Misspent Youth: Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center

Chesapeake Heritage Center SignIt has been a quiet week in Kent Island, my home down. I guess. I don’t really know. The Queen Anne’s County Board of Education held a dance competition fundraiser at the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club. There’s been a rash of mailbox vandalism in Chester, as crops up from time to time, typically ending when someone buys one of those concrete-post mailboxes that’s been cunningly disguised as a wooden post, which is probably about as close as you can legally get to legally setting up booby-traps to maim trespassing vandals. Some asshole did donuts in the athletic field at Batts Neck Park, tearing ruts in the sod ahead of a scheduled lacrosse game. Saturday, the business district of Historic Stevensville held their third annual “Small Business Saturday Shopping Destination”, where patrons of town businesses were entered to win a gift basket. An elf-on-the-shelf themed children’s version of the event was new this year. This coming Saturday, they’ll be holding a chocolate chip cookie competition among local businesses. Proceeds will benefit the Arts and Entertainment district.

A few weeks ago, an article crossed my news feed about how there was a temporary exhibit of some models of Cheseapeake Bay workboats at the Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center at Kent Narrows. Now, workboats of the Chesapeake Bay is not a particular interest of mine, but scale models of things is. And more to the point, it turned out that there was such a thing as a “Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center” at the Kent Narrows, which, frankly, seemed a little implausible to me, and as I was scheduled to drive down there for dentistry a week later, I decided to check it out before my regular, “Wander around forlornly looking for traces of my misspent youth and then go to Hardee’s.”

Kent Narrows Bridges, Chester, MDThe Kent Narrows, which I mentioned in passing last time, is a really narrow strip of water that connects the mouth of the Chester River to the Eastern Bay. It’s basically just a deep part of the marsh on either side that they dredged until they could get boats through it. It’s crossed by two bridges, the Kent Narrows Bridge, which carries US-50/301 off of the island, and the much older Route 18 drawbridge, which sits in the shadow of the newer bridge and is officially called the “Waterman’s Memorial Bridge”, but as far as I know, everyone still calls it “The Old Narrows Bridge”. The “new” Narrows Bridge is an immense, steep structure that seems just ridiculously grandiose for a body of water I am pretty sure you could throw a Frisbee across, but the whole point of it is that you need to get sailboats under it, and four lanes of shore traffic over it, unlike the old bridge, which sits closer to the water, only carries two lanes, and, y’know, opened up in the middle a couple of times a day.

The community of Kent Narrows, I assume, refers to the area around the waterway on either side. The mainland side features a number of hotels and locally renowned restaurants. I never went to any while I lived there, but there’s a really nice one we go to sometimes when I visit my sister with a model train track around the ceiling and a big collection of antique oyster plates. The island side is almost entirely mooring, storage and maintenance facilities for yachts. And, of course, the extinct shopping center.

See, back in the late ’80s or maybe the early ’90s, there was a successful strip of outlet stores in Queenstown, anchored by the Chesapeake Pottery, a sort of, if I’m remembering correctly HomeGoods-like shop that sold, uh, mostly a lot of stuff I didn’t care about. In the back, they had a little gourmet shop, and after the Pottery closed down in, I’m guessing, the mid-’90s, the gourmet remained until a few years ago, when it suddenly closed up right around Christmas and unceremoniously fired all the employees, including my sister. So not too much later, they decided that the Island needed something like that. And right at the Kent Narrows, where thousands of travelers crossed on their way to and from the shore every day from May to September, would be an ideal place for it.

So they built this enormous blue clapboard shopping center. The center consisted of two buildings, and housed an Old Navy store, a really good deli where I had my first Turkey Club, a small toy store… And frankly nothing else I can remember just at the minute, because, come on, it was 25 years ago. But it was convenient and a big step on the Island’s long march to modernity.

And then they built the new bridge. So, see that picture of the bridges up there? If my orienteering skills are what I think they are, the camera is pointed directly at the Kent Narrows Shopping Center. Notice what you can’t see in that picture? Yeah, it’s just as bad from the highway. If you’re on the old bridge, the place is completely invisible. If you’re on the new one, you can catch a glimpse of it if you look to your right while heading east, just after you’ve passed the only exit that will take you there.

Kent Narrows CenterYeah. By the time I was sixteen, all that was left was the Old Navy, a hair salon, and, I think, a gym of some sort. The Old Navy closed down not too long after. These days, it’s just the hair salon and a former restaurant that a catering company leases out for private parties. I think some of the mall offices are rented to DNR. The clapboard has turned gray with age, as befits a creepy ghost-mall.

So when you go looking for the Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center, by taking the Piney Narrows exit from Route 50, or making the last left before the Route 18 bridge, you find yourself on a winding road past a lot of yacht mooring, then suddenly up in front of you is this creepy ghost-mall, and it starts to feel like you’ve made a mistake. Follow the road around to the right, and it’s more docking facilities and yacht maintenance facilities, and I think a strip of townhouses that are accessible from the water, and you’re totally thinking that it would not be out of place if you passed an old man in a flannel shirt and yellow waders with a squint in one eye who tells you through teeth clenched around a corncob pipe that, “Aye, we don’t get many vis’tors ’round these parts this time o’ the season, least, not since the Old Navy Ghost been seen walkin’ the grounds at the old pier…”

So you follow Piney Creek road as it turns again to the right, and about this time, it occurs to you that you’re heading east again, and you were basically at the water when you turned off the highway to begin with, and this is an island, and surely there can’t be much more of it left before you drive into the water and drown. And this, approximately, is when you see a comparatively new, modern looking building. It’s got a bit of the look of an office building, rather than the industrial look of the rest of the area. It’s got a distinctively east-coast waterfront-community look to it, hipped roof, wood shingles. It’s not up on stilts, but you could easily imagine if it were. The front part of the building is a field office for the county police. The remainder of the first floor of the building is the Heritage and Visitor Center.

Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor CenterParking is plentiful, optimistic even. Or maybe it just seems that way at the moment. The 1906 Skipjack Anna McGarvey normally stands outside the building on display, but it’s been temporarily removed for restoration. Also closed for the season is the attached Ferry Point Park (I’m not sure about the origin of the name. As far as I know, the ferry services ran from Love Point, Matapeake and Romancoke, not from the Narrows), which is undergoing shoreline restoration.

I wasn’t the only visitor to pass through that Wednesday, but the receptionist was surprised all the same, doubly surprised that I wasn’t a local, and trebbly surprised that I’d read the article about the model boats. The Visitor Center consists of two galleries and a wildlife porch. You enter through (Here, I’m guessing, since I did not note which room was which) the Eastern Bay Room, which is dominated by a large tabletop map of Queen Anne’s County. The periphery of the room has smaller exhibits: local photography, a few foam jigsaw puzzles children can assemble to learn the shape of the Eastern Bay, and a collection of vintage, modern and reproduction products of the Eastern Shore, such as canned produce or the shipping containers used for tobacco. On your way back toward the rest rooms, there’s an old-fashioned refrigerator in the corner with a sign inviting you to open it. Inside are trays of preserved teeth from local and historical sea life. You can also pick up tourist maps and brochures here, as befits a visitor’s center.

Down a hallway past the reception desk is the Chester River room. If the front room is more “Visitor Center”, the back is more “Heritage Center”. One of the first things you’ll see is a display of a half-dozen or so duck decoys by local artisans, celebrating Kent Island’s now largely lost tradition of decoy-making. There’s a collection of snuff boxes, clay pipes and tobacco containers as part of a display about the importance of tobacco to the early economy of the area. The drawers of an antique roll-top desk contain artifacts from early settlers, such as gun flints and tableware. The next section shows mock-ups of the various trade goods important to the colonial economy in the form of barrels of plastic corn, baskets of plastic rockfish and the like. There’s a reproduction of a seventeenth century print showing the native Matapeake tribe engaged in typical activities like fishing, hunting and farming. Panels on the image open up to reveal modern photographs of twenty-first century white guys engaged in the same activities.

Past this is a chest of drawers illustrating the geological history of Kent Island. Drawers down the left side each contain a map of the island and a few paragraphs about the conditions and population (human and otherwise) during time periods ranging from the present day back to 8,000 BC. Each map is superimposed with the Island’s present-day outline to show how erosion has nipped away at the edges of the Island. The corresponding right-hand drawers contain small artifacts of the period, mostly arrowheads, clovis points and knapping tools. Beside this, set into what looks to have been meant as a coat closet, is a temperature-regulated display case of colonial-era tools, including a badly deteriorated but mostly intact flintlock mechanism.

The gallery is loosely partitioned into three sections by partial walls. While the first section primarily covers the precolonial and colonial era, the large middle section is oriented toward the history of Queen Anne’s County, and Kent Island in particular, from American independence through about the middle of the twentieth century. There’s nothing directly about the wars, the Island not being of tremendous direct strategic importance in either so far as I know (More relevant but also unmentioned is that time that Virginia and Maryland kinda sorta went to war over ownership of Kent Island, mostly because William Claiborne didn’t know when to give up). One wall displays pages from 18th century farmers’ almanacs and examples of period farming equipment and techniques. The opposite wall houses displays of the tools of the trade of watermen, equipment for fishing, crabbing and oystering, as well as samples of silt from various beaches around the county.

Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor CenterI don’t recall anything in the display explaining this, but farming on Kent Island went into a decline in the 19th century due to soil degradation. Fortunately, an industrial revolution started up shortly thereafter which made Stevensville a viable shipping and transport hub between the middle Delmarva peninsula and Baltimore. Appropriately, the east wall of the gallery covers Kent Island’s role as a transport hub. One display shows photographs of the ferry boats that were the primary means of accessing the island until the 1950s, along with some small artifacts like fare tokens and a coffeepot. The section also covers the long-extinct railroad, with photos of the old railroad bridge and a model train carrying examples of the sort of freight that would travel the long-defunct Queen Anne’s Railroad (That is, they put a can of corn and some plastic vegetables in one of the freight cars).

Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center exhibitThe exhibits get a bit more fanciful when they come to cover the construction of the Bay Bridge (Which is, for you pedants, technically called the “Governor William Preston Lane, Jr. Memorial Bridge”, but not even most official state publications call it that). In addition to photos of its construction and ephemera from the opening celebration, there’s a case of Matchbox cars meant to be demonstrative of the traffic volume over the bridge, and a couple of paint cans labeled with the amount of paint it takes to coat the 4.3 mile steel structure.

The northernmost section of the room is where the aforementioned model boats are exhibited. The exhibit consists of about six or so models of some of the more signficant styles of boat used for pulling sea life out of the Chesapeake. And I should be up-front here: they’re not really all that much to look at. I mean, these are fantastically well-made models, and they’re at least as accurate as my minuscule maritime history knowledge can tell. And if you’re into that sort of thing, more power to you. But here’s the important thing to remember if you’re most people and don’t have any particular specialized interest in the subject: these are working boats. Their entire raison d’etre is to take a waterman out somewhere where he can pull up a bunch of aquatic life, then carry him and the aquatic life back to port, and to do it as cheaply as possible. Which is to say that we are for the most part talking about boats that all more-or-less look like a flat box with a point at one end. A boat with a large, flat deck for working, a flat keel for shallow water, and a sail design that minimizes the amount of manpower needed to do the not-fishing work of making the boat go where you want it. Skipjack Anna McGarveyThe only boat that’s properly interesting to look at all on its own divorced from maritime history is the Skipjack. The official state boat of Maryland, the Skipjack was a late 19th century design to make oyster dredging cost-effective in light of legal restrictions on the use of powerboats. Their most distinctive feature is their disproportionately large sails, which provided the power needed to pull an oyster dredge. Limited use of powerboats in oyster dredging has been permitted since the 1960s, so most modern Skipjacks hang a small motorboat from a davit off the back that they use to tow them around when they’re working.

There’s also, without explanation, a 1950s television set. Which is cool, but I have no idea why it’s there.

The wildlife porch is a small room at the end of the building, facing the park. On a nice day, I imagine it could be pleasant to sit a while on the bench and bird-watch out the windows, though I guess if the weather was amenable for bird-watching, you might just as well go outside and do it there. It’s also the home of their live animal exhibit, which consists of a terrapin named Francois and a horseshoe crab (unnamed). There’s a couple of small horseshoe crab skeletons you can look at next to the live crab’s tank too. Possibly as a warning to him if he doesn’t start bringing in the business. There’s also wildlife identification cards available so that nature-watchers can figure out what they’re looking at.

The Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center is a neat little place. Certainly, it’s small and the exhibit room is a little spartan, but there’s enough there to spend an hour or two. It feels like they’re mostly set up for school groups. I’m not really sure it’s big enough to justify a field trip, but maybe they do half-day field trips now? When I was in school, field trips were always all-day affairs, but then, driving a school bus anywhere worthwhile would be close to an hour each way back then. Chesapeake Bay Maritime Musem Brochure Cover, Autographed by William Donald SchaeferIt strikes me as pretty much a scaled down version of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, where I took a field trip in fourth grade and met then-governor William Donald Schaefer (This was before his infamous “shithouse” statement got him banned from the Delmarva peninsula), and indeed, the CBMM provided a bunch of the exhibits.

The tour is unguided, which I normally prefer, especially in a small museum like this. But in this case, without a guide to explain the exhibits, I think I’d like there to be more explanatory text accompanying the various displays, since a lot of them don’t have anything beyond the names of things. That’s particularly lacking in the case of the model boats, which really don’t give you any sense of their historical context.

I wouldn’t say that the Heritage and Visitor Center is really worth the trip all the way to Kent Island, but it doesn’t really have to be. Like I said, it’s fun enough to waste an hour on. And it’s about five minutes off of the major highway that you basically have no choice but to drive if you’re going to or from the Eastern Shore. So if you happen to be heading back from the shore in the early afternoon and you feel like stretching your legs for a bit, pull off at exit 41, wind your way past the ghost-mall, and stop by.

  • The Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor’s Center is located at 425 Piney Narrows Rd. in Chester, MD. Its operating hours are 10 AM to 4 PM, seven days a week during the summer months, and weekdays December through April, except holidays.
  • The model workboat exhibit runs through December 11.

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  1. Pingback: Deconstruction Roundup for December 4th, 2015 | The Slacktiverse

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