Eastern Shore landmark for sale

Longtime owners of historic Robert Morris Inn in Oxford say they don't plan to reopen in spring

November 22, 2007|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN REPORTER

OXFORD -- After nearly four decades in business, innkeepers Ken and Wendy Gibson are selling the Robert Morris Inn - a landmark known for its Colonial-era ambiance and what author James A. Michener once called the best crab cakes on the Chesapeake Bay.

Thanksgiving weekend has always marked the beginning of a four-month hiatus for the Gibsons and the 35 workers who run the inn, built in 1710 on the banks of the Tred Avon River. But this time, the Gibsons plan to sell the place during the off-season.

The couple is putting the inn, once the home of Robert Morris Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence and friend to George Washington, on the market at $3.25 million - a price that at twice that amount probably would not raise an eyebrow in wealthy Talbot County.

Next spring, they will join their son, Ben, 34, and other family members as a "semiretired" couple who will help run the family's Sandaway Bed and Breakfast, across the street from the Robert Morris.

"We need someone who can come in and take the inn to the next step, the next level," said Ken Gibson, pointing out that neither the inn nor restaurant and tavern operation has a computer system. "Everything from dining room checks to hotel bills to employee time cards are still done by hand," Gibson said.

"We've been able to accept credit cards, but the rooms do not have phones. We seem to have come full circle on that now because virtually everybody has cell phones now."

The family, which is closing the Robert Morris' kitchen for good, will reopen its 16 rooms for guests if the inn has not sold by spring. "We're not just trying to sell an inn," said Wendy Gibson. "We want somebody with vision."

The rich and famous - including Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfield - have become regulars at chic restaurants in Easton and St. Michaels in recent years. But while celebrities often are spotted by photographers in those larger towns, they can still dine unnoticed or ignored in the Robert Morris' expansive dining room (jackets required) or warm up by the almost-6-foot-tall fireplace in the tavern room.

The three dining areas range from the formal, with chandeliers and walls covered with murals depicting historical events, to the dark-paneled tavern. Upstairs, some guest rooms hold period furniture.

It was Michener who, in a casual mention in a newspaper interview, deemed the Robert Morris' backfin crab cakes the best in the region - no small detail, customers thought, from the novelist who spent a good portion of his life sailing the bay.

According to the Gibsons, Michener came into town in the mid-1970s as he was beginning research for Chesapeake. He bought a spiral school notebook at the local market, then sat for hours in a quiet corner of the tavern dining room. It was there that he finished an outline for the historical novel.

There's a thank-you note kept under a glass tabletop in a downstairs sitting room from Michener to the Gibson family in 1986 in gratitude for shipping him a batch of crab cakes he enjoyed while on a trip to Alaska.

The note "was totally unsolicited or expected," Ken Gibson said. "But he ate here often."

Gibson said the inn's policy has always been to leave famous patrons alone. He can quickly rattle off notables who dined or stayed at the inn through the years, including newsman Walter Cronkite, who like many sailors was drawn to Oxford's boating culture; actress Elizabeth Taylor; singer Bing Crosby; baseball executive Bill Veeck and actor Robert Mitchum.

One patron from the 1970s, said Gibson, was Susan Ford, daughter of former President Gerald R. Ford. The president's daughter was protected by the Secret Service, which rented an adjoining room, Gibson said.

Just a couple years ago, Gibson said, actor Robert Duvall raved about the inn's crab cakes on Martha Stewart's television show.

Now, as they prepare to walk away from a business they bought in 1971 when they were 23 and 21 ("you do the math," they say of their ages), the Gibsons say their concern is for their employees, who were already out of work for four months a year.

Siretta Harris, 45, hopes that maybe a buyer can be found who will want to open the restaurant next spring - and do it with the current staff. But the 20-year employee, who started as a waitress and is now the assistant innkeeper, wonders about the odds of the team staying together.

"I'll get another job if it comes to that," Harris said. "I don't think I'll ever fall in love like I have with everything here though. We're known for our `country hospitality' and a new owner should know it's having a personal touch."

Wendy Gibson said she still has trouble with her "bittersweet" emotions since the family's decision to sell the inn.

"We're prepared to keep it on the market for five years, if it takes that long," Wendy Gibson said. "We're not just selling a building; it's history."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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