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Getaway to Tangier Island: Crabs, History, and the Mighty Chesapeake

Our region is in large part defined by the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Although we in D.C. live a bit inland from the Bay itself, we still benefit from its bounty, such as blue crab feasts, seafood at the Maine Avenue Fish Market, and excursions along the shore.

But while you live in the area, it’s worth getting a total immersion into the richness and culture of the Chesapeake Bay.  To do so, take a weekend and head down to Tangier Island, located 12 miles into the middle of the Bay.  In order to get to Tangier, you must take a 1.5 hour ferry ride from either Reedville, VA or Crisfield, MD (each about 3 hours away from D.C.).  While there are day trips to the island, that option gives you only about two hours until the ferry turns around and comes back, so I’d highly recommend spending at least one night to really get a feel for the place.

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The island is comprised of about a thousand acres, only about a hundred of which are actually inhabited (the rest being marsh).  About 500 people live on Tangier, and since no cars are allowed bikes and golf carts are the main forms of transportation.

Tangier has an important place in American history.  Pocomoke Indians inhabited the island for many years before Europeans including John Smith arrived.  It is also historically significant because it served as the staging ground for British troops during the War of 1812.  And interestingly, to this day, residents speak in a dialect that linguists believe is very similar to the English that European settlers spoke when they first arrived in America.

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The best part of Tangier Island is the crabs and observing the economy and culture that has been built up around them.  According to locals, about 75 percent of our country’s soft shell crabs (those that have just molted out of their old shells and are soft and squishy all over) come from the area every year, and it also provides a significant amount of hard crabs, oysters, and even eels that are sold to markets in New York and other places around the country.  Because the economy is built around the crabbing, it has a feeling very similar to a New England fishing or lobster town, with little changed over the last century.

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One of the must-do activities during your visit is to take a tour of a “crab shanty,” the structures on the water around the edge of the island where watermen tend to and harvest soft shell crabs.  Because the crabs harden again within a few hours of molting, the watermen must immediately ready them for packaging and shipping, meaning that they work around the clock.

The island is not much built up for tourism quite yet, which is part of its appeal.  There are three bed and breakfasts (I stayed at the Bay View Inn, which was lovely), a couple of ice cream/sandwich places, and a few gift shops.  The three restaurants which are open for dinner (one of which has a last seating at 5pm) sell mostly an array of crab-based fare, including crab cakes, soft-shell crab sandwiches, and crab bisques.  It’s worth mentioning that the island is dry, so bring your own alcohol and be discreet about it.

crab roll

Other activities to do on the island include taking in the small yet chock-full Tangier History Museum, kayaking in the marshes to see the myriad of shorebirds (including glossy ibis and black skimmers), and biking to the beach to see a sunset.

Tangier Island is truly a step back in time, and a glimpse of how and why the Chesapeake Bay is so important to our region and its economy, ecology, and shared history.

To visit:  Ferry once daily from Reedville, VA (May-October) or Crisfield, MD.  Various bed and breakfasts, as well as vacation rentals.  Go during the summer, as very little is open during the winter.

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Science for Big Kids—The Koshland Science Museum

Not only does D.C. play host to many museums about uncommon topics (think the National Museum of American Jewish Military History or the National Postal Museum), many organizations located here also offer contributions of the museum variety. Take, for example, the Koshland Science Museum, which is the official museum of the National Academy of Sciences.

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One thing right off the bat—although “science museum” may conjure up happy moments of your youth where you played with magnets and looked at cells under microscopes, this museum is decidedly not for kids.  Which in my opinion actually makes it more unique, worthwhile, and interesting.  It also is a welcome refresher to the fact that many adults don’t feel comfortable in museums designed for kids, prompting one writer to allege (with statistics and other evidence) that “science museums are failing grown-ups.”

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Which brings us to the Koshland, whose mission is to “use science to solve problems.”  It is quite small, in that it just has a few exhibits.  But these exhibits are on big topics and also use super snazzy technology to pull you in.

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The biggest exhibit featured at the Koshland is on global climate change.  “Earth Lab:  Degrees of Change” focuses on the causes of climate change, environmental issues, and solutions to them.  Other exhibits include those that focus on the human body and immunology.  One of my favorite things to do at the Koshland was play around with the high-tech and flashy interactive exhibits, especially those that included videos about light pollution and dark matter.

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It’s quite notable that the Koshland is backed by and based upon the research of the National Academies.  The National Academy of Sciences (whose sisters organizations are the National Research Council, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine) was created by Congressional charter in 1863 to be an independent science advisor to the government.  This is all to say that the topics and research put forward that are presented at the museum are of some of the most rigorous and cutting-edge out there.

The Koshland is designed to expose the public to scientific research, which is useful, considering that these topics are often mired in ivory tower jargon and are fairly unapproachable.  And in an era where science is becoming increasingly politicized, it seems like this kind of place has never been more necessary.

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To visit:  525 E Street NW, (202) 334-1201, hours are 10am-6pm every day but Tuesday, adults $7.  Gallery Place/Judiciary Square/Archives metro stops, or lots of buses.

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American History Through the Lens of the Mail: the National Postal Museum

The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum is one of the most interesting and unique museums in our city.  On the surface it houses a history of the postal service throughout the centuries, but more deeply it is an American history museum, telling the story of our country by way of its letters, mail, and press.

 

Your journey through the museum begins along the path of the first mail route in the nation—the undeveloped road between New York and Boston that was used for mail service starting in 1673.  Mail carriers along the route would make notches in trees to mark the path through the woods and wilderness of the northeastern U.S.  As the mail system developed over the colonial years, it became intricately linked with the politics and feelings behind the revolutionary war.  Control of the mail system by the British was one of the first obstacles for colonial resistance to overcome, as only Loyalist postmasters who read all correspondence were employed, and many postmasters would not deliver revolutionary newspapers.  Eventually an independent post was developed, becoming another sore spot between the British and rising resistance.

 

These facts are only the very beginning of the relationship between the mail and U.S. history.  Other portions of the initial historical exhibit are dedicated to war time mail and the changing postal service as the nation expanded west, and the importance of railroads and other forms of transportation not only to keeping settlers informed but providing incentives for them to stake claims in the territories.  Interestingly, I learned that the Pony Express was actually only in service for less than two years, despite its romantic portrayals in westerns.

 

Mail has been transported in many ways throughout history—horse, stagecoach, riverboat, dogsled, skis, trucks, airplanes, and others.  Changing transportation methods of course revamped the face of the mail, and the museum has many life-sized methods of transportation (like mail truck and planes suspended from the ceiling) that serve as a jumping off point for this subject.

 

In addition to the exhibits featuring U.S. history, the Postal Museum has a very large collection of stamps and displays about stamp collecting (or philately, for those not in the know).  I had no idea there was so much to stamp collecting—it’s not just about the stamps themselves, but their irregularities, first editions, and special issues.  This is particularly interesting given the fact that stamps have only been around in the United States since 1847, and since 1840 in England.  Currently there is a wonderful exhibit celebrating 15 years of the National Postal Museum called “Alphabetilately” that describes in great detail the art of stamp collecting.

 

Today, the U.S. Postal Service delivers 200 billion pieces of mail every year, and 40% of the world’s mail passes through the U.S. postal system.  While the National Postal Museum looks at the history of our mail service, it is humbling to realize that we are still a part of our country’s history being made.  It is a very fine museum and well worth the visit.

 To visit:  2 Massachusetts Avenue NW, (202) 633-5555.  Open everyday 10am-5:30pm except Christmas Day.  Located just steps from the Union Station Metro.

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Following the Road to Women’s Equality at the Sewall Belmont House

DC is full of museums for various historical niches, like the National Postal Museum and the Anacostia Community Museum.  One of the finest and most unique is the Sewall Belmont House and Museum, which is dedicated to preserving the history of the fight for women’s rights and suffrage in America.

Sewall Belmont is located in a regal old mansion on Capitol Hill that served for many years as the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party.  NWP was founded in 1917 in order to strongly advocate for women’s suffrage by endorsing candidates and politicians who supported it and withholding support from those who did not.  The heroine of the movement, especially after the deaths of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the early 1900s, was Alice Paul, who devoted her entire life to women’s rights and equality.  Paul lived in the Sewall Belmont House after it was donated to the cause by a wealthy and eccentric member of the NWP, Alva Belmont.

Tours of the museum, which just re-opened after extensive renovations, are self-guided and should take about an hour.  The downstairs potion features marble statues and beautiful paintings of important figures in the women’s movement, as well as a detailed history of the tactics NWP members took part in such as letter-writing campaigns, protesting, and hunger strikes in jail.  In the early days, they fought for the 19th Amendment, which passed in 1920.  Later, NWP members strove to pass the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which has not passed to this day, despite being introduced in every session of Congress.

The upstairs rooms are the locations for short-term exhibits, which when I visited was the fight for women’s rights during World War I.  Sewall Belmont has a good relationship with the Woodrow Wilson House (another excellent museum) as well as other museums in the city, so the traveling exhibits are quite good.  One of my favorite items on display in the house is a set of laminated lobby reports that NWP lobbyists filled out religiously in order to keep track of how members of Congress were on their issues.  It’s quite enlightening to see the volunteers’ scrawled or typewritten notes, including those for members that were against their cause; indeed, one reads that the Senator was opposed because “women already have enough rights”!  The effort that went into this cause was astounding, especially when large-scale advocacy campaigns were not the norm like they are today.

One of the best parts of Sewall Belmont is its role in continuing the fight for equality.  Modern-day female politicians are featured in exhibits, and examples of inequality that remain today—did you know that there have been 270 female members of Congress, but that that represents only 2.1% of members ever elected?  Sewall Belmont is an excellent place to visit to gain insight not only into the history of the fight for equality in America, but into its future.

To visit:  144 Constitution Avenue, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  (202) 546-1210.  Wednesday-Sunday, 12-5pm.  Metro to Union Station, or 96 bus.

**Special thanks to local photographer and graphic designer Katie Campbell for the photographs featured in this post!  Please visit her new and improved website!

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The Woodrow Wilson House: A Proper Residence for a President

In a city as obsessed with Americana and the significance of the presidency as Washington, DC, it is surprising that it has only one museum completed dedicated to a president:  the Woodrow Wilson House, where our 28th president lived the final three years of his life (1921-1924).

A lovely mansion in between Dupont Circle and the West End, the “Washington’s only presidential museum” is both a tribute to Wilson and his accomplishments as a statesman, and a well-preserved glimpse into the private life of a family post-World War I.

The Woodrow Wilson House contains a number of rooms that remain intact as they would have been at the end of Wilson’s life, even though his wife Edith Wilson lived there for another 37 years.  Some of the best parts are artifacts in the house are from the early 1920s, such as a graphoscope with which the family recorded home videos, a large zinc sink that were apparently quite common in houses of the era, and a beautiful, gigantic stove that the house actually had to be built around!

Also of interest are state gifts and other items related to the Wilson presidency (in those days presidents could keep state gifts rather than giving them to the American public).  The home is filled with gorgeous art and meaningful artifacts, including a Gobelins tapestry from the people of France and a shell that was the first artillery fired by Allied forces in World War I.  My guide told me that 90% of the items in the house are original, and I imagine part of the reason for this serious care and attention to detail is that the house is owned and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The only way to tour the house is to take a guided tour, which are not scheduled but offered on an impromptu basis.  Instructions for visiting are to ring a doorbell, and a guide adds you to an existing tour or takes you on one right then and there.  I was very impressed by the docents/tour guides and their knowledge of President Wilson, his family, and the home.  My tour guide actually asked if we could do part of the tour again because she didn’t get to go into enough detail the first time!  This personal approach to museum-ing is quite a luxury, when one is used to being part of the mass of hundreds of thousands of visitors to every Smithsonian every year!

If you are looking for a unique museum experience that will likely contain much more interesting information that you planned for, look no further than the Woodrow Wilson House.  And I will leave you with a piece of trivia to impress your friends and visitors:  Wilson is also the only president to be buried in DC, at the National Cathedral.

To visit:  2340 S Street NW, 202-387-4062, admission ~$10.  Open 10 am – 4 pm, Tuesday – Sunday.  Easy walk from Dupont Circle metro or the 42 bus line.

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