If St. Michaels is sometimes considered the Ocean City ofTalbot County for its summer traffic and commercial orientation, then tiny Oxford may be its Rehoboth. Far quieter than its northern cousin, Oxford possesses a grace and charm that St. Michaels sometimes lacks. It's these qualities that have made Oxford fans of many world-weary Western Shore urbanites, including former game show host and Nixon speechwriter, Ben Stein.
Boom and bust
Oxford was founded in 1683 and served as a busy, vital port in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its earlyresidents included Robert Morris, Jr., known as the "financier of therevolution" and Col. Tench Tilghman, Gen. George Washington's aide-de-camp.
While Morris, Tilghman and their brothers-in-arms helped drive the British from the colonies, their success actually hurt the town. After the revolution, trade with England dwindled and Oxford's importance as a port declined.
This boom and bust cycle was repeated approximately a century later, after the Civil War. The then-prosperous seafood industry, fed by the bay's seemingly endless supply of oysters, brought some bustle back to Oxford before it waned in the early part of the 20th century.
These two periods of prosperity are reflected in Oxford's architecture.Victorian gingerbreads coexist with colonial brick and clapboard homes throughout the town.
History buffs will want to hit the Oxford Museum, which displayshistoric photographs as well as farm and watermen's implements in a building that once housed a soda fountain. Down beside theferry dock, a replica of the 1787 Oxford Customs House is manned byinformative docents who will be able to answer many questions about the town's three centuries of history.
But Oxford is far from a history museum. Today, approximately 800 residents live on the town's seven-block-long peninsula between Town Creek and the Tred Avon River. A few still make their living off the bay as watermen or by working in one of Oxford's five marinas. But many are urban refugees, who have found a peaceful retreat with some surprisingly cosmopolitan shopsand restaurants that reflect their tastes.
"The '70s was when it really started to change," says Eddie Cutts, Jr.,who moved with his family from Long Island to Oxford in 1965. Now in his mid-50s and running the family shipyard on Town Creek, Cutts has few regrets. "It was a great spot to grow up."
Equal opportunity water
For those of us not lucky enough to live where every streetdead-ends at the water, theOxford-Bellevue Ferry offers a popular gateway to the town. It isbelieved to be the nation'soldest privately owned ferry (like the town, it traces its roots to1683). The 10-minute crossingmakes a nice nautical interlude for day-trippers and a shortcut to andfrom St. Michaels. Youcan even leave your car in Bellevue and cross on foot, as Oxford is an ideal location for a walkabout.
The ferry deposits you at the foot of Morris Street. To your left you'll see The Strand, a collection ofsome of the town's most stately homes.
The beach located in front of this strip of impressive dwellings is opento the public. Unlike much of the Chesapeake Bay's shoreline, Oxford offers a number of ways to access the water withouttrespassing. The town boasts three public beaches, two along The Strandand a third in a tree- and swingset-filled park on Morris Street.
Oxford's array of shops is also welcoming. The Oxford Mews offers a little bitof everything "nonessential" as its sign proclaims. This includescookbooks, sweatshirts and canvas bags.
Those looking for some historical treasures will want to stop in the nearbyAmericana Antiques,for its impressive collection of American furniture, paintingsand silver from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
On the other side of the peninsula, Silent Poetry displays local art,china and crystal in aconverted home. Just around the corner is the Crockett Bros. Boatyardwhose ships' storecaters mostly to the yachting set but does stock some things of interest tolandlubbers, including T-shirts, books and painted Oxford plates.
Serious boat lovers will find much to ogle at Cutts & Case. Theshipyard, run by the Cutts family since the mid-1960s, is today acenter for wooden boat building and restoration. But with prices beginning at around $70,000 for a small, customsailboat, you might have to satisfy yourself with just looking.
Picnic tables and white tablecloths
If you're hungry, continue the nautical theme with some seafood atSchooner's Landing. The bar and restaurant offers a waterside deck from which diners can watch passing boats. The menu and surroundings are unpretentious, "We wantto reflect that you're eating off a picnic table, not a white tablecloth," says part owner Don Smith.
Pope's Tavern occupies the spot that Pope's Treasures antique shop use to in the Oxford Inn on the edge of town.
For fine dining, nearby Mathilda's is run by the husband and wife teamof general managerJorge Alvarez and chef Emily Harris. This intimate bistro which seats36 turns outgourmet dishes like seared tuna loin with goose liver and a horseradishmustard sauce as part ofa rotating menu that changes every two weeks. Latitude 38, at the edgeof the road to Easton, is another favorite of those seeking some epicurean fare.
The Robert Morris Inn, once home to one of the revolution's biggest financial backers, is best known for itscrab cakes, which "Chesapeake" author James Michener called the best on the Shore.
Finally, for do-it-yourselfers, picnic fixings including wine and icecream are plentiful at the Oxford Market. To eat alfresco, just collect your goodies and cross Morris Street to thevillage green and its small beach.
A room with a view
Oxford's charms can be beguiling. If one day isn't enough to get yourfill, both the Oxford and Robert Morris Inns offer rooms in the $100-$200 a night range. A more luxurious option is the Combsberry Bed and Breakfast. For $250-$400 anight, guests in the inn's seven rooms enjoy an English-style country estate built in the early 18th century.
Another romantic spot lies closer to Oxford's core. The Sandaway Lodge is run by the Robert Morris Inn, but offers an alternative experience. It is a grand, Dutch colonial complex at the town's northwestern tip. Here, on two green acres with a private beach, guests can feel like latter-day Jay Gatsbys and Daisy Buchanans,sipping cocktails as the sun dips toward St. Michaels.
With only eight or so miles of marsh and river betweenthem, Oxford and St. Michaels are close siblings. Oddly, though, whileOxford has done less of the growing, it feels moremature.
From the generosity of its public beaches to the graceof its shaded streets, Oxford is comfortable as it is,and is a welcome place to take refuge from aworld forever trying to become something else.