The Naptown Maritime Connection

Photo by Danie Photography

Photo by Danie Photography

Annapolis museum nets hearts and minds

By Nancy Taylor Robson

It’s idyllic at Annapolis Maritime Museum’s Ellen O. Moyer Nature Park Campus, twelve woodsy acres along Back Creek’s eastern edge. There’s a small, creek-side bandstand with seating under the trees. I can imagine a June evening, a margarita, a rose-and-gold summer sunset and music.

But not today. Today, it’s spitting snow, and a 30-knot wind whips the leafless limbs. Third-graders from Indian Creek Elementary have spilled out of buses and scuttled into the warmth of the surprisingly attractive Depression-era water plant now used by Annapolis Maritime Museum as classrooms, meeting and office space. Inside one classroom, the students are eagerly examining large photos of watermen in foul weather gear and white boots hunched over oyster tongs, the scene shrouded in sleet. 

“What do you see?” educator Candace Hillard asks the group. 

 “They’re standing on the side of the boat and there’s ice,” observes one child. “They are grabbing blue oysters out of the sea,” says another.

Hillard points to a set of eight-foot oyster tongs on the floor, “Who wants to try to lift them?”

Photo by Danie Photography

Photo by Danie Photography

One boy throws his hand in the air. He scoops up the rakes and struggles manfully to keep both wobbling ends from touching the floor. “Heavy,” he gasps. “With oysters in them, they can weigh more than 60 pounds,” Hillard tells him, an amount probably equal to the boy’s total displacement. Murmurs of “wow” waft around the room.

Between today’s weather, the tongs, and the evocative photos, these kids are beginning to understand the unremittingly physical nature of a waterman’s work. (“It’s no’ fish ye’re buying; it’s men’s lives,” is how Robert Louis Stevenson put it).

In a second classroom, Education Director Sarah Krizek has given the kids a lesson in oyster anatomy (all of the museum educators have environmental and/or biology degrees) and now, teams at tables are dissecting oysters. Scribes in each team write down what they do, see and feel. “The teachers are extremely knowledgeable,” says Fowler as she watches her class, their faces practically in the water. “We come every year.”

Hillard, who holds a natural resources policy degree from Cornell, also spent a year with the Chesapeake Conservation Corps where boots-in-the-marsh programs gear educators toward physical connections with the material. It all feeds into the museum’s program, which offers the kind of visual, verbal, and experiential combo-meal that keeps even fidgety boys enthralled. 

“Three years ago, we were examining an eel that jumped out of the tank,” remembers Indian Creek third grade teacher Deborah Fowler. “Watching the kids try to catch it to put it back was wonderful, and they talked about it for days, but they’ll remember it for years.” 

John Van Alstine, a working waterman who has been an adjunct to the museum’s program for fifteen years, can testify to the “stickiness” of the learning. “I was at a shop one day and one young lady stopped me, who remembered what I’d told her class ten years before,” he says. 

Photo by Danie Photography

Photo by Danie Photography

The museum has come an impressively long way since its humble beginnings in 2000 in  Eastport’s McNasby Seafood & Oyster Company and Barge House buildings, the last oyster packinghouse on the western shore. Spearheaded by the late Peg Wallace, a local realtor and indefatigable activist, the museum was an effort to save the abandoned building, slated to be replaced by a condo development, and with it something of the character of a once solidly working-class, water-dependent community. 

“Peg was trying to save Annapolis from itself,” says L.B. “Buck” Buchanan, one of the founders. “She sponsored the zoning ordinances that prevented the building of tall buildings and preserved the waterfront for public use. She was a charter member of the Eastport Historical Society, and that led to the acquisition of Barge House [now a meeting and event space] and ultimately, that led to leasing McNasby from the city of Annapolis, which
owns it.”

Wallace provided the impetus, but Buchanan was instrumental in bringing it to fruition.

“Buck raised money and provided the vision,” says Dick Franyo, owner of The Boatyard Bar and Grill in Eastport and an early board member. 

To make the vision a reality, they had to put the place to use. “It opened as a combination museum and seafood co-op,” says museum president and CEO Alice Estrada. The co-op fizzled, but the building, a tangible reminder of the Bay-based economy, was a natural for the education program.

“The students need to understand both ecology and economy,” notes Estrada. “It all works together.” To imprint on young minds, lessons are vividly personal as well as academic, which is where van Alstine comes in. Using his own experience, he draws students into the lives and livelihoods that have depended on the Bay for generations. “If they’re not aware of where their food comes from, and [that] it’s a public resource that they own, I try to bring them how it all combines,” says Van Alstine, who also spends an estimated 10 to 14 days a year on legislation.

He helps students understand the disparate skills watermen need, showing students his shellfish shipper’s license, logbooks and the forms he’s required to keep up to date for monthly health inspections. He charts the relationship between water quality—“If that water’s not clean, there’s not enough harvest”—and the health of the local economy by drawing the students into an imaginary community.

Photo by Danie Photography

Photo by Danie Photography

“You don’t like to eat seafood?” he asks them. “You’re a restaurant owner, a trucker. Still not affected? You work in the restaurant, or on the loading dock. Still not? You have the local movie theater. People need to earn a living to buy tickets to the shows. I show them dollars and cents.” In addition to the bottom line, he also shares the immeasurable pleasures of the job. “I tell them about the joy of the work itself,” he says. “I see the sun come up, watch a bald eagle fly—it’s all part of my paycheck.”

The museum’s inspired repurposing of the McNasby building on the west campus and Moyer Park’s decommissioned water treatment plant to the east are not just opportune. They represent physical connections to water quality and the health of the creatures, including the humans, who depend on it, and create a textured backdrop that enhances the programs much like sunrise and eagles enhance a waterman’s life. But the path to these successes has been anything but a walk in the park. In 2003, not long after they had taken possession of the building, hurricane Isabel severely damaged the McNasby campus.

“Isabel was a great setback,” Buchanan remembers. “It took five years to raise the funds to restore it to its current state.”  Even so, the board plowed ahead. The year after the hurricane, the museum partnered with the city and the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society to assume ownership of the Thomas Point Lighthouse and began taking people out for tours. In 2007, the environmental education programs began at the McNasby campus. In 2016, the museum acquired the Ellen O. Moyer Nature Park, a city-owned waterfront property. “The city was so smart to give them that unused asset; they are so dedicated to making things work,” says Franyo. In its 2018 Annual Report, the museum celebrated a 10,0000-participant education program milestone and a merger with the Annapolis-based Box of Rain Program for underprivileged kids.

The Moyer Park property has been restored with a $500,000 grant and gifts in kind such as the green roof whose plants and installation were donated. Another recent donation sits at the McNasby dock—the skipjack Wilma Lee, a visible piece of Bay heritage built by the legendary Bronza Parks. In addition,
a small army of committed volunteers act as docents and tour guides. Other volunteers pitch in to restore wooden boats, do maintenance, set up and take down for events and lectures, assist in education projects, garden, and so on.

This day, the McNasby classroom, second graders from Rivera Beach Elementary sprawl on the cement floor intently filling out their Chesapeake Champion booklets. Their low voices bounce off of walls covered with huge Chesapeake photos by CBM contributor Jay Fleming. Educator Marco Rojas then plays an observation game with the students, asking them to note what he’s wearing, then to turn away. He shucks his foul-weather jacket. When the kids turn back, he asks what he’s removed. After more shuckings (watch, wrist bands), Rojas quizzes them on natural wildlife habitat in prep for a visit to the Back Creek living shoreline, which was restored by the museum staff and volunteers in 2015 under a Maryland Natural Resource grant. They troop outside to huddle by the thrashing reeds and peer into the shallows.

“The water is noticeably cleaner than when they started in 2015,” notes Estrada. On days when it isn’t blowing a gale and spitting snow, students suit up in the museum’s waders for a more immersive experience. “We [usually] have our kids walking in the water pulling a seine net between them, and examining the critters under microscopes,” she says. Assuming short attention spans, they keep the kids on the move, stopping long enough for them to take in a lesson, but not long enough to lose even one
to distraction.

In the exhibit room, another group bends over tubs. Educator Kirsten Barbera holds out a minnow-sized mummichog for them to gently touch while explaining the principle of countershading, the way dark backs and light undersides provide camouflage from predators whether the fish is viewed from above or below. Continuing the camouflage theme, she leads them across the room to find the flounder, who’s nearly invisible on the aquarium’s sandy bottom.

Mike B Photography

Mike B Photography

“I see the eyes!” one bright-spark crows. The others crowd around in time to see the startled fish wriggle out of its hiding-in-plain-sight-place and scoot to the opposite side of the tank. In between stations, the students run their hands over a replica oyster, complete with barnacles, and swarm over the sawn-in-half bateau, Miss Lonesome, imagining themselves aboard. “It’s about touching,” says Estrada. It’s a far cry from many museums where touching is verboten. Educators here are in the process of creating new hands-on exhibits while the board of directors plans the next stage of growth. “The whole next chapter is a huge change and an increase in their capacity to educate kids and really make it much more appealing to visitors,” says Franyo.

In good weather, the broad-decked porch that overhangs the creek is perfect for parties. (In my head, I’m back to warm June evenings and margaritas). And the beach is ideal for kayak launching, spring equinox sock-burning, concerts, the annual Boatyard Beach Bash, and even some evening solitude.  “The next step is to finalize the plans for new exhibits in McNasbys and on the other side for developing the park,” says Buchanan. “There will be more structures for public activities. It will take us a couple-three years to get the

But he’s clearly undaunted. The museum casts a wide net that encompasses rich programs buttressed by a variety of revenue streams, and, thanks to the efforts of savvy, committed people at its core, it all works. “Their board is the most dedicated hands-on board that really looks into things thoroughly,” says Franyo. “They mind the dollars better than any board I’ve seen.”

Those dollars, an ongoing effort, enable them to pull it all off, but it’s the mission—bigger, broader and tougher to quantify—that is the real bottom line. Buttressed by a keen appreciation of the Bay and its environmental and economic mosaic, it’s ultimately about netting hearts and minds to preserve our shared Chesapeake experience and heritage.

Nancy Taylor Robson is one of the first American women to earn a USCG coastal tug license. When not writing books, the Eastern Shore author gardens, sails and swats mosquitoes.