Re-Discovering St. Mary’s County, MD
By Bob Tagert
Re-Discovering St. Mary’s County, MD
Now that the pandemic is winding down, folks are beginning to get out of the house, roll the windows down and hit the road. We have been writing road trip articles for 34 years and after this last year’s confinement, it is time to revisit some of our favorite destinations. This month we returned to Maryland’s history capital, St. Mary’s County.
St. Mary’s County is the southernmost county in Maryland. The county is actually a peninsula bordered on the northeast by the Patuxent River, the east by the Chesapeake Bay, the southwest by the Potomac River and the west by the Wicomico River. As you might guess, the county is noted for its’ water attractions whether it be boating, crabbing, fishing or just spending a lazy day hanging by the water.
St. Mary’s County was named after the Virgin Mary. The first landing of English settlers was March 25, 1634 at St. Clements Island. The island was too small to support the growing town so they settled on land nearby and established St. Mary’s City the first Maryland Colony and the first capitol of the Colony of Maryland. St. Mary’s College is also located near the historic St. Mary’s City.
Traveling the back roads of St. Mary’s is a real treat. It is truly a trip back in time. There are thriving Amish and Mennonite communities and chances are good that you will encounter a horse and buggy sharing the road as they commute about the county. Loveville is a town known for its Old Order Mennonite community, who have farmer’s market/produce auctions as well as craft shops and an annual quilt auction. Tobacco, once a major crop in Maryland, is no longer grown but you will see vacant tobacco barns that dot the fields, a reminder of tobacco’s hay day and its history.
The county seat is the Town of Leonardtown, which is also the largest city. Beginning a few years before the pandemic, Leonardtown, a laid back southern town, began a revival of sorts. A few years ago, REX opened and the night life in Leonardtown was kicked up a notch. The Front Porch restaurant was serving the locals. The Social Coffeehouse and Cocktail Bar opened to entertain the younger crowd and recently Sweetbay Restaurant opened bringing a D.C. vibe to Leonardtown. Most of these businesses are built around a town square, another throwback to an earlier time. Although the square has been quiet the last year, we may soon see events and concerts return.
Leonardtown dedicated a lot of time and money some years back to develop the Leonardtown Wharf which sets up against Breton Bay at the end of the main street in town. There is plenty of parking and kayak and canoe rentals are available. It is a great place for a picnic and there is a small concession stand as well as very clean bathrooms.
The Old Jail Museum is a jailhouse built in 1876 and in use until 1945 by the oldest sheriff’s office in the nation. The granite block and brick structure retains its original upstairs cells where prisoners were once segregated by gender and race. The jail keeper’s quarters downstairs house related artifacts. The location also serves as the official Leonardtown Visitor Center.
Behind the Leonardtown firehouse is Shepards Old Field Market, a marketplace community catalyst that aims to promote mixed use development, community interaction, grassroots local commerce, and historic place attachment in Leonardtown. There are nearly 70 shops and services in a 9,000 sq. ft., 2-story mini-mall. If you are looking for a cold beverage, there is the Brudergarten Beer Garden and brewery.
A short drive from Leonardtown is Historic St. Mary’s City, the site of Maryland’s first capital. At the water’s edge take in a pristine view that Lord Baltimore would have recognized. Step onboard the Maryland Dove, a reproduction tall ship that brought the settlers to the New World. In the town center tour a mercantile stocked with (reproduction) items every colonist coveted and visit the forbearer of the modern motel. Help run a printing press and learn why the first printer south of Boston worked here. Visit the Woodland Indian Hamlet, discover the Godiah Spray Tobacco Plantation, and many more adventures.
St. Mary’s County is renowned for their working museums. One is a few miles from Leonardtown on the Potomac River. Piney Point Lighthouse was built in 1836 located at Piney Point just up the river from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse in 1964 and it has since become a museum. It is known as the Lighthouse of Presidents because several early US Presidents visited or stayed on the grounds. The lighthouse was built in 1836 and had a range of 10 nautical miles. The lamp was replaced in 1855 with a Fresnel lens upgrading the range to 11 nautical miles. The federal government deeded the property to St. Mary’s County in 1980 and in 1990 the Museum Division of St. Mary’s County Department of Recreation and Parks began to renovate the grounds.
The exhibits at the museum focus on the lighthouse, the United States Coast Guard, the Piney Point area and the story of the Black Panther U-1105 German submarine sunk in the Potomac that now serves as a shipwreck dive preserve. The Potomac River Maritime Exhibit displays four historic wooden vessels in a separate building. Visitors can climb the lighthouse tower when the museum is open for operation.
At Coltons Point, Maryland is another historical property. Here are located the St. Clement’s Island Museum, a lighthouse and a Catholic devotional monument to the miraculous medal. Boat service at times carries visitors the short distance to the shrinking, uninhabited St. Clements Island, the first landing of settlers. It is on these grounds where the annual Potomac Jazz and Seafood Festival will be held. The event is three days beginning July 9th in Leonardtown. Look for the ad in this issue for the exact times and dates.
There is so much more to St. Mary’s County than I have covered here…Point Lookout Park where the Potomac meets the Bay, Sotterley Plantation and Stoney’s at Clarke’s Landing on the Patuxent River in Hollywood, Maryland. If you are looking for a southern Maryland experience and great seafood, Stoney’s is it. Tell them the Old Town Crier sent you!!