On a clear day, you can see the Francis Scott Key Bridge from Rock Hall. It's out there across the Chesapeake Bay, about a dozen miles and a half-century away.
The proud heritage of this Eastern Shore village in its heyday is captured in a painting on the wall behind the soda fountain in Durding's Store on Main Street. It is a scene of a bustling horse-and-buggy business district.
The whir of the avocado-green Hamilton Beach milkshake mixer in Durding's helps visitors travel back to the days before downtown fell on hard times, pulled down by the dwindling commercial fishing industry. The century-old shops became tired and worn, and so did the waterfront, the working part of town, where generations of watermen pulled fish, crabs, clams and oysters from the bay.
But over the last decade or so, Rock Hall has been transformed into something of a yachting and resort center. New marinas have cropped up in the creeks and coves, and condos now look out over the water, once lined with crab- and fish-processing houses.
Through it all, Rock Hall has managed to hang onto its hometown charm. Church dinners and fire-hall fish fries offer competition to upscale restaurants. And every Fourth of July, Rock Hall throws a grand birthday party for America.
"It's an old-fashioned Fourth of July that brings you back to your ++ roots," said Lori Campbell, a marina operator who also sits on the town council. "It is very patriotic. When we salute the flag after the parade, people have tears in their eyes."
This year, the celebration of the Fourth will be a four-day event, starting the afternoon of Saturday, July 1, with an Eastern Shore fish fry at the volunteer fire hall on Main Street. A beauty pageant and baby contest will follow at the Civic Center, and the day will end with an outdoor teen dance.
At 1 p.m. July 2, watermen from around the bay bring their traditional white workboats to Rock Hall for a rodeo of nautical skill. For anyone who has ever handled even the smallest of boats, watching the boat-docking contest from the bleachers along the town bulkhead is awe-inspiring.
At the starter's horn, a waterman throws down the throttle, and his 40-foot workboat bursts forward from its slip into the harbor. With a quick slam of gears, the boat stops and charges backward, narrowly missing the two posts that mark the docking slip. Once again, the gears are reversed, and the boat stops a foot from the bulkhead as the waterman --es from his controls to loop a docking line around a piling.
The best can do it all in under 40 seconds.
After the contests, you can wander around the harbor admiring the sail- and power boats in their slips, or find some shade and a cool drink at the dockside restaurants.
At the Waterman's Crab House, where visiting boaters tie up outside the front windows, the table linen is brown paper and the key eating utensil is a wooden mallet. All around the restaurant and its expansive outdoor deck diners work with the intensity of watchmakers as they pick juicy morsels from the jagged red shells of crabs piled high on their tables.
Art Willis, the local marina operator who oversees the fireworks, said the show this year has been set for the night of Monday, July 3, and will be about an hour long.
He said that the fireworks have been supported by contributions from local businesses, residents and boaters who use the harbor and neighboring marinas. Any proceeds will go to buy a new truck for the Rock Hall Volunteer Fire Company.
The fireworks are set to explode over the harbor, and spectators are invited to watch the show from docks of the area marina or from the town bulkhead where the watermen's contests were held.
While the fireworks are expected to draw several thousand viewers on Monday, the crowning glory of the Fourth is the parade that marches down Main Street at 11 a.m. Tuesday.
By late morning, the sidewalks are packed with families waving flags, old folks on folding chairs and kids slurping snow cones. The applause starts at the head of the crowd and ripples down the street as the procession begins.
Beauty queens smile, fire engines rumble, bands strike up, equestrians prance, vintage cars chug, politicians glad-hand, and floats, well, float down Main Street. It takes more than an hour for the entire parade to pass in review -- quite a feat when you consider that downtown Rock Hall is one block long.
One group that made its debut on Main Street two years ago was a band of people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who dug their old cornets, saxophones and trombones out of the attic and formed the Kent County Marching Band. Wearing matching blue shirts, white slacks and straw hats, they played pep-rally marches and drilled in front of the review stand. At the head of the band was an honor guard, appropriately shouldering crab nets and clam rakes.