|Tangier Island's new museum and cultural center put out the call for artifacts and got everything, including the kitchen stove.|
by Diana Prentice
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller
might say that Tangier Island, Va., is a long way to go just to look at
an old stove. Maybe so, but it wasn't just any old stove we were going
to see. It was the one featured, along with its owner—Miss Annie—in a
photo in a 1973 article inNational Geographicchronicling the Tangier Island lifestyle. This was the stove that
produced perfectly baked pies for generations of Miss Annie's family
and friends. This was the stove that now holds pride of place at the
island's new Tangier History Museum and Interpretive Cultural Center.
With this goal in mind (in my mind, anyway—I can't speak for my husband Randy), we left Crisfield, Md., aboardStrideron a bright Friday in October and steered across Tangier Sound on the
12-mile trip to the island. It's a trip we have made several times
before, noting each time the changes, or lack of them, in this singular
piece of shifting real estate. Families and island life, with the
addition of modern amenities, continue on much the same course—wedding
shower invitations are still simply tacked up for the benefit of
all—but the shape of the island itself is continually changing at the
hands of the Bay. We took no chances with the cell phone reception and
made our calls while still en route. My call was to Milton Parks at
Parks Marina, where we'd stayed before, to request a face dock for a
couple of nights.
West of lighted "5", the sound's bottom
suddenly rises from 60 feet to single-digit numbers. As we carefully
followed the markers through the shoal-prone channel, the mail boat My
Tangier rumbled past us on its confident way along the channel, headed
back to port. Soon we caught sight of the island, lying so low in the
water that only its steeple and water tower mark it at a distance.
Before long, we were running the gauntlet of crab shanties that line
the passage through the island until we had reached Parks Marina,
nearly on the other side.
himself, looking as youthful as ever, was on the dock to greet us and
take our lines. He also offered to give us a run around the island in
his golf cart. Randy preferred to stay behind and repack the sails, but
I happily accepted the offer. And off we went at a good clip, zipping
around corners and dodging the occasional sleeping dog. Because Tangier
is a small place, with narrow streets, the principle modes of
transportation are golf carts, bicycles and feet. As Parks navigated
the island, waving to one and all, I noticed a number of changes: a
series of trailmarkers for a walking tour and brightly colored trash
bins topped with replicas of the old square screwpile lighthouse that
once sat southeast of the island. All of these items, Parks explained,
were related to the new museum. We zigzagged along Main Ridge by the
post office in the center of town, where clusters of residents were
gathered as usual to chat and enjoy the sunshine, then came to a halt
in front of the new museum.
"My dear mother's old kerosene stove
is in there, love," Parks told me, taking me by surprise. "And her
picture, too, the one that was inNational Geographic."
He sighed. "My, she was a good cook." In all the years I had been
coming to Tangier Island, I had never connected Miss Annie with Milton
Parks. Small world. Well, of course it is, I thought, this is Tangier.
I had first seen that famous issue ofNational Geographicseveral years ago, after I'd wandered into the back room of Sandy's
Gift Shop, which was just a few doors down from the new museum (also at
one time a gift shop). Sandy's back room was the informal repository
for old clippings about the island and islanders and odd island relics.
It was like rummaging through Grandma's attic. I returned there nearly
every time I visited the island. When the museum was established, all
those old clippings and relics were relocated from Sandy's, and a call
went out to all islanders to pony up their own keepsakes, clippings and
artifacts to the museum so that they could be put on display—with the
understanding that they could get them back at any time.
thanks to Parks, I passed through the neat white picket fence and
mounted the steps of the tidy cottage that now houses the history
museum and interpretive center. Inside I found a treasure trove of
Tangier memorabilia, with everything from dog-eared pamphlets and
island maps to oyster tongs and island-made dolls—even the tusk of a
wooly mammoth—all of it woven into the story of island life.
also found artist-in-residence Ken Castelli here, hard at work on a
three-dimensional map of the island that features an overlay of the
island in 1866—clearly showing how much larger it was back then. Many
of the island's historic sites, such as the fort occupied by the
British during the War of 1812, are now lost to the waters of the Bay.
Castelli explained how the island's shape is constantly changing,
especially on the south side, where winds and waves continuously
resculpt the sand. That meant that keeping the map up-to-date required
constant work as well, he said. Another of Castelli's maps showed the
entire island as it is today, with all its roads, residences, channels
Near the maps was an old-fashioned show-case with
locally crafted items, books, greeting cards and other Tangier
souvenirs available for purchase. To the right was a maze of displays
of island lore. Other portions of the museum were dedicated to other
facets of the island's past—like the British occupation in the War of
1812, the Oyster Wars and its role in aviation history (it was near
Tangier Island where General Billy Mitchell, the patron saint of U.S.
air power, was able to prove to a skeptical government in 1921 that
airplanes could, in fact, sink ships).
And then, finally, in a
recreated room of its own, I saw the old stove—an antique even when
Miss Annie was using it—still in perfect condition and complete with a
cast iron skillet. I thought of all the hungry mouths Miss Annie and
that stove had produced over so many years. It looked so small; my
galley stove aboardStriderseemed huge in comparison. But in the island's history, it's a stove that looms large indeed.
tore myself away long enough to return to the boat to get Randy.
Together we pored over the exhibits until the afternoon sun was low on
the horizon. Finally emerging, I sniffed the air. Was that a fresh pie