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Shaping History: The past and future of a Tilghman Island “W” house

Sep 14, 2016 08:00AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Kathi Ferguson

The Lee House, the grand old “W” house that sits back from Tilghman Island Road a half-mile south of the Knapps Narrows Bridge, has a long history on the island and has become a focal point for telling the stories that have made this narrow strip of land legendary. Restored and beautifully renovated after standing vacant since 1971, it is now the permanent home of the Tilghman Watermen’s Museum, which had been operating from what used to be the old barber shop just down the road.

Founded in 2008 by Tilghman residents Hall and Mary Kellogg, the museum’s primary purpose is to capture the stories and experiences of the watermen before their way of life disappeared. “What was once a thriving watermen’s community, was changing into a retirement community,” explains Hall. “Mary and I felt the need to preserve theirs and the island’s heritage and culture in a way that could be passed on through the years.”

“When we began our collection, it was primarily audio and video of the stories and experiences of the watermen,” Mary adds. “The collection, donated by locals, has grown significantly to include art, boat models, and other items connected with the watermen and the island.

Recognizing the need for additional space to display these many treasures, the Museum acquired the Lee House in 2010. “When the opportunity presented itself to purchase this historic home, we jumped at the chance,” says Hall. “The Lee House represents something unique to Tilghman Island, as do the watermen and their way of life. It’s the perfect place to display our collection while keeping this unique home alive.”
The two-and-a half-story frame house represents one of roughly 12 of its kind built in the area between 1890 and 1900, remaining very much in its original configuration. There are only five left, all currently occupied. Locals will tell you that the “W” shape design allowed for air flow to be equally and continually distributed throughout the house no matter what direction a breeze may be coming from, a welcome feature in the days before air conditioning. One could also claim that it stood for “Welcome” given the allure of the historic home’s design.

The homes are built in a style that is representative of vernacular architecture—a category of architecture based on local needs, construction materials, and local traditions. Their eye-catching form actually follows an “L” shape or ell (the wing of a building is at right angles to the main structure) with two gable-roofed sections of equal length placed perpendicular to each other. From their intersection projects a three-sided central entrance with a front porch extending from it. The structure is set so that the angle of the two sections and the entrance projection form the main facade, thus resembling the letter “W.”

Typical of many houses on the Island, the Lee House was named after its original owners. The Lee family, who owned the home during the early 1900s, was said to have resided there until sometime in the 1930s. The house was inherited by area resident Leona Garvin Harrison and it soon became a part of “The Elms,” a popular and successful island fishing party resort. (The Elms included the property adjacent to the Lee House.) “Miss Leona,” better known as “the grande dame of Tilghman Island,” ran the resort and decided that the Lee House would serve well as a boarding house, taking in any overflow guests.

The Lee house could comfortably sleep up to twelve people and a day of fishing would cost $25. For an additional $5.50 guests enjoyed a full breakfast, a packed lunch, and a true family-style feast for dinner. “Meals were prepared and served in the main house since there was no working kitchen in the Lee House after it was turned into a boarding house,” says long time Tilghman resident Rose Garvin. “I used to help out on weekends serving meals, and let me tell you, they were hearty!” Common on the dinner menu according to Miss Rose were The Elm’s famous Crab Imperial, fried chicken, roast beef, and crab cakes always accompanied by sliced tomatoes, corn, and staff Chef Theodore’s freshly baked bread. After dinner and a long day on the water, guests would head back to the Lee House to play some cards, exchange stories, and call it a night.
As times began to change and more and more people purchased their own boats, the demand for the fishing party properties began to wane. The Lee House closed as a boarding house in 1971. In 1984 the house was passed on to Ms. Leona’s daughter, Shirley, and was later inherited by Shirley’s son John and daughter Barbara in 2000.

Located in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, Tilghman Island was ideally suited for the then thriving seafood industry and summer tourists enjoyed the pleasures of hunting and fishing. The late 1800s marked the beginning of prosperous times for Tilghman Island. Seafood processing enterprises began springing up after parcels of land had been sold to oystermen in the area. Oyster dredging took off and the watermen were quick to join in. Steamboat service was then established and selling oysters to Washington and Baltimore grew very profitable. As a result, boat-building became an important business, as well as blacksmithing, fishing, oystering, and farming.

In the 20th century, Tilghman’s prosperity continued. Tilghman Packing Company employed hundreds of workers—up to 700 in its prime. The island had four villages, four post offices, three schools, multiple churches, several stores, a bowling alley, a movie theatre, and eight gas stations. Dozens of skipjacks and bugeyes made the Island their home until the decline of the water industry brought changes to Tilghman. By the end of the century the Packing Company had closed and the property was developed into a residential community.

Following 18 months of thoughtful renovation, Tilghman Watermen’s Museum officially called the Lee House “home” in June of 2015 and is now uniquely identified by a sign that was once the rudder of island skipjack Kathryn. Built in 1901, Kathryn was a working Tilghman boat for more than 40 years,” Hall says. “The museum’s name was hand-carved by local waterman Bobby Marshall using wood from Kathryn’s trailboard and mounted on the sign.” (Trailboards are a pair of boards that may be found at the bow of certain sailing vessels where they run from the figurehead to the back. Often bearing the name of the ship, they may be more or less elaborately carved and painted.) “Hall and I have a commitment to keeping things local,” Mary adds. “We have a wealth of talented business people here and if you are investing in the Island, you should be drawing from those resources as much possible.”

Other than some mandatory changes nearly everything about the house is original, including the impressive heart pine floors. The chimneys have been rebuilt and any salvaged bricks are being saved for future use. All of the outside doors were replaced (for security reasons) and the interior doors have all been redone. “We were able to keep the original windows and decided to install new storm windows on the inside using one double pane sheet of glass for each, so it is aesthetically pleasing to look at as well as efficient,” Mary explains. “The shade of yellow selected for the exterior mimics what was found after scraping through layer upon layer of paint, and the green trim matches a piece of old shutter we found on the property. Overall, I think we have succeeded in maintaining the integrity of the house.”

Upon entering the Museum, visitors are greeted by several dedicated volunteers eager to explain the expanding collection, pointing out the “water business” displays throughout the first floor. Located just off the main entry to the right is a room dedicated to the late William E. Cummings, a waterman and self-taught artist who painted entirely from memory. In each detailed work, Cummings has recreated the scenes common to those who grew up on the Island and worked the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. “Without the Museum, it is very unlikely that a talent such as Bill’s would be recognized,” Hall points out.
Stories of the life on the water continue to be told through the eye-catching stair landing seen en route to the second floor. Custom made from individual blocks of end cut pine, the wood was taken from the kitchen floor of well-known local shipwright John B. Harrison. “John Harrison built boats on Tilghman during the late 1800s and lived on neighboring Gibsontown Road,” explains recently appointed museum curator Jim Moses. “The people who bought his home several years ago decided to give the wood to the Museum, as it would have been very costly to restore. Hall actually combed through barrels of these blocks to find ones that would fit, soaked them, and painstakingly removed the nail from each one.” “We are very pleased with the way it turned out,” says Hall. “And if you look closely, you can see that those wood blocks are from the very heart of the tree. Trees would come in really big and be cut down for the boards John needed to build his boats. He would end up with the core and cube it out, using it not only for the floor of his boats, but in his residence. We think it is quite possible that one of those trees ended up on the floor of Harrison’s bugeye (oyster boat) the Edna E. Lockwood, which is now being restored up the road at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.”

The Island’s abundant history is highlighted in the displays found upstairs. Moses points out that the historical piece of the Museum’s collection is still evolving. “The key for us is to ensure that everything here ties in with the watermen and events of the past,” he says. “As part of our future planning, a primary goal is to make Tilghman Watermen’s Museum a resource for education. One of the ways we hope to achieve that is by working with other area organizations such as Phillips Wharf Environmental Center on various programs and projects.”

In recent months the Kellogg’s have decided to step back from the daily administration of the Museum and pass it on to the community. “Fortunately,” says Mary, “the organization is well funded, making its sustainability very manageable and we could not be more pleased. Through this effort Hall and I have watched our vision become a reality by getting to know the remarkable people here and hearing their amazing stories. We now have a way to let the rest of the world know what a special place Tilghman Island is.”

The future of Tilghman’s historic Lee House is indeed a bright one, remaining a part of the island’s rich history, pride, and way of life—and its shape won’t have changed a bit.