Monday, February 11, 2019

Maryland - Day 8 - St. Michaels

Pocomoke River State Park
Friday, 8 February 2019
today's route
It may not seem like this route was all that far, but it took me nearly 2 hours of driving to get to St. Michaels, home of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.  After several days of comparatively decent weather, I chose today for this drive and got overcast skies and plenty of wind all day.  That's the way it goes sometimes.  It is winter, after all.

The first hour of the drive was in some heavy mist/fog and I had to go carefully to be sure I wasn't overtraveling my stopping distance.  But after I passed Salisbury, the clouds started lifting and the drive was just gray, not foggy.

Maryland has a $1500 fine for littering.  I don't think I've seen any state where it's anything close to this high.  They also seem to encourage the adopt-a-highway program because I see signs all over where businesses and people claim they're cleaning.

I saw a Red-winged Blackbird, the first I've seen in months.
Red-winged Blackbird
I was on Rt. 50 most of the day, and part of it says it's dedicated to Harriet Tubman.  As I drove on, I discovered that she was actually born not far from where I was driving, that they have an Underground Railroad visitor center near there, and there's a Harriet Tubman Byway with markers for places important to the Underground Railroad.  It made me wish I had more time and better weather for checking some of this out.

Local controversy: Gov. Hogan (mentioned as a 2020 GOP challenger to Pres. Trump) had previously ordained that Maryland schools should wait to open until after Labor Day.  It was always that way in Texas when I was growing up - relic of the days when kids had to help their families bring in the crops - so I couldn't see why that would cause fuss.  But it turns out the gov. did it so families would have a longer time together to go to Ocean City (America's Finest Family Resort) and spend money.  The Legislature is looking at giving  control over the start dates back to local authorities.  People are in an uproar.

St. Michaels
St. Michaels was laid out in the 1770s and incorporated in 1804, and it looks just about that old.  It's tiny and on the water and charming: in 2007 it was voted #8 of the Top Ten Romantic Escapes in the US by Coastal Living Magazine.  When I was there, every upright post was plastered with large red valentines saying things like Jim ♥ Karen, and I'm guessing it's a local fundraiser or something.

As tiny as it is, it's had plenty of brushes with fame.  James Michener wrote much of Chesapeake here.  Clara's Heart and Wedding Crashers were both filmed here.  And both Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld own estates near here.

Shipbuilding was its first industry, and there were 6 shipbuilders here by the War of 1812.  Post-that-war, though, shipbuilding waned here and gradually oystering took its place.  Some of the town is built on what used to be marsh until it got filled by oyster shells - as much as 10' deep of them.  Must be interesting trying to garden here.

St. Michaels bills itself as The Town That Fooled The British, a designation that seems to be built as much on local myth and wishful thinking as reality, but it's true the British attacked it unsuccessfully during the War of 1812.  The local story goes that the townspeople knew they were coming and instituted a local blackout of lights in buildings, then hung lanterns at the tops of boat masts and trees, fooling the British into overshooting the town, sparing all the buildings.

As far as I'm concerned, St. Michaels' current claim to fame is the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.  I'd expected a large building with exhibits but instead found multiple buildings, each with a different story to tell about life on the bay.

This is a good museum for little kids, I think.  They encourage people to climb up into the lighthouse and see how the lighthouse keeper lived.  There are interactive exhibits all over the museum.

skipjack at the dock
A skipjack is the boat developed for use in oystering in the
internet photo of a skipjack
Chesapeake and, believe it or not, is still being used in the industry today.  I couldn't really get a decent angle on the one at the museum but there's a good photo and more information on this Wikipedia page.  They are the last working boats under sail in the US.  They evolved when the oyster population began to decline due to overharvesting, and the big expensive boats that had been used were no longer cost-effective.  A skipjack can be built quickly and easily almost anywhere (no boatyard needed), so were much cheaper.

I learned that the Chesapeake Bay is the greatest oyster factory on earth, when properly managed.  In fact, it's one of the richest, most productive environments on earth.  (They don't go in for modesty at this museum.)  The Bay is the US's largest estuary system, with 11,684 miles of shoreline and 2,700 species of plants and animals.  It's 200 miles long and has an average depth of only 21'.  Makes me wonder about boat keels here.

Seafood harvesting is now a year-round activity.  Blue crabs are harvested when the water is warm and the crabs are active.  Oystering is done in the cold months when they oysters taste better.  Eeling is done during spring and fall migration, with most of the catch exported to Europe and Asia.  And fishing used to be seasonal but is done all year now.  Fishers in the Chesapeake Bay are known as watermen, rather than fishermen as everywhere else.

Back in the first part of the 1900s, the men and older boys left town to go dredging for oysters in October and were gone until Christmas, then left again until March.  This left the women to do everything else which, in those times, included hauling water from the well, caring for the children, providing food for the family - including butchering the hogs, taking care of everything that had to be done during the winter months, all without electricity or running water.  I know I'm not tough enough to do all that.

Sharptown Barge

The sign notes that these boats were made to be "roomy" to hold the catch, but the boat here is only 22' x 5' - my RV is bigger than that.

It was at this point that my camera's battery ran out of juice.  Coincidentally, at not long after this point, I found I was so cold I wasn't interested in the exhibits.  All I wanted to do was get back to the RV to warm up.  This museum would be fascinating in the warmer months, there's so much to see and I couldn't really take advantage of it.  Even though many exhibits are inside a building, the buildings aren't heated and I was really getting chilled.  Too bad.

We went from St. Michaels back down the road to Easton.  That road - Rt. 33 - is dedicated to Frederick Douglass, who spent some of his childhood in this area, for a while in St. Michaels.  Interesting that the same area produced both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.

Easton is itself an old town and is now working on preserving some its historic character.

Back down the highway toward the campground I once again crossed the Choptank River, which is a lovely river.  It's huge and, that day, very calm.  The bridge was lined with Black-backed Gulls - very large gulls - 30". 
Great Black-backed Gull
A woman I talked to in Easton said she'd grown up in this area but lived her adult life in New Jersey and worked in Manhatten.  She moved back here 3 years ago and said she'd met more people in those 3 years than in the 30 years she lived up north.  She said people down here are more relaxed, that life is more peaceful living by the water.  She said she's much happier here.

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