Fair Harbor

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“Bounded on the north by crabs, on the east by fresh fish, and on the south by mosquitoes” is how one visitor described an island he loved just off Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and with minor shifts of the compass, the description holds good for most of the region. By fall many of the mosquitoes have departed, but in almost any town along the water, you’ll see long, narrow crab boats piled high with the bushel baskets the watermen use to bring home their catch. The boats have no-nonsense names painted across their transoms, names like Hattie Walker and Hard Times . St. Michaels, located on the middle of a peninsula halfway down the bay, makes a good central base for exploring the area, especially because of the presence here of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

Until a bridge went up in 1952, connecting Annapolis with the counties across the bay, the Eastern Shore was one of the most isolated sections of the East Coast, inhabited mostly by farmers and fishermen. On Rand McNally’s map of Maryland, the road to St. Michaels is marked with the broken yellow line that signifies “Scenic Route.” In October fields of pumpkins and dried cornstalks line the way. The fields run right down to the bay and to the banks of the rivers that feed into it: the Miles, the Choptank, the Tred Avon, the Nanticoke.

As you enter town, Route 33 becomes Talbot Street, bordered for a few blocks with stores selling T-shirts and gourmet relishes. St. Michaels is a village of narrow streets, small lots, and modest houses with no yards to speak of. By way of compensation, everybody has a porch, and many people have two, one at street level, another upstairs. Fitted out with couches and rockers and potted plants, the porches clearly serve as living rooms; it gets warm here in July and August. St. Michaels has flourished in recent summers, and most of the houses look well cared for. But every now and then you come across one with a sagging roof and peeling exterior—a reminder that this has always been a hardworking town.

Situated close to forests of oak and pine, St. Michaels grew up in the Federal era as a shipbuilding center. Its best-known citizen is the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who lived and labored here against his will in the 1830s. By that time Baltimore’s shipyards had eclipsed those of St. Michaels, and in his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom , Douglass describes the town as wearing “a dull, slovenly, enterprise-forsaken aspect.” Most of the houses “had never enjoyed the artificial adornment of paint, and time and storms had worn off the bright color of the wood, leaving them almost as black as buildings charred by a conflagration.” His memories of the local fishermen, who constantly drank liquor, “the then supposed best antidote for cold,” are even less fond. A small park on Talbot Street is dedicated to Douglass, and local bookstores sell copies of his extraordinary memoir.

Just off the park Mill Street leads to the water and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. The day I arrived, I was drawn there by what sounded like wild applause. The weather had just cleared after a dramatic early-morning thunderstorm, and at first I thought people must be clapping in gratitude for this improvement in the day. But it turned out that fifty kids under a striped tent were hammering nails into the model boats they were building as part of the museum’s annual Mid-Atlantic Small Craft Festival.

Founded in 1965, the museum is engaged in preserving the maritime culture and history of the Chesapeake Bay region. Exhibits are spread out in an attractive assortment of small-scale buildings transplanted from around the region, including a bandstand from a steamer landing at Tolchester Beach and a lighthouse that once marked Hooper Strait, thirty-four miles down the bay. Jim Thomas, a ruddy, white-haired retired ship’s officer who is now a museum volunteer, took me around, recounting with some pride St. Michaels’s role in the early history of the nation. Privateers built here were responsible for capturing scores of British ships, he told me. “It got so bad that in 1813 King George sent a naval squadron with orders to ‘burn Norfolk, burn Washington, burn Baltimore. And while you’re at it, clean out that nest of pirates in St. Michaels too.’” A small force did attack the town in August of 1813 and was repulsed by an even smaller one, all but three members of the local militia having scattered after the first volley. One building in town took a shot through the roof and is known as Cannonball House to this day. Both sides claimed victory, and, sadly, the town’s proudest memory—that on the night of the attack residents drew British fire away from St. Michaels by hanging lanterns in trees outside town—seems never to have happened.