A wintertime stroll through Oxford

Eastern Shore: Once a wealthy port, the community's greatest assets now are history and serenity.

Short Hop

January 13, 2002|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

The sky is a watercolor wash of gray and blue, an artist's backdrop for the ducks that paddle in the shallows near the Oxford ferry dock.

I had hoped to ride across to Bellevue and bicycle to St. Michaels, but although it claims to be the oldest continuously operating as well as the oldest privately owned ferry in the country, the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry takes a three-month sabbatical in winter.

My plans thwarted, I wander down to the Tred Avon Yacht Club to watch a waterman's workboat, called a bateau, incongruously pushing two barges out toward the Chesapeake Bay.

The yacht club, whose beachy clubhouse on the point has a fabulous view of the Tred Avon and Choptank rivers, hints at the spiritual heart of Oxford -- its long-running love affair with boats.

From the watermen's workboats, to the old wooden beauties lovingly maintained by residents, to the America's Cup contenders that occasionally grace its marinas, Oxford, which sits on a 250-acre peninsula about 40 miles from the Bay Bridge, is all about water.

Several boatyards cater to residents and transients, and Cutts and Case Shipyard, which looks like a gritty Williamsburg exhibit, builds beautiful, Gatsbyesque yachts using traditional and space-age technology and materials.

But in winter, the water is more scenic feature than recreational possibility. Watermen are out tonging for oysters, of course, and occasionally an intrepid kayaker or cruiser, peering through the now leafless trees at some of the magnificent federal homes along the shores of the Tred Avon, skims by.

But mostly, wintertime Oxford, with its brick sidewalks, 18th- and 19th-century homes, boxwood hedges and ornamented gardens, is a peaceful place to walk, bike and take stock of life (interspersed with a little retail and culinary therapy).

Shopping in town is minimal, but what's there is interesting. Silent Poetry on Tilghman Street sells pewter, carvings, art and china, including a nice collection of Portmeirion pottery. The Oxford Mews, a 19th-century storefront on Morris Street, which is the main drag, sells art, boating supplies, hats, T-shirts and books, among other things.

My favorite shop is Americana Antiques, next door to the Mews. Although it's known for its collection of carousel horses, carved storefront figures and figureheads, the shop also sells lovely paintings, furniture and silver that hark back nearly to the town's prosperous beginnings 300 years ago.

Once a busy port

Although it's now a sleepy town of 1,000, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Oxford was a thriving port. Robert Morris Sr., father of the "financier of the American Revolution," came to Oxford in 1738 as a factotum for a wealthy Liverpool trading firm that worked a triangular trade route -- England to the West Indies to Oxford and back.

It is for Morris Sr. that both the main street and the Robert Morris Inn (1710) were named. The tribute may actually be a kind of municipal apology because Morris was accidentally shot and killed in 1750 by a gun salute from a company ship.

Oxford boasts other luminaries as well. Col. Tench Tilghman, aide-de-camp to George Washington, who carried the message of Cornwallis' surrender to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1781, is honored by a monument on his grave in Oxford Cemetery. And Robert Morris Jr. (aforementioned Revolutionary financier) lived here for a short time (or at least visited periodically). While researching and writing Chesapeake, novelist James Michener frequented the Robert Morris Inn, which he insisted made the best crab cake on the Eastern Shore.

Mostly, though, Oxford's halcyon days are all Colonial-era. Following the American Revolution, the place slid. Trade with England all but ceased. Cows and pigs grazed in the streets, businesses went bankrupt and the population declined.

In the late 1800s, with the help of then-modern technology, the town managed another boom. Improved canning and packing methods, coupled with the steamship and newly completed rail transport, enabled watermen to vastly broaden markets for their oysters.

Packing houses opened, homes went up and businesses thrived. But the oysters didn't last, and neither did the boom. Today, aside from local seafood, Oxford's primary industry is summer tourism.

A few plaques point out places like the oldest house in Oxford -- at Cutts and Case Shipyard -- but, while the charming old homes and Oxford Museum add wonderful ambience, history is not the town's primary winter appeal.

Year-round theater

Aside from the tranquillity, and absence of car traffic, one of Oxford's big draws is the community theater and the Tred Avon Players, now in their 20th season. The group does four different shows a year at the Community Center -- a play in October, another in February and a third in May, then a musical in August when the town is jammed for regattas.

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