Greg Alexander

Sweet Caroline: Hidden Gem on the Eastern Shore

Mason-Dixon Arrive, May 2008

As the temperature begins to rise and summer beckons in the distance, the call of the Bay Bridge begins, urging us to head south, cross the bridge and explore the Eastern Shore. And while hot spots such as Ocean City, St. Michaels, Rehoboth and Easton may seem like natural ports of call across the Bay Bridge, there’s another destination that should be on your itinerary, a more rural, quieter location where you’re urged to slow down, yet still packs enough attractions in its boundaries to keep you busy for days. Denton, located along the Choptank River, and the surrounding towns in Caroline County, is this aforementioned place, located just 60 miles from Baltimore and perfect for a day – or weekend – trip.

I spent two days recently in Caroline County, and wish I had more time, as there was plenty to keep me on the go. I arrived in the historic district of Denton after a quick and easy trip from Baltimore to find a charming downtown dotted with gorgeous historic homes, including The Bryant-Todd House Inn, built in 1880 by prominent attorney Joshua Bryant and now a bed and breakfast run by Ray and Mary Claytor. The inn features two guest rooms, a charming sitting room where we enjoyed wine, cheese and crackers and a formal dining room where a hearty breakfast is served. The Claytors also are converting the rear carriage house into a spacious suite where families or groups gathering for a getaway can stay.

After getting settled, we wandered downtown and decided to stop in The Lily Pad for lunch. The charming café is located in The 1883 Schoolhouse building, a Gothic Revival building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was operated by the Women’s Club of Denton until last year. Historic classroom photos adorn the walls, and the menu is filled with tempting sandwiches and salads. I opted for the special – a California Chicken Salad Wrap, which was packed with chicken, apples and grapes, but no matter what you choose, the generous portions are sure to satisfy.

After lunch, we headed over to Hidden Acres Farm, located close to downtown and home to the “Gentle Giants,” the Clydesdale horses. I have been to many horse farms, but rarely have I ever been to one so immaculately kept, and if you think that those Clydesdales you see in the Budweiser ads look impressive on television, wait until you see them close up. These gorgeous creatures are so gentle and kind, yet their impressive size – check out their enormous hooves with the signature white hair draping over them – made me stand back at first until co-owner Sharon Marvel guided me over to them. As with everyone I met during my trip, Sharon, who runs the farm with her husband Gary, was kind, gracious and ready to share her enthusiasm for the Clydesdales with me. The couple’s 50-plus acres of land hosts a 25-acre working farm, 30 acres of horse pasture, a dining hall where civic groups or family reunions can be held and an enormous barn that holds the beautiful carriages that are used for weddings, funerals and parades. (And if that doesn’t keep them busy enough, Sharon also drives the bus for the local school district.) “We have seven Clydesdales and the public is welcome to drop by and see them. We can also arrange for tours and carriage rides if booked in advance,” says Sharon, who adds that the couple has had the Clydesdales since 2002. The couple also takes in rescued and injured Clydesdales and helps them recuperate. “All the horses live together, except for the injured ones. Clydesdales like to be around each other, and when it snows, they dance,” she says, her love for the horses very apparent. Testifying to the horses’ incredible size, Sharon points out that each horse consumes about 16 pounds of grain and 30 gallons of water each day.

Weddings are particularly in demand, as the white, elegant carriage the couple has evokes a Cinderella feeling for the bride. Hidden Acres also has a handicapped-accessible carriage that can be pulled by Clydesdales. In addition, Gary and Sharon also bring the Clydesdales directly into the area nursing home so that residents can pet them, a testament to the horses’ gentle nature.

After finally tearing ourselves away from our new 2,000-pound friends, we made our way north to Schrader’s Bridgetown Manor, a 25,000-plus-acre hunting club that offers everything from whitetail hunting to archery to sporting clays. As you enter from Oakland Road, the three-story Manor House waits in the distance as you make your way to the office. Owner Ken Schrader welcomed us and explained that what makes Schrader’s unique is that there is something for every level of hunter. Whether you’re a seasoned hunter and want to experience the first-class shooting facility or go on a dove, waterfowl, deer or turkey hunt with a group (there’s even a kennel onsite if you want to bring your hunting dog), or you’re a novice who has never picked up a gun before in your life, there’s fun to be had.

I have never been much of a hunter myself, but Schrader’s welcoming demeanor and incredible depth of knowledge makes anyone feel at home. “This is our 26th year, and we started with goose hunting and then added turkey, whitetail, bass fishing and sporting clays,” Schrader says, as he gave us a tour of some of the property. The one-mile long sporting clay course also hosts a five-stand miniature course, great for beginners to try out the sport. Schrader says the course constantly changes to keep it fresh, and it can be customized for the experience level of the shooter. “The indoor simulator station is our newest venture for the archery enthusiast. Guests bring their own bow and we provide a specialized tip. Then, they shoot toward the projector screen, and we can customize it for whatever type of game they want us to show. The great thing is that it shows you where you hit the animal and gives you tips on how to shoot better. We also have a laser gun where guests sit in a chair and shoot at the screen, which is great for the physically handicapped.”

The Manor House, built in 1989, has 11 rooms, a library, living room, kitchen and porches, and Schrader says many corporate clients, bachelor parties or groups of friends will rent out the Manor House and make the property their home for a few days. “We have lots of women shooters now and once we did a wine tasting at the Manor House for a group,” he says.

Next, we headed to the southern edge of Caroline County to Preston, home of the historic Linchester Flouring Mill, one of the last water-powered mills on the Eastern Shore. The mill, which has not been used since 1979, has stunningly not been changed much since the 1680s. One step inside – you must call first to tour the mill – and you’re transported back to simpler times. Michael McCrea, who is leading the restoration effort, led us around the Linchester campus, which also includes historic mill houses, some of the 37 historic homes the Caroline County Historical Society has purchased via grants in order to save and restore them. McCrea, a fascinating guy who after many years of operating a restaurant and inn now dedicates his energy and time to the mill, says that a one-room schoolhouse on campus is also being planned where local school groups can come learn about the mill, the environment and the history of the area. “We also have a music and arts festival each year with a different music theme; this year’s festival on June 7 will feature gospel and blues music,” he says, as he explains how the railroad there was once the passage way for Baltimoreans making their way to Ocean City.

Inside the mill, which was featured on Charles Kuralt’s CBS Show “On the Road” in the 1960s, old scales, hopper bins and wickets are marked, and McCrea says that what’s amazing about Linchester Mill is that it would not take much to actually get the mill working again as it was built with such care and skill. After leaving the mill, McCrea showed us his home, the historic brick Leverton Home, named for Jacob and Hannah Leverton, white Quaker abolitionists whose home was a major stopping point for the Underground Railroad. Standing on the banks of Hunting Creek and looking at the home, the visual effects are remarkable – close your eyes and you can almost see Harriet Tubman (who was born in nearby Dorchester County) assisting other slaves toward free territories. (Caroline and Dorchester Counties have put together a “Finding a Way To Freedom” Driving Tour; a map can be downloaded from Caroline County Office of Tourism’s Web site.)

After a busy day, we dined that night at Harry’s at the Goldsborough House in Greensboro. The large purple and black home was once the home of Judge Laird Goldsborough, who helped draft the constitution of the Philippines and served with Theodore Roosevelt at the battle of San Juan Hill. The elegant restaurant offers fine dining with steaks, lamb, game and fresh Chesapeake seafood dotting the menu. The charming staff – including Harry himself who we met at the bar – and the restaurant’s exchange program with French chefs make this a must-stop.

After spending the previous day in the car, the following day we decided to ride our bikes using the county’s well-marked cycling maps. The 24-mile route took us through vast farmland and quiet roads void of traffic. We also stopped at the Adkins Arboretum, a 400-acre native garden and preserve in Ridgely. Walking along the wooded paths and tranquil streams, we utilized the audio tour to learn more about some of our state’s native plants. (I also never knew that poison ivy actually has a positive use – birds dine on its berries.)

That night we checked out the Emerson House for dinner, a project of the Chesapeake Culinary Center, a grass-roots non-profit organization that offers culinary arts education to high school students. Project Manager Beth Brewster explained to us that many of the students are at-risk students who go on to such prestigious schools at Johnson & Whales University in Rhode Island. The prices are incredible affordable (where else can you get two fist-sized crab cakes for $21?) and deliciously prepared. It’s BYOB, so bring your own wine and the staff will gladly uncork it for you. Besides the great food, you also leave knowing you’ve helped a worthy cause.

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