Issue: July 2004
Bay Lady

In the early 1930s, a sailboat brought a young couple to St. Michaels. So began a love affair with the region that sparked the Chesapeake’s first museum dedicated to the Bay.

 

     It is a sparkling summertime day at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Md., and no one is sitting still. Teenagers charge up the steps of the 125-year-old Hooper Strait Lighthouse, stare out over the Miles River and imagine the life of a lighthouse keeper. Toddlers climb into the pilothouse of the buyboat Thor, spin the steering wheel and scramble into the cozy bunk behind the helm. In the museum’s boat shop, artisans work on a wooden skiff. Out in the harbor, the bugeye Edna E. Lockwood, built in 1889 on Tilghman Island, seems to fly where she floats. And on the skipjack Rosie Parks, men run their hands over her wooden spars and wonder what it must feel like to sail her on a frigid winter’s morning, dredging for oysters. ¶ In the center of it all sits the elegant Tolchester Beach bandstand, built in 1880 in the age of steamboats and gentility, and if Vida Van Lennep were visiting the museum on this day, you might expect her to be taking in the shade here, her long legs crossed primly. She is in her 90s, after all. On the other hand, that would presume Vida Van Lennep might want to sit still. And that is not something this woman-whose inspiration and motivationwere the driving forces that helped create this remarkable museum dedicated to Bay culture-has ever done.

     “I’m a Taurus,” she says, as if this explains everything. “Stubborn as a mule.” It’s one of life’s little ironies that the woman behind this museum isn’t even from here. She and her husband, Gus Van Lennep Jr., were from Philadelphia. They had met in Cape May, N.J., fell in love on a sailboat, and it was a sailboat that brought them to St. Michaels and the Chesapeake-specifically, a 37-foot gaff-rigged beauty called Elf, built in 1888 by the renown Boston boatbuilder George Lawley. “When we were married in 1931 we were given a nest egg of one thousand dollars, and we saw an ad in Yachting, and, well, there she is,” she says, pointing to a painting hanging near her door of a sharp little boat biting the breeze. “There went our nest egg, plus two hundred dollars.” They also saw an ad in Yachting for a reputable boatbuilder in Oxford, and so after doing what they could with her themselves, they sailed Elf to the Bay for some extensive work. “We just fell in love with it. St. Michaels was a dear little town. The side streets were all oyster shell. The houses were wood and most of them didn’t have much paint. It was a watermen’s town and I guess they didn’t have time to paint.”

     For two people who found a certain grace in age and beauty beneath the rough exteriors, the small Eastern Shore town quickly became home. In 1937 they moved for good and bought Rolles Range, a home built in 1751. “We like old houses-we’re a little nutty that way,” she says, speaking of Gus, as ever, as though he is in the room with her, though he died nine years ago. “We just like old things, even some people!” A few years later they bought Crooked Intention, another historic farmhouse dating from 1710. Vida had attended the Philadelphia School of Industrial Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and Gus was a lawyer by training. But when they came to St. Michaels they ended up restoring old houses, farming, churning butter and cooking on a coal range. One year, Vida says, Gus had an oyster boat built, named it Retriever and went oystering. Just to see what it was like. “We were always seeing log canoes and skipjacks. We were not as fascinated by what they were at that point, we just loved them as boats. It wasn’t until we got into the museum business that we really got interested in what they were.”

     It was probably inevitable that the Van Lennep’s love of “old things,” as Vida calls them, as well as their passion for hard-working boats, got them thinking about a museum devoted to the Bay’s maritime heritage. “It got started because there wasn’t one,” she says simply. Though the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va., had an exhibit about the Bay, its focus was far broader. Nowhere was there a museum devoted only to traditional Bay boats and culture. So they started doing their homework. They visited the Mariners’ Museum and soaked up the valuable experience of its curator then, Robert Burgess. They went to Mystic Seaport and came home with even more ideas. They consulted with the Maryland Historic Trust, which literally opened up its basement to them to borrow musty old maritime artifacts. Then they made the museum happen.

     “She was the catalyst, she and Gus,” says John Valliant, the museum’s director. “Without their continued energy and enthusiasm and pushing things along, it probably would have just plodded along. It really took off as a result of their involvement.” Among the museum archives is a yellowed newspaper clipping showing an eager young Valliant, in sixth grade, handing over a check to the handsome Gus Van Lennep Jr., vice president of the Historic Society of Talbot County. The class won the money for its Johnny Appleseed float in the Halloween Parade, and they donated it to the fledgling museum.

     In 1963, the Historic Society of Talbot County agreed to develop the museum, formed an organizing committee and promptly raised $50,000 to purchase three old buildings on the St. Michaels waterfront that would become its nucleus. “A sudden awakening has taken place to the fact that the bugeye, the skipjack, the log sailing canoe, the pungy, the sharpie, the schooner, the sloop, the crab skiff, the bateau [and] the brogan would in the not-too-distant future become things of the past,” the organizing committee wrote in its prospectus. “So why not do something to preserve them in a museum, on land and on water? Thus tribute would be paid to these vessels and their functioning, and to the men who built and sailed them.”

     Vida Van Lennep, in a Washington Star story published March 28, 1965, put it more succinctly: “We want to save what we can, at a time when things are dropping out of sight overnight.” And since she was head of the curator’s committee, she put out the call that would soon overrun her house with models and books, binnacles and tools. “We know there are countless museum pieces in thousands of attics throughout the Bay country. With the spring housecleaning due to begin soon, we hope these garages and closets and cellars can be searched and the items donated to the museum.” Today, she laughs about trying to stumble around her home without breaking her neck as she frantically stacked up piece after precious piece, waiting for renovations on the museum’s buildings to finish so she could install the beginning of its collection. “Our house was so full of stuff we couldn’t entertain or anything,” she says, “but it was a lot of fun.”

     Among those early donations were a 55-foot Alden yawl (which the museum eventually sold), a log canoe built in 1895, an early 1900s binnacle from the Annapolis sidewheeler Governor Emerson E. Harrington, lanterns, models and watermen’s tools. And best of all, the oyster schooner J.T. Leonard, built in 1882 on Taylors Island, on loan during the oystering off-season. When the museum opened on a shining spring day, May 22, 1965, with some 1,500 people attending and dignitaries from the state, congressional delegation, U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Park Service looking on, the long bowsprit of the Leonard was in the foregound of nearly every photo, tied up along the bulkhead right in front of the new museum. The photos ran in newspapers including the New York Times and as far afield as the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio. St. Michaels was suddenly on the map.

     Of course, that was only a beginning. The museum had no paid staff, and so Vida signed on as a full-time volunteer curator. Under her inspired leadership and wide-open mind, the museum bloomed like a shadbush in spring. In the archives today are dozens of photos of her, usually surrounded by a cadre of men, accepting a log canoe model or a check or a cache of historic photos. Invariably she stands straight-backed, her feet together just so, wearing a stylish skirt or dress and jacket and a smile on her face. She hadn’t been curator a year before she snapped up what remains the museum’s showstopper, the Hooper Strait Lighthouse. The Coast Guard was decommissioning most of the Bay’s old lighthouses, and Hooper Strait had stood watch over Tangier Sound since the late 1870s. Its charming cottage architecture was pure Chesapeake Bay. It weighed 40 tons and would be sawed in half, disconnected from its pilings and barged up the Bay to its new home on Navy Point. It was a crazy idea. Vida loved it. “It was a big order, that’s true,” she says. “But it seemed then like anything could happen.” When the barge hove into view on a late autumn day in 1966, most of the town showed up to watch, and even the schools let the kids out to witness the amazing sight. “It was just sort of breathtaking,” she says. “It looked like an old six-sided sugar bowl. They took the top off and set it on the side with the finial on top. That’s exactly what it looked like.”

     Aside from the lighthouse’s historical value, it was a brilliant PR move-Vida was quoted in newspapers all over the country next to photos of the old lighthouse, and the town and museum were written up in Yachting, Modern Maturity, American Motorist and countless national newspapers. By 1969, the museum achieved independence from the Historic Society of Talbot County, and had attracted more than 100,000 visitors. In November of that year, it hired its first full-time curator and director, and Vida quietly moved into the background. Today, the museum owns 18 acres and has nine exhibit buildings and 7,000 members. More than 91,000 people visit annually. Its collection includes 8,000 artifacts, 85 boats, 2,700 photos, 220 oral histories, 73 manuscript collections and an 8,900-volume library. Its auditorium is named after Vida and Gus Van Lennep. Vida lives quietly in nearby Easton, in a modern home full of lovely old things, like the 18th-century mantelpiece over the fireplace and the Schoenhutt dolls she painstakingly restores. She still sits up straight like a proper lady, dresses with style, has a ready sense of humor and may be inclined to call you “dearie,” and you won’t mind a bit. The museum, she says, has exceeded her wildest hopes. And having seen all that has changed on the Chesapeake in nearly 70 years, she is grateful she and Gus never gave up on their dream of a place dedicated to the Bay’s maritime culture and past.