SUN. Sand. Surf. Museums. Museums are where you go on the Eastern shore when it rains, or when you realize that all you know of the local lore is what you've learned from the sign boat skirting the shoals of Ocean City -- time, temperature and motels.
Here's a sampling of seven museums to satisfy the traveler's need for a sense of place. There is the sea -- the Atlantic and the Chesapeake, and there is the farmland -- Perdue chicken and U-Pick berries. The museums focus on the water and the land, and something more -- the wisps of local memory in the passthrough towns.
At the south end of the Ocean City Boardwalk, beyond the What-a-Mole, the Matterhorn and Mordrid Manor, at maybe the end of the world, stands the Ocean City Life Saving Station Museum. This white Victorian building with crisp green shutters formerly housed the O.C. life saving station. When it's raining out and the foghorn moans a rhythmic dirge, visitors arrive in yellow whalers and think of ships at sea.
As in the other Eastern Shore museums, quaintness is the order of the day. Don't expect to be blown away here, except maybe by a nor'easter. To get in the mood, you watch a 1941 film of the rescue of the Olaf Bergh, a Norwegian freighter whose captain mistook Fenwick Island light for the entrance to the Delaware Bay.
Here, as the wind washes the windows with rain, you pore over the lost and found of Davy Jones' locker: a wooden leg recovered from Sinepuxent Bay; dinnerware from an unidentified shipwreck known locally as the "China Wreck"; a wine bottle evenly encrusted with barnacles like candlewax.
You will learn the things that seem so important to know while at the beach, and then you will forget them. That the horseshoe crab, with its loathsome shell hiding its formidable, wriggling legs, is totally harmless, used for fertilizer on farms along the Atlantic coast. That the largest fish ever caught in Maryland, at least according to the snapshots here, was a 1,200-pound tiger shark. That there are 50 ways to tie a sailor's knot.
An old "tally board" catches the eye. It was a less-than- reassuring set of instructions, in English and French, attached to the first line sent out to a sinking ship. It told the crew how to attach the line to the mast: "Make the tail of the block fast to the lower mast well up. If masts are gone, then to the best place you can find."
Upstairs, among the antique bathing suits and models of old hotels, "Laughing Sal" cackles ghoulishly. Rescued from a local fun house, she mingles her coloratura with the single bass note of the foghorn.
OCEAN CITY LIFE SAVING STATION MUSEUM -- On the Boardwalk at the Ocean City Inlet. Summer hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Adults $1, children 50 cents. 301/289-4991.
South of Ocean City is Snow Hill, one of the greenest towns you're likely to see. It's reached by U.S. 113, a rural route where the whole world smells like summer camp and corn is aching to grow if only the sky would let it.
In Snow Hill lived the Delmarva Peninsula's equivalent of Grandma Moses, an old woman named Julia A. Purnell. A museum in her honor has grown up in what used to be a Catholic Church and a hall for Presbyterian suppers.
At age 85, Julia Purnell became confined to a wheelchair. She took up needlework. In the remaining years of her life (she died in 1943 at age 100), she made more than two thousand samplers. Her work forms the core of the collection of local memorabilia in the Julia A. Purnell Museum.
"I remember her very well, in her later years," says one of the museum's docents, Anne Kinstler. "I think everybody in town, including myself, has something made by her."
When people visited, Julia Purnell would give them a piece of needlework to take home. A favorite subject was Sunbonnet Sue, or houses in picture postcard composition, such as "Birthplace of Quintuplets," or pithy sayings: "A Merry Heart Doeth Good Like a Medicine."
Only one problem. "It seems a shame the museum was started for her," says Kinstler, "and here her work is hung in the bathroom."
The main room (or sanctuary, if you like) of this small museum tells the area's history with donations from local attics: a ladies' spittoon, fans, parasols, hatpins, mustache cups. All the generations are represented, from a 1640 crossbow, to a colonial johnnycake board, a slave leg iron, a Victorian gown and a World War II uniform. In an exhibit case, "Look! Dressed fleas," reads a sign over a dozen or so flea-size couples.
"I don't know how you would get a flea to stand still long enough to dress it," says Kinstler.
JULIA A. PURNELL MUSEUM -- 208 West Market St., Snow Hill, Maryland. Open daily 1 to 5. Admission: Adults $1; age 12 to 18, 50 cents; under 12, 25 cents. 301/632-0515.
In the summer, the local population becomes as an undercurrent in the ocean, or so many ghost crabs, invisible, skittering to their many secret holes on the beach. Among them are the people who go to the Eastern Shore to "re-tar." Then there are the watermen.
In Salisbury, on the campus of Salisbury State College, the North American Wildfowl Art Museum offers another chapter in the local lore. It tells of the brothers, the late Lem and Steve Ward, who made decoy carving an art. They were both barbers in Crisfield, Md., where they lived all their lives. They began carving and painting decoys in 1918, between haircuts. That same year, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act banned market hunting, the gunning of migratory birds for the marketplace.
With less hunting and less call for working decoys, decorative bird carving took off. "Bird carving was part of a great myth being created about the great American landscape," says museum director Kenneth Basile. "It's tied in with our 'manifest destiny' and our relationship with the great out-of-doors."
To keep the working decoy tradition alive, the annual world championship carving competition in Ocean City includes the "Shootin' Stool Contest" for the best one -- simple, easy to repair and a good floater. Until he died last year, Lem Ward would show up as honored guest at the competition, put on by the Ward Foundation, which also runs the museum.
The winning decoys form an impressive part of the collection here. When first seeing a decorative decoy carving, the neophyte's reaction is: "Feathers. What a travesty." But the "feathers" are real wood, too. "Feather insertion" was developed by the Ward brothers, by carving many small bits of wood from produce crates and adding them to the usual one or two chunks of wood in the standard decoy.
Fake ducks started with the Indians, who tied reeds together as decoys, or used bird heads on sticks. Since then, a compendium of regional styles for decoys has built up: flat-bottomed, round-bottomed, V-shape-bottomed and straight-breasted to keep ice from building up.
At the least, when you leave here, you will never again be fooled by a decoy.
NORTH AMERICAN WILDFOWL ART MUSEUM -- Holloway Hall, Salisbury State College, Salisbury. Tuesday to Saturday, 10 to 5; Sunday 1 to 5. Admission $1; students and senior citizens free. 301/742-4988.
Should you be beached at Bethany, just up the coast from you at Lewes is another small museum, free, where you can come in from the wet. The Zwaanendael Museum is a copy of a Dutch town hall, built in 1931 to mark the 300th anniversary of Delaware's first European settlement. The Dutch colony was wiped out by Indians in 1632, within a year of its founding. So, except for a wooden shoe and a photo of Queen Juliana, the museum is a little short on Dutch memorabilia.
There is, however, the bust of a man made from a million dollars in Confederate greenbacks macerated by the federal government, some poignant looking antique dolls, tableware from the "China Wreck," wedding slippers, a mourning locket and other homey treasures.
A swashbuckling military cutlass ("also used by privateers and pirates") that was found in the dunes was a personal favorite. There are the requisite tales of sunken ships and treasure. And a "sea creature," contrived from a monkey and a fish in the 19th century to frighten someone, or provide a "missing link." In those days such monsters were called Devil Fish or "Jenny Hanivers."
ZWAANENDAEL MUSEUM -- Kings Highway and Savannah Road, Lewes, Delaware. Tuesday to Saturday, 10 to 4:30, Sunday 1:30 to 4:30. Closed Mondays and state holidays. Admission free. 302/645-9418.
Low-slung poultry houses. Irrigation frames stretching field- long. The farmhouse painted, but only the front, where wooden duckmills gyrate at roadside. Houses that look as though they'd have statues of geese on the lawn . . . have real geese.
On the way back home through the country, there are a few more museum stops. One, just beyond Cambridge at Horn Point, is housed in an airplane hangar that looks like a barn: The Dorchester Heritage Museum. With one of the best grass-strip airfields in the country, Horn Point also hosts, in May, the annual antique aircraft fly-in.
Aviation is one of the topics here, but so is archaeology, of the local sort -- with sharks' teeth and scallop shells from fossil beds along the Choptank River. And Indians -- the woodworking tools of the Nanticoke and Choptank. English tobacco pipes excavated at "Horne," along with an 18th-century chamberpot, are displayed alongside exhibits on eeling, oystering and market hunting, farm tools and toys.
The panels in this museum are hand-printed, like a school project. In fact it was just that: South Dorchester High School students started the free museum in 1970.
DORCHESTER HERITAGE MUSEUM -- Horn Point Road, Cambridge, Maryland. Open April 15 to October 30, Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 4:30. Admission free. 301/228-5530, weekends.
"I don't know whether it's because people know where they're going and they're trying to get there," says Georgia Adler of The Historical Society of Talbot County. But if they only realized what they were missing. "Once you get off Route 50, you go back in time when you come into Easton."
Central to the walking tour of the town's historic district is the society's museum and its changing exhibits. At the moment, "The Art of Gardening" is the show. Although many of the more than 170 items come from our own Smithsonian, the location is right. The county has some fine gardens. And scattered in the exhibit is the odd local item, such as a 19th-century botanical specimen book, open to a bouquet of wild violets. The page is inscribed: "gathered from dear old Rich Neck woods in the spring of 1889."
For an additional fee, you can visit the historic homes next door, an 1810 townhouse and a 1795 cottage that belonged to the Neall Brothers, who were cabinetmakers. The houses are short on antique accouterments, being furnished slowly and authentically, but a guided tour of them is long on local history -- architecture, cabinet-making and Quakerism and the role of women and children. Admission to the lovely garden between the two houses is free.
HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF TALBOT COUNTY -- 25 South Washington Street, Easton, Maryland. Museum hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 10 to 4; Sunday 1 to 4. Admission: adults $2; children, school age to 17, 50 cents. Tours of the Neall homes, on request. Admission: $2; children 50 cents. 301/822-0773.
A little farther east, at St. Michaels' Harbor on the Miles River, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum takes a long look through history at the watermen's life on the Bay. Even in foul weather, this is a pretty setting for the museum's 15 outbuildings. From atop a transplanted lighthouse is a fine vista of the river, with little inlets cut everywhere along the shoreline, more cutouts than Matisse.
In an aquarium swim the local fauna: the diamondback terrapin, rockfish, American eels, the blue crab. In the small-boat shed, an exhibit tells how crabs and oysters are caught. Oysters were gathered from the tidal waters 6,000 years ago by Indians, who'd already been living on the peninsula for 6,000 years. A peak year for oyster harvest was 1884, with 15 million bushels. (Didn't know they had that many oyster bars back then.) In recent years, the harvest has only reached 3 million. What's more, you're standing on their shells. Much of "Navy Point," where the museum is, was manmade from oyster shells.
In the waterfowling building, you can see how ducks didn't have a chance before legislation banned certain hunting methods. On display here is a "sneak skiff," used by market hunters to stalk waterfowl feeding and resting on the water at night. With pipe guns, eight-barrel battery guns, and a punt gun firing two pounds of shot, how could they miss? Perhaps the worst was the enlisting of turncoats or "tollers," live geese or ducks trained to lure others into shooting range. Working with decoys, they were very effective until outlawed in '35.
On stilts on the lawn towers the 1879 Hooper's Strait lighthouse, moved here in 1966 by the museum. It was especially lonely -- keepers' families could come aboard for only two weeks a year. The lighthouse provided books, and the keeper could always read his instructions again.
"Ah! The famous Fresnel lenses!" cried an old salt, encountering a display on the subject on an upper floor of the lighthouse. The glass prisms of the lens bend the light into a single beam. Another house, the boat shop, gives a what's-what of other esoterica, the tools of the boat-building trade from spokeshave to razee jack plane.
An old bandstand came here from Tolchester Beach, across the Bay from Baltimore. "That beach was a biggie," says museum guide Don Morris, who retired to St. Michaels from Bethesda and the Army Map Service 15 years ago. "They brought them over by the boatloads. Those places just died out after World War II, with the building of the Bay Bridge."
Morris just smiles when he thinks now of life on the other side of the Bay. "They say Washington is 90 miles off by road, and 25 years in time. This is one of the places where, when they walk down the street and see a friend and ask, 'Hi, how you doin'?' they stand there and wait."
CHESAPEAKE BAY MARITIME MUSEUM -- St. Michaels, Maryland. Hours: 10 to 5 daily. Admission: adults $3; with college I.D., $2; children age six to 17, $1. 301/745-2916.