If there's one quality that best describes the southern Anne Arundel County town of Galesville, it's the low-key atmosphere that this village on the banks of the West River strives to maintain.
Anyone headed to Galesville for the first time might wonder where the town begins because it's easy to miss the unobtrusive sign that welcomes visitors to the 351-year-old village. It's only when you reach the West River Market -- a half-mile into town -- that you realize you're in the heart of Galesville.
The West River Market is a popular hangout for the town's 534 residents and the out-of-town boating crowd that rents slips at the two boatyards in Galesville.
Besides offering sandwiches and general supplies, the shop functions much like a community center. Every year, shop owner Susan Ulrich organizes the town's Fourth of July and Halloween parties. And on Saturday nights, the shop's front porch becomes a stage for local musicians who fill the air with the sound of bluegrass music.
But the town's true identity is revealed as soon as you head toward the West River. The shoreline often is ablaze with color from more than 1,000 masts lining the piers. On weekends, a parade of sailboats makes the West River busier than any local road.
Forty-five 45 minutes from downtown Baltimore and 20 minutes from Annapolis, the area tends to attract residents who want to live in a small town with the characteristics of a classic village. Many residents travel to jobs in Annapolis, Washington and Baltimore.
Real estate in the village is pricey and tough to find. Just five homes sold there during the past 12 months, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. Those homes sold at an average price of $437,500 and were on the market an average of 20 days.
Founded in 1652 by two families seeking freedom from religious persecution, Galesville originally was called Brownton after John Brown, who received a land grant from the second Lord Baltimore, according to Roberta Cassard, who heads the Galesville Heritage Society Museum.
In 1682, the town's name was changed to West River Landing, when it became an official port of entry for ships picking up corn, grain and tobacco before heading to Europe. At that time, the town also became a stronghold for Quakerism -- it is the site of the first Quaker meeting in Maryland.
Almost a century later, during the War of Independence, West River Landing was the site of Anne Arundel County's only shore engagement of the war, according to Galesville, Maryland: The Legend, The Legacy by Jean Siegert Trott.
In March 1781, the British knocked out a cannon emplacement and destroyed Stuart Shipyard, which was owned by Samuel Galloway. His mansion, Tulip Hill, overlooks the West River. Residents say George Washington was a friend of Galloway's and occasionally visited Tulip Hill.
The town's name was changed to Galesville during the early 1800s when George Gale acquired the Brownton plantation. During this time, Galesville residents enjoyed regular steamboat service to Baltimore and other Chesapeake towns, a run that lasted for 100 years, Cassard says.
The most famous steamer to ply the river was the Emma Giles, according to Trott's book. Built in 1887, the steamer made runs to Galesville three to five times a week, carrying up to 1,500 passengers. Many people came to Galesville for Saturday night dancing at the Pavilion Dance Hall and stayed overnight at one of the local hotels and rooming houses.
During the early 1900s, boat-building, fishing, crabbing and oystering were the economic mainstays of the area. But after World War II, Galesville witnessed a decline in commercial use of the West River.
And it was at this time that Galesville residents took advantage of the river's access to the bay for pleasure boating. Boatyards in the area began building sailboats for recreational boaters.
Members of the Hartge family, who still operate the largest boatyard in Galesville, began producing log canoes during the 1800s.
But after the decline in commercial shipping, Hartge's boatyard expanded by building several classes of sailboats, the best-known being the Chesapeake 20 boats built during the 1930s and again after World War II.
Sailing regattas became a favorite weekend pastime on the river as early as 1929 when the West River Sailing Club (originally named Our Own Damn Yacht Club) staged the first of its many races.
Peter and Joan Bell moved to Galesville in 1992 from Massachusetts after having sailed to the area since 1965. The couple purchased the old Pavilion Dance Hall building for almost $500,000.
Other than adding one modern addition, the Bells have maintained the original two-story structure, which was built during the late 1800s.