Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: Oxford, MD

It’s hard to find a more genteel place than the three-century-old 
town of Oxford, Md. The author finds no end of places to sit and 
watch the world go slowly by, sometimes with canine company, 
sometimes not. [August 2012]

by T. F. Sayles
photographs by Michael Wootton

I don't know about Leroy, but I'd had a very busy morning of sitting and watching things in and around Oxford, Md., so I needed to rest. I needed to . . . well, sit and watch things for a while. Leroy, a very serene black Labrador, and the official sitter and watcher of things at Mears Yacht Haven, seemed to think that was a good idea. So we sat for a spell, the two of us, there on the front porch of the marina office, which is right alongside the fuel dock and therefore happens to be a good watching place.

First came the crabbers, two in a row, the first in a small standard deadrise, the second in an outboard that looked like it once had been a harbor launch of some kind but was now clearly a crabbing boat, full of stacked bushel baskets and rigged with a trot-lining wheel and a homemade canopy. I love watching watermen park their boats--so calmly aggressive with the throttle, but never an ounce more power than they need. And deadly accurate. Rumble-rumble, coast, pivot, ROAR, done. Each of them needed gas and ice, and each of them came and went with a minimum of fuss.

Then came the little convoy from North Carolina--a gorgeous Pearson True North and two lesser but similar blue-hulled cruisers. The Pearson and one of the other boats tied up at the fuel dock and the third circled nearby in Town Creek. It was the distinctive drawl of the lady from the Pearson that made me suspect they were not local boats. 

"You sound like you're from a way southern part of Maryland," I said to her as she made an enormous fuss over Leroy.

"North Carolina," she said, looking up and smiling. "Wilmington. We've been up here on the Chesapeake for a couple of weeks now. 

And I miss my puppy!" She said that latter bit right into Leroy's happy face, scratching his ears furiously. "He usually comes along with us, but he couldn't this time because he just had surgery on his knee."

They'd been in Oxford a few days, she said (still mostly to Leroy, making me more than a little envious of him; she was very attractive), and now they were heading to Annapolis. After that, she told us, they'd be going to . . . what's that town above Annapolis?

Leroy had no idea, so I took a stab at it. "Glen Burnie?" I said, wasting a joke. "Baltimore?"

No, that wasn't it.

"Honey," she asked her husband, still pumping gas. "Where are we going after Annapolis?"

"Chestertown," he said. Ah, Chestertown. I guess that's "above Annapolis" . . . if you're from North Carolina. "You'll love the Chester River," I said. Soon the blue-hull convoy rumbled away, out of the creek around the bend into the Tred Avon River, and Leroy and I again had the marina porch to ourselves. "Next time, Leroy," I said, "try not to be such an attention hog. You're not the only one who likes to have his ears scratched, you know."

This low-key but entertaining sit-and-watch episode was typical of my early-June visit to Oxford. It helped, of course, that I had scheduled the trip, quite accidentally, on what turned out to be the three most gorgeous summer days ever recorded in human history. Perhaps I exaggerate, but only a little. The first day was especially stunning--temperatures in the 70s, not a trace of humidity, and a breathtaking afternoon sky, achingly blue and full of cotton-ball clouds. And if you can't just sit and watch the world go by on a day like that--or the two that followed, for that matter--something is drastically wrong.

Like nearby St. Michaels, Oxford is a town that evolved, at least in this century, from fishing village to recreational boating magnet. But it has considerably less peripheral business than St. Michaels. Oxford has boatyard/marinas of course--lots of them--as well yacht brokers and dealers a far greater number of inns, B&Bs and restaurants than a year-round population of some 600 would ordinarily justify. But there's not much else in the way of pure commerce in Oxford proper, which occupies a narrow strip of land between the Tred Avon River and Town Creek, as well as a few mostly residential blocks on the east side of the creek. There's one gift shop, one market/deli, one bank and one bookstore. Beyond that, it's just houses, churches and all the requisite civic/cultural things: town hall, police station, fire station, post office, library, museum, yacht club, community center, town park. Of course the town is quite old--one of the oldest in the state in fact. It was settled sometime in the 1650s, though little is known of its early years. The town was incorporated in 1683, and 11 years later it was made one of the colony's two official ports of entry--the other being Annapolis--by the Maryland General Assembly.

My crossing from Annapolis, the day before my visit with Leroy, was an uneventful one. I had fired up Venture, one of the Chesapeake Boating Club's Albin 28s, at around 2 p.m., and by 4 or so I was passing through Knapps Narrows. Less than an hour after that I was rounding the first bend of the Tred Avon River and turning into Town Creek, having called ahead for a slip at Mears--the first marina you come to in the gauntlet of marinas that is Town Creek. With Venture all snugged in, I untied old Golgotha, my trusty fat-tire bike, and rode off to explore. It's a perfect town to explore by pedal power, coverable pretty much in its entirety without breaking a sweat. Turning left out of Mears's gravel drive, I headed west on the Strand, one of the town's most picturesque waterfront streets, lined with beautiful old houses that look north across a narrow strip of sandy beach and out across the bending, mile-wide Tred Avon.

As I approached Morris Street, the town's main north-south drag, I could see the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry off to the right, pulling away from its dock with one car, a motorcycle and three bicycles aboard. It would put those vehicles ashore at the tiny village of Bellevue across the river. (From there it's about four miles north-northwest to St. Michaels, by way of Bellevue Road and Route 33.) Beyond the ferry dock here on the Oxford side, I could see a small grove of sailboat masts and the gray gables of the Tred Avon Yacht Club, topped with a handsome octagonal cupola.

At the Robert Morris Inn, easy to spot with its ancient mustard-yellow siding, I turned south at Morris Street--making a note to myself that the inn's long west-facing dining porch would be a fine choice for dinner tonight. But first I wanted to get the lay of the land, so I continued along Morris Street and into the heart of Mayberry. That is indeed where I thought I was for a moment as I pedaled up Morris, making my own breeze, the entire street to myself as far south as I could see, dappled light flattering one charming old house after another. After half a mile or so, where the main drag bends east around the workboat harbor and becomes Oxford Road, I continued south on Morris, past Pope's Tavern and Oxford Inn. (Note to self: Another nice front porch; dinner tomorrow maybe?).

A few hundred yards beyond that I turned west on Pleasant Street--very well named, not only because of the lovely dozen or so houses nestled there among the trees, but also because it dead-ends at a tiny waterside pocket park. With a bench. Yes, a sitting-and-watching place, of which I availed myself for half an hour or so, watching boats go by on the Tred Avon and watching exactly nothing happen at the Pier Street Marina just a few hundred feet to the south. This is another good dinner spot, my sources at Mears had told me, namely the Masthead Restaurant, which enjoys a wide-open sunset-lovers view of the Tred Avon.

Following Morris Street to its southern end, I came to the entrance of the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory, a marine biology research facility that dates back to the 1960--when marine scientists were scrambling to understand the parasitic diseases suddenly plaguing the Bay's oyster population. Since the late 1980s it has been, as its name suggests, a cooperative effort of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources--still very much focused on oyster biology and habitat, but also the Maryland base of the National Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Network.

With the sun getting ever closer to the far shore of the Tred Avon, I decided it was time to head north again and see about dinner at the aforementioned Robert Morris Inn. I made my way in indirect fashion, though, first detouring east on the cinder path around the soccer fields and ball courts of Causeway Park. Then, making my way north again on Morris Street, I wandered east again for a desultory and ad hoc tour of boatyards. 

Turning on Market Street and then again on Bank Street, I soon found myself ogling a pair of exquisite picnic boats in the dock alongside the Hinckley Company, a marina and boatyard that, as its name suggests, specializes in the sales and service of those gorgeous Maine-built boats.

At the end of Bank Street, I turned right on Tilghman Street and soon found myself pedaling past the famous Cutts & Case Shipyard--known far and wide as a builder and restorer of custom wooden boats. This yard is the legacy of the late Ed Cutts Sr., who developed his own patented double-planking construction system for wooden hulls. Cutts was also an expert among experts when it came to restoring wooden boats, and one of his most famous restoration projects is in plain view to the passerby, courtesy of a gigantic paned picture window that faces Tilghman Street. On display there in a very informal museum is Foto, the 33-foot Frederick Lord designed chase boat that was built for and made famous by prolific yachting photographer Morris Rosenfeld--and restored by Cutts in the early 1990s.

Turning left on Mill Street, just past Cutts & Case, took me past the sprawling Oxford Boatyard--yet another full-service repair yard and marina--and back to the Strand. Turning right there would have taken me back to Mears Yacht Haven, the northernmost stop on the Oxford marina tour--on the west side of Town Creek, that is. To complete the tour you'd have to cross over to the west side, where you'd find two of the three Campbell yards in town--Campbell's Town Creek Boatyard and Campbell's Boatyard at Jack's Point. The other is Campbell's Bachelor Point, located, as its name suggests, on Bachelor Point at the south end of town, poking out into the Tred Avon near the river's mouth.

But, not seeing a practical way of crossing Town Creek on my bike, and with my stomach now growling, I decided it was time to head to the Robert Morris Inn for dinner and some well-earned sitting-and-watching time. There I brought the day to a proper close, courtesy of Salter's Tap Room and Tavern--named for the establishment's relatively new (since 2010) celebrity-chef-proprietor, Mark Salter, formerly of the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels.

Since all of the historic homes in Oxford are private residences, the Robert Morris Inn is your best bet for an up-close-and-personal history experience. Built in 1710, the original part of the building was the home of Robert Morris Sr., a shipping agent and, more famously, the father of Robert Morris Jr.--a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the so-called "financier of the American Revolution." If you have any inclination toward claustrophobia, I suggest you avoid the four so-called cabin bedrooms, which even the inn's own literature describes as "extremely small." Go instead for the larger captain rooms--or the admiral rooms, which are part of the original 1710 structure.

But I had my own slightly claustrophobic sleeping quarters waiting for me at Mears--the Albin's V-berth--so I was here for dinner only. And an excellent one it was--a lovely glass of pinot noir, a delicious plate of local-flounder fish and chips (not with coleslaw but with peas; a sure sign of an Englishman in the kitchen) and . . . all right, twist my arm, another glass of pinot.

The morning of day two found me right back on the porch of Robert Morris Inn, this time savoring a pancake breakfast and a river view dominated by Optis--the Tred Avon junior sailing program in high gear, no doubt. I enjoyed the view, and the pancakes, and the coffee, and a little more coffee. Then it was off for another day of two-wheel exploring.

First on the agenda for today was the Oxford Museum, just three blocks away on Morris Street. Along the way I stopped for quick looks at three of the towns privately owned historic properties--the Grapevine House just up and across from the inn, then the Academy House in the next block and, a few doors farther on the east side of the street, the Barnaby House. This latter, built in 1770 by sea captain Richard Barnaby, is on the National Register of Historic places and is considered by the Maryland Historic Trust to be the town's best example of 18th-century architecture--that is, the least modified over the years. The Grapevine house, dating from 1798, gets its name from the 200-year-old grapevine that still grows in its front yard, brought from the English Channel island of Jersey in 1810.

The 1848 Academy House (aka the Bratt Mansion) was built as an officers' residence for the short-lived Maryland Military Academy--established in 1848 by General Tench Tilghman of Oxford, grandson of Colonel Tench Tilghman, who had been George Washington's aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War (more on Tilghman later). Opened with the purpose of training young gentlemen "in the southern sense," whatever that meant at the time, the academy only lasted until September of 1855, when its dormitory and classroom building burned down. The school never reopened, and the house was bought in 1862 by Henry and Jane Bell of Ireland, as a wedding present for their daughter Mary Ann, who had come to live in Oxford with her new husband, an English immigrant by the name of Samuel Bratt. Hence the alternate name.

This latter bit I learned not by osmosis from the sidewalk in front of the house, but from the Oxford Museum--where hang individual portraits of those generous parents, the "Bells of Ireland." On duty that day at the museum was the director herself, Ellen Anderson. The modest storefront museum opened in 1964, she told me, and has been amassing Oxford artifacts and oddities ever since. "We're an all-volunteer organization," she said. "Unlike some larger museums, we get no county, state or federal support. So, all things considered, we do pretty well."

Among the artifacts and displays are a French-made fourth-order Fresnel lens from the Benoni Point lighthouse that was destroyed by an ice floe in 1908; a display of wooden boatbuilder's tools, photos of Downes and Albert Curtis, famous African-American sailmakers who ran their business for many years from a Jim Crow era schoolhouse in Oxford that had operated for blacks only until 1937; photos and artifacts from the town's commercial heyday, the late 19th-century, when oysters were plentiful and railroad lines grew like kudzu; and of course displays on the two names that come up in even the briefest history of Oxford--Robert Morris Sr. and Tench Tilghman.

The grave site of the latter, at the sprawling Oxford Cemetery on the opposite side of Town Creek, was well worth the trip, Anderson said. So, not being one to take local knowledge for granted, I headed there next. This time I bore left at the Pope's Tavern (addendum to earlier note to self: yes, definitely dinner there tonight; it looks fun) and pedaled east along Oxford Road, past the Oxford Community Center (addendum to addendum to note to self: stop there too, to see what's what; I'd read somewhere that the community center was an old school, but this place looks brand-new), past the Fire Department, past a cornfield or two, to Oxford Cemetery Road--a long, string-straight drive with a distinctly formal feel to it, lined as it is with ancient cedars. The Tilghman monument is quite hard to miss, in fact--just to the right of the drive as you begin the one-way loop around the cemetery, which occupies all of the stubby neck of land between the two eastern branches of Town Creek.

I've never met a cemetery that hasn't made me instantly contemplative, if not downright introspective, so I was not surprised by my impulse to plop down in the grass here and contemplate Colonel Tilghman. He was, I'd read, the oldest of 11 children born to James Tilghman on a nearby plantation called Fausley. He was educated in Philadelphia and went into business with an uncle there, but returned to Maryland at the onset of the Revolution. Though his father and many of his siblings remained loyal to Britain, Tench did not; in 1775 he joined the Maryland Militia, which in 1776 became part of the Continental Army, where Tilghman rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and soon became aide de camp to General Washington himself, a position he held for the rest of the war. Tilghman is most famous for being the officer who traveled to Philadelphia to inform the Continental Congress of the defeat of Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown, Va., despite being sick with "chills and fever." Most accounts suggest that the physical toll of that episode contributed to his early death, at the age of 41, just five years later. Clearly, General Washington thought the world of him. Washington's own words are inscribed on the ten-foot-tall memorial that stands next to the grave, saying, in part: "While living no man could be more esteemed, and since dead none more lamented than Col. Tilghman. No one had imbibed sentiments of greater friendship for him than I had done. He left as fair a reputation as ever belonged to a human character."

As memorial sentiments go, to say nothing of their source, you could do worse, I thought as I climbed back on my bike and headed back to town. Next on the note-to-self agenda was the Oxford Community Center, just half a mile away on the other side of Oxford Road. There I was fortunate enough to find Barb Seese, the center's gregarious executive director, who quickly cleared up my confusion about this new old school. A sturdy brick affair with a handsome six-column Greek portico facing the road, it is in fact an 84-year-old building--and a historic one at that, built in 1928 as the town's main public school and designed by renowned Maryland architect Henry Powell Hopkins. Hopkins in fact designed several such secondary schools on the Eastern Shore, Seese told me, but this is the last one left in its original form.

And it looks new, she said, because it is new, sort of. That is, it has just undergone a nearly $3 million renovation, begun in 2010. The first dramatic chapter in its story was in the early 1980s when the school came very close to being torn down. But Oxford citizens rallied to save the building and put it to use as the town's community center--a role it has served well for 30 years, not least as home of the town's well regarded theater company, the Tred Avon Players. And, now renovated top to bottom, it will continue to serve the theater group, with a much improved 175-seat auditorium, stage and backstage area. But also it will serve more than ever as the town's central gathering place, with more concerts and performing arts, more children's classes and activities, more continuing education classes. More everything, Seese said, adding that it will also be the town's official visitors center.

Back on my bike and pedaling back down Morris Street, I glanced at my watch. . . . Yikes, four o'clock! Where had the day gone? That was a rhetorical question, of course, because I knew it had gone mostly to pedaling around Oxford aimlessly, happily, stopping as the spirit moved me to sit and watch, and then sit and watch some more. But there was one more sit-and-watch place I wanted to check out before the day got completely away from me--the front porch of the Pope's Tavern at Oxford Inn, where perhaps a crabcake and glass of wine might be conveniently placed in front of me.

So I went back to the boat, changed into my big-boy pants, and then doubled back to the tavern, easy to spot because of the Pope's Mobile parked in front. No, not the Popemobile. This is the Pope's (Tavern) Mobile, a beautifully restored London Black Cab--1958 Austin, to be exact--that serves as a courtesy car for the tavern and inn (with its seven guest rooms). It looks like something out of a war movie, as if Ingrid Bergman might emerge from it at any minute.

She did not. But the aforementioned crabcake and glass of wine did appear conveniently in front of me, as I'd hoped--and disappeared just as quickly, along with two delicious slices of fried green tomatoes. And that was just the beginning of what turned out to be splendid evening on the tavern's porch, where I struck up a conversation with Lisa MacDougal and Dan Zimbelman, the married co-owners of the inn and tavern (she the head chef). We chatted the daylight away, sipped wine, smoked a very nice cigar or two. It's hard to imagine a more civilized end to what had already been a very civilized day.

"What a lovely place this is to just sit and watch the world go by," I said to Dan at one point, meaning Oxford as a whole, not just this particular porch. And he must have understood that, because he said, "Yes, it's that kind of town. It's just that kind of town."