The advertisement is yellowed and torn, but its message is clear.Beans canned by Cambridge's Phillips Packing Company have "that downin Dixie flavor." The statement appears below an image of a large African-American woman wearing a headscarf and holding a steaming silverplatter.
Greg Vande Visser pulled the old advertisement from an iron safe inhis graphic design office on Cambridge's main street.The safe and the ad are relics of the Phillips Packing Company, onceCambridge's largest employer. During the war years the firm did morecanning than Campbell's. But, its vast complex of brick warehousesand factories clustered on the east side of town closed in the1950s, leading Dorchester's county seat into decades of economicstagnation.
"It was a one horse town," Vande Visser says. "When Phillips wentout of business, there went the town."
This is the "old" Cambridge, a town long mired in the past, whosecenter is only a few blocks from Route 50 beach traffic and a fewmiles from cosmopolitan Easton. Despite the proximity, Cambridge draws few tourists.It is a place where quiet churchyards hold half a dozen Maryland governorsand in whose countryside Underground Railroad conductorHarriet Tubman was born a slave. At the turn-of-the-centuryCambridge was the nation's No. 3 oyster exporter. Today, it is a town with double-digit unemployment.
Vande Visser found the ad, the safe and several other pieces ofPhillips memorabilia in February 2002 when he purchased the 20,000-square-foot building that had housed Phillips' accounts inthe heart of downtown Cambridge. The 1910 structure had been virtually dormant for years, Vande Visser says. Like many of the historic buildings along Race Street, Cambridge's main drag, it was frozen in time, encased byforgetfulness and neglect.
Vande Visser and his business partner Steve Von Den Bosch are in the process of bringing it back. The Eastern Shore natives have already moved theirtwo-man graphic design business here from Easton. Next, they plan tolease out studio space to artists and open a gallery to displaytheir work.
"Artists could turn this place around," Vande Visser says notingthe frisson of culture and cool that artists bring to an area, as wellas the industry they create -- everything from coffeehouses to hang outin to shops that sell their paint and other supplies. "The sky's the limithere."
This effort is part of a growing trend in Cambridge to attracttourists. A $3million visitor's center opened in 1999 near Route 50 and theChoptank River to direct people to the historic homes, museums andbusinesses in Cambridge's center seven blocks west. Down the streetfrom Vande Visser's budding arts center is Joie de Vivre, a small shopselling clothing, jewelry and artwork that opened in 2002.
"Things are changing very fast," says Anthony Thomas who opened theCanvasback Restaurant and wine bar in November 2000 in an old Woolworth's on Race Street.
The catalyst behind much of this development -- and the crucial linkin these plans -- is the 400-room Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay. The $150 million resort looms on 350 waterfrontacres just across Route 50 from town. Opened in August 2002,the resort comprises three pools, twobeaches, a spa, golf course and marina, as well as the hopes anddreams of a town wishing for a turnaround.
"Buy a building now," says Charles Kelly, owner of Craig's Pharmacy,which has offered medicine, cards and gifts in downtown Cambridge sincethe 19th century. "You'll kick yourself in five years if you don't."
A historic town
To discover Cambridge, it is necessary to slow down. Thetown's charms are quiet ones and cannot be appreciatedfrom your driver's seat as you pass by on Route 50, which humps over the Choptank Riverbeside Cambridge before loping east toward Salisbury and Ocean City, Maryland.The visitor's center is a good place to start. It's easy to spot with its 110-foot-highTeflon and fiberglass sail arching at the southern foot of the Route50 bridge.
Peruse the restaurant, shop and museum brochures offered here and besure to pick up a copy of the historic walking tour. A boardwalk bythe riverbank offers a nice introduction to Dorchester County'snatural history, where 1,700 miles of shoreline give it the most inthe state.
Hop back in the car for the short cruise into downtown.The road glides across a drawbridge at Cambridge Creek. Though quiettoday, a century ago this narrow body of water would have been fullof sailing ships jostling and jockeying to offload their catchbefore heading back out into the Choptank River and Chesapeake Bay.
Stretch your legs on High Street. A stroll along this street's short two blocks to the river -- beside stately captain's homes -- reveals Cambridge's maritime heritage and the wealth the former port town once enjoyed.
The gothic spire of Christ Episcopal Church rises here near thehead of High Street. The third church built on this site (the first waserected in 1693), Christ Church's burial ground is the final restingplace of settlers, Revolutionary and Civil War heroes and fiveMaryland governors.
High Street's shady trees are what impressed novelist and Cambridgenative John Barth. In "The Floating Opera," his National Book Award-nominated first novel, he describes them as, "oaks and cottonwoodpoplars that rustle loftily above you like pennants atop mightymasts; that when leaved transform the shabbiest houses intomansions; that corrugate the concrete of the wide sidewalks with theidle flexing of their roots."
In one historic manse, you'll find the Dorchester Arts Center'ssmall shop and gallery with a rotating selection of work. At the Cambridge House bed and breakfast, its red brick Victorian exterior and period furnishings give guests ataste of a well-to-do sea captain's life.
High Street ends at Long Wharf on the Choptank. This is where theNathan of Dorchester, a modern, volunteer-built skipjack like thosethat plied these waters for centuries, ties up. It offers sailingexcursions and charters in the warmer months. Boat trips are alsoavailable May through October on the Cambridge Lady, which docks ashort distance up Cambridge Creek. Those seeking more aquatic historyshould try the James B. Richardson Maritime Museum up the street orthe Brannock Maritime Museum across town.
Bounty of the bay
After learning so much about Cambridge's nautical history, it wouldbe a shame not to sample some of the bay's bounty. Snappers Waterfront Cafe serves crab cakes and other traditional seafooddishes with a view of Cambridge's old working waterfront. The Place on Race Cafe offers light lunches and other snacks, as well as coffeedrinks. Across the street, the Canvasback Restaurant serves up atraditional pub menu for lunch, as well as some more complex dinnerentrees. Try the pan-seared rockfish with orange beurre blanc or thecanvasback duck with lingonberry sauce.
Those who prefer their waterfowl on the wing won't want to missBlackwater National Wildlife Refuge, 12 miles south of town. These26,000 acres of protected marsh and woodlands are a haven formigrating Canada geese, tundra swans and more than 20 species ofducks. Blackwater is also the center of the greatest nesting densityof bald eagles on the eastern seaboard, north of Florida.
Water dominates the landscape here and the views from the six and one-half-mile wildlife drive can be stunning. Great blue herons work themuddy flats while ospreys soar above the deeper waters. Lookingsouth, the marshy maze of the Blackwater River stretches to the horizon.All that breaks the line between the powder bluesky and the brackish water are the small copses of trees marking thehigher ground.
Making her way north in darkness, Harriet Tubman didn't have thesevisual clues. Following many of these same waterways, Tubman used the North Star to escape from a plantation in nearby Bucktown in 1849. She would return to the south 19 times throughout her life, helping more than 300 slaves escape and gaining a $40,000 price tag on her head.
The modest Underground Railroad Museum in Cambridge offers displaysrecounting her life and guided tours of Harriet Tubman sitesthroughout the county. Its president, Evelyn W. Townsend, is alsoa storehouse of local knowledge.
Townsend was a young schoolteacher that summer night in 1967 when muchof Pine Street's business district -- the center of African-AmericanCambridge since the 19th century -- went up in flames after a speechby militant civil rights activist H. Rap Brown ignited a riot.
These simmering racial tensions can sometimes still presentthemselves in a town that has long lacked many economicopportunities, Townsend says.
But she is hopeful that thepromised land is on the horizon. The Hyatt resort holds the possibility ofhundreds of jobs and the town's residentshope that some of its wealthy visitors will take a break fromtheir mud wraps long enough to spend some money downtown, creating a viable tourism industry in long-forgotten Cambridge.
Townsend says the town is gaining momentum and "the Moses of herpeople" can help show Cambridge the way. Tubman's life holds lessonsfor people looking to overcome great odds -- valuable lessons in atown taking its first steps in several generations toward economicfreedom.
"We have to remember the past, but use it to go forward," Townsendsays.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun