Last week, we embarked on our monthly Day Trippin’ adventure. Once a month we like to take a day to explore one of our local towns. Of course we have visited all of our Delmarvalous towns for various reasons over the years, but it’s always nice to consciously dedicate a day to delving a little deeper. This month, we decided to explore Crisfield, which boasts not only fantastic seafood and scenic views, but also a rich history and a strong heritage. Our day began with a meeting at the J. Millard Tawes Historical Museum with locals Tim Howard and Gordon Christensen, and ended with ice cream overlooking the Tangier Sound. Shortly stated, it was a perfect Day Trippin’ adventure. Take a look…
The J. Millard Tawes Museum is the perfect place to begin a day in Crisfield or to brush up on your local history. Crisfield’s history really begins with one of our favorite culinary treats: oysters! Crisfield was originally known as Somers Cove, which was recognized amongst waterman as an ideal place to dock during inclement weather in the Chesapeake. However, the real economic spark came in the 1850s when John W. Crisfield pushed the Eastern Shore Railroad from Salisbury to Crisfield after learning of the large number of oyster beds in the Tangier Sound. It wasn’t long before the town’s name was changed to Crisfield. “In the 1850s, there were oysters, oysters everywhere,” explained Howard. “That sustained us economically until the 1950s – generally this was an oyster town until then.” In fact, there were so many oyster beds in the Tangier Sound at that time that it was fairly common for boats to run into the oyster reefs offshore. As a result, many men started flocking to Crisfield to make their fortunes. “This place was like a wild, wild west town…except with oysters,” Howard joked.
Unfortunately, by the 1950s the oyster boom was quickly coming to an end. According to Howard, the oyster population had already started to decline, but suffered greatly from two new diseases that ultimately decimated the oyster population. The town quickly diversified economically, turning largely to the crabbing industry. Crab picking soared – hard crabs were caught, picked locally, and shipped regionally and internationally. While the crab picking industry has also declined significantly in recent years, crabs are still a mainstay for Crisfield. “This is still the soft shell capital,” said Christensen. “I think just about everyone is handling soft shells now.” “This is soft shell territory!” added Howard.
Today, soft shells dominate the scene (keep reading below for more on soft shells), along with fishing, crabbing, and an oyster industry that is making a steady comeback. “Oysters are coming back into the bay,” said Howard, who attributes the resurgence to improved water quality, a growing resistance to diseases, and concerted efforts in oyster restoration by Horn Point. “With the rebound of the oyster industry, it’s really showing promise,” explained Howard.
Of course tourism is also a growing industry for the small City of Crisfield, with thousands of visitors making the trek to the coastal city to attend local events, to explore, and to visit nearby Smith Island and Tangier Island.
“A City Built on Oysters”
Did you know that Crisfield is literally built on oysters? That’s right, in addition to helping to build the local economy oysters were also used to build a large portion of the town. “They literally shucked so many oysters that they made land,” said Howard. Billions of oyster shells were crushed together to form the foundation of the larger part of the business section of the city.
“Soft Shell Central”
Soft shell crabs abound in Crisfield, Smith Island, and Tangier Island, thanks to the perfect water conditions. If you aren’t familiar with soft shell crabs, a soft shell occurs when a blue crab is caught and killed between periods of shedding its hard shell. The entire soft shell crab is consumed, typically either by itself, on a sandwich, wrapped up in a sushi roll, etc… It’s no secret we are soft shell lovers through and through here at ShoreBread so we were fascinated with this portion of our tour. Christensen and Howard took us to see a few crabs undergoing the molting process, in order to get a better look at how the magic happens.
Crabs typically live between two and three years, shedding their hard exoskeleton 18 to 20 times in its lifetime. After molting, the crab re-hardens from calcium in the water, forming a new shell within just a few hours; which is why soft shells can be so tricky. Watermen look for specific crabs, a.k.a peelers, based on shading and coloring and store them in water until they shed, at which point there is only a short window of time before the crab will have a hard shell again. “The whole industry is built on the last two to three sheds of a crab’s life,” explained Howard. Soft shell season typically lasts from April through October, which is why you don’t see local soft shells on menus in the colder months.
“World Famous Ward Brothers”
Many people assume that the Ward Brothers are from Salisbury, due to the fact that the Ward Museum is located there. The truth is, Lem and Steve Ward were born and raised in Crisfield! Descended from a long line of watermen, the duo eventually became famous for their waterfowl carvings. In fact, their workshop still stands today in Crisfield.
After all that soft shell talk, we were desperate for a local soft shell crab sandwich, which led us directly to Water’s Edge Café. Located just a few steps from the City Dock, the restaurant was bustling when we sat down. Of course we opted for a crab cake sandwich and a soft shell sandwich with fries…and were NOT disappointed. Simple and downright delicious sums this meal up perfectly.
Lunch was capped off with a short walk over to the Ice Cream Gallery for a sweet treat. Other notable restaurants for lunch or dinner are the Watermen’s Inn, Linton’s Crab House, and Chesapeake Crab House & Tiki.
What to See
We were lucky enough to get a quick tour of one of the crab houses, where 21 bushels of crabs were being cooked at one time in a massive kettle at 250 degrees before being picked or shipped out. We even got a glimpse of the famous crab pickers – and boy do those ladies know how to pick crabs!
The Somer’s Cove Marina is perfect for a stroll along the docks. Boats of all sizes are docked and used for fishing, sailing, or cruising. We even made friends with an adorable pup who was quickly becoming the marina’s mascot. Quick fact: Somer’s Cove is listed as one of the largest marinas on the East Coast!
For nature enthusiasts and campers, head to Jane’s Island State Park. Perfect for hiking, fishing, kayaking, or picnicking, the state park has over 30 miles of water trails, along with cabins for rent and ample space for camping.
While we did not have enough time this go-round, we definitely suggest taking a cruise to Tangier or Smith Islands for an extended day trip!
Hard Crab Derby: “It’s a homecoming of sorts for a lot of the locals,” said Howard of the annual Hard Crab Derby, which is held each year during Labor Day Weekend. Parades, races and contests make up the event, including contests in crab picking, boat docking, and arm wrestling. Of course there’s also the annual Miss Crustacean contest, as well as live music and local food.
Governor Tawes Crab & Clam Bake: Held every year on the third Wednesday in July at Somers Cove Marina, the Crab & Clam Bake yields massive crowds of eager locals and visitors. The outdoor, all-you-can-eat feast boasts crabs, clams, fish, corn on the cob, watermelon…all the culinary staples of Crisfield.
Dock Day: Dock Day on the Bay is just around the corner, with this year’s event scheduled for Saturday, September 26 from noon until 4pm. The waterfront festival celebrates the history and heritage of Crisfield’s water and fishing culture with live music, great food, and a full afternoon of events. It’s a great chance to explore Crisfield while getting to know the local fishermen along the waterfront.
Freedom Fest: Crisfield celebrates our nation’s birthday with a full day of family fun at the City Dock. Food, live music, arts and crafts, fireworks and more!
What We Love
Everything! From the history, to the food, to the two massive Smith Island cakes we smuggled home with us…our trip to Crisfield was perfection from start to finish. As Christensen pointed out, “there’s a lot of history in Crisfield. It’s still a working waterfront town.” The history of the watermen is evident everywhere you go, the views of the water are breathtaking, and the small town charm is unparalleled. Nearly every person we passed gave a cheerful ‘hello’ and all of the locals we chatted with or stopped to ask for advice were overly friendly.
The small town vibe runs deep in Crisfield…plan your own Day Trippin’ adventure to Crisfield!
Photos by Gina Whaley