The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels has lots of things to appeal to kids -- boats, live sea creatures, a play house that's really a lighthouse and a big dog, albeit one made of iron. "This is a little office," a mother explains to a little boy too young to understand about the merchants who shipped the farmers' goods to the old world and sold them old-world luxuries such as ribbons. "Is anybody working there?" asks the child, who likes the ribbons anyway. "We're on deck," explains another mother to another child in an exhibit on steamboats. "We're getting bombed," says the child, pointing to a cannon on a ship in an adjacent exhibit on the War of 1812. There's a life-size log canoe, just like the ones the local Indians used to burn and scrape out with oyster shells, and a model of the Peggy Stewart, site of the Annapolis Tea Party of 1774. In the building and sheds spread around the sprawling grounds on the Miles River are bugeyes, skipjacks and other workboats rescued from scrap heaps and lovingly restored by craftsmen in the boat shop. But the action is outdoors, on the marine railway, where the skipjack Rosie Parks is being hauled ashore for maintenance. A crowd has gathered to watch, but the process takes too long for kids, who clamber up the stairs into the Hooper Strait Lighthouse. Inside the wooden structure, built in 1879 and moved to the museum -- without breaking a single dimpled-glass window -- in 1966, the stairs, steep and winding, are even more fun. Only after running up to the open deck three stories up and down again are kids ready to look at the artifacts of lighthouse life. "Look, a waffle iron," says a little girl, who is dismayed to learn that the lighthouse keeper's family could visit for only two weeks a year but glad to hear that the keeper got frequent shore leave. There is less interest in the exhibits on the history of fog signals -- from bells to the grunts made by the diaphone to the radio signal -- and the Fresnel lens. But eyes widen again at the toilet facilities, which hang over the edge of the hexagonal lighthouse. "'Cause you know it's the middle of the ocean so it would just go into the water," an older child explains to a sibling. In the waterfowl building, the kids are happy to obey the instructions not to touch the stuffed birds and equally happy to climb onto the iron Chesapeake Bay retriever outside. The statue was cast in Baltimore in the 1850s as a symbol for a company that made iron stoves. The breed of dog it depicts descends from two Newfoundland puppies named Sailor and Canton, rescued from a sinking ship and brought to Maryland in 1807. The Newfoundlands were bred with local spaniels, for retrieving skill, and with hounds, for nose power; the resultant dog was recognized as a Chesapeake Bay retriever in 1877. The exhibit on the anatomy of a boat is complex, but kids are eager to try the "hands-on" center-of-gravity experiment. A piece of wood that's wider than it is deep is stable in a tub of water, they find, but it would be uncomfortable to ride on a boat shaped like a cylinder. In a small aquarium, eels, crabs, rockfish and other Bay creatures swim in real Bay water, but the turtle that's supposed to be there is nowhere in evidence. "Maybe something ate it," suggests a child, who has obviously learned something about the ways of the water.
SETTING SAIL FOR THE MUSEUM
The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is open daily from 10 to 4. Admission is $2.50 for adults, $1 for children and free for children under six. Take U.S. 50 across the Bay Bridge and south to the intersection of Route 33, which leads to St. Michaels. Turn right on Mill Street to the museum.