A Shore Thing

Photographer Mark Edward Atkinson shows us some of his favorite people and places on the Eastern Shore, a place where sea and sky converge in a burst of color and where the daily rhythm of hard work is rewarded in repasts.

Photos and story by Mark Edward Atkinson

Here’s what most people seem to know about the Eastern Shore: There is a big toll to pay, and it’s a little hard to get to (being still rather remote); watermen ply their trade in the always awe-inspiring waters of the Chesapeake Bay; and of course, wild ponies make a swim there once a year. What I know is that the folks who live here aren’t necessarily interested in encouraging broader thinking. They worry that their secrets might get out and their paradise could be ruined.

I understand a little bit of what they’re talking about. I live in Virginia Beach, but six years ago, my business partner and I bought a house on the Shore, in Onancock on the bayside in Accomack County. It needed a lot of work, and that gave us a chance to get to know some of the people and places here. I’ve learned a lot in these last few years, and I can tell you that it is a special thing to get to hear Clarence Giddens, who was born and raised on the Shore, perform as Black Elvis; that the toll for the 23-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel is worth it because driving that narrow expanse of suspended concrete at sunset reduces all manner of stress; and that here, farmlands and small towns and fishing villages seamlessly blend, one postcard into another.

A more thorough history of the area can be found at the Ker Place Museum, an exquisite Federal-style mansion and home of the Eastern Shore Historical Society in Onancock, or in Eastville where the oldest continuous county court records in the U.S., dating from 1632, can be seen (there’s rarely a line). But, this is what I see when I am here, spending my time exploring back roads.

I’ve met people like Furlong Baldwin, whose family has lived at Eyre Hall in Northampton County for 13 continuous generations since it was built in 1760—one family of many who are keepers of the area’s deep history. And 80-plus-year-old Bob Rittenhouse, who runs the 13-room Rittenhouse Motor Lodge in Cape Charles with the same enthusiasm he had when he built and opened the place in 1961. It’s beautifully set just off the highway, surrounded by mature azaleas, a creek trail and tall pines. A bucket list kind of spot. Its simple rooms are counterbalanced by the new and modern Hotel Cape Charles in the center of town, where glass balconies look out over the harbor and everything is just a walk away.

To the north, in Onancock where my home is, I’ve met Johnny Mo, the guitar-playing chef at Mallard’s on the Wharf in the old Hopkins General Store, and Gary Cochran and Charlotte Heath whose 8-room Charlotte Hotel is fussed over and charming, with furnishings made by Gary and botanical artwork crafted by Charlotte. It is home to one of the best little bars in America, really.

Then there is Amy Brandt, a well-known chef who ran a place called Lucky Star in Virginia Beach for years and then moved to the shore, where she now has a fabulous stand-alone kitchen adjacent to Eyre Hall. She caters events there, cooking and canning with the bounty from the vast fields all around (the summer wheat is extraordinary).  

These people live in a place where the salt-grass low country of the barrier islands is pristine and still largely undeveloped. And between the ocean and the bay, this intriguing mix of young and old whom I have come to know make their own stories, sharing some of them with me.

For more information about visiting the Eastern Shore, go to ESVATourism.org

This article originally appeared in our August 2014 issue.

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