Dick Cooper - February 2010
Time-Honored Book is a Must-Read for
Come-Heres and From-Heres
W. Hulbert Footner was an author, playwright and explorer of far-off places. He traced the remote rivers of western Canada, traveled the world as a celebrated novelist and was a featured writer for Field and Stream. But one of his most enduring works took him on an extended journey to one of the more isolated areas of the continental United States – the Eastern Shore.
“Rivers of the Eastern Shore: Seventeen Maryland Rivers” by Footner was published in 1944, the year he died. It was the twenty-fifth book in the famous Rivers of America book series that produced 65 books from 1937 until 1974 with well-known writers and artists featuring waterways across the country. (Andrew Wyeth illustrated the book about his beloved Brandywine river).
“Rivers of the Eastern Shore” has remained in print ever since, an amazing feat for a book about a relatively small section of a vast country. Footner was not content with describing the rivers and the people who live along them. He dug into the history of the region, good and bad, and took time to examine some of the more famous legends.
Part of the book’s longevity is spelled out in the publisher’s blurb.
“Today, each new arrival to the Eastern Shore – a ‘come here’ [from somewhere else] – gets his or her copy of this time-tested Footner learn-how-to manual to guide them directly to the heart of the ‘land of pleasant living.’”
I came across the book shortly after my wife, Pat, and I relocated to St. Michaels from suburban Philadelphia. I was working on a story about the Calhoon M.E.B.A. Engineering School and was asking about the history of the land on the banks of the Miles River. One of the officials at the school told me about the book and that Footner featured one of the historic homes on the property.
On a rainy Saturday, Pat and I were browsing the shelves of the Unicorn Book Store in Trappe. I asked owner Jim Dawson if he knew the book and without missing a beat, he walked over to the Maryland History section and picked a vintage copy off the shelf. When I opened the book, I was greeted by a two-page illustration of St. Michaels harbor in the 1930s by Baltimore artist Aaron Sopher. Sopher’s line-drawing style captures landmarks including the Victoriana Inn and Eagle House. Sopher (1905-1972) took an artist’s liberty with the placement of the steeples of Christ Church and St. Luke’s, but he captured the charm of the town. Sopher’s work also graced the pages of the Baltimore Sun, and his cartoons were published in the New Yorker.
In his opening chapter, Footner reminds readers about the various times that the Eastern Shore was the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and more than six decades ago wrote what sounds like a current theme.
“The people of the Eastern Shore believe that their country is again sinking under the sea and point to various evidences to prove it,” he writes. “The banks of rivers and the Bay shores are washing; the islands are going fast. Some islands have disappeared altogether within the space of recorded history.”
His description of the lay of the lands sets out a quick word picture.
“Today, the Eastern Shore comprises a peninsula shaped roughly like a bunch of grapes. It hangs down from a stem in the north, where only a few miles of land separate the waters of the Delaware from the Chesapeake, spreads in a wide shoulder, and tapers off to a point at the south.”
According to various biographies, Footner was born in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1879. As a young man, he tried his hand at acting in New York, but was not very good. Like so many who have failed to make a living in their chosen profession, Footner turned to journalism, writing for newspapers and magazines. In 1918, he published his first crime novel, “The Fugitive Sleuth.” He cranked out two novels a year from then until his death, many of them with the word “murder” somewhere in the title. One thing that made his books stand out in the gumshoe genre was his enlightened use of women as his detectives and Watsons.
Footner could see the Eastern Shore from the Calvert Cliffs near his western shore home, but in the late 1930s and early 1940s it might as well have been Russia. Travel between the towns and villages of the Shore was easier by water than by land.
He showed his familiarity with the waters of the Chesapeake when he wrote, “winds and tides have shaped a shoreline fantastic in the number of its islands, rivers, bays, creeks, sounds and straits; in a sailboat one could spend the vacations of a lifetime in exploring its convolutions.”
Footner takes the reader up and down the tidal rivers. “There is a strange music in the sound of the Indian names: Pocomoke, Wicomico, Nanticoke, Choptanks.” He takes his time to stop at great houses and small hamlets to let the locals tell their history. He spends some time with William Claiborne, who set up a trading post on Kent Island in 1631, and Col. Edmond Scarburgh, a mass murderer of Assateague and Pocomoke Indians.
He gives background on place names. Snow Hill, he writes, “was founded in 1686 by some settlers from Snow Hill, a suburb of London. No hill rises in the Maryland town, but a little snow falls there.” He also notes, “They have their own peculiar ways down there; they wish to run their own affairs and deeply resent outside interference.” As a case in point, he retells the story of the 1931 murder of a local white family. Euel Lee, a black man accused of the crime, had to be jailed in Baltimore County because officials were afraid a local lynch mob would kill him before trial. When the mob could not get to Lee, they beat his Baltimore lawyer. (The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Lee’s first conviction because there were no blacks on the jury. He was convicted after a second trial and hanged in 1933.)
The chapter about Oxford tells of the grandeur of the town in the 1700s, when it rivaled Annapolis as a center of commerce with eight British merchant firms based there and hundreds of ships clearing customs in the town. He writes about the high society life and the selling of human beings on the decks of ships at anchor off the village. By the 1790s, the boom had gone bust. At the time of this visit, Footner found a quiet village, “one of the most ingratiating on the Shore ... and the fame of its lively site and fine air bring many summer visitors.”
In another fascinating, long-lost story, Footner journeys up the Choptank to Two Johns Wharf, named for two rotund Vaudevillians who made it their summer home in the 1880s. “All summer, while the theatres were closed, the Two Johns held high revel beside the Choptank.” The good citizens of Denton were taken aback by the thought of actors living so close, some even coming from New York, via steamboat from Baltimore. To ease the tension, the Two Johns hired a steamboat and brought a load of Dentonians to their wharf for a free show.
“After a few years, the Two Johns, like all such jolly Bohemians, went broke and disappeared from the scene, leaving only the memory of scarlet threads in the sober texture of Caroline life.”
Working his way north, Footner stops in St. Michaels. “At St. Michaels the two main elements of the Shore, the aristocratic planter and the waterman, meet and fuse.” Here he dismisses St. Michaels’ most cherished legend as “the Town that Fooled the British.” In his account, Footner writes that when the British attacked in August 1813, most of the militia at the fort at Parrott Point fled, leaving Captain Dawson and two other defenders, one white, one black. As the British were coming ashore on what is now Riverview Terrace, the defenders fired one shot from their overstuffed cannon. The British hightailed it back to the barges and exchanged cannon fire with the town. The legend has town residents putting lanterns in trees to trick the British gunners into overshooting the shipyards and houses. “No contemporary account speaks of such a ruse,” Footner writes.
He moves up the Wye River to tell stories of wealthy, landed families with the flare of a screenwriter plotting out a soap opera.
Historians caution that Footner’s accounts should be taken with a grain of salt. He clearly likes a good tale, and his novelist’s style would never let a few facts stand in the way of a good story.
As a “come-here,” I found “Rivers of the Eastern Shore” to be thoroughly entertaining and informative. While the language is quaintly dated, the book captures the essence of the Shore and gives it a true sense of place.
Dick Cooper spent 36 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, and in 1972 won the Pulitzer Prize for General Local Reporting. He and his wife, Pat, live and sail in St. Michaels, Maryland.