For many, the words “Eastern Shore” conjure images of beaches, blue crabs and summer fun. But the cooling temperatures and traffic-plagued Bay Bridge shouldn’t stop you from enjoying this culturally and ecologically rich part of the state.
The Chesapeake Country Mural Trail in Dorchester County, just south of the Choptank River, renders many of those qualities in spectacular colors and larger-than-life dimensions.
Artist Michael Rosato created each of the trail’s eight murals, rendered on eight-by-ten-foot cement board blocks, starting in 2013. Dorchester County’s tourism office commissioned Rosato to develop the art, with input from the community for several works.
“It takes time to identify the location, the content... we really [wanted] the murals to reflect the themes of the Chesapeake,” said Amanda Fenstermaker, the county’s tourism director.
Together, the murals depict the Indigenous tribes, black liberationists like Harriet Tubman and Gloria Richardson, as well as flora and fauna that highlight Dorchester County’s history. They also invoke passages from James Michener’s epic novel, “Chesapeake," which chronicles several generations from the area.
“I love telling a story in all of these things,” Rosato said during a recent visit to his studio. “You have to look at it, and then, when you start to learn the history, you see what the story’s about.”
The prolific Rosato took a break from his current major commissions at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia, to tell each mural’s story in early October. Starting with the first one motorists will see when heading southbound into Cambridge on the Choptank River Bridge, these are the stories behind the murals.
‘Ode to Watermen’
This mural’s placement, on a wall of the Dorchester County Visitor Center that faces the adjacent bridge, ensures that visitors (especially on clear days) understand the regional importance of fishing before they get off the bridge. “Ode to Watermen" depicts three men on a skipjack, a once-popular fishing sailboat, pulling oysters out of the Chesapeake. “It was hard work,” Rosato said. “These guys, when they’d go out there, they’d drag the oysters onto the boat while it was still moving.”
The artist used the bold style of the Russian-Soviet avant garde to honor these archetypal working men. Departing from the more common images of fisherman, he also made them men of color—a point he said reflected the diversity of people who worked the water.
Location: Dorchester County Visitor Center, 2 Rose Hill Place, Cambridge.
‘Local African American Heritage’
Most popular accounts of African American history omit the stories of Pine Street and the black community that surrounded it. Rosato created this mural, with input from that community, as a historical correction.
“Most people don’t even know there were 49 thriving businesses on Pine Street, or that Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington and Ray Charles and all the big band guys came through here, because it was on the Chitlin’ Circuit,” Rosato said. “Local African American Heritage” depicts a singing Fitzgerald alongside other scenes from Pine Street’s heyday: bakers making Maryland beaten biscuits, a barber cutting hair and the Phillips packing plant, where many residents worked.
The mural also prominently features several notable activists. Gloria Richardson, who organized local actions during the Civil Rights Movement and explained structural racism to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, speaks into a microphone. Community health pioneers Dr. J. Edwin Fassett and Nurse Maxine McGee treat an infant. The face of Harriet Tubman (more on her later) anchors the center. Rosato intersperses these images with those of the everyday heroes—a track runner, farmer and Tuskegee Airman among them—that typify this community’s enduring resilience.
Location: By the corner of Maryland Avenue and US-50, Cambridge
‘Goose on the Caboose’
Hordes of Canadian geese visit the Eastern Shore’s extensive wetlands every October, like clockwork. Many denizens see them as a noisy and disgusting nuisance. Some hunt them for their meat. Rosato created “Goose on the Caboose," located steps away from Cambridge Creek and Portside Seafood Restaurant, with a happier story in mind.
“In Michener’s ‘Chesapeake,’ there’s a story of a father and his two sons," he said. “He takes his kids out outside, because it’s October, and he says, ‘Today’s the day they come. And today, we’re not going to shoot them. They’re allowed to come in and eat on my fields and harvest, and we’re going to enjoy the fact that we’ve been given one more year of these majestic birds coming to visit us, and they won’t be shot—today.’ That doesn’t mean he’s not going to go out and feed his family eventually, but today he allowed them in."
The mural’s name references the red train car on which it sits. To create the image of a goose almost flapping beyond the fourth wall, Rosato used a technique called “trompe l’oeil,” French for “tricking the eye." He employed this visual deception in several other works along the mural trail, including the most famous and recent installment.
Location: Powell Real Estate, 200 Trenton St., Cambridge
‘Take My Hand’
This trompe l’oeil-infused portrayal of Tubman captivated national attention soon after it went up in Cambridge’s quaint downtown this spring. And it’s easy to understand why: it shows Tubman the liberator, reaching through a brick wall to lead the enslaved to freedom, with the compassion and heroism that few depictions of her bravery ever have.
“[Her niece and nephew] were just being auctioned off at our courthouse here," Rosato said. "People that were going to purchase them decided to go to lunch. Then she came and took them down to Long Wharf, which is right down the street, then put them on a rowboat, rode it across the Choptank River, [and] off to freedom.” The artist incorporated a rowboat and the North Star, Tubman’s navigational tool, to emphasize these dimensions.
Rosato learned this story during a community meeting at the Harriet Tubman Museum & Educational Center, on which “Take My Hand” sits. Tubman’s descendants founded the institution roughly three decades ago. Located down the street from Rosato’s studio and RAR Brewing, the center still offers an intimate path to understanding Tubman’s newly-big-screen story.
Location: Harriet Tubman Museum & Educational Center, 424 Race St., Cambridge
Few foods scream “Maryland” as loudly as the blue crab. So it’s only natural that Rosato put this mural, featuring a great blue heron enjoying a crab, on the side of J.M. Clayton Company, the world’s oldest continually operating crab house. “Big Bird” faces outward towards the crabbing boats docked behind the building, which means that visitors get the fullest views from a boat or the nearby drawbridge.
Rosato noted that he based “Big Bird” on a passage from “Chesapeake,” in which the Indigenous character Pentaquod witnesses a bird crack a crab in half with its beak.
“It tells a story about how the soft crab was given by their god as a gift for their stewardship of the land,” he said.
Rosato also incorporated oysters and shads, a fish that visits the region every year to spawn. “The oysters, the crab, the reeds coming down to the water— it’s all based on the landscape, the fauna, the bounty of the bay.”
Location: J.M. Clayton’s, 108 Commerce St. (or the drawbridge near Maryland Avenue and Academy Street for a fuller view), Cambridge
‘East New Market'
The rest of the mural trail takes travelers out of Cambridge and further into the Eastern Shore, starting with a pair of murals in East New Market.
One such mural, which uses trompe l’oeil so visitors can “feed” a horse, shows Indigenous peoples of the Nanticoke tribe trading with colonial settlers. Turn around and gaze across the street for the second mural, which depicts another era in the region’s history—and one of the Eastern Shore’s most famous residents.
“It shows the old East New Market and the church that was very instrumental in bringing the enslaved people over and getting them going on the Underground Railroad, as well as establishing them once they were emancipated,” Rosato said. "It’s not a story of East New Market as much as one of the Eastern Shore, as Frederick Douglass was from Talbot County, but he’s in there, as a free man walking.”
Location: Main Street and Railroad Avenue, East New Market
‘Native American Life’
The mural trail ends near the county line, in the town of Vienna, and depicts what Rosato described as “a sweeping epic of a mural." Loosely reflecting both “Chesapeake” and Vienna’s nonfictional history, the mural starts with Pentaquod riding down to the region. Viewers then experience other pivotal periods, including John Smith’s early interactions with Indigenous tribes, governor Holliday Hicks during the Civil War, the tobacco trade, crabbing and the introduction of trains. Its comprehensiveness makes for a fitting end to the mural trail’s extensive and specific cataloging of the region’s cultural and ecological heritage.
Location: 104 Race St., Vienna
Visitors can follow the Chesapeake Country Mural Trail with Rosato’s narration by using the Visit Dorchester mobile audio app at visitdorchester.org.