cohorts of younger folk. Kent Narrows it isn't. If you're looking to get down and howl at the moon through Caribbean kitsch decor, the place will disappoint you. At Schooner's Landing restaurant overlooking Town Creek, owner Don Smith described two sides of Oxford as I sipped a Backfin Pale Ale and dug crackers into a blend of jumbo lump crab, spinach, roasted garlic, jalapeno peppers, Old Bay and cream cheese. "Towns-people were quick to help out when we had three feet of water in here after Hurricane Isabel," he said, "but local reaction wasn't so positive when I initiated live music on Sunday afternoons." The feedback Smith received apparently echoed an earlier "uproar" over al fresco rhythms at the nearby Mill Street Grill. When music there reverberated a bit longer than had been scheduled, a neighbor called to complain that the noise had thoroughly ruined his nap.
The flip side, of course, is that Oxford is adept at welcoming couples and families that are content to dine quietly. Because there's no undeveloped space on the Oxford peninsula, the demand for commercial as well as residential property exceeds the supply. Yet I found just enough eateries there to offer an engaging variety for four days in my transient slip. From the marina I could walk easily to Schooner's Landing, the Mill Street Grill and the Robert Morris Inn. A rented bicycle carried me somewhat wobblingly through a newly developed extension of town to the Masthead at Pier Street Marina. This crabhouse right beside the Tred Avon was called the Pier Street Restaurant until Isabel's tidal surge prompted a top-to-bottom refurbishing by new owners. The fanciest of my choices, Latitude 38 Bistro & Spirits (run by the same folks who own the Masthead, which once operated out of the premises now known as the Mill Street Grill), lies just beyond the town line on Route 333, but a complimentary SUV shuttle picked me up at the marina and returned me—drowsy and then some. (From the marinas on the east side of Town Creek, it's an easy walk.)
These purveyors of comestibles kept me nourished, certainly, and sometimes pleasantly surprised. I'd have either a stand-up breakfast at the Oxford Market or something more substantial in the Robert Morris Inn. Lunchtimes dropped comfortably into a Schooner's Landing groove: sandwich or salad (plus enough iced tea to float a Laser) under a deck umbrella, unless humidity drove me indoors. For dinner, I decided that crabcakes would be a legitimate if perhaps pricey point of comparison for evening fare at the range of local options.
There's some turnover in restaurant management given the seasonal nature of the business in Oxford and the relative proximity of Easton and St. Michaels, but this is a snapshot as of Summer 2004:
• Trendily furnished Latitude 38 served me (deep breath) "Jumbo Lump Crabcakes Topped with a Refreshing Blueberry Melon Salsa on a Pool of Spicy Lemongrass Broth." I'm a sucker for strong and novel flavors, if not overwritten menus, yet I was embarrassed somehow for crabcakes tricked out in carnival garb. Still, on taste alone it carried the evening.
• At the Robert Morris Inn, which enfolds the visitor in dark-paneled Choptank history and shooting prints, I chose crabcakes cooked the "Morris Way" (breaded and baked) instead of the "Oxford Way" (breaded and fried). The ghost of famed Chesapeake author James Michener may strike me with a skipjack boom, but I confess to feeling more obligated than eager to settle for the ho-hum food that the late Michener still endorses at the inn. I respect the predictability of unchanging tradition. My wish, however, was that a modicum of crunch might survive this kitchen's
impulse to overcook.
• The next night, on a lark, I sent word to the chef of the Mill Street Grill to throw me a curve ball. Bingo! Moderately exotic crabcakes with Argentinean chimichurri, a sauce of olive oil, garlic and chopped parsley. It was the perfect Mediterranean-
influenced treatment of a Mid-Atlantic
classic by way of Buenos Aires.
• And then finally, the absolute simplest and most moist crabcakes I encountered and enjoyed were served at the Masthead with a jumbo baked potato and snappy green beans. The Masthead, by the way, prepares the only steamed crabs in town for diners who like to commune with the sunset while whacking crustaceans.
On balance, I thought, as I set course back down the Choptank, the best thing about Oxford is its pervasive simplicity in a world that is becoming too complicated for my taste. Granted there's a stage-set quality. Everything's a bit too flawless—even vaguely Stepfordesque—as you bike out to the expensive new houses and manicured landscapes that the town's antidevelopment SWAT team couldn't block. But what's so wrong with striving to appear as if you achieved perfection, not to mention log canoe and crab skiff races, without lifting a finger? It's the savvy way to troll for a certain refined slice of the market for lodging and marine services. As the Bay-bound tide swept me past Black Walnut Point, I netted the elusive epigram: Here's a town that beats the competition by simply whispering, "I'm Oxford and you're not."
Cruiser's Digest: Oxford, Md.
Putting into Oxford is easy enough. The channel is deep and well marked. As you enter the Tred Avon River, look east and you'll spot the town's water tower with "Port of Oxford" printed on it in large letters. Pier Street Marina (no transient slips; dockage for diners only) and Campbell's Bachelor Point Yacht Company are on the river side of town. Bachelor Point offers good shelter in a manmade basin but is a fair hike from town; Pier Street is more exposed but has a fine restaurant on-site (the Masthead) and is closer to the doings in town. As you pass the spiffy-looking Tred Avon Yacht Club building, begin to look for and steer clear of the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, which runs a regular route across the river during daylight hours. There is first-come-first-served dockage at the Oxford ferry dock (3-hour limit; no overnights); the Bellevue Ferry dock requires a county sticker (overnights permitted). The choice anchorage in fair weather is off the Strand, the crescent of sandy beach that you'll see as you cruise past the town. Holding ground in Town Creek is fairly slippery, though mariners sometimes drop the hook in the space between the Oxford Boatyard and Schooner's Landing.
A private residence built to resemble a screwpile light welcomes boaters to Town Creek. There is plenty of water close to the "town shore." The first marina you'll see is Mears Yacht Haven. Next comes Oxford Boatyard, then Schooner's Landing, Cutts & Case Shipyard, the Hinckley Company (at the former Crockett Brothers Boatyard) and finally Town Creek Marina. Beyond that are municipal slips not available to transients. On the other side of the creek are Campbell's Boatyard at Jack's Point and Campbell's Town Creek Boatyard, both transient friendly but a long walk from town. Many marinas offer either complimentary bicycles or a shuttle service into town. If not, this is the kind of place where passing cars are apt to stop and offer you a lift.
Oxford has several high-quality eateries and a small market, the Oxford Market & Deli. The Hinckley yard has a fairly well stocked ship's store. The current exhibit at the Oxford Museum is called Traditions in Wood—Oxford Boat Building, and runs through November. The museum is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. For more information call 410-226-0191 or go towww.oxfordmuseum.org. For information about the Tred Avon Players performances go to
www.tredavonplayers.org. For other special events, go to the Oxford Business Association's website at
Unless otherwise noted, the following marinas offer overnight slips, electric service (30/50 amp), fuel, showers, laundry and pump-out.
Campbell's Bachelor Point Yacht Company (410-226-5592);www.campbellsboatyard.com; repair yard, swimming pool; no fuel or pump-out.
Campbell's Boatyard at Jack's Point (410-226-5105);www.campbellsboatyard.com; repair yard; no laundry.
Campbell's Town Creek Boatyard (410-226-0213);www.campbellsboatyard.com; repair yard; no fuel or showers.
Cutts & Case Shipyard (410-226-5416); repair yard; no fuel, laundry or pump-out.
Hinckley Company (410-226-5113); repair yard, swimming pool, ship's store; no fuel.
Mears Yacht Haven (410-226-5450); swimming pool.
Oxford Boatyard (410-226-5101); repair yard, ship's store; no fuel.
Schooner's Landing (410-226-0160); no fuel, showers or laundry.
Town Creek Marina (410-226-5747); no fuel, showers, laundry or pump-out.
Latitude 38 Bistro & Spirits (410-226-5303); complimentary shuttle for boaters.
Masthead at Pier Street Marina (410-226-5171); complimentary dockage for diners (no overnights).
Mill Street Grill (410-226-0400)
Robert Morris Inn (410-226-5111)
Schooner's Landing (410-226-0160)
1876 House 110 N. Morris Street; (410-
Nichols House 217 S. Morris Street; (410-226-5799);www.nicholshouseoxford.com.
Oxford Inn 506 S. Morris Street; (410-226-5220);www.oxfordmd.com/oxfordinn.
Robert Morris Inn 314 N. Morris Street; (888-823-4012);www.waterfrontrooms.com.