Northeast of What? (North East, MD)

Originally published in Chesapeake Life Magazine

Folks in North East, Md., sometimes think they’re performing a geographic version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine:
Where do you live?
North East, Maryland.
Yeah? Whereabouts?
In North East, Maryland.
Where in the North East?

“I always tell people it’s two words. North. East,” says longtime resident Lisa King with a grin. “It clears up some of the confusion right away.”

The town’s name is not much good as a locator, anyway. At the head of a peninsula formed by the Northeast and Elk Rivers, south of I-95 and Rt. 40, it’s not northeast of anything. It’s is a place you have to be looking for. The fact has kept it small (population 2,700) and unspoiled by developments oozing along I-95 from Baltimore and Wilmington.

Boaters find it, though. Located at the head of the Chesapeake, North East attracts boaters like a beach draws sunbathers. On summer weekends its marinas are as busy as toll booths on the Bay Bridge.

Captain John Smith was the first documented yachtsman (of sorts) to arrive, in 1608. He’d already sussed out that the Chesapeake was prime real estate. This peninsula and surrounding waters were just more proof.

By 1711, the first of several mills in the area was established, and in 1735 the Principio Forge was turning out metal implements and – later – cannons for the American Revolution.

Like all good British outposts, North East had its Anglican parish. Queen Anne established a fund to support missionary work overseas, and sent St. Mary Anne’s Parish a silver chalice and paten, a Bible, and a Book of Common Prayer, all of which are still used occasionally for special services.

Anglicans don’t have a lock on holiness here. Methodists, who found refuge on Smith and Tangier Islands, also established themselves on the mainland. The first Methodist Parsonage in the U.S. is located in North East, with the congregation dating from 1781.

Leisure is the main industry now, but for decades, hunting waterfowl and fishing were the economic mainstays. The Upper Bay Museum holds a Chesapeake jumble of artifacts – tools and boats and clothing and decoys and guns. There’s even an entire ice fishing shanty and a complete decoy carver’s workshop, moved from its original location and rebuilt, right down to the sawdust on the floor. “This is the actual, authentic stuff,” brags Bruce McQuillin, president of the museum. “It’s what the families made and used.”

Many displays explore the fishing industry. “Most people think of the Upper Bay as just duck hunting, but it was a vital fishing area in the early 1900s. Thousands of tons of fish were pulled from these waters.” The museum itself is in what was once the processing plant of the H. L. Harvey Company Fishery.

Less obvious is the history of the Day Basket Factory. Established in 1876, it turned out as many as two thousand baskets a week during World War I. Now, it’s a cottage industry at the south end of town, making 100 percent white oak baskets from straight-grained oak. Bread, fruit, firewood, berry, sewing – you name it. Longaberger’s has nothing on these.

North East proves that “adaptive reuse” is nothing new. It seems as though every shop along Main Street is housed in a building with a colorful story.

The 5 & 10 Antique Market, “started out as the Cecil Hotel in the 1920’s,” explains Ginny Cole, a North East lifer. “Then it was Cramer’s 5 & 10.” Photos mounted near the cash register show the building in its previous incarnations. Some locals remember the senior citizens who worked at the store as “greeters,” a precursor to the staff at the entrance to Wal-Mart. There was an old dog who panted a welcome to shoppers, too.

“Penny candy was a big thing for the store, so when the antiques mall opened, we decided to sell some,” says Cole. There are glass jars with circus peanuts, Swedish fish, and jawbreakers. A display case offers “gourmet” chocolates at $2.50 for a quarter pound.

When the 5 & 10 closed, Dave McDaniel bought it. After twenty years at the 1st National Bank of North East, he decided it was time for something new, and retired as chairman. He renovated the building and reopened it as an antiques mall with space for sixty dealers. “I knew nothing about antiques, but I knew retail.” He plans to restore the building to its appearance during its heyday as a hotel.

The 5 & 10 was just one of the Cramer’s enterprises. At the other end of Main Street was the Cramer Department Store. Before that, it was a granary, then a grocery store. Now it’s the upscale Shoppes of Londonshire. But the hardwood floors and tin ceilings remain.

“You could buy your dungarees, penny loafers, and flip flops here,” says Lisa King. Her shop, Saffron Creek, occupies one of four retail spaces in what was once the main floor of the store. “People come in here and say, ÔOh, that’s where the meat counter was,’” King says, motioning to a room now filled with collectibles and crafts by local artisans.

Down the street, Paula Lutz presides at School House Gifts. She stocks a fine collection of classic children’s books in the converted building – once a Montessori school that she founded. Family commitments forced her to shut down the school, but her strong interest in children is reflected in her inventory.

Across the street, the old hardware store is England’s Colony on the Bay Gift Shop. A second building houses a year-round Christmas store. “We keep the air conditioning turned up in the summer for atmosphere,” says employee Judi Hartman. One of the few residents who wasn’t born and raised in North East, her husband is the rector of St. Mary Anne’s. They’ve lived in North East for eleven years and love it. “It’s a small town atmosphere, but we are close to Philadelphia and Wilmington, and we have season tickets for the Orioles. It’s the best of both worlds.”

“Community” and “family” are the words that residents use to describe their town. “It has some of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” says Janet Archer. She commutes all of fifteen miles from Newark, Del., to her job at Kathy’s Corner Shop. “This community has always opened its arms to me.”

Mayor Bob McKnight agrees that the sense of community is North East’s strength. “The community always comes together. It wants to work to attract visitors but maintain the local flavor.”

If you’d like to absorb some of that community flavor for a spell, North Bay Bed & Breakfast off Hances Point Road is a comfortable B&B, complete with a resident cat that’s a cousin to Garfield. Guests eat while watching bald eagles swoop low over the North East River. In the summer, owners Pam and Bob Appleton offer sailing on their fifty-foot yacht docked in the adjacent marina. They encourage guests to use their screened porch or riverbank lawn for cookouts but also direct them to their favorite local restaurants.

Top of the list is Pier 1. Step inside and it looks like your average local diner. Then the waitress presents a four-page menu of veal Oscar, beef tips in wine sauce, and any sort of pasta dish owners Vinny and Pam Cirino can think of. Like everything else, the desserts are homemade. The apple-caramel pie, warmed up just enough, is elegant.

Woody’s is another North East mainstay. It’s the epitome of a Maryland crab house, right down to the brown paper on the tables and peanut shells on the floor. It’s so popular that on weekend nights, customers waiting for tables are given pagers and encouraged to go browse in the local shops. The restaurant will call when a table becomes available.

Southwest specialties aren’t what you expect to find on the Bay, but The Howling Coyote does credible burritos and quesadillas. For the less adventurous, there are tamer deli sandwiches. Its gift shop sells very nice jewelry, kitchenware, and hot sauces with names like “Acid Rain” and “Crabanero” (habanero sauce seasoned with Old Bay).

Nature’s attractions are almost as many and varied. Elk Neck State Park welcomes about 480,000 visitors each year, most of whom relish both the water and the wilderness feel of the park. Strolls to the Turkey Point Lighthouse are popular. Shut down by the Coast Guard in 2000, a community group plans to preserve it. The rest of the park has camping, a sand beach, and hiking trails. Mountain biking is very popular, too.

“It’s a gorgeous area,” says Park Superintendent Gary Burnett. He was stationed as an assistant in the early ‘90s and jumped at the chance to return for good a couple of years ago. Like many people who first arrive in North East just to visit, he’s planning to stay long enough to be mistaken for a native.

He already knows where it is.

Fran Severn is a regular contributor to CL.

Locals’ Guide to North East

Coffee, teas, and such:
Beans, Leaves, Etc.
33 S. Main St.
“Coffee of the day,” every type of tea, spices, and all manner of associated gadgets and accents.

Restaurant for a splurge:
Nauti Goose
200 Cherry St.
On the river. Great view. Regional cuisine.

Local hangout:
Morning coffee with the “unofficial town council” at North East Grocer.
131 South Main St.
It’s next to Herb’s Tackle Shop, with the soda machine-type dispenser of live bait outside the front door.

Best outdoor spot for sitting and watching:
North East Community Park
Walnut St.
Thirteen-acre community park with picnic pavilions, huge adventure playground, walking path, canoe and kayak put-in, and a view of the vast, open river and Bay.

Best restaurant that’s not right in town:
Billie’s Chuckwagon
2240 West Pulaski Hwy.
Open 24 hours and known for its great breakfasts.


North East Chamber of Commerce

Cecil County Office of Tourism

North Bay B&B
9 Sunset Dr.
Hances Point

Day Basket Factory
714 S. Main St.

Woody’s Crab House
29 S. Main St.

Elk Neck State Park
Rt. 272 St.

Upper Bay Museum
Walnut St. in the town park

Kathy’s Corner Shop
100 S. Main St.

5 & 10 Antiques Market
115 S. Main St.

School House Gifts
122 S. Main St.

England’s Colony on the Bay & Christmas Shop
505 S. Main St.

Saffron Creek
32 S. Main St. (in the Shoppes of Londonshire)

Pier 1 Restaurant
1 N. Main St.

The Howling Coyote
32 S. Main St. (in the Shoppes of Londonshire)

Where Butterflies Bloom
32 S. Main St. (in the Shoppes of Londonshire)