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Caroline County MD: Towns of Preston and Denton With Fancy Food And Fine Furnishings

WHY GO: The Harriet Tubman story continues up into Caroline County MD, but though a powerful draw, that’s not the only reason to come and stay a few days. There are some surprisingly sophisticated restaurants and inns, funky and cool local-arts and craft stores, and a Specialty High School for the Culinary Arts in tiny Eastern Shore towns surrounded by vast tracks of farmland. In fact, Caroline County, in the center of the Delmarva Peninsula, is the premier agricultural county in Maryland, known more for what it grows in the earth than what it gleans from the Bay. You’ll want to stay at least a night, maybe more, for the to-die-for French pastries alone in Denton. But I get ahead of myself. Read on.

Things to Do in Caroline County MD

VISIT: Linchester Mill, Preston. The Linchester Mill complex includes the grist mill, of course, but also Maryland’s only Braille Nature Trail, and a Miller’s House that serves as a distinctive Museum Antique Shop where you can pick up duck decoys ($125 and up), framed worn and stained American Flags, and storied furniture including, at this writing, an early 1800’s Dough Box ($1,250).

The mill itself was an inadvertent gathering place for slaves, free blacks, and white sympathizers, who all brought their grain to be milled here. In fact, though there is no documentation, there’s a good chance Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, came to this flour mill as he lived just two miles away in Poplar Neck, the spot from which he, his wife, and Harriet escaped the Eastern Shore. The Mill,currently in a ramshackle state, is open for self-guided tours. You’ll get a good sense of how dense the woods were along Hunting Creek (feeding into the Choptank River) in the mid 1800’s, through which Tubman and her family and friends had to maneuver. In the dark of night with no light, it was a punishing place.

STOP: James Webb Cabin, Preston, on Tubman Byway. Owned by free Black farmer, James Webb, this 1850’s homestead was a typical African American one-room farmhouse with loft and root cellar. There is no documentation that that root cellar was a “hidey hole” for runaway slaves, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t.

STOP/SHOP/SNACK: Mary’s Country Store, Harmony. Mary’s is a cute little country store on the Tubman Byway, owned for 22 year by Mary Vonville, whose scratch brownies and crab cakes are known far and wide. Harmony is not much of a town – there’s Mary’s and….. not much else. Harmony Billiards, right across the street, looks like it’s been vacant for years.

VISIT: Caroline County Tourism Office, Steamboat Wharf, Denton. This site doubles as an Underground RR Byway stop. Situated on the Choptank River, slaves were offloaded for auction at Steamboat Wharf where, ironically, in addition, free Black watermen brought news, passed gossip and whispered advice about escape. One such celebrated escapee was Moses Viney, whose portrait hangs in the Union College library in Schenectady NY. One Easter Sunday, Viney fashioned oars from two fence posts and rowed a stolen canoe to freedom. Viney had planned his getaway for months, training the slave-catcher’s hounds to quietly expect treats and then go home, rather than loudly give chase. He reached Schenectady, worked for Union College, owned his own carriage service, and after awhile earned enough to purchase some downtown buildings.

VISIT: Museum of Rural Life, Denton. Plan to spend 20 minutes or half an hour in this 1819 Town Home to see the original oil of “Escape From Poplar Neck,” the painting of Harriet Tubman and her parents riding for their lives out of Maryland. (A copy hangs in the Harriet Tubman Visitor’s Center in Cambridge).

Also within is an original farm cabin, a parlor from a 1790 home, and a photomural titled the “Seeding of Alaska Peas,” dated March 1906. At one point, Caroline County MD was considered the “Garden of America” and it’s pictures like these that remind you of those origins.

SHOP: Foundry Art Gallery and Gift Shop, Denton. Forward thinkers in this tiny farm town took a derelict neighborhood and turned it into an “Arts and Entertainment” district, with incentives for artists to buy or rent houses, fix them up and use them as studio/shops. The results have been fantastic – for artists, visitors, and locals alike: A true win-win-win.

The Foundry Art Gallery gathers the work of 50 local artists in one place, with offerings as far from cookie-cutter as you can get. You’ll find arts and crafts here you won’t see anywhere else for much less than you’d spend in cities or resort towns. Large silk-screen pillows are $50, one of a kind jewelry from $30-$40, and you’ll find woodwork, paintings, and one of a kind furniture at reasonable prices.

SHOP: Jan Baker’s 4th Street Gallery, Denton. Jan creates fun and funky fashion jewelry, some with semi-precious stones that are so unique, a world-traveled craft jewelry maven like moi hasn’t seen the likes of them anywhere else. You probably won’t need much cajoling to pick up at least one seahorse themed multi-chain necklace ($49.95). At least I didn’t.

SHOP: Other shops on 4th in Denton include Tea Tyme, Joviality, and Fiber Arts Center, which hosts “sit and sew” groups.

SHOP: Bargain Beverage. In the know beach-bound tourists stop here between Baltimore and the beaches for booze. It’s apparently the cheapest and most convenient place on the road to stock up on spirits. But now that you know what else is in town, you’ll want to stay awhile.

HIKE: Adkins Arboretum, Ridgely. With four miles of well-marked bike and walking trails, this 400-acre preserve has been a magnet for nature lovers and birders since it opened in the 1980’s. Bring your dog (treats and bowls of water provided), wander the wetlands (platforms soon to be renovated), woods, meadows, streams and gardens, investigate native Maryland plantings, and say hi to four resident goats that eat invasive species – a low-tech approach to a significant problem. If you have an hour, or haven’t been here in awhile, stop in to the small but informative Visitor’s Center to pick up an Audio Tour of “Nature’s Role in the Underground Railroad,” a realistic imagining of what it felt like to be lost in the woods in the dark. This tangled landscape hasn’t changed much since Harriet Tubman’s time, when she and others faced grueling natural obstacles “while breaking from bondage.” $5 adults, $3 kids. Tues-Sat 10-4, Sun 12-4.

DO: Shoot Clays at Schrader’s Outdoors, Henderson (aka Schrader’s Bridgetown Manor). Though this estate is known as a “hunting lodge” and sportsman’s retreat (there’s a hidden poker room behind a wall, and lockers for muddy camouflage-wear and ammo), Schrader’s offers one of the best Sporting Clay courses – what aficionados call “golf with a gun”- in Maryland. You’ll find 16 stands on a scenic one-mile course, taking you through forest, field and by a turquoise-water-filled gravel pit. For those who want to test their sharp-shooting skills but don’t want to kill anything, Sporting Clay is the perfect activity. Come for the day, or plan to stay the night in one of 11 nice but spare rooms. Schrader’s Outdoors runs many competitions and programs, including deer, small game, turkey and upland bird hunting, 3-D archery, sport fishing, Corporate Team Building, and other packages on 25,000 acres of “the finest hunting properties on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.” And, not too surprisingly, they’ve got a huge wedding business. $195 Beginner Sporting Clays Package includes gun rental, one hour of instruction and lunch. Dozens of other packages from clay to hunting. Check website.

TASTE: Faulkner Branch Cidery & Distilling Co. Faulkner’s hard cider is made with apples from its own orchard, and is the only hard cider made on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Come in for a tasting on Saturdays from 4pm-8pm.

Where to Eat in Caroline County

EAT: Katie Mae’s, Preston. On the Harriet Tubman Byway – this makes a great stop for lunch. It’s got your basic sandwiches ($5-$7), subs ($6-$8), and of course local faves, like Cream of Crab Soup and Oyster stew, served up in an unpretentious homey space.

EAT: Harry’s on the Green, Denton. Formerly in Greensboro, Harry’s moved to this renovated house in Denton and went wild with color. The bar area is as lively as its walls are lime green. Food is “eclectic with French Influence,” according to owner Harry, though it seems to be French by way of the UK – with Irish Potato Nachos and Scottish Oysters on the $5 “Harry Hour” menu. You’ll also find excellent house signatures – Mixed Grill with Duck and Sausage ($34) and Seafood Platter with Baked, Broiled and Grilled seafood ($33) to enjoy, among other dishes, in the more subdued and intimate dining rooms.

EAT/DRINK: Market Street Public House, Denton. Raise a glass of expertly poured Guinness in the “Cheers” of Denton MD.  The food is decent and the vibe celebratory – it’s a gathering spot and local watering hole packed nightly and loved by all.

EAT/LUNCH: Shore Gourmet Market at Caroline Schoolhouse’s Culinary Arts Center. Here’s a not so hidden secret in Denton. You can get a great breakfast, lunch, or picnic meal in the gleaming, renovated culinary center’s café.  The Culinary Arts Center is a local treasure and feeder school for top restaurant staff. I didn’t expect this caliber of fresh and creative at a specialty trade High School, but hot pressed sandwiches like “Waffled” Grilled Cheese ($6, made with a house blend of cheeses and herbs, hickory smoked bacon, and veggies on buttered sourdough bread pressed in a waffle iron) and the like impressed me no end. Buy breads, bagels, salads, hot sandwiches, and other prepared food to eat in or take out, then check out the spotless instructional kitchens on the main floor and upstairs. You might meet a “Top Chef” in the making!

Where to Stay in Caroline County

STAY: Turnbridge Point, Denton. This lovely Victorian home sits just off the square of this small downtown – a block away from several shops and restaurants. The welcome is warm, gracious – and delicious. Owned and operated by Patent Attorney/decorator, Rob Griffith, and his partner, Steve Konopelski, a former Broadway dancer (Gypsy with Patti Lupone, Beauty and the Beast and others) and current French Pastry Chef and Wedding Cake designer, Turnbridge Point has contributed to turning the fortunes of this little town around with its sophisticated style and outrageously good breakfasts and brunches. A Maven Favorite, see the complete write-up here.

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