You'll slow down in tranquil Oxford

you're required to

But be forewarned: Some visitors never leave

Trips: road trips, regional events

April 22, 2004|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

OXFORD - As you enter this waterfront hamlet on the Eastern Shore via ferry boat, a small sign reads, "Oxford Welcomes You/Please Slow Down/25 MPH."

That message succinctly captures the character of this historic and picturesque town on the banks of the Tred Avon River: welcoming, unhurried charm.

In Oxford, longtime residents are on a first-name basis, bicycles are a common mode of transportation, and one can reach most every destination by walking.

Founded in 1695, the community, whose name stems from links to England, is among the oldest in Maryland, one that is a refreshing throwback to a more old-fashioned way of life.

Picture the tree-lined streets, Colonial architecture and white picket fences. There's a general store in the center of town, and a nearby food market where locals gather to chat. The Oxford volunteer fire company holds monthly pancake breakfasts. And there's even an unofficial Lovers Lane.

You'll be hard-pressed to find a speck of trash on these streets, and crime is such a non-issue that arrests are rare.

Oxford's natural beauty is as close as its public spaces, like "The Strand" a popular waterfront spot on the Tred Avon River, where one sees indigenous birds, wildlife and unforgettable sunsets. Just a few blocks away at Oxford Park, that same riverfront vista can be enjoyed from park benches and swings.

All these qualities helped lure Ken and Wendy Gibson here back in the early 1970s, when they purchased the historic Robert Morris Inn. Built in 1710, its yellow clapboard exterior and riverfront location make it one of the town's most recognizable landmarks.

"Oxford was such a neat place to raise kids, we took the challenge [of running the inn]," says Ken, whose family also runs the adjacent Sandaway Lodge, which dates to 1875. "We're now in our 34th year. ... Many employees have been here more than 30 years."

Besides being the former home of Robert Morris Sr. and his son, Robert Morris Jr., who helped finance the Revolutionary War and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the inn has in more recent years welcomed other famous guests.

Author James Michener wrote his original outline for the novel Chesapeake in the inn's cozy tavern. He frequently ate there, declaring often that the Robert Morris Inn's crab cakes were the best on the Eastern Shore.

That assertion notwithstanding, Oxford has its share of fine restaurants, elegant lodging, antiques shops and marinas for the abundant yachts and sailboats docked on these shores.

Maritime pursuits are big here, a connection to the town's rich past as a seaport. More than 300 years ago the area was designated one of two entry ports (along with Annapolis) for the entire Maryland province.

Oxford bustled as a prominent international shipping center until the American Revolution. Thereafter, its fortunes waxed and waned. By the early 1990s, its viability as a port and commercial fishing center had evaporated with the failing oyster beds, packing houses and other industries.

Today, while still a watermen's town at heart, Oxford has reinvented itself for tourism and leisure. Visitors hail from the East Coast and beyond, and there are plenty of international guests.

While many of these travelers rent or purchase summer and vacation homes (one waterfront property was recently listed for $1.2 million), others have set down roots, lured by Oxford's tranquility and easy pace.

"It's a lovely area," says Captain Tom Bixler, a retiree from upstate New York who now calls Oxford home. In 2002, he and wife Judy purchased the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, established in 1683 and thought to be the oldest privately owned ferry in America.

While Oxford is accessible by car, the 12-minute ferry shuttles pedestrians, vehicles and cyclists across the Tred Avon as a scenic shortcut to nearby Bellevue and St. Michaels.

"Oxford has a small-town nature and close-knit aspects," says Bixler, adding that he loves its location on the water and proximity to larger cities. "It's really close to lots of cultural activities. You don't have to go far."

The town has its own cultural attractions, from the Oxford Museum to the Tred Avon Players community theater group.

Meantime, the small-town camaraderie extends to other goings-on such as Saturday's Oxford Day, which brings out the community for a day of food, games and fun that is pure Americana.

"Every year there's a country parade, maybe a band," says longtime resident Norma Forrest.

"You may see a tractor pulling children in the Scouts, or a baseball team. There's baton twirling, old cars, fire engines, flowers and church baked goods. Everyone has a good time."Forrest says the day aptly represents the spirit of Oxford - small-town living at its best.

"Families have security here. People come here for safety and peace," she says.

Getting there

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