In Galesville, tucked along Maryland's West River, the summer night skies are spangled with fireflies. On the Fourth of July, these skies light up with the reds, whites and blues of a fireworks display that is as much a tribute to our nation's independence as it is to this village's grass-root ways. Here, the festivities are spirited, homespun and heartfelt.
"It's Main Street U.S.A," says John Cox, who is organizing Galesville's Independence Day celebration. "It may be a bit corny to some, but to most of us it's small-town America and we love it."
Cox, who summered in Galesville when he was growing up in Washington, now lives here year-round. Yearning for the slow pleasures of village life, like devoting a day to eating pie dripping with vanilla ice cream, my two sons and I loaded our bikes and drove south from Annapolis on Muddy Creek Road.
Just past the brick-walled entrance to historic Tulip Hill, we jogged left between two cemeteries shrouded by hemlocks. One, a Quaker burying ground that dates to 1662, is a fitting gateway to Galesville, a community proud of its heritage and status as one of Maryland's few remaining villages. According to Roberta Cassard, former president of the Galesville Heritage Society, the area, settled in the 1600s by Puritans who became Quakers, was a shipping center for imports and exports such as tobacco. Cassard moved to Galesville in the 1950s. "It's unique here," she says. "It's so friendly I even know the names of the dogs in town."
The two-lane highway flattens into a tidy Main Street, which on this day was lined with American flags fluttering and neighbors chatting as they placed lawn chairs on the sidewalk to reserve seats for the holiday parade. On our bikes, we looped through the village, a peninsula hugged by creeks and the West River, whizzing past a funky antiques shop with wares on the lawn, a brick-and-stone Methodist parsonage, Hartge's Yacht Yard, Galesville Hall (circa 1914) and the Woodfield Fish & Oyster Co., which once delivered ice blocks door to door from horsedrawn carts.
After passing bungalows, Victorians and a lone gas pump, we dead-ended at a small, shady riverside park. Here, visitors can picnic or walk to three restaurants in view of Galesville's harbor, where a long dock is home to kids fishing and dozens of colorful sailboats swinging in the breeze rippling across the West River. A tad downriver is Galesville's original steamboat landing, a wharf once packed with livestock, grain, provisions and steamboats, such as the Emma Giles, which brought visitors to stay at the boarding houses run by village shopkeepers.
Back then, in the 1800s, Galesville's general store was the hub of the community, second only to the church. Today, the West River Market is still the heartbeat of village life. We wheeled our bikes to the store's sloping front porch, festive with American flags and patriotic swags. Picnic tables on the lawn welcomed summer visitors who, like us, arrived early for the barbecue, hand-dipped ice cream and front-row seats at Galesville's annual Fourth of July parade.
We stepped through the market's narrow wooden screen door, pockmarked with a handworn patina and a large keyhole that is more than 100 years old, to savor a menu propped above onion and potato bins, near a five-foot model of the Emma Giles. We were surrounded by Americana: old school chairs, a wooden checkerboard balanced on a barrel, a black potbellied stove, quirky vintage ads, such as "Pepsi--5 cents--More Bounce to the Ounce," red Snyder potato chip cans and an electric train suspended from the ceiling.
The West River Market changed hands last September, and its new owner, Susan Ulrich, is keeping the gourmet, homestyle menu created by the former owners, professional caterers. "Even the sauces are made from scratch," she says. Ulrich, who moved to Galesville from Springfield, dishes up daily specials such as seafood pasta salad, smoked bluefish and succulent fruit pies. I loaded coleslaw on my pork barbecue and headed to the picnic tables just as my younger son leaned over the cookies and pies and called out, "Mom--What about dessert?"
We sampled the buttery-crusted blueberry pie and waited until evening for the grand finale, when we carried sagging plates of lemon meringue and peach pie, mine drizzled with ice cream, and sat cross-legged on the ground just as the parade began: Children on bikes with colorful handlebar streamers pedaled so fast the baseball cards attached to their spokes flip-flapped loudly.
Uncle Sam--one year he came on in-line skates--strutted and smiled, dodging a mobile collection of antique cars that included a gleaming antique fire engine with an open cab and a tail-wagging Dalmatian. There was a cavalcade of horseback riders, golf carts and even the patriotic, foot-stomping music of a kazoo-marching band, banging trashcan lids. "It may seem homemade to some," says Cox, who was Uncle Sam last year, "but we have a lot of fun and invite everyone to join in." The parade followed Main Street to its end at the riverside park, where folks milled about, listening to a Dixieland band. American flags, Uncle Sam hats, raffle tickets, hot dogs and slushy snowballs were for sale. We spread out a picnic blanket on the sloping riverbank and waited for dusk.
By sunset, instead of fireflies we saw the bow lights of boats surging toward a single point on the West River: the fireworks barge. We sat up to watch the show, savoring the mingling of the day's sights with the timeless magic of a summer night, the lazy slap-slap of waves along the shore and the sweet flavors of snowballs and seconds on the peach pie. The boaters' laughter traveled across the river--then a hush--and "Ooh! Ahh!" as the first clap of red, white and blue flames burst high and slowly streamed down the night sky.
The seventh annual Nelson County Summer Festival (1-800-282-8223) is a pretty good reason to head for the foothills south of Charlottesville this weekend (about three hours by car). With some 60 artisans and vendors (including five area wineries), food, kids' games and music that spans string-band to blues to world-beat, the festival happens at Oak Ridge Estate, onetime home of Civil War orphan-turned-financier Thomas Fortune Ryan. You can tour the mansion to see how seriously he took his middle name.
And what else is in Nelson County, you ask? Oh, not much. Just the Blue Ridge mountains and Wintergreen Resort (1-800-325-2200) to the west, and, in tiny Schuyler, Va. (in the former family home of Hollywood scriptwriter Earl "John-Boy" Hamner Jr.), the low-key but world-famous Walton's Mountain Museum (804-831-2000).
WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: Galesville is about 30 miles from Washington. From Route 50 east, take Route 424 south to Route 2 south to Route 255 through Owensville; this becomes Galesville's Main Street.
BEING THERE: Galesville's Independence Day festivities (410-867-0403) start with a parade at 6 p.m., followed by a Dixieland band and fireworks at dusk over the river. Come by boat, bike or car. Parking shuttles are at the entrance to town; a $4 parking fee supports next year's celebration. On the Fourth, Shady Side, Md. (410-867-4486), six miles from Galesville, has a parade at 10 a.m., and an "Old Fashioned Fourth" at a waterfront museum, Captain Salem Avery House, with the Baywinds Symphony at 1 p.m., contests and children's games. The Galesville Heritage Society (410-867-2648) sponsors year-round village holiday events and the Heritage House, which showcases Galesville's history. Along the franchise-free Main Street, visitors can peruse regional artwork at the River Gallery (410-867-0954). Reserve in advance for Captain Joe Richardson's Boat Charters (410-798-6419), which offers full, half-day and evening cruises or fishing trips leaving from both Galesville and Annapolis. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (301-261-4190, 410-798-4424, Ext. 221) offers self-guided walking tours on weekdays and guided canoe tours for groups on weekends. Visit London Town and Gardens (410-222-1919) a 22-acre site on the South River, 15 minutes from
Galesville, to see a Georgian-style manor and one of the state's largest working archaeological sites.
To sample other Maryland waterfront holiday fare:
Visit Annapolis (410-263-1183) on July 4 for a parade, U.S. Naval Academy Band concert and harbor fireworks.
On July 3, Rock Hall (410-639-7611), 12 miles from Chestertown, shoots fireworks over its scenic harbor, and on July 4 hosts a parade.
On July 4, Chestertown (410-778-0416) hosts fireworks over the Chester River.
On July 4, Solomons Island (410-326-2525 or 410-326-2549) and its "Riverwalk" are an ideal spot for watching fireworks.
WHERE TO STAY: In Galesville, the Inn at Pirates Cove (410-867-2300) has five rooms overlooking the restaurant or the water. Rates, from May 1 to Oct. 31, are $72 to $83 per night. At the Topside Inn (410-867-1321), the antiques in the small guest rooms and their location near the upstairs dining add to the historic tavern atmosphere; the shared baths may not be private enough for some travelers. Rates, from May 1 to Oct. 31, are $55 to $75, with breakfast included on weekends.
WHERE TO EAT: The Inn at Pirates Cove serves seafood classics. Live music on weekends, an outdoor patio bar, and its site on the West River create a relaxed ambiance. The Topside Inn has a piano bar, seafood and Italian specialties; upstairs is a cigar lounge and a riverfront balcony. The West River Market & Deli (410-867-4844) serves homemade specials, such as apple-cinnamon pancakes, pasta salads and hefty desserts. Steamboat Landing (410-867-7200) reopened this summer under new management with 26 boat slips, outdoor seating and signature dishes, starting at $18, such as beer-battered shrimp and a jumbo lump "crab
CAPTION: Galesville's West River Market, decked out for the Fourth, is the heartbeat of village life.