Miss Alice leaned on the deck rail at the water’s edge and talked about her husband.
“He wasn’t one to splurge,” she said. “He liked to travel, go a lot of places.”
She gazed around, wondering what Levin F. Harrison would think of the business these days. Since his death 12 years ago, it has grown to what the family says is the largest charter boat fleet on the East Coast.
“It has changed,” she said. “I keep thinking of my husband. If he could see now what it’s like.”
Alice Harrison, known as Miss Alice, is the 86-year-old matriarch overseeing Harrison’s Chesapeake House, a rustic country inn and charter boat fishing operation on tiny Tilghman Island, where she was born and raised.
She travels to the Caribbean and might spend a month or two in winter at her daughter’s place in Florida, but she always comes back to Tilghman, once a thriving town that included a bowling alley, seafood packing houses, a doctor and undertaker but now is little more than a village with some old-timers, the elementary school she attended and the encroaching development of summer homes overlooking the Chesapeake Bay.
Miss Alice also watches over three subsequent generations: her two children, their four boys and two great-grandsons. Her son, Levin F. (Buddy) Harrison, runs the business and is largely responsible for its expansion from 20 rooms to 73, the addition of a bar and growth from one dining room to three.
There’s a deck on the lawn at the water’s edge. The 15 boats include the Lady Alice, named for Miss Alice, and Beaudacious, named for her first great-grandson, Levin F. (Beau) Harrison V.
Executives come from all along the East Coast for a day or two of charter fishing. Couples come for romantic weekends. And the locals from the Eastern Shore come for the family style dining at the inn.
Any Harrison able to work is involved.
Buddy Harrison and his son Bud run the fishing fleet in Tilghman. Buddy’s wife, Bobbie, is general manager of the inn; Bud’s wife, Leslie, works there. Harrison’s other son, Chuck, runs the family’s restaurant in Baltimore, along with Harrison’s sister, Sondra McGee. McGee’s sons, Devin and Dickie, also work there.
The Harrisons own an oyster packing house on the island. And Harrison said they own about 40% of the property on the 3 1/2-by-1-mile island.
Miss Alice said she would have been disappointed if her children had not followed in the business.
“I wanted it to be for the simple reason that when you work a business up from nothing . . . you don’t want it to go out of your hands. You want your family to be a part of it,” she said.
Her father-in-law started the business “in the horse and buggy days,” Miss Alice said. When the steamboat from Baltimore docked, he would meet the guests “and bring them up in the buggy, and they would stay sometimes the entire summer. They had the old rail out front to hitch the horses to.”
She and her husband took over when his parents died.
Before he died, Miss Alice’s husband told her, “Don’t get in Buddy’s way” when it comes to the business, and she doesn’t. But she hasn’t exactly taken a back seat.
She pointed to a chair and table in the middle of the lounge and bar area and said that’s where she feels most comfortable. “I can see everything that goes on in the dining rooms and everything in the kitchen.”
“I’m not just sitting here just to sit,” she said. “I’m sitting here to watch and see that everything’s going all right, see that they’re taking care of the customers.”
Miss Alice, taught to cook by her mother, has been working in the inn’s kitchen since she married into the business at 27.
The menu consists mostly of her recipes, and she does most of the seafood dishes and baking, starting about 8:30 a.m. Her specialties are crab cakes--with a little mustard and the lumps of meat intact--stewed tomatoes, Southern fried chicken and a black forest cake that takes six hours to make.
“All of this has been years and years of Miss Alice working with food, and as the business has grown, her recipes have grown too from what the original menu was,” said Buddy’s wife, Bobbie. “Her niche and her art are with food and all these recipes have become a result of that.”
“Appearance means everything, taste. If you listen to her, she’ll learn you a lot,” said Lorraine Tucker, who’s been working in the kitchen for 12 years.
Miss Alice has shown the staff “a hundred times” how to make pie crust, but none can top hers.
“I think it’s in the touch,” she said. “I think you have to know what that texture is to make a good crust. I’ve been doing it about 60 years. It’s all in caring.”
After a day in the kitchen, Miss Alice often joins guests on the porch for small talk. Or she holds court at her table in one of the dining rooms. All the while, she keeps an eye on the staff.
Miss Alice said her secret of life is hard work.
“I think that is what keeps a person going. You know if you get up in the morning and you have no goal to reach, you have nothing. You wonder, ‘What am I going to do today?’ I think as long as you can keep going, it keeps you alert. Keeps your mind active, your body also,” she said.