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Scenic route offers escape for holiday shopping
It's early December, a time when the "to-do list" often trumps the "want-to-do list" and chronic sufferers of holiday angst shudder at the prospect of so many shopping errands and so few parking spaces.
There is a way to escape this annual madness. Many ways, actually. In the time it takes to reach the mall, park, shop and stand in the cashier's line, you can be well on your way out of town for a leisurely day of sightseeing while gift shopping.
Any number of destinations in Maryland offer the opportunity to enjoy new landscapes and to purchase handmade gifts, from white oak baskets in North East to antique decoys in Salisbury to Mennonite quilts in Western Maryland.
At some locations, visitors can observe as a craft is made as well as steep themselves in the history of that craft and related folkways. With a little sleuthing, daytrippers can also find state parks, museums, restaurants and other nearby attractions close to their shopping destinations.
Here are several suggestions for shopping adventures beyond metropolitan Baltimore. This is by no means a definitive list -- craft centers, studios, galleries and seasonal shows featuring traditional and modern wares can be found in profusion throughout Maryland and surrounding states.
In an unassuming way, the Day Basket Factory in North East is a remarkable place. Here, smooth, functional and beautifully simple oak baskets have been produced since 1876. There are bushel baskets and pie baskets, berry baskets and firewood baskets. All are woven on site from Maryland-grown white oak that enters the workshop as logs that are planed, steamed and stripped to make thin, supple splints.
The wooden basket molds and tools used to fashion the baskets are as lovely in their stolid way as the finished products themselves. Visitors are welcomed into the factory workshop, where they can see and touch these tools.
They can also watch as Karen Jackson prepares and weaves each basket, then sands and trims it to splinterless perfection. The entire process typically takes three days, she says.
Because of their authenticity, many of the baskets are sold to historic sites for wood storage, gardening chores and other period necessities. The baskets, sturdy and durable, are signed and dated.
Bob Friedrichs bought the basket factory more than four years ago, when it was teetering on closure. "It's something you have to like to do. It's not for the money," he says.
Basically, the company's basket design hasn't changed in over 100 years, Friedrichs says. When the workshop burned to the ground in 1946, a longtime employee, Walter Hall, re-created the basket molds from memory. Hall retired in 1969 at age 90, after 80 years with the company.
A scrapbook for visitors summarizes company history and, over the century, how Day baskets were used in everyday life. Most intriguing to me were the conical eel pots used when eel fishing was once a common local livelihood. Original eel pots made by the Day company can be found at the nearby Upper Bay Museum, a treasure trove of waterman artifacts.
Baskets range in price from $25 for a small basket to $120 for a firewood basket. The baskets are made and sold in the back of an expansive antiques mall, where shoppers may also find furniture, art and trinkets.
Day Basket Company: 714 S. Main St., North East
Take I-95 north to Exit 100. Follow signs toward North East and merge onto Route 272 (Main Street.)
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Must see: Upper Bay Museum; 410-287-2675
Scenic place for moderately priced lunch: Nauti-Goose Saloon; 410-287-7880
As they perfected their art, Steve and Lemuel Ward, brothers and barbers from Crisfield, set the Eastern Shore standard for handsome and strikingly realistic duck decoys. The museum founded in their name, the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, features an exhaustive collection of decoys created for different North American flyways, as well as realistic masterpieces created specifically for the Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition.
Unlike many museum gift shops, the Ward's shop, managed by the country living conglomerate Orvis, doesn't just sell T-shirts and the usual knickknacks. Casual shoppers and serious collectors alike can find authentic decoys, those made by living masters as well as primitive antiques that wear their age with a proud patina.
A stroll through the museum itself is an illuminating preface to shopping. Amid recorded birdcalls and marsh grasses, the history of the Eastern Shore's hunting traditions, from ancient times until today, is told in the context of the region's way of life. Enormous punt guns, photographs, illustrations and reproductions of American paintings allow full immersion in the shore's marshes, tributaries and the Chesapeake Bay itself.
A room devoted to the Ward brothers conveys the strong sense of regionalism that sets the Eastern Shore apart from the rest of Maryland. A poem, written by Steve Ward and on display, also reveals how wonderfully quirky these carvers were. It goes, in part: "I'm just an old has been decoy ... my sides and head are full of shot."
All the more reason to visit the gift shop, where a fair number of these poor old (and not-so-old) has-been decoys are for sale, several of them duplicates of those in the museum collection. An old pair of canvas-covered widgeons for $250 caught my eye as did a whistling swan decoy used in the Susquehanna Flats circa 1900.
Prices are reasonable, but be prepared to spend some money for a quality decoy. A pintail hen carved by George Bell, a protege of the Ward Brothers, sells for $200, while a pair of miniature goldeneyes by Charles Jobes of Havre de Grace costs $75. New decoys carved by contemporary Maryland artists are also available.
A show and sale, Traditional American Crafts, continues at the Ward through Jan. 5. Prices range from about $26 for earrings to thousands of dollars for a Japanese-style carved wood table.
Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, 909 S. Schumaker Drive, Salisbury University, Salisbury
Take Route 50 to Salisbury. Make a right on Beaglin Park Drive. Museum is at the intersection of Beaglin and Schumaker.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Lunch by the marina: Brew River Restaurant. 502 W. Main St.; 410-677-6757.
More shopping options: For zany local crafts, try Chesapeake East, 501 W. Main St.; 410-546-1534.
A trip to Western Maryland late in the year fairly guarantees a change of weather as well as a change of scenery. It's a region accustomed to lots of snow, though, and the roads are well tended. Check the forecast but don't be deterred by flurries. Once past Hagerstown, a pioneer spirit kicked in as we set out to explore a rural landscape that feels as much like a part of the past as the present.
Our first destination was Penn Alps Restaurant and Craft Shop in Grantsville, founded in 1957 by Alta Schrock to highlight the crafts and traditions of the Allegheny Highlands and to provide a means of support for country people.
The Penn Alps compound was formed around the only existing log hospitality house built on Route 40, the National Pike. The shop itself offers an enormous selection of goods, from locally produced jams and jellies to quilts, rag rugs and sturdy toys and furniture.
The local Amish and Mennonite influence pervades the shop. There are cloth dolls with little black bonnets, and "Old Order Amish Country Candles" shaped like loaves of bread. There are framed silhouettes, delicate creations snipped by hand, as well as black cherry wooden bowls -- a sleek alternative to the shop's emphasis on "cute" crafts.
Prices fluctuate as well. A crocheted napkin ring fetches $3.60 while a braided rug can cost $630.
Wreathes, ornaments and other Christmas decorations are also in ample supply.
The Penn Alps shop also offers a large selection of local history publications, including the Journal of the Alleghenies, The Casselman Chronicle, family histories and idiosyncratic titles such as Memories of the Wife of an Itinerant Methodist Preacher. Fishing guides, cookbooks -- need a recipe for filled pig stomach? -- and spiritual writings also fill the shelves.
On our visit, the Sunday buffet at the Penn Alps restaurant was well attended by the after-church crowd. A woman wielding an electric carving knife sliced lamb, beef and ham. The rest of the buffet reflected regional food with bowls of pickled eggs, beets, a cheesy spaghetti casserole and a bewildering display of cookies, pies, tarts, puddings and breads.
After lunch, we lumbered through the Spruce Forest Artisan Village, which in season hums with the energies of a variety of craftspeople. This time of year, only the weaver and the soapmaker stay open.
The artisans will return this Friday and Saturday for Christmas in the Village when visitors may see them at work in their log cabins, attend concerts and behold a live nativity scene.
On the far side of the village, we crossed a historic stone arch bridge built over the Casselman River in 1813. Then, we turned further west.
Penn Alps Restaurant and Craft Shop, and Spruce Forest Artisan Village, 125 Casselman Road, Grantsville
From I-68, take Exit 19, turn left, then right in Grantsville on Route 40. Continue east one mile.
Craft Shop hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
By the time we reached Deep Creek Lake, en route to the Simon Pearce glassblowing factory and store in Oakland, fat flakes of snow were falling -- and sticking to the fields and hills.
We skirted the lake and soon turned into an industrial park where the former Bausch & Lomb facility now houses Simon Pearce. Inside a decidedly uninspirational building, we found a luxurious sampling of glassware, pottery, table linens and "wooden-ware" serving implements.
Simon Pearce items are pricey (a glass goblet costs $58) but ideal for those with simple, elegant tastes. A "seconds" display offers discounted prices for imperceptibly flawed pieces.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Simon Pearce experience is being able to watch the glass blowers at work. For 20 minutes we were mesmerized as two workers executed a masterful pas de deux as together they created a candle holder from a molten glob of glass at the end of a blowing pipe.
It was a long, long day, to be sure. But it flew by much more quickly than three hours at the mall.
Simon Pearce: 265 Glass Drive, Mountain Lake Park
Take I-68 to Exit 14. Stay on Route 219 to Route 135 to Glass Drive on the left.
Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Other diversions: Explore Deep Creek Lake State Park (301-387-4111) and visit the Farmer's Market on Route 219 in Oakland for "Amish wedding food" and old-fashioned treats (301-334-9146).
Places to stay: Travelers to Western Maryland may choose to stay overnight. For information on accommodations, call the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce: 301-387-4386. Or visit www.garrettchamber.com.