Celebrating 50 Years on the Bay
CBMM CELEBRATES 50 YEARS:
Sharing the Chesapeake’s History and Culture
BY PETE LESHER, CBMM CHIEF CURATOR
Other than the skipjacks in the oyster fishery, commercial sail had completely disappeared. The venerable Old Bay Line went out of business and tied up its steamboats for the last time on April 1, 1962. The old Tolchester Beach park closed in 1963, following a pattern seen at resorts all over the Chesapeake that had once been served by steamboats. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge had displaced a fleet of ferries in 1952, opening up the Eastern Shore to unprecedented access by automobile, and by the 1960s its impact was fully felt, easing the area’s longstanding isolation. Containerized shipping was transforming the ports of Hampton Roads and Baltimore, moving operations farther from the heart of the cities and the old waterfront warehouses to new, expansive, open port facilities.
Amid this tumult, a group of interested citizens met in 1963 at the Higgins & Spencer furniture store in St. Michaels, Maryland, to plan the creation of a museum to preserve the history and traditions of the Bay. Working under the auspices of the Historical Society of Talbot County, they held broad vision—that this new museum should tell the stories of the entire Chesapeake Bay tidewater region and its water-dependent culture. Two years later, on May 22, 1965, the Museum opened its doors to the public in Dodson House, an old brick house on the St. Michaels waterfront. Great fanfare accompanied the opening, with state and federal dignitaries, the Naval Academy Band, and a speech by Richard Weigle, president of St. John’s College, who articulated how the new Museum was ideally suited to tell the stories of the Chesapeake Bay. Within the year, exhibitions opened in the adjacent Higgins House and Eagle House, and over 10,000 visitors had explored them.
Adjacent to the new Museum was a sort of industrial district for the town. Seafood packing houses covered Navy Point, part of which was artificial land, created from discarded oyster shells. As the businesses needed to expand, they claimed extra land from the harbor shallows and built additions on oyster shell foundations. But this neighborhood was changing rapidly. In 1965, African-American entrepreneur Elwood Jewett retired and sold his Coulbourne & Jewett crab picking plant. The next owner soon closed the business, and in 1966 the property was purchased to allow for Museum expansion.
Shortly after, Edward Morris closed his oyster shucking house, a low cinder block building that flooded on higher tides, and the Museum acquired that land, substantially increasing its waterfront. When the Shannahan Artesian Well Company relocated to the edge of St. Michaels in 1970, the Museum purchased the land. That parcel included an old warehouse that had been constructed in 1933 for the St. Michaels Packing Company, which had canned fruits and vegetables in the summer and oysters in the winter. The warehouse had been constructed from parts of an 1890s steamboat and railroad terminal in nearby Claiborne, and it survives today as the Museum’s Small Boat Exhibit Shed, the last remaining industrial structure on Navy Point.
Last to be added was Harrison & Jarboe’s packing house, which closed on Navy Point in 1971. In the space of just over five years, all of the industry had disappeared from the district, and the Museum’s founders had the vision to assemble all of these pieces into one large tract. One other seafood packing business, Bill Jones’s Eastern Shore Clam Company, survived by building a second story and morphing into a seafood restaurant that remains today as The Crab Claw Restaurant.
Collections of historic objects poured in from area residents—ship models, yacht racing trophies, marine art, duck decoys, and tools of watermen and boatbuilders. The Coast Guard had been systematically dismantling wooden screwpile lighthouses all over the Bay, now that the lights were fully automated. The Museum rescued one on the brink of destruction, the Hooper Strait Lighthouse, purchasing it from the demolition contractor and moving it by barge to St. Michaels in 1966. Its new steel piling foundation occupied the site of the old Coulbourne & Jewett plant. Other historic structures followed.
The fog bell tower from the Point Lookout Lighthouse station joined the campus in 1968, followed in 1984 by the old bandstand from Tolchester Beach. In 1976, the Museum purchased the land it had been using for parking, along with the adjacent field facing Fogg’s Cove. It began collecting structures for a planned watermen’s village: Mitchell House, the home of Peter and Eliza Bailey Mitchell, sister to Frederick Douglass was first.
It was followed by the cook’s cabin from Leehaven Farm near Easton and a rare surviving log dwelling from Trappe, Maryland. However, by the late 1980s, some saw the outdoor history Museum comprised of historic structures assembled on a new site as a troubled model. As Executive Director John R. Valliant declared at the time, the Museum would concentrate its resources on saving historic boats rather than more old buildings. From the beginning, the Museum exhibited boats that were too large to sit on land, moored to the nearby bulkhead.
The last sailing log bugeye, Edna E. Lockwood, joined the collection in 1967 and, after an extensive restoration in the late 1970s, remains afloat today. Edna was joined in 1975 by Rosie Parks, at the time the most celebrated skipjack on the Bay for her success in the annual skipjack races. In 1983 the Hoopers Island dovetail Martha joined the fleet and the log-bottom crab dredger Old Point in 1984.
To care for these boats, Museum director R.J. Holt led the creation of a traditional marine railway in 1973 and a restoration boat shop in 1977. By that time, the fate was sealed for the museum’s first floating exhibit, the oyster sloop J.T. Leonard, which was too far gone to save. In lieu of rebuilding the entire vessel, the Museum saved significant pieces and commissioned a thorough documentation and an exquisite scale model from the documentation drawings.
Still more historic vessels arrived including the tug Delaware in 1989, the Mathews power cruiser Isabel in 1995, and the buyboat Winnie Estelle in 2014, totaling 10 maintained afloat year-round. The Museum had to choose carefully, because far more boats were offered than it could possibly maintain and restore. In addition to Edna E. Lockwood’s substantial rebuilding in the late 1970s, similarly substantial projects have followed, most recently with the Rosie Parks from 2011 to 2014. In each case, the restoration work has been conducted on the museum grounds in full view of the public. The work of the boat yard has long been among the Museum’s most engaging experiences for the visitor.
Instead of more historic structures, the Museum added purpose-built exhibition galleries. The first of these was the Waterfowling Building, modeled on Eastern Shore domestic architecture, which opened in 1975. The Bay History Building followed in 1980, the Steamboat Building exhibition in 1993, Oystering on the Chesapeake in 2001, and At Play on the Bay in 2005. Each of these new exhibitions took the Museum a step forward in interpretive techniques, visitor engagement, and interactive elements.
The Museum professionalized its operations in parallel to the more visible progress in its exhibitions. R.J. Holt, the Museum’s first full-time director, pushed the Museum through the American Alliance of Museum’s accreditation program, which recognizes adherence to professional standards ranging from governance, finance, institutional planning and collections care to safety and security. After hiring Ben Fuller as the first professionally-trained curator and building a climate-controlled collections storage building, the museum received its first accreditation in 1978. The Museum has retained its accreditation since that time, with three subsequent renewals, most recently in 2009.
In 2001 the Museum concluded a $17 million capital campaign that rehabilitated the Eagle, Dodson, and Higgins Houses as an administrative complex, expanded collections storage with compact storage units, added a new parking and entrance framed by the old Knapps Narrows drawbridge, constructed the At Play on the Bay exhibition, restored the 1909 crab dredger Old Point, and built endowments to support Museum programming. Museum programming is extensive and varied, from the year-round weekend boatbuilding program Apprentice for a Day to lighthouse overnight experiences for scouts and other youth groups. Thousands of school students visit the Museum each year, including every third grader in Talbot County, who meet learning goals in social studies, reading, and science through a curriculum-based program called the Chesapeake’s Best Crab Cakes. Others learn about oysters in an ecology cruise on the historic buyboat Winnie Estelle.
The Museum serves higher education as well, partnering with Washington College for its interdisciplinary Chesapeake Semester, which explores the nexus of regional culture and environmental science. The Museum’s Academy for Lifelong Learning hosts peer-taught courses in a wide range of subjects to the community. Additionally, the Museum provides docent training, lectures, winter programming for kids, and a summer day camp. The summer of 2015 will see the launch of a new boat rental program so that more people can explore local waters. The Museum’s progress has not been unimpeded.
Hurricane Isabel brought hundred-year-level floods to the region, inundating much of the Museum’s low-lying land and flooding multiple museum exhibition and support buildings.The gates were closed for 7 days, and the museum store for 7 more to begin the recovery effort. The recession of 2008 dealt a stronger blow, and the museum pared back staff and programming to survive. The recovery has been remarkable. The Museum has assembled an impressive collection: over 10,000 objects, including 93 boats; and archives consisting of more than 1,300 ships’ plans, 240 linear feet of manuscripts, 45,000 photographs, 15,000 postcards and 370 oral histories.
Many of the objects were collected for the rich stories associated with them—stories about the way people have lived, worked or played on and around the Chesapeake Bay, from pre-contact times to the present day. The depth of the collection now supports a program of changing exhibitions, with less than ten percent of the collection on view at any given time.
These resources could not reach broad public audiences however, without the work of many people. A staff of just over 30 is ably supplemented by more than 200 volunteers who contribute nearly 30,000 hours per year in tasks varying from guiding school tours and running daily tours on the buyboat Winnie Estelle to cataloging items into the collections, installing exhibitions, assisting with festivals, and maintaining buildings and grounds. These include a Board of Governors of 36 members led by chairman Richard C. Tilghman, Jr., and an additional 21 emeritus members.
Today the Museum welcomes nearly 70,000 guests per year to its 18-acre waterfront campus with 12 exhibition buildings housing permanent and special exhibitions. They encounter opportunities to participate in boatbuilding, take a tour on a historic boat, speak with a local tradition-bearer through the Chesapeake People program, or try their luck by pulling up a crab pot or nippering for oysters off the Watermen’s Wharf. Annual festivals bring additional elements of Chesapeake culture to the campus, including the Antique & Classic Boat Festival, Watermen’s Appreciation Day, Mid-Atlantic Small Craft Festival, and Oyster Fest. The 2015 season launches with a Party on the Point on May 23, marking the Museum’s 50th anniversary with the opening of a new exhibition, A Broad Reach: 50 Years of Collecting. Food, music, and a special opportunity to ride on any of the Museum’s historic vessels will be a part of the day. For more information, visit cbmm.org.
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