Greg Vande Visser pulled the old advertisement from an iron safe in his graphic design office on Cambridge's main street. The safe and the ad are relics of the Phillips Packing Company, once Cambridge's largest employer. During the war years the firm did more canning than Campbell's. But, its vast complex of brick warehouses and factories clustered on the east side of town closed in the 1950s, leading Dorchester's county seat into decades of economic stagnation.
This is the "old" Cambridge, a town long mired in the past, whose center is only a few blocks from Route 50 beach traffic and a few miles from cosmopolitan Easton. Despite the proximity, Cambridge draws few tourists. It is a place where quiet churchyards hold half a dozen Maryland governors and in whose countryside Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman was born a slave. At the turn-of-the-century Cambridge 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 of Phillips memorabilia in February 2002 when he purchased the 20,000-square-foot building that had housed Phillips' accounts in the 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 by forgetfulness 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 their two-man graphic design business here from Easton. Next, they plan to lease out studio space to artists and open a gallery to display their work.
"Artists could turn this place around," Vande Visser says noting the frisson of culture and cool that artists bring to an area, as well as the industry they create -- everything from coffeehouses to hang out in to shops that sell their paint and other supplies. "The sky's the limit here."
This effort is part of a growing trend in Cambridge to attract tourists. A $3 million visitor's center opened in 1999 near Route 50 and the Choptank River to direct people to the historic homes, museums and businesses in Cambridge's center seven blocks west. Down the street from Vande Visser's budding arts center is Joie de Vivre, a small shop selling clothing, jewelry and artwork that opened in 2002.
"Things are changing very fast," says Anthony Thomas who opened the Canvasback 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 link in these plans -- is the 400-room Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay. The $150 million resort looms on 350 waterfront acres just across Route 50 from town. Opened in August 2002, the resort comprises three pools, two beaches, a spa, golf course and marina, as well as the hopes and dreams 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 since the 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. The town's charms are quiet ones and cannot be appreciated from your driver's seat as you pass by on Route 50, which humps over the Choptank River beside 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-high Teflon and fiberglass sail arching at the southern foot of the Route 50 bridge.
Peruse the restaurant, shop and museum brochures offered here and be sure to pick up a copy of the historic walking tour. A boardwalk by the riverbank offers a nice introduction to Dorchester County's natural history, where 1,700 miles of shoreline give it the most in the state.
Hop back in the car for the short cruise into downtown. The road glides across a drawbridge at Cambridge Creek. Though quiet today, a century ago this narrow body of water would have been full of sailing ships jostling and jockeying to offload their catch before 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 the head of High Street. The third church built on this site (the first was erected in 1693), Christ Church's burial ground is the final resting place of settlers, Revolutionary and Civil War heroes and five Maryland governors.
High Street's shady trees are what impressed novelist and Cambridge native John Barth. In "The Floating Opera," his National Book Award-nominated first novel, he describes them as, "oaks and cottonwood poplars that rustle loftily above you like pennants atop mighty masts; that when leaved transform the shabbiest houses into mansions; that corrugate the concrete of the wide sidewalks with the idle flexing of their roots."
In one historic manse, you'll find the Dorchester Arts Center's small 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 a taste of a well-to-do sea captain's life.