Carving out fun on the Shore Just ducky: The 25th annual Waterfowl Festival is the perfect excuse to succumb to the lure of the Eastern Shore

UP FRONT

November 09, 1995|By Larry Hoffman | Larry Hoffman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Whether you're looking for a day alone, a romantic getaway or an outing for the entire family, you will be delighted with a tour of Maryland's Eastern Shore. Most of us have passed through Talbot, Dorchester and Wicomico counties many times on our way to and from Ocean City and other seaside resorts. Yet the wealth of culture, history and charm within these counties remains a well-kept secret, even to many who live in the area.

The charming town of Easton, nestled in the heart of Talbot County, is known as one of the hundred best small towns in America and attracts many visitors to its quaint shops and historic buildings. It served as "the capital of the Eastern Shore" for the early Federal period and was officially named the county seat in 1788. Historic sites are everywhere.

Neil Keddie, proprietor of the Family Tree Bookstore in Easton, describes it this way: "The history of the town is rather essential to the Shore. It's one of the older county seats, and through the Revolution it played a very important part in holding the Eastern Shore into the cause. I would say Easton is essential United States -- Main Street America. It could be anywhere. The neighborhoods are heterogeneous; there's no walled-off inner city; and the suburban sprawl has been kept to a minimum. It's where you imagine Wally and 'the Beav' growing up. I've been here 25 years, and in that time, I've seen very little change. It's bedrock America."

The Waterfowl Festival, founded in 1971, affords an occasion for daytrippers and weekend visitors to peruse the area while checking out this prestigious event, which has raised more than $3 million for conservation since its inception 25 years ago.

The Waterfowl Festival is the pride of Easton, and local merchants have been spending weeks preparing for the event, which attracts tourists from all over the country. The quiet, casual, countrified atmosphere of Easton will come alive with thousands of people enjoying wandering minstrels, world-class waterfowl artwork, decoy retrieval and first-class seafood. The festival runs tomorrow through Sunday.

Easy access from Baltimore -- about a one-hour drive down Interstate 97 toward Annapolis and onto winding Route 50 -- provides yet another motivation to visit this weekend. Especially this time of year, when the foliage is exploding with color, outlining the Chesapeake Bay and its accompanying waterways, a scenic trip worth taking for its own sake. There is more than just the festival to enjoy. The entire area is brimming with fascinating artistic and educational institutions and events that celebrate the history of life on the Eastern Shore.

Due west from Easton along Route 33 is St. Michaels, the historic town that derived its name from the Episcopal parish established there in 1677. Bordered by the Miles River, Broad Creek and the Chesapeake, it is halfway across a peninsula that juts into the bay before drooping into Tilghman Island. Sampling the abundance of boutiques, antiques stores, bed and breakfasts, restaurants and galleries along St. Michaels' Talbot Street makes for an interesting and rewarding stroll.

At the heart of this little town is the maritime industry, which has made it a boat-building center and a leader in the harvest and processing of crabs and shellfish. There is also a fine museum in St. Michaels that documents this mid-Atlantic pastime and profession.

"We are the only museum that looks at the maritime history of the entire Chesapeake Bay in all geographic regions, from the Susquehanna to the Virginia Cape," says Lucy Alexander, spokeswoman for the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. "We welcome between 80,000 and 90,000 visitors every year."

Among the 11 museum exhibits, which include various aspects of Eastern Shore maritime life, such as decoy-making, boat-building, waterfowling and oystering, there is an authentic 1879 Screwpile lighthouse, transported to this spot from Hooper Strait in Dorchester County, some 40 miles south of St. Michaels.

Preserved within this structure are the artifacts and history relating to the life and work of the lighthouse keeper. On display is a brass, mouth-powered foghorn; a conch shell used as a foghorn before the Civil War; a compass from 1860; and an octant used at sea to measure the altitude of a celestial body and ascertain a vessel's position. Climbing the narrow spiral staircase to the visitors' quarters and then outside to a landing that provides an exquisite view of the Chesapeake, one is struck by what it must have been like to keep the flame burning for sailors navigating the waterways of our Eastern Shore in nights past.

Visitors have found the structure so fascinating that the museum created a "Lighthouse Overnight" program.

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