The Tilghman Watermen’s Museum is chock full of interesting stories from days gone by, but one story in particular lingered in my mind after a recent visit. That was the story of the way the museum itself took shape, how one couple’s dreams of a peaceful retirement led them into a project full of new discoveries and fresh challenges.
Mary and Hall Kellogg fell in love with Tilghman Island in the 1980s. Back then, they were busy mid-career professionals. She was a shock trauma nurse. He was a trucking company executive. Plus, they had a farm up in northern Baltimore County that needed their full-time attention as well.
Once they took the plunge and bought land on Tilghman in 1986, they ended up doing nothing with that property for quite a few years. Through the 1990s, Hall and Mary would escape their busy lives on the Western Shore once a year for a brief overnight trip to check on their Eastern Shore investment on the western edge of Talbot County, Md.
“We’d look over the property and dream,” Mary says.
Then it was right back on Route 50 for the return trip. The Kelloggs look back today on those trips with a sense of lost opportunity and regret. They were so pressed for time and so focused on their own situation that they didn’t pay close attention to the changes that Tilghman Island was going through in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“When we first bought our property, Dogwood Harbor was full of skipjacks,” Mary says, “We look back now and think, ‘You know, we didn’t even stop and take a picture of the harbor. Not even once.’”
By the time the Kelloggs did retire and move to Tilghman in 1999, only a few vessels remained in the once-mighty Tilghman skipjack fleet. The sense of missed opportunity there helped spur the couple to sign on in the mid-2000s with a larger group of islanders campaigning to save an old workboat, the skipjack Kathryn.
The talk in that campaign at one point turned to the need to capture the memories of older islanders before it was too late. Hall and Mary took that on. Then, well, one thing led to another. In June 2008, they were opening the Tilghman Watermen’s Museum in an old barber shop. People stopped by now and then with artifacts, heirlooms, and old photos. A woman walked in and said she knew her way around oral history interviews—how could she help? Another woman offered up her marketing expertise. A local painter put the museum in his will.
And so the Tilghman Watermen’s Museum became something of a shared community undertaking along the way. Today, it’s housed in the 1890s Lee House. Every nook and cranny is filled with exhibits materials that tell the stories of Tilghman Island, from Native American artifacts that have been found there through the arrival of Europeans in 1656 and then all the way up through the latter years of the 20th century.
A few highlights:
• The Lee House itself is an interesting part of the show. It’s one of 13 “W” houses built around the turn of the 20th century—as far as anyone has been able to tell so far, the idiosyncratic house design, named after its shape, is unique to Tilghman and the nearby mainland town of Sherwood. Just seven W houses still stand. Only this and one other are in near-original condition.
• Working on the water is one key focus of the museum. The model of a heart-shaped pound net array that you see pictured here is among the more popular exhibits. Famed boat builders John B. Harrison, Maynard Lowery, and others get their moments in the sun.
• The Tilghman Packing Company gets a lot of attention as well. At its peak, the company had an astonishing 700 employees. A gigantic photograph of the old company grounds on a second-floor wall leaves many visitors feeling like they finally understand the scope of that operation.
“Until they come in here and see this, a lot of people don’t really realize that at one time Tilghman was the real center of commerce for Talbot County,” Hall says. “This is where all the money was. There were four post offices on the island, three schools, a department store, a movie theater. I could go on.”
• Artwork is another focus, especially paintings of watermen at work by the late Bill Cummings, an island native who worked on the water himself for most of his life. Only later in life did Cummings become a self-taught artist depicting scenes of Tilghman life from across the decades. That’s one of his paintings from the museum collection up top here.
• The Tilghman Watermen’s Museum may be best known for items in its gift shop rather than on its exhibit walls. That oral history expert who stopped by, Jennifer Shay, eventually called in friends and colleagues who knew their way around video work. That team has put together a series of five short films about life on the island. All five have been broadcast on Maryland Public Television. You can buy those films on disk here.
There are lots more Tilghman stories to explore at the Lee House, which opened for the 2018 visitation season in late April. The Tilghman Waterman’s Museum is open weekends, 10am-3pm. Weekday tours by appointment at 410-886-2930 or 410-886-1190. The address is 6031 Tilghman Island Road, Tilghman, MD 21671.
–Written and posted by Jim Duffy, May 18, 2018
Copyright, Secrets of the Eastern Shore, 2018
The photos here are either taken by Jim Duffy or courtesy of the Watermen’s Museum.