WHY GO: Wicomico County MD (population 100,000) encompasses several burgs and the emerging town of Salisbury. Constantly reinventing itself economically – from tobacco and grain, to timber, seafood, “truck farms,” and now as headquarters of chicken producer, Perdue – wealth came from a succession of industries and Wicomico County thrived.
But with the completion of Route 50 and then the recession of 2008, the county fell hard. Lately, however, with arts and tourism, Wicomico has been finding its footing.
A premier Wildfowl Art museum, a small but popular zoo, fantastic clam shacks, breweries, and one historic B&B with bewitching views are drawing more and more curiosity seekers to this Chesapeake Bay region.
The “Capital of Maryland’s Eastern Shore,” and the “Crossroads of Delmarva” (Routes 13 and 50), Wicomico County, is just a 2 ½ hour drive from DC and Baltimore. Read on below for the reasons get off 50 and stay.
What to Do in Wicomico County MD
GO: Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, Salisbury
This fantastic museum, a paean to the craftsmanship of carved birds, turns 50 in 2018 (since 1991 in this modern building). It should be a first stop for anyone coming to Wicomico County. Even if you don’t know about or believe you won’t enjoy looking at duck decoys.
The much praised Ward, in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed examines the cultural traditions of the Eastern Shore and “lifeways” of the Delmarva Peninsula through art, history, nature and community programming. In several galleries, you’ll find some “flat art” (paintings) and sculptures that have nothing to do with birds. But of course, Duck Decoys are the stars here.
Wicomico on the “Atlantic Flyway”
The permanent exhibit – Decoy In Time Gallery – is staged as a stone path through salt marsh and brackish water. Listen to birdcalls as you travel through time. Learn that decoys were first identified in early cave drawings, but were commonly used by settlers in this region known as the “Atlantic Flyway.”
With its “heavy waterfowl loads,” the sky on Maryland’s Eastern Shore was once described as being “black with birds.” Hunters sold wild ducks at market (considered “good eating”). They eventually introduced weaponry to maximize their “harvest.”
But by 1918, bird counts diminished due to over-hunting and increased demand for plumage used in women’s hats. The Migratory Bird Act of 1918 put the kibosh on commercial hunting, leaving it solely a recreational activity.
Market hunters became guides. And decoys, once the province of artisans, turned to mass production. This proliferation of cheap decoys led to a renewed interest in individually carved birds, some which were never meant to be used.
Collectors sought out the best of this folk art – artifacts that fit nicely on shelves. A. Elmer Crowell from East Harwich MA is considered one of the finest decoy carvers of all time, and prices paid for his work reflect that; most in the high six figures. His Preening Pintale Drake went for the highest amount ever spent on a decoy – $1.1 million.
The Ward Brothers
The namesakes of the museum, the “Ward Brothers” – Lem and Steve Ward – were barbers from Crisfield MD who became famous for the decoys they carved; when not cutting hair.
Dirt poor, the Wards bartered these carvings for medical treatment. Their doctor, impressed with the quality of their wooden ducks, began submitting them into contests.
Soon, the brothers became legend. Their “Wildfowl Counterfeiters” were more accurate and artistic than any other. Lem and Steve inscribed poems on the base of their carvings, and sold them for $25 vs. $5 others charged. Ever modest, the wards were passionate about preserving artisanal decoy carving,
Lem and Steve established the Ward Foundation in 1968 while still alive, and were featured in National Geographic Magazine three times.
Decoy Heritage in Maryland
Though Steve died in 1976 and Lem in 1984, they live on through this museum. One gallery is dedicated to their own work, and another to the ongoing Ward Foundation Annual Championship, which brings attention to top carvers from all over the world.
Most of the submissions are realistic, with feathers as precise and intricate as the real deal. But one year’s winner, a Blue Cubist Duck carved by Daniel Montano, colored way outside the lines of this generally staid form of art. Open Mon-Sat 10-5, Sun 12-5, $7 adults, $5 kids.
TOUR: Poplar Hill Mansion, Salisbury
You’re invited into a local treasure – one of the oldest homes in Maryland – for a very interactive tour. Sit on the chairs (no ropes!), play the piano forte, handle items. It’s a fantastic look and feel back in time.
In the late 1700’s, Rhode Islander, Major Levin Handy, purchased 375 acres to farm here. In 1795, he began construction on this grand home, reminiscent of a New England mansion, built of wood rather than brick.
Handy, “not a great farmer,” according to tour-guide/curator, Sarah Meyers, died leaving his widow deep in debt. So, in 1805, the unfinished house was sold to Salisbury’s first surgeon, Dr. John Huston. John moved in with his wife, Sara, and four daughters: Elizabeth, Isabella, Anne, and Sally. (Streets in the area are named for the three oldest girls).
Exemplary Federalist Home
Huston finished the home in a grand neoclassical Federalist style. Neighbors referred to the mansion as “the House on Poplar Hill,” as its long, straight driveway was lined with Poplar Trees.
Walk in to a central hall, with soaring 11’9” ceiling and delicate archway. Historians are meticulous in researching the home’s original colors and applications. In the parlor, bright yellow walls look streaky on purpose: The paint an authentic milk-based glaze.
The color blue, made from indigo, was expensive. So, shades of yellow, red, and green predominated during that period. Here, blue was used as trim, and was meant to convey wealth. Brass hardware on the doors, along with hefty skeleton keys, are original to the home.
An Eli Terry & Son’s clock sits on the fireplace mantle. The Poplar Hill Mansion also contains one of the coolest artifacts in Wicomico County: a 1700’s Piano Forte.
Play a Rare Piano Forte
This Clementi & Co. piano, made in Holborn London, is incredibly rare. The Friends of Poplar Hill Mansion spent $11,000 to restore this instrument to playable condition. Incredibly, visitors with experience are invited to play it (though it is still out of tune).
The Palladian Window, on the second floor at the front of the house, grand and imposing still, is considered one of the best in the State.
The four girls slept in one room on that floor. Restorers discovered a “concealment shoe” in their wall– placed there, as was customary at the time, to ward off evil spirits.
The Hustons enslaved as many as 18 people at one point, and at least one perished here. Evidence of the home’s one documented death remains.
A young woman, named Sally or Sara, was tending to the fireplace in the girl’s room when, tragically, her dress caught fire, engulfing her in flames. Burn marks and a leather patch over a hole that ran straight through to the first floor can still be seen. Guided tours Sundays 1-4 or by appointment at other times for $5pp.
WALKING TOUR: Newtown Historic District
Newtown, Salisbury’s first residential district, was developed on the lands of the Poplar Hill Plantation. The Poplar Hill Mansion, on the National Historic Register, is within this 240-property historic district composed of Queen Anne, Classical, English Cottage, Greek and Colonial Revival style homes.
Young couples and retirees are discovering fantastic deals on large Victorians within a short walk of compact downtown Salisbury, many intact due to “preservation by neglect,” according to Architectural Historian, Barry Dressel.
The light green and orange 1887 Gillis-Grier house, with its ornamental elements, gables, dormers, and rooflines, is one of the most photographed homes in Maryland.
Once left to seed, some of these homes have been sold at a fraction of the price they would claim in larger cities – drawing newcomers to Salisbury in search of a simpler (and less expensive) way of life.
This new blood is generating an upbeat, artsy, food-forward vibe, and a stroll around this neighborhood is an excellent way to see what’s on the market.
TOUR: Pemberton Hall in Pemberton Historical Park, Salisbury
“You are standing on floorboards that are older than America itself,” says costumed interpreter, Pat Taylor – one of several volunteer docents who give tours of this underrated attraction that sheds light on the life of an upper-income family.
Pemberton Hall was built in 1741 to impress. Its main room is resplendent in imported wealth-flaunting Prussian Blue. As with most historic properties, this one was in danger of demolition and saved only by concerned citizens in 1964. That was a good thing, as it turned out to have the only Tester Bed Frame in the country in its original place.
Though it looks small from the outside, the main room/hall is cavernous. Abutting it, the small family room, dressed in drearier brown, is cozy in comparison.
The brick kitchen wall features a diamond pattern, incorporated into structures of the day to “keep evil spirits away.”
Upstairs, discover a couple of “Williamsburg Quality” exhibits. One showcases an original 1700’s tester bed frame in its original location. The room is displayed as if its occupants – 11 year old Henry Handy and his 9 year old brother, Thomas – were just about to leave for Eden Academy. Tours, May-Oct, Saturdays 12-2.
VISIT: Salisbury Zoo, in Salisbury City Park
Back in the 1950’s, people started dropping off monkeys, deer, and even a bear in this wooded section of Salisbury for no apparent reason, leading to the creation of an actual zoological park.
Once called “The Best Little Zoo in America,” this free-to-public collection of North and South American and Australian animals is still popular with families.
There’s a playful bear, a gaggle of alpaca’s, a jaguar, ocelot, owls, otters, and much more – all quite entertaining.
One of the largest draws, however, sits just outside the West Gate. Ben’s Red Swings, an expansive playground was built by the community in memory of cancer victim, 4 year old Ben Layton, who wanted to have “red angel wings” when he went to heaven. Zoo open year round daily 9-4:30 except Christmas and Thanksgiving.
GO: SBY Art Space, Salisbury
Thought the SBY Art Space is community-focused, with programming and classes for all ages, its bite-size gallery space has been upping its game lately.
Formerly exhibiting the work of only local artists, curators now source pieces from elsewhere, exposing residents to “good quality artwork” from all over.
Visitors can pop in to take a look, or sign up for an art or clay workshop, or to just peruse the excellent gift shop. Exhibits change 6-8 times a year, so there will always be something new. Open Tues-Sun – check website as hours vary. Open studio hours Thurs. 2-4pm.
SIDE TRIP: Mardela Springs MD
This tiny blink and you’ll miss it burg in western Wicomico County was once a burgeoning resort town. Formerly named Barren Creek Springs, massive amounts of mineral water – favored by Victorians for purported health benefits – sprang from the earth here.
It was a stagecoach stop, a timber-milling town and then a tourist destination. In1842 farmer Joshua Brattan built a Presbyterian Church for the locals – as the closest one at the time was miles away. And then he opened a hotel resort on the hill beside it. The church fell into disrepair until the Westside Historical Society (WHS) rescued it, returning it to its most beautiful incarnation.
White pews are trimmed with black. Windows behind the alter overlook the creek. No longer operating as a church, it still hosts weddings. You’ll also find the remains of the mineral spring, which continues to spit out high-iron-content water, though not at the volume it did 100 years ago.
The WHS also operates a history museum in a small storefront that seems to expand with every room you enter.
Stuffed with artifacts from colonial tobacco, subsistence, and commercial farms, the museum showcases changes in transportation from sailing ships to highways, canneries to industrial age, stuff to do with schools, the Hotel in town, carnivals, social life, Granny’s kitchen, “Hog Killing,” and, most unique, black wedding gowns worn by brides who were still in mourning – prevalent during the Victorian age.
BIKE: 30-Mile Ferry-to-Ferry Loop from White Haven
You’ll pass by Bordeleau Winery and traverse the Wicomico River on this straight up gorgeous landscape. Best of all, it’s flat as a pancake.
Where to Eat in Wicomico County MD
EAT/DRINK: Evolution Craft Brewing and Public House aka EVO, Salisbury
Local, pure water caught the attention of the Knorr Brothers. Perfect for making beer. Tom and John Knorr (owners of Southern Boys Concepts’ properties, SoBo’s in Salisbury, Red Roost in Whitehaven, and Boonie’s in Tyaskin) identified this abandoned 33,000 sq ft. ice plant as the best place to move their EVO craft brewing in 2012, and it has paid off big time.
Sample some of the crispest and smoothest new brews you’ve ever tasted. Primal Pale Ale, Lot 3 IPA, Lucky 7 Porter, Exile Red and the like pair well with items on a terrific menu: local raw oysters, charcuterie boards, burgers, Quinoa-Kale-Berry Salad, and inventive menu items you’d never expect in an ale house.
Save room for Bread Pudding with Chesapeake Bay Farm’s vanilla ice cream. It’s a diet-wrecker for sure.
EAT: Market Street Inn, Salisbury
I fell in love with “Miss Flo” Harris’s famous hot Apple Bread Pudding Pie with Caramel Sauce the minute I took the first bite. It is deliriously good. But it’s not the only reason to plan a meal at this upscale/casual riverfront eatery.
Tweaks on traditional – like Corn-Beef Burger with Fried Egg and Risotto, Fried Rockfish Sandwich, and Short Rib Puttanesca prove that these chefs like to play in the kitchen to mouthwatering effect. And with entrees priced in the mid $20’s, dinner here won’t tap you out. Just a reminder: you definitely have to leave room for Miss Flo’s Bread Pudding.
EAT: The Red Roost, Whitehaven
Legions of fans have found this simple crab eatery, situated in an old repurposed Purdue chicken house, way, way off the beaten path somewhere between Salisbury and White Haven. You’ll drive past cows and horses at pasture to get to this place. But rest assured, there will be a wait at the height of the season.
Where to Stay in Wicomico County MD
STAY: Whitehaven Hotel
If you’re the kind of traveler who seeks out remote, charming, river-set historic inns, you’ll love the Whitehaven Hotel. This 8 room 1810 Bed and Breakfast, 7 miles down Whitehaven Road in the historic district of White Haven (in Quantico), sits on the banks of the Wicomico River.
It’s right across the street from the free-to-use three car Historic Whitehaven Ferry. Saved from the wrecking ball, this former home was turned into an upscale place to de-stress.
First Impressions of Whitehaven Hotel
Built originally for one family, The White Haven Hotel quickly morphed into lodging for “drummers” – salesmen who’d take the steamboat up the Wicomico and stop here to “drum up” business along the waterfront.
At the time, White Haven was a larger port than Salisbury – another hour upriver. It had a general store, a hat shop, and a post office where the gift shop is now located in the hotel. There was a tomato cannery on what is now the hotel dock. White Haven was a bustling place that eventually fell into decline.
In mid March, when I visited, there was a preponderance of birds atwitter right outside my window. Momma and Poppa Osprey stood watch over their nest steps away from the hotel.
A massive barge made its way silently and swiftly past the ferry dock. In the morning, as the sun rose, birds and boat engines formed a symphony of Spring on the Eastern Shore – a soul-cure for the havoc in Washington just a couple of hours away.
Rooms at Whitehaven Hotel
If you’re looking for the most lush, designed to the nines hotel, or require voluminous duvets in which to be wrapped for a good nights sleep, look elsewhere.
There is no TV, and décor is Victorian futz and frippery. But wow, can you zen out to watching that 3 car ferry right outside your window. The luxury is in the greeting, in the river, the super gourmet breakfast, and that ferry gliding back and forth across the Wicomico River. Plus, it’s dog-friendly.
Food at Whitehaven Hotel
Breakfast is amazing – plated beautifully and not the same old stuffed French Toast you’ll find in other B&B’s. Here, slices of pineapple form bunny ears. And crispy mini pancakes (more like mini muffins) are filled with sweet cream cheese. An artisanal omelet is topped with crispy bacon. A delight and enough to get you through dinner.
Amenities at Whitehaven Hotel
Complimentary Gourmet Breakfast for 2.
Free wi-fi and parking.
In season, Yoga on the Dock on Saturday mornings.
Wine and Snacks “Happy Hour” from 4-5.
In house craft shop featuring local artists.
Rooms $110-$200 per night include gourmet breakfast, happy hour wine, wi-fi and parking.