During the 1950s, most visitors to the town of North East in Cecil County would stop at Herb's Tackle Shop to buy bait before driving to a favorite spot on the Elk or North East rivers to catch rockfish.
While Herb's is still a hallmark of this town of 2,733 residents, North East has outgrown its old reputation as a river community with good fishing supplies.
Today, North East is a boating, camping, hiking, antiquing and dining destination. License plates from Washington, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware are now an integral part of the mile-long lineup of cars crawling into town on Friday nights.
More importantly, said resident and Saffron Creek craft store owner Lisa King, "North East is no longer mistaken for a direction. People know it's a town."
Pete Wood, who opened Woody's Crab House four years ago, is so busy on weekends that he now gives diners a pager extending for a mile so they can shop along Main Street while they wait for tables. Some people like to come into Woody's just to grab a handful of free peanuts, pick up a copy of Ira Black's Nor'Easter boating magazine and take a peek at the woodcarving of the voluptuous mermaid that hangs prominently at one end of the bar.
A new attraction in town is the 5 & 10 Antique Market, loosely modeled after the Strasburg Antiques Market in eastern Lancaster County, Pa. Owner J. David McDaniels, who sells an assortment of candy that includes chocolate, jawbreakers and Swedish fish at the front of the store, is in the process of restoring the building to its original appearance when it was the Cecil Hotel during the 1920s.
Residents of North East are not surprised by the town's growing popularity.
"It was only a matter of time before this gem became public," said Mimi Czep, a resident of Greater North East since 1969.
"The property here is sought after because it's surrounded by rivers and a state park," Czep said. "On top of that, we have two golf courses, a handful of waterfront conference centers, five marinas and several boutiques and antique stores."
About 500,000 tourists visit nearby Elk Neck State Park each year, according to Sandy Turner, director of tourism for Cecil County. The park is about 10 miles south of North East.
Settled before 1700 and incorporated in 1850, North East was named by Capt. John Smith after his exploration of the Chesapeake Bay. Situated at the northern end of the Elk Neck peninsula, North East originally was known for its iron forge, brick works, fishing, mills and basket weaving.
Leisure is the main industry now, but for decades, hunting waterfowl and fishing were the economic mainstays.
Midway between Baltimore and Philadelphia and about 1 1/2 hours from Washington, Greater North East is home to 11,865 people, according to the 2000 Census. The population has grown 21.5 percent since 1990, said Tony DiGiacomo of Cecil County's Office of Planning and Zoning.
Top employers in the area include ATK Elkton, Terumo Medical, W.L. Gore and Triumph Industrial Park, according to Joanne Richart-Young of the Cecil County Office of Economic Development. IKEA International A/S recently opened a distribution center in nearby Perryville and expects to employ about 150 people there.
Many residents travel to jobs in Wilmington, Del., and a smaller number commute to Baltimore, business leaders said.
North East Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Goldbach said the area is attracting new residents because of the affordability and rural atmosphere that have disappeared from the neighboring counties of Harford in Maryland and New Castle in Delaware.
Michael Dickinson bought 200 acres on the Elk Neck peninsula four years ago.
"Since I'm a horse trainer, I needed a place that's close to I-95 and halfway between D.C. and New York, where all the tracks are," Dickinson said. "Besides having a wonderful view of the bay, buying property in North East is a great investment because you get plenty of bang for the buck."
According to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., a listing service used by real estate agents and brokers, the average listing price for homes sold in Greater North East during the past 12 months was $195,335. The average sales price was $184,707.
Local real estate agents said that some waterfront homes in the newer subdivisions along the Elk Neck peninsula, such as Osprey Cove, sold for as much as $2.2 million this year. Other select waterfront homes have sold from $300,000 to more than $400,000.
But resident and Realtor Linda Hughes says the high prices in Osprey Cove are not representative of Greater North East. Hughes said she purchased more than eight acres along the North East River in 1979 for less than $100,000. She said that while her property, featuring a sprawling 11-room wood-and-stone contemporary, would list for more than $1 million today, most homes in the area sell for less than $200,000.
One of the older and more desirable subdivisions on the Elk Neck peninsula is Chesapeake Isle. The private community, consisting of 250 homes, is bordered by the 2,200-acre Elk Neck State Park.
"The fact that Chesapeake Isle is surrounded by a park and has restrictions on development imposed by the state makes that parcel a real prize," Czep said, noting that a developer bought the property where the community is located because the state was unable to buy the land.
The chunk of land that abuts Chesapeake Isle on the south and extends all the way to Turkey Point Lighthouse was purchased by the state and turned into a park after the community was built.
The lighthouse, built in 1833 and named after the wild turkeys living in the area, is an attraction for hikers because it was built on a 100-foot bluff that overlooks the mouth of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal and the bay.
"It's very rare to have a residential community sandwiched between a state park," Czep said. "It would be too financially prohibitive for the state to buy all the land where Chesapeake Isle is right now."
In the late 1960s, half-acre lots in Chesapeake Isle were selling for about $4,000. Today, many of those lots showcase waterfront homes with estimated values of at least $300,000, according to MRIS.
Increasing property values in Greater North East pose a problem for some Cecil County residents whose incomes may price them out of the market there. With a median household income of $50,510, Cecil County lags behind Maryland's median income of $52,868 and neighboring Harford County, where the median income is $57,234.
The area's newfound popularity, however, pleases many merchants, including Vinny Cirino, owner of the Pier 1 restaurant in town.
"When I tried to educate my customers' palates by offering a variety of Italian dishes, all they would order was cheesesteaks and burgers. Now, with so many out-of-towners coming here, recipes from my home town of Ischia are a hit," Cirino said.
Greater North East
Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 1 hour
Public schools: North East High School, North East Middle School, North East Elementary
Points of interest: Elk Neck State Park, Cecil Community College Cultural Center, Cecil County Dragway, Day Basket Factory, Eagles Roost Farm & Orchard, Turkey Point Lighthouse, Upper Bay Museum, Chesapeake Bay Golf Club
Shopping: Food Lion, Acme, Martin's Supermarket, Peebles Department Store, Kmart, Wal-Mart
ZIP code: 21901