Curtis Short never tires of it, even after a lifetime of living here and decades of daily driving to the district office in St. Michaels of Choptank Electric Cooperative, where he is the manager of regional operations. The back roads he often chooses on the route give up glimpses of ducks on the wing, white-tailed deer in the shadows of tall loblolly pines and red-throated wild turkeys gleaning at the edges of tidy garden plots.
Soon enough, he is onto Maryland Route 33 that runs right into old St. Michaels and onto historic Talbot Street, the lively main thoroughfare where excellent touristy restaurants, art-and-craftsy shops, wine, beer and spirit tasting rooms, top-quality jewelry and gem stores, and trendy shoe and clothing boutiques nestle beside the locals’ Graul’s Market and the Lumberyard hardware store.
Just a quick look at the architectural and structural details behind many of the shops reveals styles of previous homes and commercial buildings that go back a century and more in this National Register of Historic Places district.
The distinctive houses, however, dotting Talbot Street and its side streets and alleyways impart timelessness to this tidal community. The late 18th- and early 19th-century houses — many of them redefined as charming small inns or faithful one-family reconstructions — exhibit Colonial and Federal styling, whimsical Queen Anne, and colorful Victorian, Greek and Gothic Revival and Italianate.
These were once owned by businessmen, ship captains, plantation owners and merchants when St. Michaels was a powerful, prosperous maritime economy. The money that flowed in from canneries and seafood processing plants was poured into these houses and furnished by wives with exquisite taste.
Today, the St. Michaels economy depends upon its past to entice thousands of tourists and sightseers to the area for relaxation in the nostalgia and elegance of history.
Short finds the history most pertinent to him in the backyards and utility poles behind these structures where conductor wire and transformers meet.
“I am looking at lines,” he says. “I am not looking at the architecture.” Short and his small crew have been in charge of St. Michaels’ power infrastructure since 2006 when the town sold its electric lines to Choptank Electric at the expiration of its long-term lease with Delmarva Power.
“We saw an opportunity,” Short says. In addition to picking up 4,000 meters, the co-op inherited an aging infrastructure that has required rebuilding and reconstruction to standardize the system to its specifications. “There were reliability problems then. We’re still upgrading today,” he says.
St. Michaels Town Manager/Clerk Jean Weisman worked for the utility board then and recalls the professionalism and dedication of Short and the Choptank employees. It was a crucial time because the town needed improvement in its electric infrastructure to underpin the burgeoning tourist expansion.
Today, tourism accounts for $13 million in gross revenues for the town. But that also means the community, which has barely more than 1,000 permanent residents, often sees days when it must serve the additional needs of up to 5,000 who are depending on the restaurants, shops and other attractions.
That’s why Short gave his cellphone number to anyone who wanted it. “I told our members that if they had any problems, call me personally. And, yes, I had and still have people calling me in the middle of the night. And, yes, a lot of people told me I would be sorry. But it was responsible, and it made people feel good. We are part of the community and this is how we treat people on the Eastern Shore. It is part of what makes us special.”
The “clutter on the landscape” the curmudgeonly writer James A. Michener worried about through the characters in his epic 1978 novel never quite materialized. The nearly 5-mile bridge link to the mainland did bring lasting change, though. The first span opened in 1952, ending the Eastern Shore’s relative geographic isolation and helping to usher in economic, environmental and demographic pressures that contributed to the decline of the maritime economy. In its wake came a tourist and recreational industry. The 1973 sister bridge span expanded and completed the job.
As soon as you leave the bridge, outlet malls, franchise hotels, restaurants and businesses fringe U.S. 50 for about 30 miles. Quickly enough, it’s back to the scenery the Eastern Shore is known for: Farm stands just off the road selling globes of tomatoes and watermelons the size of hogs; the blue smoke and yummy smell of barbecue slabs sold from trucks and trailers; patches of humidity floating in the woods above brackish marshes; and the random boats dry-docked in driveways.
Those are the sights that soothe the tourists and, yes, even the bureaucrats of nearby Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Annapolis, who gladly barter interminable bridge traffic for the chance to unplug from it all for a few days in St. Michaels and its surrounding areas.
St. Michaels’ crown jewel is the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (cbmm.org), which opened in 1965. More than 75,000 guests now flock to it each year. The interactive museum sits on an 18-acre campus with activities that include the October hosting of the AJ Meerwald, a restored 1928 oyster schooner that is the official tall ship of New Jersey.
Yet, St. Michaels’ most photographed icon, the 1879 Hooper Strait Lighthouse, was never part of the town’s actual historic bustling waterfront.
Condemned by the federal government in 1965, the demolition contractor sold the structure to the museum for $1,000. The Arundel Corp. towed it by barge 60 miles north to where it sits on its distinctive stilts at Navy Point on the museum campus. It is perfectly preserved to how it might have looked in the 1920s.
In the museum’s working shipyard, the woodsy smell of resin and sawn wood mingles with the chopping sounds of the axe-like adze and the pounding of mallets, chisels and squeal of hooks where the shipwrights work.
From now to 2021, the shipyard’s mission is the rebuilding of the Maryland Dove, a 40-ton cargo ship that in 1634 accompanied some of the first colonists to what became St. Mary’s City.
That was 44 years before the establishment of Christ Church in the St. Michael Archangel Parish that sets the founding date of St. Michaels. Silver altar vessels from that period are on display at the church, but it is best known for the sounding of its bells that drift hourly in the air above town.
At 4 p.m. one afternoon in August, Michael Allen, an associate shipwright at the museum, paused, listening to the chiming, a smile was on his face. Contentment. He is a happy man, he said, because he is working in one of the few places left in the U.S. where a person with his skills as a carpenter/boatbuilder/historian could ever find a job.
Contentment seems to be the undercurrent here. Quick conversations with local shop and business owners underscore that point.
Take Jaime Windon, CEO of Lyon Distilling Co., which makes liquors and spirits. Windon, a photojournalist, moved to St. Michaels in 2011 from the exotic Lamu Island, off the coast of Kenya in the Indian Ocean. She remembers the community from a photo project on the area’s community of watermen. “This town has a feel to it like Lamu.”
She managed a local bed and breakfast, and then decided to start a distillery, filling a niche void left by the St. Michaels wineries and brewery that were already established.
“When I got here, it was known as a tourist town, but what appealed to me is that it was first a waterfront hard-working town. Distilled spirits were always part of its economic and cultural landscape. The last distillery closed in 1972,” says Windon, who is serving a second term as a town commissioner.
Though Lyon Distillery has the feel of a tiny but classy speakeasy, a dozen people work here now since the first rum ran from the distilling pots. “I said, ‘Why not go for it?’ I found people who have specific talents and we got to work. That was in 2013. We now ship to five states,” says Windon. “What I have learned is the way to be happy and content is to take opportunities.”
That’s the tack taken by Susan Hopkins, the business half of Hopkins Original Art Gallery on Talbot Street. Three years ago, she and her artist husband, Ryan, chose St. Michaels over big cities and resort locations such as Naples and Marco Island in Florida.
Their daily boat commute to the gallery takes 15 minutes. Hopkins says the water informs almost every aspect of the individual paintings produced by her husband, whether it is portraiture, abstract or landscape.
“This is where we are thriving. When we got the keys to the gallery, a lot of people were skeptical that a gallery featuring only one artist could make it. Honestly, we weren’t expecting it to be so successful either. We wanted to create a destination — a place for people to come whether they bought or not. This location is perfect because of the buyers who come here seeking original art also know its value.”
Those folks would include the rich and the famous: Hall of Fame sports stars, former high-ranking cabinet officials, a vice president, presidential advisors, political strategists. About half of St. Michaels’ 759 houses are second homes.
Journalist James Rosen, a reporter for the Sinclair Broadcast Group in Washington, D.C., and the author of numerous books, describes St. Michaels as the “unofficial capital” of the Chesapeake Bay on the Maryland side.
“My wife and sons and I used to go there a lot until we purchased a summer home farther north. While it offers a great respite from the hectic pace of Washington, St. Michaels is also the one town on the Eastern Shore where you are likeliest to run into bold-faced names from the Beltway.”
As a busy commercial and residential electrician, Tim Fluharty has worked in upscale and downsized locations throughout the Eastern Shore from Tilghman Island just south of St. Michaels.
A native, Fluharty says he nearly became a waterman. “I don’t guess I was any good at it. We oystered, tonged and crabbed. I came up with a pull of rotten clams. I was working with my uncle. He told me I should learn from that and go get a job on the land.”
That was in 1975. He has seen a lot of changes, but what hasn’t changed is the grace that people here seem to live their lives.
“Anything west of the bridge is the dark side. This is God’s country here and we know it.”
And you certainly don’t have to be a native to appreciate it.
Katie Clark, a Bethesda financial advisor for RBC, started coming to St. Michaels about 15 years ago. She and her husband are now in an active search to buy a place and reside in the peacefulness she finds in each visit.
“When we drive over that bridge, there is an immediate sense of peace and tranquility that comes over us. We go into the town of St. Michaels and enjoy the people and beautiful shops and restaurants. More than that, we have a wonderful feeling of being home. It is so comforting and such a happy place to be.”
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