Couple embarking on Talbot ferry tale

Vocation: Drawn by the river, a husband and wife from New York sell their car dealerships and buy a piece of Oxford-Bellevue history.

March 11, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OXFORD - For Tom Bixler, his new life as a ferry operator is a bit

of full-circle serendipity, a return to the low-key business that first caught his fancy as a teen-ager who piloted a similar craft between Shelter Island and North Haven on Long Island in New York.

The doubling back of Bixler's life has taken him to the Eastern Shore and the gentle, gray-green waters of the Tred Avon River, where he and his wife, Judy, have bought what is said to be the oldest privately owned ferry service in the country.

More than 30 years after Bixler earned his captain's license, the couple recently sold two car dealerships in New York's Adirondack region and settled in Talbot County. Perhaps it was fate or just plain luck that led them to the 65-foot Talbot, a flat-decked workhorse that one neighbor describes as "the pulse of the river."

"We looked all over the country for a ferry," Bixler says. "It's something we've thought about for a long time. We've both been involved with ferries off and on for years."

There is barely a tourist brochure, magazine or newspaper article, or travel Web site about this part of the Eastern Shore that fails to prominently mention the ferry, which traces its roots to the 1680s.

No one is quite sure how much economic impact the ferry has on Talbot County's burgeoning tourist trade, but there is no doubt that it provides an important link for visitors who make the 30-mile loop, touring downtown Easton, then taking in the quiet charm of Oxford before boarding the ferry to Bellevue and on to the fashionable shops and restaurants of nearby St. Michaels. The triangular route is a favorite of bicyclists from all over.

"As far as tourism, when the ferry closes for the winter, most of the businesses in town follow along and close up, too," says John Lewis, a local historian who says the ferry has had six owners during the past 150 years.

The small-world connection that brought the Bixlers to the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry was through its previous owners, the Bittners. Valerie Clark Bittner's late father, Gilbert C. Clark, moved his ferry operation from Long Island - where Tom Bixler once was an employee - to Oxford in 1974.

Bittner and her husband, David, took over the business in the mid-1980s. Now, with their children grown and pursuing other interests, the Bittners were looking for a way to ease out of the gentle but relentless pace of the 3/4 -mile loop between Oxford, a Colonial-era port, and Bellevue, a village that saw its heyday as a seafood and canning center a century ago.

"We have been married to this boat from March 1 to Nov. 30 for so long," says Valerie Bittner, who will stay on, working a few days a week for the new owners. "It's a wonderful job, but you can't get away from it. It's amazing this is such a small world, that they have these ties to my family."

Neither couple will reveal the sales price for the business, which includes only the 22-year-old Talbot - a boat Bixler guesses will last another 50 to 60 years. They also are reluctant to disclose how many vehicles, walkers and bicyclists make the seven-minute trip each year.

On busy summer weekends, Bittner says, the boat makes 30 to 35 trips a day, hauling up to nine cars, plus hikers and bicyclists each trip. Fares are $5.50 one way or $9 roundtrip for a car and driver, 50 cents per car passenger and $1.25 for walk-on passengers. Bicyclists pay $2.50 one way, $4 round-trip. Frequent users can buy a 10-trip ticket book for $40.

The ferry runs from 7 a.m. to sunset weekdays from March through November, and 9 a.m. to sunset weekends. From June 1 through Labor Day, it runs until 9 p.m.

Every year, the ferry operators take a three-month hiatus from Dec. 1 to March 1, a practice the Bixlers plan to continue.

Powered by twin 170-horse diesel engines, the 40-ton vessel is a "true double-ender," meaning it loads from one end and unloads vehicles and passengers at the other without having to turn around. The wheelhouse has wheels, throttles and instrument panels facing both directions so the captain can face either dock.

"I've never been bored, although some people ask me that," says Valerie Bittner. "I see the ferry as an essential part of Oxford. I can't imagine not having it here. It's a legend, maybe an icon."

That legend drew Rich and Carol Lichty of Bowie back to the ferry on a recent warm, breezy day. They had decided to take the day off and do something they rarely do - ride the ferry in their car.

"We have a 38-foot powerboat, so we're down here in the area all the time," said Rich Lichty. "We've taken the ferry dozens of times, but usually we're on bikes. It's a beautiful river, a great experience any time."

The Bixlers say the lure of a beautiful day on the river will keep the business thriving.

"Most people taking the ferry are doing it because they want to," says Judy Bixler, one of the new owners. "There are some people who take the ferry to work, but 90 percent are tourists. In our first week, we had a wedding party, someone from Dallas, Germany, Sweden, from all over. That's really the great thing about this business - it draws people from everywhere."

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