From the first European navigators searching for passages west, toturn-of-the-century robber barons looking for beautiful country andpalatial homes, Easton and its surrounding Talbot County countrysidehave been discovered time and again.

Today another wave of explorers-- day-trippers and retirees from the western shore -- flockto this small town's compact shopping district with its diversearray of cosmopolitan restaurants and art galleries.

Dover Street: Easton offers a compact shopping district with galleries and restaurants. (Photo by Patrick Swoboda, Special to SunSpot)

"Going back to Edward Lloyd, (progenitor of the family that haslived in the area's Wye House plantation for 11 generations) thewealthy came here with money and kept it," says Joan Reynolds Hoge,director of the .

The dot-com millionaires continued this tradition of the well-offlooking to Easton for a home in the country in recent years. Andwhile the stock market plummeted, Easton realestate continued flying high.

"Prices have really increased in the last couple of years," saysChris Young, a real estate agent with Long & Foster who has workedhere for 15 years. "It's amazing how much waterfrontage we havethat's over $1 million."

"Easton is really a living town," Hoge says. "The people who livehere don't want to make it a tourist mecca, but do want it to beeconomically viable."

It's a balancing act, but a happy one, at least one merchantbelieves.

"It's great, our business has grown every year," says Steve Shearer,whose grandfather opened the family's jewelry store, Shearer The Jeweler, in 1925.

"People morph. They quickly realize it's a different place overhere," Shearer says. "If a contractor says they'll be right there,that means next Tuesday."

Quaker beginnings

Founded in 1788 as Talbot's county seat and a port at the then-navigable head of the Tred Avon River, the land that now makes upEaston had already been settled by Quakers in the 1600s.

Peaceful history: The Historical Society was once a Quaker home. (Photo by Patrick Swoboda, Special to SunSpot)

One of these early Quaker homes has been recreated at the 's museum and garden near the center oftown. This small, four room structure is representative of the homeWentlocke Christianson shared with his wife, two children and threeslaves in the 1670s.

Slavery played a role in the town's economy into the 1800s,explains Hoge, the society's director.

By the end of the 17th century, the area's primary cash crop had changed from tobacco, which depletes the soil, to wheat. Sincegrowing and harvesting grain is less labor-intensive, a market wascreated for selling excess slaves to Southern cotton plantations,Hoge says. This regrettable business went on at a slave market thatwas located on Federal Street.

Ironically, the area's best-known native was born a slave. FrederickDouglass started his life on a Talbot County plantation beforeescaping north and becoming a prominent abolitionist. "He's our mostfamous son," Hoge says.

More of the town's Quaker history can be seen at the .This house of worship, completed in 1684, is the oldest building intown and is reputed to be America's oldest religious structure incontinuous use.

A time to pray: The Third Haven Meeting House is the oldest building in town. (Photo by Patrick Swoboda, Special to SunSpot)

In what was then the country, the house is today tucked behind homesin a residential neighborhood. This simple, broad-planked structurewith unfinished pine pews still holds services in the warmer months.

By the 1700s Easton came to be recognized as the capital of theEastern Shore when the state assembly proposed that the town share legislative duties with Annapolis. While this arrangement never came about, Easton's brick courthouse exudes colonial charm (the current structure was erected in 1794). Its lawnand benches are a good place for a summer picnic or, for a littlemore space, try just across the street.

Pit stop

After the history lesson, satisfy your hunger with the gourmet sandwichesat . More traditional fare like crabcakes can be found at the stately .Picnickers and vegetarians will find something to nibble on at the, a sort of miniature, locally owned Fresh Fields. It'sonly a short drive away on the edge of town.

Culture vultures and waterfowl

Suitably fueled, head to the Academy Art Museum for some culture.This 1820s schoolhouse is Easton's center forvisual arts. A recent show included a series of large-format colorphotographs by contemporary artist Robert Rauschenberg. These photographs,taken on a 1983 trip to China, showcase the artist's eye for colorand juxtaposition and are not representative of the sort of artwork most would expect to find on the largely rural Eastern Shore.

Color your world: The Academy Art Museum features exhibits by widely known visual artists. (Photo by Patrick Swoboda, Special to SunSpot)

More art can be found in Easton's galleries. , near the museum, features oils, watercolors and etchings. houses a wide variety of works,from contemporary glass vases and metal sculptures to wooden bowls.A few doors down, has a rotating display of art on itswalls, as well as a wide variety of snacks and drinks.

For those looking for something with a little more history, theblock of Harrison Street between Goldsborough and Dover Road is hometo several antique shops.

The performing arts take center stage at the . Thisart deco movie and vaudeville house was built in 1921. Restored in1989, the Avalon now hosts community theater productions, classic films andlive music ranging from chamber groups to rock and bluegrass.

Center stage: The Avalon Theater is the place to go to see classic movies and contemporary performers. (Photo by Patrick Swoboda, Special to SunSpot)

The one date sure to be circled on the 11,000Eastonians' calendars is the second weekend in November. That's whenthe town-wide Waterfowl Festival is held and thousands of tourists flock to see the bird carvings, paintings and sculptures by local andnationally known artists.

The three-day event, begun in 1971, is an economic boon estimatedto infuse $8 to $9 million into the town's economy. Black, white andgray Canada geese can often be spied overhead honking in chevrons asattendees make their way between galleries.

In 2000, the event marked another return. For the first time in sixyears, Marylanders were allowed to hunt these geese astheir population rebounded enough to allow the state to lift itsban.

No one may have been happier about this than Lawrence Albright, whosegun shop sits beside the and across from , a center for visiting hunters for half a century.

"The hunting was phenomenal," Albright says. "It was like the olddays."

Inside , pricey Barbour sweaters and Orvis fishing gear arewatched over by duck decoys. One wall is completelyfilled by classic shotguns, including many sought-after Parkers andL.C. Smiths.

"Nothing adds up to goose," he says.

What lures the hunters here is the same thing that draws touristsand retirees, Albright believes. It's Easton's unique mix ofhistory, shopping, beautiful land and wildlife.

One customer had promised her husband she'd go hunting if the goosemoratorium was lifted, Albright says. He took her on her firstexcursion last season.

"She didn't care if she only got half a bird," Albright says with agleam in his eye. "She just wanted to come back to the shore."

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