TILGHMAN ISLAND, Md., is a secret known largely to sports fishermen and crabbers. The tiny village, dominated by the sea, is home port of the bulk of the sail-powered skipjack fleet and removed by a small drawbridge from other small settlements on the same finger of land jutting into Chesapeake Bay. The sports fishermen -- and lately plenty of others -- book into Harrison's Chesapeake House, a rambling old hotel noted for its food and for the charter fishing available off the dock.
Chesapeake House fits in nicely with Tilghman. There's nothing fancy about it, from the framed photographs of fishermen holding huge fish aloft by the gills to the plastic flowers decorating tables. Chesapeake House clients favor duck bill caps and sport shirts and they wait patiently in the wicker chairs on the old veranda for tables in the dining room. Pride, the resident setter, sprawls comfortably at their feet, drying himself off beneath the lazily circling ceiling fans. Upstairs the rooms are simple and small and the food, especially the fish caught daily, is widely renowned as plain and good.
This is a family-run place, with three generations of Harrisons and their wives doing everything from arranging charter groups to booking dinner reservations. When the place overflows, which is often on summer weekends, the Harrisons put the extras up at Miss Emily's guest house down on Reluctant Point. That's where I stayed and I loved it.
Miss Emily's, I hasten to say, is not for everyone. For one thing, it's not air conditioned, nor can you read in bed since, though there are plenty of little lamps, there are no electric outlets in the baseboards. However, you'll find other things which are in short supply in the usual motels -- like splendidly dramatic pictures of ships in distress on monumental seas, framed Mother's Day tributes, antimacassars on the furniture and great friendliness. The price is $30 for a double with shared bath, and all financial transactions take place over at the hotel.
Recreation on Tilghman Island is exclusively connected with the sea. You can get into a tiny flat-bottomed boat and dangle baited lines over the side for crab and fill your bucket to overflowing in no time. You can charter a boat and spend the day fishing seriously, or sit with Pride on the dock and watch the egret stalking the water's edge and the boats going by beyond the narrows.
Or you can drive out to the Skipjack Restaurant on Avalon Island across the causeway, and scrape acquaintance with the boat captains while you eat what the menu calls chicken 'n slippery dumplings ($5). Donna Wilson, whose son, Robbie, is the youngest skipjack captain, owns the restaurant and, if you want to take crabs home, she'll even supply those.
The skipjacks, the last commercial sailing vessels in this country, are tied up for the summer now, awaiting another oyster season, but you can see 13 of them moored to the dock at Dogwood Bay. John Larrimore, at 69 the dean of the skipjack captains, lives in the little white house close by the bay. If he's not on his knees working in his petunia bed (a disappointment this year), you might see him making repairs on the E. C. Collier, the boat he has owned for 25 years.
Capt. Larrimore knows just about everything there is to know about dredging for oysters. It's an art he has spent a lifetime perfecting and he looks with a jaded but friendly eye on the young men coming up. It takes, after all, more than just a boat to be a good oysterer.
His young cousin, Sandy Larrimore, has just entered the business with a skipjack he purchased for $1 from a North Carolina museum that wanted it back in service. He's fixing it up this fall over in the harbor at nearby Fairbank.
Is Sandy a good oysterer?
"He ain't good for nothing that I know of," says John Larrimore, clapping his relative on the back with affection.
When you tire of the sea -- or perhaps on the way down to Tilghman -- stop off at Wye Mills, where a tiny preserved village pursues a life just as interesting. The turn is off Rte. 50 about 26 miles north of where Rte. 33 rejoins it, and the road itself, with cattle egrets gathering around the cows and turkey vultures sitting moodily on fences, is almost worth the trip.
The most notable landmark here is the Wye Oak, the largest white oak in the United States and a survivor of some 400 years. Safe in the hands of the state of Maryland, it spreads its huge branches over a little fenced-off area before which tourists in passing cars draw to the side of the road to gape. Its gnarled old trunk is 27 feet around.
Just beyond is the Old Wye Church, a steeple-less church built in 1721, whose restoration was underwritten by Arthur Houghton, a Steuben glass executive who is a member of the vestry. And what a jewel this church is, with its high box pews upholstered in green patterned brocade and its beautiful arched windows, some with the original glass. Its roofed pulpit is against the north wall away from the altar, as was the custom in "chapels at ease" such as this. A layman usually reads the service, because an ordained minister has to spread his time over five or six such chapels. The altar cushions are exquisite, designed by an expert and worked beautifully by five parish women. The 1763 Baskerville Bible isn't even under glass.
Only 134 worshippers can get into the pews, which were filled back in 1977 when Princess Anne arrived to attend services here. The princess was just one of a stream of English nobility who have found their way here, since the church was restored by the same architect who did Williamsburg's Bruton Parish and its fame has spread. Everything now is just as it was, from the paint that had to be matched to the original shade colored with tobacco juice, to the palm leaf fans in the pews that puzzle a generation accustomed to air conditioning.
To see the vestry house as well, you'll have to come on Saturday when a volunteer to show you around is on duty between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. The vestry house is totally a reproduction but, as Mrs. Richardson, wife of the rector remarks, the original parish kept wonderful records. The present-day vestry meets here monthly, deciding matters over the green felt-covered table while eschewing the clay pipes handy in the pipe racks.
The joy of a motor trip down to this country is that you can bring back corn, tomatoes, melons and peaches picked that morning. If you want something more original to give to the neighbor who fed your cat and took in your newspaper while you were gone, stop in to see Ruth Orrell, next door to the church, who has made a life's work of Maryland beaten biscuits.
The recipe for these is a national treasure on file in the Library of Congress, and each biscuit is still shaped by hand. Mrs. Orell will probably invite you in to show you how it's done. Go round to the back. No one ever answers the front bell.
If beaten biscuits remind you of hard tack, pick up some flour from the colonial grist mill up the road and make your own spoon bread or cornmeal muffins from the recipes the mill hands out. John Bronson, the friendly miller, keeps the place open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Flour for Washington's troops at Valley Forge came from this same mill.
Mooney is an author and free-lance writer. She lives in Bethesda.