WHY GO: Harford County MD is at the “Top of the Chesapeake,” where the Susquehanna River flows into the Bay. Explored by John Smith in 1608, this shallow area of the Chesapeake, teeming with celery grass and other food for birds, drew wealthy hunters like Grover Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt and Du Pont’s. The county’s most well known town, Havre de Grace MD, is the “Duck Decoy Capital of the World.” In fact, every New Years Eve, residents gather for the famed “Duck Drop” – the town’s version of the Times Square NY Ball Drop.
But Harford County MD, which also includes Aberdeen and Bel Air, is also known as a Mecca for Summer Youth Sports – Lacrosse, Softball, and Baseball (Cal Ripken, Jr. built a stadium here) – and for the Aberdeen Proving Ground, a live ammo fire test site and home to US Army Ordinance, where the army gas mask was developed years ago. Both are huge economic drivers for the region, as is a growing wedding business: nearly every inch of river, bay and land here is geared up for Nuptials. On a stranger note, this is also where John Wilkes Booth came from. His ancestral home, Tudor Hall in Bel Air, is occasionally open for tours, but not surprisingly avoids mention of his name in its publications.This Getaway includes a magnificent topiary garden, decoys, lighthouses, a bevy of American Eagles, a monumental dam, a sweet B&B, and other hidden delights at the Top of Chesapeake Bay.
Things to Do in Harford County MD
TOUR: Ladew Topiary Gardens, Monkton. Named “One of the Top 5 Gardens in North America,” plan on a couple of hours here to explore the Manor House, 22 acres of formal gardens, a 1-mile nature trail, the Ladew Café in the former stables, and the Butterfly House.
What does an heir do when he’s not married and never had to work a day in his life? He becomes a Gentleman Gardner. Harvey Ladew was born into a NY based leather-tanning dynasty whose wealth stemmed from manufacturing the leather belts that drove massive factory machinery, on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. With a passion for fox hunting gleaned from many trips to England, Ladew purchased this farm in 1929, transforming it into a foxhunting center, and a series of garden vignettes and whimsical topiaries.
A one-hour tour through Ladew’s meandering home, partially built in 1747, is replete with his original furnishings and artifacts. Ladew loved shopping in junk shops for any and all fox, hound, and horse paintings and geegaws, The mural in the dining room, depicting a hunting scene, was actually a panel from a folding screen he found in such a shop. Born into the upper crust, Ladew ran in rarified circles. His friend, Marjorie Merriweather Post, gave him a foxhunting themed needlepoint settee that he admired in her home (possibly Mar-A-Lago – her retreat at the time), now sitting under the staircase. George Eastman gave him his first camera. Cole Porter played on the piano in his comfortable living room. Ladew was always up for anything at a moment’s notice. Off the cuff he’d say, “let’s pack up the car – we’re going to Hyannis to see Joe Kennedy.” On a whim, he went to Arabia with his acquaintance, T.E. Lawrence to search for the famed Peacock Throne.
Ladew was fastidious when it came to interior aesthetics. He found wood paneling for his living room in England and had it shipped here. He commissioned a plasterer to create a rose design on the ceiling and was startled by the bright white juxtaposition against the dark wood of the walls. So, he closed the fireplace flue, lit a fire, and let the resulting smoke darken the ceiling – which explains its grayish hue.
The most exquisite room, however, is the oval library, built around the original oval desk and stocked with 3,000 books, most of them in French. One bookcase is actually a door that leads outside – a quirky architectural element that was never adequately explained.
But for all the wonders inside the house, outside is a wonderland of plants and blooms. Besides the very popular “Hunt Scene” topiary – horse, riders, and dogs chasing a fox – there are 15 separate gardens from Woodlands, to Croquet Courts, Garden of Eden (with crabapple trees), a Water lily Garden, a Tea House from Tivoli Gardens, a Koi Pond and more.
Save some time for the Butterfly House – stocked with only butterflies caught in the area. You’ll see them in every stage from egg, to caterpillar, chrysalis to butterfly. Monarchs are tagged and released. Some have been found as far south as Mexico. Open daily 10-5, April –October, Butterfly House open June-Sept, last house tour 3pm, $18 adults, $9 kids.
VISIT: Susquehanna Museum at the Lock House, Havre de Grace. The Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal was in operation from 1840-1900, extending 45 miles to Wrightsville PA. This 1840 Lock House Museum, situated about a mile from the Havre de Grace’s 4 other museums, contains a very unique working miniature model of a real canal lock – a huge drawing card as no other museum has one of this caliber. As the former home and office of the lock tender and his family, it’s an authentic peek into the lives of those charged with this important task. The Susquehanna River courses over 440 miles, from its headwaters near Cooperstown NY, to Havre de Grace where it pours into the Chesapeake Bay. The river drops 230 ft. along the way, which necessitated the construction of a canal with 29 locks to raise or lower the boats (8 ft at a time) that shipped coal from Scranton, and timber from the Pennsylvania wilds to Philadelphia and Baltimore (and then, to “anywhere”).
If you are lucky enough to get Joe Kochenderfer as your docent, the retired Boy Scout Troop leader delights in showing kids (and adults) how a real lock works via a fantastic water-table in the center of what would have been the lock tender’s living room. Outside, the heavy pivot bridge still swings open – and “5th graders love to push it.” Most canals became obsolete with the advent of the railroad, and this one was no different. This Tender’s home was turned into a two-unit apartment until it was renovated and opened as a museum in the 1970’s with rotating exhibits and that marvelous lock model. And in case you need a leg-stretcher, just outside, you’ll find a 1.5-mile nature trail, named for the community-minded Kochenderfer; the Joe K. Nature Trail. Museum open April-Oct, Thurs – Sun 1-5, free.VISIT: Decoy Museum, Havre de Grace. Situated in the building that once served as laundry, indoor tennis courts and pool for the former Bayou Hotel (now condos) right on the waterfront, the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum deserves an hour or so for its memorable and well-thought out exhibits in three galleries on two floors.
Walk in and you’ll immediately see all 260 decoys owned by baseball Hall of Famer – John Franklin “Homerun” Baker – crammed into his “Bushwack” boat. There’s an exact replica of famous carver, Madison Mitchell, at work, and a whole multi-media diorama inside a screened-in shack, narrated by Mitchell himself.
In the room where the pool used to be, you’ll find a “Sink Box” – a floating duck blind that sits low in the water, engineered so that the hunter lies down flat in the center of an array of decoys, and can pop up easily when ducks fly in.
Upstairs, a whole wall of glass windows overlooks the Chesapeake Bay, and each well-known decoy carver is given his due inside a few dozen cases. Decoy Carving is still a popular pastime here – one local County Councilman is well known for his own creations. Open Mon-Sat 10:30-4:30, Sun 12-4, $6 adult $2 kids 9-18.
VISIT: Havre de Grace Maritime Museum (between the Decoy Museum and Lighthouse). If you’ve never seen a red nun buoy out of the water, here’s your chance. It looks like a dual-toned torpedo, just as large underwater as it is above. But that’s not all in this small, airy, but fantastic little Maritime Museum.
There are petroglyphs, Native American “graffiti, ”on rocks coughed up by dynamite during the construction of the Conowingo Dam; crab pots and nets; Chesapeake Bay boats; a ships bell, crusted with fossils, scavenged from the bottom of the ocean floor in New Jersey waters; a ship Captain’s office, and a whole exhibit devoted to John Smith’s Aug 2-6, 1608 exploration of the Chesapeake Bay – one of the richest and most productive estuaries in the world. Open Wed-Sat 10-5, Sun 1-5, $3. Weekends only mid Oct – March.
Visit: Concord Point Lighthouse and Keeper’s House. As canning and fisheries cropped up in Havre de Grace, boat traffic increased on what became known as the Susquehanna Flats. In 1827 a lighthouse was built of Port Deposit Granite to warn larger deeper boats away from the shallows. As the lighthouse was situated on a valuable commercial stretch of shoreline, the Lighthouse Keeper’s House was forced to stand far from it – a rarity.
You can tour the Keeper’s House, which has exhibits about its first Keeper, John O’Neil, who attempted to protect Havre de Grace from British forces during the War of 1812, and was captured then released only after his 16 year old daughter, Matilda, pleaded for his life. (In retrospect, shouldn’t his daughter have been hailed the hero in this scenario?). In 1863, after the death of John and son, John’s wife, Esther, served as Lighthouse Keeper for 18 years. In fact, the first female federal employees were lighthouse keepers, earning, as did their husbands, $500 per year. Open April – Oct, Sat, Sun. 1-5, free.GO: Conowingo Dam and Visitor’s Center. If you’re a birder, particularly if you are interested in the American Bald Eagle, you most likely know about this hydroelectric dam, which becomes a feasting ground for over 200 Eagles whenever water is released and fish get caught up and minced in the machinery. The Visitor’s Center, situated on top of the hill a few miles from the dam itself, sponsors a Photo Contest every November, drawing serious wildlife photographers dragging tens of thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment from all over the world, to Fisherman’s Park in Susquehanna State Park, at the base of the dam.
The Conowingo, built 1926-1928, is an engineering wonder on its own, constructed without the aid of computers or modern day equipment. It generates 512,000 kilowatts of electricity and is one of the largest plants of its kind in the country. Drive up to its imposing bulk, and marvel at the water churning and “boiling” near the open sluices as the generators hum. It’s quite a sight, with or without Eagles.
TOUR: Steppingstone Farm Museum, Havre de Grace. It’s a bit of a drive to this hodgepodge of buildings on stunning property overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. Born from the mind of J. Edmund Bull, who saw this institution as a “Stepping Stone to the Past,” the property encompasses ten buildings – the oldest a 1771 stone home original to the site – on what was a 2,000 estate. Though the structures are interesting, many people come for weddings here – or just to picnic and take in the views.
Exhibits sprung from Bull’s original antique tool collection into a full-fledged assortment of local artifacts. Don’t miss the lovely Barn Quilt tacked to the side of the white barn in which Bull’s collection can be found, and the “Operation Gratitude” section inside the Stone House, where visiting school kids and others can write letters to First Responders and then put them into one of 17 small red mailboxes in the room.
There’s a mock-up of a cannery that you can walk through, a corncrib, a wheelright shop, a smoke house, and the Blacksmith Shop from Level MD, that served as a polling place where the first woman in Harford County voted in 1920. Farm grounds open daily 9-sunset, Buildings May-Sept. Sat/Sun 1-4, donations please.TOURBOAT: Black Eyed Susan Paddlewheeler, Havre de Grace. Take a 2 or 3 hour sunset, day, dinner, or themed tour on this authentic 111 ft. paddle wheel boat providing a different perspective of the Upper Chesapeake and Lower Susquehanna River. $35-$65, check website for cruises.
KAYAK/SUP: Havre de Grace Marina. Yup, you can rent a SUP – for $30 for 2 hours. Or a kayak for $40 for three hours. Embrace the water and explore the Susquehanna Flats at your leisure.
SHOP: Bel Air. Of the three main towns in Harford County, Bel Air has the most chic, modern, funky downtown (Aberdeen is known for the Proving Grounds, and Havre de Grace for its museums and wedding services), and was the first manufacturing center for London Fog raincoats. Now it’s packed with jewelry, gift, and home-goods shops and the artisanal bakery, La Cakerie, serving award-winning cupcakes.
Where to Eat in Harford County
EAT: Alchemy Elements Craft Bar (AE), Bel Air. This upscale, urban-style restaurant is one of the most popular in town for a reason. Tweaks on the typical – like the succulent Popcorn Cauliflower Bites ($7.30) and hearty Onion Soup with Braised Beef Tenderloin – join a menu’s worth of delicious innovative cookery.
DRINK/EAT: Independent Brewing Co, Bel Air. Tasting flights are enhanced by food truck vittles at this micro-brewery, which in part, gets its malted barley from its head brewer, Aaron Hopkins. The aptly named Hopkins owns Chesapeake Malting Co. with his childhood buddy, Kevin Gilbert – a landscape designer by trade. Hopkins procures raw barley from his father’s farm, then germinates the grain for two days on the poured concrete floor of old cow barn before cooking it in a large kiln for a few days. It’s an exacting process (“breweries can’t just buy barley from farmers: there’s a middle step that many don’t know about”) and one that Hopkins and Gilbert are perfecting. “Maryland breweries are compelled to buy local ingredients. We are serving that need,” says Hopkins.
EAT: MacGregor’s, Havre de Grace. Every eatery on the Chesapeake Bay seems to have “award winning crab cakes” ($15.99), and MacGregor’s is no different. But how many can boast Crab Cake Eggrolls ($13.99)? Overlooking the top of the bay and river, it’s one of the best spots for lunch and a view.
EAT: Locals also love Pairings – good food paired with flights of wine or beer, and Uncle’s – a Hawaiian Fusion restaurant specializing in upscale Spam dishes – both in Bel Air.
ICE CREAM: Brooms Bloom Dairy Farm. Once you start getting ice cream made straight from the cow, it’s tough to go back to store bought.
Where to Stay in Harford County MD
STAY: Vandiver Inn, Havre de Grace. On a leafy residential street a block from the waterfront, business tycoon, Murray Vadiver, built this Victorian home in 1886 as a gift to his wife.
There are now 18 lovely rooms spread out over four houses, though much of the main house remains just as it was in the 1800’s – sporting original claw-foot tubs, carved fireplaces, and an eclectic mix of Victoriana, 20’s mirrored surfaces, and Art Deco delights.
The Vandiver was a private home until 30 years ago when the military base left town. John and Susan Muldeen purchased the property 15 years ago and turned it into a highly popular wedding venue, where there are upwards of 100 weddings a year, many for personnel stationed at Aberdeen Proving Grounds.
Rooms are delightful, and downright baronial, with additional fireplaces and deeply hued walls, antiques, and large wall mounted TV’s.
STAY: There are nearly 2,700 hotel rooms in Harford County (for all of those youth sporting events), in most brands of chain hotels.