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A Broad Reach: 50 Years of Collecting opens May 23 in St. Michaels

Chesapeake Bay ferryboat captain Daniel G. Higgin’s uniform hat and jacket will be presented to the public for the first time in the exhibition A Broad Reach: 50 Years of Collecting, which opens on both floors of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s Steamboat Building on Saturday, May 23, 2015. Details are at www.cbmm.org. Digital image by David W. Harp © Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
Chesapeake Bay ferryboat captain Daniel G. Higgin’s uniform hat and jacket will be presented to the public for the first time in the exhibition A Broad Reach: 50 Years of Collecting, which opens on both floors of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s Steamboat Building on Saturday, May 23, 2015. Details are at www.cbmm.org. Digital image by David W. Harp © Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

With artifacts ranging from gilded eagles to a sailmaker’s sewing machine, a log-built bugeye to an intimate scene of crabpickers, A Broad Reach: 50 Years of Collecting is a new major exhibition of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum that will open to the public on Saturday, May 23, 2015, when the museum hosts a festival to kick off its year-long 50th anniversary celebration with Party on the Point: Celebrating 50 Years on the Bay.

A Broad Reach features 50 significant objects that have been accessioned into the museum’s collection over the past 50 years, and will be accompanied by a commemorative catalogue available for purchase that features photographs of each collection piece. Presented on both floors of the Steamboat Building, the exhibition continues through February 28, 2016.

The exhibition is generously underwritten by museum donors and 50th anniversary corporate partners, including PNC Financial Services Group, American Cruise Lines, Benson & Mangold, Chesapeake Shipbuilding, Easton Utilities, Fairfield Inn & Suites Easton, Graul’s Market, Guilford & Company, Higgins & Spencer,  Patriot Cruises, Tidewater Inn, and the Vane Brothers Company. CBMM’s 50th anniversary partners include the Academy for Lifelong Learning, St. Michaels Art League, and Christmas in St. Michaels.

“The challenge of whittling down a small selection of outstanding highlights from a collection containing 60,000 objects, manuscripts, historic photographs, and more was both monumental and delightful,” said CBMM Chief Curator, Pete Lesher. “Objects and images were unearthed with white gloves from their protected places in storage, with each assessed for its meaning, beauty, and relevance. In selecting these objects, we looked for objects representing the full breadth of the collection and our mission.”

A Broad Reach: 50 Years of Collecting will feature those objects with the richest stories to tell, from a humble fire axe to a buxom figurehead. Some will be arresting, some will be transcendent—all will explore the Chesapeake and its changing environment and culture over the last 50 years. Some of the objects in A Broad Reach represent bygone Chesapeake trades that have all but disappeared in recent years.

A sailmaker’s bench, representing the art of traditional, hand-crafted sailmaking, is one of those. Oxford, Md. native Downes Curtis learned sailmaking as a youth from the town’s old English sailmaker, David Pritchard. When Pritchard died, his African-American apprentice, Curtis, took over the business. After rescuing most of his tools from a 1943 fire, Curtis moved his shop to the town’s former black schoolhouse, where he continued working until his death in 1996. Curtis built sails for some of the area’s best racing yachtsmen, including a number of log canoe sailors.

While much of his work was done on his sewing machine, Curtis used his sailmaker’s bench and hand tools for specialized jobs, like working a cringle into the corner of a sail. Curtis’ tools and equipment remind us of the artisanry and skill developed by maritime craftsmen during the years when spirited recreational sailing competitions on the Chesapeake Bay kept sail lofts humming with sewing machines.

Of course, those sails also required boats— hardly a rarity in the working Chesapeake during the early 20th century. The museum maintains the largest collection of indigenous Chesapeake Bay boats in the world, some of them still maintained afloat, so several are represented in the exhibition.

With pretty sterns that looked like motor racers, dovetail boats were designed in the early 1900s to accommodate gasoline engines. Martha was built by Bronza Parks in 1934 for $350, and named for the owner’s daughter, Martha Lewis. The vessel was used for oyster tonging and trotlining for crabs. A familiar sight in Dorchester County, this type of boat has many nicknames, and is also referred to as a ducktail, draketail, torpedo-stern, or Hoopers Island launch, after the island where it originates. Although Martha was undoubtedly a boat that worked hard, her elegant, long lines and beautifully-finished details make her an exceptional addition to the exhibition, representing a perfect marriage of form and function.

The Chesapeake still supports commercial fisheries and the workboats that service them, but some of the stories told in A Broad Reach are of industries and traditions that are now part of the bay’s past. Chesapeake ferries, once an essential component of regional transportation for thousands, are a perfect example. Stories of the Chesapeake’s ferries evoke the connections among people across the bay over time, but also about the way the bay can isolate the Eastern Shore.

Until the Chesapeake Bay Bridge opened in 1952, the Chesapeake Bay Ferry System connected the opposite shores of the bay. Daniel G. Higgins Sr. started working for the ferry in 1919, and three years later—at age 30—became the youngest ferry captain, wearing a blue wool hat and coat as part of his uniform. Higgins, the senior captain on the ferry system in its final years, was allowed to choose which boat he wanted to captain. Higgins elected to command the smallest and slowest boat in the fleet, Gov. Emerson C. Harrington II, which, although not the most prestigious vessel, ran a route to his tiny hometown of Claiborne, Md.

The Chesapeake has been a functional highway for transportation and industry, but its gentle landscapes and wide rivers have also acted as a muse for artists, musicians, and authors for hundreds of years. One of the exhibition’s most beautiful objects reflects the Chesapeake’s ability to inspire and evoke creative emotions. In 1897, Baltimore businessman Hunt M.R. Thom had a logbook custom made for his new 42-foot naphtha yacht. Throughout the summer of 1898, he cruised the Chesapeake Bay with prominent members of Baltimore’s artistic community. Eleven of these artists—including Phillip Boileau, Hugh Nicholson, and Irving Ward—contributed drawings or paintings to Thom’s log, inspired by the Chesapeake Bay and sights of their cruise. Poignant, funny, or sometimes just lovely, Thom’s logbook bears witness to the incredible depth of human sentiment stirred by the Chesapeake’s changing scenery.

From a jewel-like logbook to a rough wool uniform, simple objects can convey volumes about the Chesapeake Bay’s people, places, and culture. A Broad Reach: 50 Years of Collecting will feature these stories and more, exploring the evolving way the Chesapeake Bay continues to define our art, our lives, and our legacy.

Entry to the exhibition and festival is free for museum members and children under six, or $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and students with ID, and $6 for children 6-17. To become a 50th anniversary corporate sponsor, contact René Stevenson at [email protected]. For more information, follow CBMM on Facebook or visit www.cbmm.org.

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