Southern Maryland: The Gentle Side of the Chesapeake

Originally published in Group Travel Leader

Southern Maryland is the state’s best-kept secret. Visit the peninsula that lies south of Annapolis and Washington and leave the traffic and hustle of the cities behind.

Bordered by the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River, this is a place where the tide and the seasons run life. Roads skirt the shoreline, linking the small towns that are home port to generations of watermen. Look in one direction, and catch a glimpse of the Bay. Look in the other, and see a manor house that’s older than America.

The people here protect the environment, appreciate the arts, preserve their traditions, and savor good food. And they welcome visitors with the warm hospitality of the Tidewater, eager to help you enjoy yourself and appreciate the things that make Southern Maryland so special.

The Colony’s Beginnings
When the Ark and the Dove landed at St. Clement’s Island in the Potomac River in March of 1634, the passengers and crew were desperate to dock. They’d left England the previous November. Except for a stop in the Caribbean to restock supplies, they’d been cooped up for nearly five months in a ship that was about the combined size of 4 motor coaches.

The founding family – the Calverts – were Catholics and wanted to give their co-religionists a colony in the New World where their religion was respected. The first settlement, St. Mary’s City, was the seat of government and commerce for the fledgling colony. It supported the small farms that popped up along the river. It had a courthouse, church, tavern, several houses, and a dock.

When the Protestants took over in the late 1600s, they revoked the laws granting rights to non-Protestants and moved the capital to Annapolis. When the political tide shifted again, the rights were restored, but the capital stayed in Annapolis. St. Mary’s City was abandoned and vanished from maps and history books for nearly two centuries.

Today, Historic St. Mary’s City is the ongoing restoration and excavation of Maryland first capital.

“We’re unique because we’re the first capital of Maryland, yet we’re largely undiscovered by the rest of the world,” says Estelle Seward of Historic St. Mary’s City. “We bring 17th Century life to life for our visitors, and we enjoy doing it!”

The open-air, living history museum presents life as it was in those first decades in the colony. Costumed interpreters play the roles of Godiah Spray, whose ‘plantation’ is considered quite fine; he even has glass in his windows; the wife of the colony’s printer, whose husband has taught her how to mind her ‘p’s and q’s;’ and crewmen aboard the Dove, the tiny vessel that carried supplies for the first colonists. Visitors witness early court actions at the reconstructed State House of 1676 and can watch the archeological work underway at the site of St. Mary’s Chapel, the first Catholic Church in America.

Groups can arrange for picnic in the arbor and pavilion at Farthing’s Ordinary. (An Ordinary being the Elizabethan term for a tavern, since it was where the ‘ordinary’ folk could get a meal and a bed for the night.) In early December, enjoy period entertainment and meals at Madrigal Nights. The guided tours are particularly well-conducted by docents who structure their presentation around the interests and abilities of the group.

You can see St. Clement’s Island from the grounds of the Potomac River Museum. The museum traces the history of the region through displays and life-sized dioramas. There’s a mock-up of a country store, c. 1890 and a one-room schoolhouse c. 1820 is next to the museum.

Civil War Drama and a Presidential Playground
More living history is found at Point Lookout State Park. Located at the tip of the peninsula, it’s known for great fishing and fantastic views. Its reputation during the Civil War was much darker, however. This was the site of a notorious Union prisoner-of-war camp. Thousands of Confederate solders were housed in primitive conditions, without adequate housing, food, or medicine.

The records of the camp were well-maintained, and the Rangers at the park have adapted the lives of some of the guards and inmates into a living history program. They demonstrate what life was like for Johnny Reb and Billy Yank at the restored prison stockade. If you’ve ever wondered what hardtack tastes like or just how heavy a musket was, here’s your chance to find out. If you ask, the Rangers will also tell you the many ghost stories that surround this place. They hold special haunted walks at Halloween.

Piney Point, Maryland, was the Palm Beach, Florida of its time. Presidents, celebrities, and the merely rich escaped the heat and humidity of Washington’s summer in the late 1800s and early 1900s by sailing down the Potomac and docking here. Tastes changed, Piney Point lost its luster, the hotel burned down, leaving behind little more than memories and the Piney Point Lighthouse. The first lighthouse on the Potomac, it’s undergoing restoration on its scenic, usually breezy, spot on the river. The museum is a folksy place that lets the local residents tell the stories of the lighthouse keepers and the light itself.

A Most Historic House
Step onto the veranda at Sotterley Plantation, and you’ll be ready to move in. The three hundred year old Tidewater plantation house commands a sweeping view of the Patuxent River. It was recently named a National Historic Landmark, something that Carol Wilson of the Sotterley Foundation finds particularly appropriate.

“The story of Sotterley parallels the story of the country. It encompasses the Revolution and the Civil War and the economic ups and downs of those eras. A governor lived here, and tenant farmers lived here.”

In addition to the manor house, the slave quarters, smoke house, necessary, corn crib, and other original buildings remain. The restored garden is particularly nice. It’s adjacent to the manor house, so you can savor the view of the river while enjoying the scent of blooming flowers.

“The house contains three centuries of history and stories and buildings and collections.”

The third weekend of May, Sotterley holds a major quilt exhibition, with hand-made quilts displayed in many of the outbuildings as well as the manor house and veranda.

Solomons’ Many Faces
To learn about the lives of the ‘other’ inhabitants of Maryland’s Tidewater, a visit to the Calvert Marine Museum is in order. It’s in Solomons, which is sometimes called Solomon’s Island. Visitors look for a bridge crossing the Patuxent River, but all that’s left of the 150-foot channel that once separated the island from Calvert County is a ‘tidebox’ – a patch of road over the water that’s about two car lengths’ long. The rest was filled in with oyster shells, the debris of the oyster canning industry that maintained the local economy for decades.

The Calvert Marine Museum concentrates on life in, on, and around the Chesapeake and Patuxent. “Nowhere else can you see so much of life in and on the Bay and its tributaries,” according to Doug Alves, the Museum Director.

It starts with the pre-historic residents. The first display includes a reconstruction of the skeleton of a giant shark that once patrolled the Bay. The other aquarium present the more familiar fish and other Bay creatures – seahorses, jellyfish, and – of course – crabs.

One of the most popular exhibits is the river otters. Bubble and Squeak, two sisters, spend most of their days in their outdoor playground, swimming, diving, sunning, and eating. Their home is designed so that visitors can see underwater as well as above ground. And they do delight in showing off and posing for photographs.

Screwpile lighthouses are almost unique to the Chesapeake. These eight-sided, cottage-style buildings were literally ‘screwed’ into the bottom of the Bay. Engineers thought that would make them more stable and better able to resist the currents and storms.

The idea worked on paper, but not in the Bay. The screwpiles were terribly vulnerable to tides and weather, often breaking loose from their moorings. After one storm, one lighthouse was found drifting 11 miles away from its home.

The Drum Point Lighthouse is one of only three remaining screwpile lights on the Bay. It’s restored to its original appearance and is furnished as it would have been when it was active. It’s a climb to get inside, but once there, guides explain the lives of the keepers and the challenge of watching the Bay.

No trip to the museum is complete without a cruise aboard the Wm. B. Tennison. It’s a Chesapeake bugeye, and the oldest passenger-carrying vessel on the Chesapeake. During the hour-long trip through the Solomon harbor and up the Patuxent, passengers learn about the history of the island, and spot osprey and herons.

A stroll through Solomons is a good way to work up a lunch appetite or to work off a meal of fist-sized crab cakes at Solomon Pier Restaurant. The main street is only about two blocks long, but has enough gift shops and galleries to guarantee a real ‘find.’

Solomons’ latest cultural addition is Annmarie Gardens. This world-class outdoor sculpture garden on 30 acres along St. John Creek continues to evolve with a new work added every year. Director Jennifer Draxton is the Garden’s most enthusiastic supporter. “We’re a hidden treasure in Southern Maryland, a cultural arts attraction on the water that captures sculpture, botanical, and waterside ambiance on a meandering pathway through a natural, wooded setting. And we’re free.”

The works range from the realistic tonging oysterman at the entrance to imaginative abstract works winding through the trees to the whimsical school of fish ‘swimming’ among the loblolly pines. Artsfest, held every September, features artists demonstrating their crafts and ongoing performances.

Native Americans, Revolutionary Heroes and Great Desserts

History is the theme in Charles County.

Long before the Europeans showed up, Native Americans lived, fished and farmed here, and traded with their neighbors throughout the region. The Maryland Indian Cultural Center teaches visitors about the 500 nations that existed in North America when the Europeans arrived. You’ll sit inside a longhouse and learn about the different tribes, their art, beliefs, ways of living, and housing. Pow-Wows held during the year attract native dancers, singers, and craftspeople from surrounding states, with special performances by dancers from as far away as Mexico.

It’s safe to say that George Washington slept here, somewhere in Charles County. Many of his friends lived in Charles County, and George liked to travel and be entertained.

Two of those houses are open for tours. Smallwood’s Retreat is the home of General William Smallwood, one of Washington’s generals during the Revolution.

Thomas Stone was a well-respected lawyer and signer of the Declaration of Independence. His plantation, Habre de Venture, was designated a National Historic Site. The reconstructed plantation house offers free tours every house.

“It’s a very nicely done tour,” says Joanne Roland, Tourism Director for Charles County. “The furniture is beautiful. And it’s a nice story, how Stone’s wife was ill and how he tended her.”

Another historic site, this one more notorious, is the Dr. Samuel Mudd House. This is the home of the doctor who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg the night Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Despite Mudd’s claim that he could not have known what Booth had done just a few hours earlier, he was convicted of helping the assassin. His family has fought ever since to clear his name.

The Mudd House is maintained by two of his descendants. It sits in a landscape that looks much like it did in 1865. You can stand in the lane and look towards Washington, wondering what it was like the night John Wilkes Booth stumbled towards the house.

Booth wanted to cross the Potomac into Virginia, where he thought he’d be hailed as a hero. You’ll follow part of his path when you go to Pope’s Creek. Look for the historic marker that points toward the farm where Booth had a boat waiting to row across the river.

Booth ended up trapped in a barn in Virginia and was shot by Union troops. Your visit to Southern Maryland should have a much nicer ending if you visit one of the waterside restaurants in Pope’s Creek. Capt. Billy’s and Robertson’s Restaurants are owned by Capt. Billy Robertson, who decided he’d rather buy his seafood from his watermen friends than go out fishing and crabbing himself. This is the place for the classic Maryland crab feast, complete with mounds of steaming hard shell crabs, corn on the cob, cole slaw, and cold beer or iced tea.

Any local will tell you that the only place for desert is Walls Bakery in Waldorf. Yes, it does look like a cement teepee, and it’s also called Wall’s Wigwam. It’s been a gambling hall and a honkey-tonk nightclub, but now it is a family-run bakery with eclairs the size of soccer balls. It’s a final sweet taste of your visit to Southern Maryland.


One thought on “Southern Maryland: The Gentle Side of the Chesapeake

  1. Thank you for the post. My husband and I are about to open a bed and breakfast just across the river from Garrett’s Farm where John Wilkes Booth died. The property is the birthplace of James Madison. Just this week I have confirmed that the detachment that pursued Booth and Harold stopped at the property and ate and slept there.

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