Devastated 5 years ago by a tropical storm, maritime museum to renew main building

The Baltimore Sun

The oyster plant that once employed thousands in the waterfront community of Eastport, and then briefly housed a museum, is now a ghost of a place.

Seven thousand square feet of concrete floor are barren, still dank from the previous evening's high tide. Stripped cinder- block walls bear scars from the pounding delivered in 2003 by Tropical Storm Isabel.

"When you go through a disaster like that, you're in a state of shock," said Jeff Holland, executive director of the Annapolis Maritime Museum. "But we knew we could come back bigger and better, and that Isabel just might have been the best thing to happen to us."

With the oyster plant battered and in disrepair, the museum has operated out of a cramped barge house on its property near the mouth of the Severn River. This week, however, it is planning to launch a $1.2 million renovation of the 90-year-old McNasby Oyster Co. building.

The museum plans to turn the plant - the last of the 18 shucking houses that once dotted the Annapolis shoreline - into a contemporary exhibit gallery. If all goes according to plan, visitors will learn about oysters and their role in Maryland's ecology, history and commerce through an aquarium and touch-screen panels, while listening to the recorded voices of watermen describing the life.

Renovations are scheduled to begin Wednesday, and visitors might be able to catch their first glimpse of exhibits by late fall.

Museum staff marshaled an army of volunteers and patrons, which grew from the handful that had helped to launch the museum before the storm to more than 250, to plot a $2.5 million rebirth. They held summertime concerts and private gatherings in patrons' homes and started a letter-writing blitz that helped raise more than $500,000 - money used to garner matching state and local grants.

The museum used some of the money to repair the barge house for hosting small after-school groups and launching tours to the historic Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse.

The 12-foot-by-49-foot space is so cramped that its conference table has to be dismantled to host groups, and artifacts used to teach children about the bay's environment are staged outside on the dock and sidewalks.

The reopening of the McNasby plant puts the programs in "an authentic location," said Buck Buchanan, chairman of the museum's board of directors.

"You are talking to these kids about the bay and the lives of the watermen in a building the likes of which they've never seen," he said. "This community was built on the backs of the watermen who worked this dock.

" ... It's important to inspire people with the maritime heritage of this area. And what better place to do it than in an old oyster packing plant?"

The plant, opened in 1918 by Irishman William "Mac" McNasby, was part of Annapolis' booming oyster industry in the early 20th century. Oysters shucked here were shipped along the East Coast and as far north as Canada.

McNasby was known for employing men, women and children of all races, even as other businesses barred African-American workers from certain jobs. The plant thrived until McNasby's death in the 1970s, passed through several tenants' hands over the following 25 years and sputtered to a close in 1998 after years of flagging seafood harvests.

Annapolis resident Larry Griffin was 13 when he worked the docks at the McNasby plant. Before heading to school, he and his cousins started their day at "Mr. Mac's" at 5 in the morning, hauling oysters at 25 cents a wheelbarrow to the rows of shuckers inside. On summer evenings, McNasby's was also where the community children gathered to swim, fish and watch boats glide by.

"The oyster house, when I was young and growing up, was the place that brought people together. It was one of the main places where everybody was working together and felt safe together," said Griffin, 58.

Griffin said he feels sadness when he looks at the plant now, though he said he's happy to know people are working to bring it back to life.

"It's important for the people now to know where their grandfathers and great-grandfathers worked," Griffin said.

The Annapolis Maritime Museum began running out of the barge house in 2001, and eventually the McNasby plant. It started out modestly, with a $25,000 budget and was virtually volunteer-run. The community members who started the museum wanted to open a place that told Maryland's history through its ties to the water. There were no fancy exhibits - mostly two-dimensional plaques and drawings.

But after Isabel threatened to wipe out their operation, the museum's staff and supporters decided to bounce back with more sophisticated, digital exhibits. The new exhibit, Oysters on the Half Shell, will include a 700-gallon aquarium with a live oyster reef to show how the bivalves filter murky water and keep it healthy. The now-bare floors and cinder- block walls will be outfitted with touch-screen panels that allow visitors to learn about the life cycle of the oyster, how the population has changed over the centuries and the factors that contributed to the present decline.

The museum is recording stories from former plant workers like Griffin and will pipe the narrated histories through speakers. It will display historic seafood harvesting tools. The plant will have enough space for classrooms for school groups, and the cavernous space that was once used to store mountains of oyster shells will host concerts and maritime art shows in the evenings.

"This was about reinventing ourselves. We didn't want to be a museum with old and dusty things behind glass cases," said Holland, the museum's director. "We wanted everything to be touchable, malleable. So we'll have old shucking tools that people can touch, all while they can hear the gospel songs the shuckers used to sing while they worked. We want to stimulate all the senses."

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