Waterman Country Offers Natural Beauty and Old-World Charm
This story began in 1634 when the first settlers arrived in Southern Maryland and created a lifestyle sustained by the bounty of the surrounding waters. But for me it came to life one morning when the flush of dawn danced upon the water while I strolled along the Patuxent River in Calvert County. A trio of ducks bobbed for breakfast as the river’s song quavered against the wave-beaten rocks. Later, while driving around, I was awed by the remnants of history along the gently rolling countryside – picturesque fishing villages, historic cities, old plantations, tobacco barns, lighthouses and tidal inlets. The unspoiled beauty and old-word charm of Maryland’s southern region simply amazed me. I, too, had discovered a new world.
For nearly 20 years I’ve been visiting our children and grandchildren in the Annapolis area but only recently ventured to Southern Maryland, a 90-minute drive away, where 5,600 miles of shoreline grace the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Maryland’s western shore is steeped in colonial and maritime heritage and it exudes a natural beauty. Here, in waterman country, there’s a sense that time moves slow as the river’s flow. They say the region was once “the best kept secret on the East coast,” but the word is out and the area is becoming a big draw for local get-aways and tourists.
Southern Maryland includes Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary's counties, each bustling with water activities and other adventures. Calvert County has the largest charter fleet on the bay, according to Joyce Baki, the county’s tourism specialist. She said their major focus has traditionally been commercial and charter fishing, but captains are now offering more diversified excursions, such as sunset cruises to waterfront restaurants and educational trips that highlight maritime history. Since this year marks the bicentennial of the War of 1812, several captains plan to share insight on the war’s impact on the region.
The counties also features a wealth of scenic winery and hiking trails, a variety of dining options, and charming country stores and old-time markets. Numerous events celebrating the area’s culture are held throughout the year, including the annual Oyster Festival which brings America’s fastest oyster shuckers together to compete for the national title, and the Crab Festival where seafood lovers feast on traditional and new Blue Crab dishes. Another huge draw is the fossil-rich Calvert Cliffs State Park where tourists often take to the beach to hunt for shark teeth and other artifacts from the Miocene era.
My quest for the area’s history and local flavor began at Solomons Island, an old harbor village that sits at the tip of Chesapeake Bay and Patuxent River. In earlier years, the tidewater region was shaped by tobacco plantations and later became the center for oyster processing. For an authentic view of its heritage and culture, I visited the Calvert Marine Museum where history comes to life in grand exhibits and paleontological displays. The William B. Tennison, an old buy-boat, is docked at the museum. Visitors can take a river cruise aboard the historic vessel that once plied the waters as pilots bought oysters and took them to market so harvesters could stay with their oyster beds. The museum also offers guided tours of The Drum Point Lighthouse which graces the river. Nearby Cove Point Lighthouse has striking views of the Calvert Cliffs that soar above the bay’s shoreline. A short drive away, the J.C. Lore Oyster House gives visitors a rare glimpse into the seafood industry that was once vital to the area’s economy. The packing plant processed oysters, crabs and fish from 1912 through 1978 -- when the oyster population began to decline from overharvesting. Today, watermen and scientists work to revitalize the oyster industry which once provided 10 million bushels a year.
St. Mary’s County
Leaving Calvert County, I crossed the Thomas Johnson Bridge that connects to St. Mary’s County which is often called the “Keys of Southern Maryland.” Only a small concrete barrier on the two-lane highway separates motorists from the Patuxent River below. At first, the bridge was a bit intimidating, but the spectacular views of Solomons and the charming towns beyond were well worth the crossover. Most of my time in Southern Maryland was spent here along the rustic tidewater landscape of the state’s oldest county. The colonial history comes to life in historic St. Mary’s City where the first 140 colonists arrived in 1634 and built Maryland’s first capitol. When the state seat was moved to Annapolis in 1695, the town was abandoned, fell to ruin and was plowed over for tobacco fields. Today, the ancient town is a colonial archeological site with a museum, numerous outdoor living history exhibits, a tobacco plantation, and more than 5 million artifacts. The city’s Woodland Indian Hamlet depicts the life of the Yaocomaco Indians who cheerfully shared the frontier with colonists and taught them survival techniques. Visitors can also see replicas of the town’s 17th century hotel, printing shop and the quaint Brick Chapel that symbolizes the religious freedom that lured colonists to the area.
Just a short drive away, the 18th century Sotterly Plantation, shaded by century old trees, sits on a hillside overlooking the Patuxant River. It’s the state’s only remaining tidewater plantation and has preserved the voice of history through amazing documentaries, cultural and environmental programs for all ages, and tours of the 18th century mansion, a slave cabin, custom’s warehouse, smoke house and other outbuildings dating to the 1830s. The grand home sings of an economic boom when European markets demanded a wealth of tobacco. Some sounds are more rhythmic like the cadence of a beautifully carved Chippendale staircase and other fine woodwork. But for me, the most poignant voice was the distance echo of the plantation’s slaves settling in for the night on their corn shuck mattresses.
Most moving is a documentary featuring Agnes Kane Callum whose ancestors arrived here as slaves in 1848, a time when the plantation had one of the largest enslaved African-American communities in the region. “Everything that went on with slaves happened here,” she said, recalling stories that have been passed down from her grandfather and other ancestors who had been slaves on the plantation. She said the slaves had incredible strength to survive such a cruel system. They kept the winter winds out of their cabins by patching holes with oyster shells and mud. Shoes were carved from tree branches, and families slept on the floor, using corn shucks and wheat chaff for mattresses. “In the morning, they went on the hill and saw the luxuries of owners in the mansion where pillows were covered in lace and linen sheets. … Maybe someday they hoped to be in the same situation." She believes Sotterly’s programs, such as “Slavery to Freedom,” are important, especially for the younger generation. “How do you tell children … but you bring them here and show them, that’s tremendous … My people living today are proud of our ancestors. I’m lucky to be connected to Sotterly.”
Other student programs include: “Colonial Tidewater Plantation Life” which provides an opportunity to experience daily life on a colonial plantation; “Living on the Patuxent,” which offers an historical view of colonial life on the river; and “Archaeology Rocks!,” a hands-on-experience that shows students how to view artifacts from Sotterley’s slave quarters.
The Plantation also hosts an annual Riverside WineFest which showcases the best of Maryland wines. The two-day family event features a variety of music, tours, arts and crafts, children’s games, winemaking demonstrations – and of course lots of wine tasting!
Piney Point and St. George Island
One of the highlights of my venture was exploring Piney Point and St. George Island along St. Mary’s Peninsula. The pulse of nature reveals its quiet beauty here through the tide-and-time simplicity of logs weathered like bones along the river banks and stones washed smooth. Beach grass waves in the breeze and magnificent tall timbers dot the countryside. The area boasts cultural and environmental history along with scenic landscapes, horse farms, plantations, and wharfs.
First stop was a visit to the 1836 Piney Point Lighthouse Museum and Park where the river’s oldest beacon still graces the Potomac. The lighthouse aided river navigation until 1964 and is now part of a museum that features hist oric workboats that once plied the river and bay. I climbed the tower’s spiral stairs – a bit steep, but a panoramic view of a serene riverscape waits for those who make it to the top. It’s easy to see why the park was an elite summer retreat for U.S. presidents and other notables in the late 19th century.
A short bridge takes visitors to St. George Island that was once known for its thriving oyster population. Until about 50 years ago, most of the island’s 200-plus residents were watermen, putting bread and butter on their tables through the oyster, crab and fish industries. Around 1965, the oyster beds were infested with disease, bringing the industry to its knees and disrupting a fragile ecosystem on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Today, the industry supports a few watermen in the community, providing only a part-time income.
Captain Jack Russell and others at the island’s Chesapeake Bay Field Lab (once the Sea-Fruit Oyster House) are working to restore the health of the Bay. For 25 years, the captain has shared his “revival” message by hosting natural and environmental tours aboard the Dee of St. Mary’s, one of Maryland’s last skipjacks. “The bottom line is we need to clean up the waters and everything else will come back on its own merit. The key is to reach the younger generation with the importance of good stewardship of our natural resources,” he said. As many as 50,000 students have boarded the skipjack to listen to his message and participate in hands-on activities, such as dredging oysters and setting crab pots. The skipjack docks at the old oyster-shucking house which is now a museum.
Wine and Food
As a wine enthusiast, I was fascinated with the scenic wineries along the Patuxent Wine Trail. Many grace the sites of old tobacco plantations or farms dating back to the 17th century. The soil and climate are ideal (similar to Tuscany, they say), so it’s no surprise that the wineries produce some world-class wines. I didn’t have the pleasure of tasting them all, but the creamy Yellowlegs, a Petit Manseng from Slack Winery, is memorable because it complimented my introduction to butter-and-cheese-smothered Oysters Rockerfeller. Surprisingly, the little morsels also went well with the winery’s dessert wine, “Danny Boy Danny.” The winery is housed on a beautiful country estate along the water. Also, I enjoyed the Malbec and Chambourcin from the Running Hare Winery, which operates from a magnificent old-world Tuscan-style building.
Several restaurants offer seafood caught by local watermen, including some of the best Chesapeake Bay Oysters and Maryland Blue Crabs around! The local flavor came to life one afternoon when I feasted on succulent steamed crabs and some tasty seafood nibbles at the Island Bar and Crab House on St. George Island. I also had the opportunity to taste St. Mary’s County traditional stuffed ham, a local favorite that’s made with corned ham and stuffed with cabbage, kale, and a yummy variety of spices. The labor-intensive dish originated in the 17th century, possibly with slaves. I can see why it’s a local favorite. And it went quite well with a lovely red wine called Captain’s Table from the Port of Leonardtown winery, located near the McIntosh Run water trail.
When it comes to the good life, Southern Maryland has much to offer -- savory seafood and great wines, and a wealth of cultural, rural and maritime heritage. When Dan joins me on the next visit, we plan to explore the scenic hiking trails, including the Red Trail that winds around Chesapeake Bay at Calvert Cliffs State Park. Then, we’ll replenish our energy by dining on locally caught seafood as we wind our way through the Patuxent Wine Trail!