On the Dock of the Bay

Easygoing Rock Hall remains a quiet haven for watermen and landlubbers alike.
By Fran Severn
Photography by Scott Suchman
Published in Chesapeake Life Magazine
It’s midday in Rock Hall and patrons at the Waterman’s Crab House are sitting at picnic tables scattered across the open-air deck overlooking the town harbor. The air is filled with the mingling dockside aromas of salt tang and creosote. Fresh-shucked oysters and hot crab cakes disappear as the diners watch two ospreys set up housekeeping on a buoy in the channel. Well-appointed sailboats head out for open water, while two work boats, the Olivia and Jamri II, return from their day’s tasks, motoring past with the regal dignity of the Bay’s true royalty. In the distance, the ghostly shape of the Bay Bridge is as insubstantial as a shadow. The solitary customer with a palm pilot and cell phone looks as out of place as a business suit at a Jimmy Buffett concert.
Such is life in this waterman’s hamlet, tucked deep in the neck of Kent County where nobody drives faster than a becalmed sailboat, and everybody has time to “visit” with one another. The village is a waterside version of small-town America with its fifteen marinas, comfortable collection of simple frame houses, a pocket-sized public beach, and a handful of restaurants and shops. In the hallway of the former school-turned-town-hall there’s a large bulletin board covered with flyers about community events advertising an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord to benefit the Volunteer Fire Department, a community tree planting for Earth Day, and the FOP Dinner Dance.
It wasn’t always this peaceful. In Revolutionary times, Rock Hall Cross Roads, as it was called, competed with Annapolis as an economic hub. It was a busy seaport, and, in those very pre-I-95 days, the ferry from Annapolis was a favorite among George Washington and his buddies as a shortcut to Philadelphia. But the seafaring ships eventually gravitated to Annapolis and upstart Baltimore, which were closer to the mouth of the Bay and the more profitable settlements inland.
Throughout the 1900s, watermen replaced sailors as commercial fishing became the town’s raison d’etre. Ron Fithian was one of them. On a sultry afternoon, Rock Hall’s town manager pushes back from the computer keyboard in his office and remembers what it was like growing up. “For a young boy, it was an adventurous kind of life,” he recalls. “The best hunting for ducks and geese that you could find. There were no pleasure boats. It was a seafood town. We oystered, crabbed, clammed, fished. We were the Rockfish Capital of the World, with tractor-trailers driving to Fulton Fish Market in New York. At one time, 75 percent of the people in Rock Hall made their living off the Bay. You could devote your life to it. I spent twenty-seven years out there and did it all.”
But that life is disappearing faster than undeveloped shorefront property. Fithian hung up his waders five years ago, like many other watermen no longer able to stay afloat financially. Today, the town’s salvation are the pleasure boats and charter fishing. “We’re fortunate the marina business picked up where the seafood industry dropped off,” says Fithian. “If we were still depending on the seafood business, there would be tumbleweeds rolling down Main Street.”
“Picked up” is putting it mildly. Sixteen-hundred people call Rock Hall home, but there are more than that many boat slips. Work boats, 18-foot Bayliners, and yachts the size of some Third World countries all tie up here.
“The population more than doubles on a weekend,” laughs Diane Oliver, owner of Swan Haven B&B, a comfortable inn where guests spend afternoons lounging in Adirondack chairs overlooking Swan Creek. (It’s also a fine place to rent bicycles and small boats.) “For a lot of people, this is a second home,” says Oliver. They live on the boat. Many of them never leave the slip. They socialize, have a couple of drinks, see their friends on other boats.”
And some of them come to stay. The population of Kent County has grown by only about a thousand since the Civil War. Young people head for the metropolitan magnets while remaining families opt for fewer children. But the town’s semi-remote location attracts early retirees who’ve finished up other careers and decided that a simple life an oyster shell’s toss from the Bay is a fitting reward.
“We’re two hours and 150 years from Baltimore,” explains Robert Fox, who moved to town eight years ago after a career in international banking. Now he indulges in his “avocation,” as he calls itÑwoodworking. He crafts furniture in the Shaker style and is one of thirteen or so artists who display their work at the Reuben Rodney Gallery on Main Street.
The thought of retirees on the Eastern Shore dabbling in art conjures visions of amateur variations on the “dog with duck” theme, but that’s not the case at the gallery. Fox points out sophisticated piecesÑwatercolors and oils by a retired chemist, tables and desks built by a former oceanographer, elegant silver jewelry with polished semi-precious stones created by a couple in their eighties. “There are roughly about a hundred people in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties who are professional artists,” says Fox.
Next door, The Mainstay is Rock Hall’s storefront center for the visual and performing arts. While staffed and supported by locals, this is no homegrown, hometown amateur night venue. Any club in a major city would envy The Mainstay’s eclectic mix of jazz, blues, bluegrass, and acoustic music by regional and national performers. More than 200 artists have performed there since it opened in 1997. The names scribbled on the “Performers Gallery” wall include jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd and boogie-blues pianist Deanna Bogart. On Friday nights, The Mainstay hosts the town’s potluck community gathering. Everybody brings something to share, and the neighbors catch up on the week’s happenings. Visitors are welcome.
After the casseroles and salads, dessert waits across the street at Durding’s Store. Opened as a pharmacy in 1872, little had changed since its most “recent” refurbishmentÑin 1928Ñuntil Mary Sue and Art Willis came along. They bought the store in 1987 and spent the next two years restoring it with the help of octogenarian Helen Durding, the last member of the family, who still lives in an apartment above the store. Its old-fashioned soda fountain, with the original marble countertop and high stools, attracts customers like ants to a picnic. More accurately, the attraction is the soda fountain menu. Just tell yourself that there’s a lot of calcium in that chocolate cappuccino milkshake, and you’re warding off osteoporosis with that mud pie sundae (cookies ‘n cream and coffee ice cream, topped with hot fudge, whipped cream, and a cherry).
A few steps from Durding’s is Fish Bones Antiques. The storefront was once Dowling’s Hardware Store, the Home Depot of its time. Now, the large, rambling building is an emporium of old furniture, glass bottles, steamer trunks, wooden chests full of carpentry tools, glass, decoys, reproductions, and some modern accent pieces. Serious shoppers and casual browsers could easily wile away an hour or so here.
Outside, the regularly-scheduled summer afternoon thunderstorm is organizing itself on the other side of the Bay. From the window of her office at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, six miles south of town, Susan Talbott watches the clouds turn the color of barbecue ashes and listens to the distant mutterings of thunder. Other people’s offices look out over parking lots. She has a view of the wetlands and water. “It’s awfully nice,” she admits with a sheepish smile.
The outdoor recreation planner for the refuge, Talbott spends a lot of time working with groups and individuals, hosting programs, and passing out information. There’s never a “down” time for her at the refuge. In the summer, there’s hiking on the six miles of nature trails and crabbing and boating to monitor. Grasslands and a new bayscape garden teem with butterfliesÑand tourists. “We’re seeing people come here to see butterflies the way some people go birding,” she says.
In the winter, birders flock to the refuge to see the migrating waterfowl for which the refuge is maintained. “We’re one of the biggest staging areas in the Bay for tundra swans,” Talbott explains. “Several hundred hang out at the bridge that joins the island to the mainland.”
She’s looking forward to the opening of the new visitor center later this year. It will be housed in a former hunting lodge that dates from the days when the island was privately owned. Visitor center exhibits will provide an orientation of the region, with 3-D reliefs of the watershed and LED displays that will track storms across the Bay. It’ll also have more office space, but nowhere near the view Talbott has now. She sighs, “There’s always a tradeoff.”
But you don’t need a high-tech display to track the storm outside. The engine of a work boat pops as it heads for safe harbor. Mosquitoes buzz in to gnaw at my ear for a quick pre-storm snack. A cardinal flashes past, brilliant against the dull yellow of the reeds. A small bug, as red as the cardinal, trails him.
Rain lashes against my windshield when I get back to town. A fan of storms, I pull into the town park to watch the gale. The centerpiece is a statue of a waterman tonging oysters. His back is to the whitecaps chopping the water in the harbor. He ignores the clanging of the rigging against masts as he resolutely goes about his work like his real-life counterparts have done for decades.
The view is much the same from inside P.E. Pruitt’s Waterside Restaurant and Raw Bar. Named after one of the last buy boats still on the Bay, the dockside eatery boasts a lot of fresh seafood, prepared with respect. Waitresses and regular customers joke about the weather and trade gossip between courses.
Every Thursday night from 6 to 8 p.m., Emery “Pie” Edwards, a dapper eighty-four-year-old in white Dockers and a Hawaiian-style shirt, entertains customers with his organ music. Old standards, requests, and sing-alongs are part of the show. Edwards worked for over twenty years at the Tolchester Missile Base as an electrician, making him something of an anomaly. “All of my family are watermen,” he says. “I first took to the water when I was ten years old. I got three weeks of high school during the Depression, but my father said I didn’t need an education to crab or fish, so I left school.”
He learned his electrical skills while in the Army, the only time he’s left the area. But even during his land-locked career, he’d periodically join his relatives on the water. “You can’t get away from it,” he confesses. “They say if you get oyster mud or fish scales on you, it never comes off. I’m living proof of that.”
Locals’ Guide to Rock Hall
Restaurant for a splurge:
The Inn at Osprey Point
Osprey Point Marina
20786 Rock Hall Avenue
410-639-2194
Rack of New Zealand lamb, potato-crusted orange roughy, seared duck breast in a semi-formal (for Rock Hall) setting.
Place for lunch not on the water:
Bay Leaf Gourmet
5757 S. Main Street
410-639-2700
“Lite” fare includes sandwiches so large they come with a knife and fork. Top-notch breakfasts and quiche, too.
Fun way to get around town:
Rock Hall Trolley
$2 for an all-day pass. The trolley makes a regular 3-mile loop through town to all the marinas.
Quick way to learn the history:
Waterman’s Museum
20880 Rock Hall Ave, next to Haven Harbour Marina (If no one is there, pick up the key at the marina store.)
410-778-6697
Exhibits on oystering, crabbing, and fishing. Lots of photos, and a reproduction of a waterman’s shanty.
Clothing for a Jimmy Buffett Concert:
Smilin’ Jake’s Casual Apparel
5774 Main Street
410-639-7280
Call it “Key West on the Chesapeake.” Caribbean music, loud Hawaiian shirts. The shop is presided over by Betsy Heffner (right) and Jake, a friendly Keeshond.
Where to rent a kayak:
Chester River Kayak Adventures
5758 Main Street
410-639-2001 and
Kayak Canoe, LLC
7280 Swan Creek Rd.
410-639-9001
Both provide kayak sales, instruction, and guided day and overnight tours.
An easy way to reach Rock Hall for a day:
Watermark Cruises heads from Annapolis to Rock Hall on the last Friday of each month this summer. Cruises are on June 28, July 26, Aug. 30, and Sept. 27. The boat leaves Annapolis at 10 a.m. and arrives in Rock Hall at noon. It leaves Rock Hall at 3:30 p.m., returning to Annapolis at 5:30. The cost is $49.50 for adults; $24.75 for children under 11. 410-268-7600, http://www.watermarkcruises.com.
Contacts
Kent County Tourism
410-778-0416
http://www.kentcounty.com
http://www.rockhallmd.com
Waterman’s Crab House
Rock Hall Landing
410-639-2261
Swan Haven B&B
20950 Rock Hall Avenue
410-639-2527
http://www.swanhaven.com
Reuben Rodney Gallery
5761 Main Street
410-639-2494
The Mainstay
5753 Main Street
410-639-9133
Durding’s Store
Main and Sharp streets
410-778-7957
Fish Bones Antiques
21326 Sharp Street
410-639-7200
Eastern Neck National
Wildlife Refuge
Six miles south of Rock Hall on Rt. 445
410-639-7056
P.E. Pruitt’s Waterside Restaurant and Raw Bar
20895 Bayside Avenue
410-639-7454
Moonlight Bay Inn and Marina
Lawton Avenue
410-639-2660

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