Bay Journal

Chappelear’s may be gone, but fond memories still feed the soul

  • By Kent Mountford on April 01, 2004
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Francis and Katherine Chappelear ran Chappelear’s Place, offering wholesome food at modest prices in a friendly atmosphere. They will be missed.  (Ruth Ann Schlagel) This is what remained of Chappelear’s Place after its destruction during Hurricane Isabel in September 2003.  (Kent Mountford)

“It’s happened too recently for us to...we’re having a hard time talking about it.”

— Ruth Ann Shlagel

Inns and roadhouses have figured throughout Chesapeake history. Maryland’s first hotel was established when Dutchman Garrett VanSweringen installed fireplaces, chimneys and a kitchen in the abandoned council chambers of the Colonial Assembly after the new State House was built at St. Mary’s City. Members of the Colonial Assembly could book lodgings in advance. VanSweringen’s “Coffee House,” constructed between 1660-66, was located in an adjacent outbuilding.

Smith’s Ordinary, also in St. Mary’s City, provided competition.

Rumney’s Tavern was established later at London Town on Maryland’s South River. This establishment, located near a ferry crossing, flourished during the village’s heyday trading with Bermuda. (See “London Town being constructed from the grounds up,” December 2003).

What is rarely understood with clarity is how these formerly prosperous businesses, once integrated into the fabric of their communities, met their end. Archaeologists may find broken crockery, a lost piece of silver or glass or buried food remains that hint at once-steaming kettles and trenchers heaped with food. There might even be written accounts, references to an important visitor lodged during a court case or a “receipt,” the word for recipe in past centuries. But the spirit of the place, along with the hopes and dreams of the innkeeper, are rarely preserved.

Some facts are known. Smith’s Ordinary burned down in 1676. When VanSweringen died (his will appears in 1698), he had been in business more than 30 years even though Maryland’s Capitol had been moved to Annapolis. Rumney’s Tavern fate, and that of London Town itself, was decided when the village was denied the lucrative port-of-entry status for the tobacco trade.

Inns reminiscent of these roadhouses, sometimes operating on the same footprint or structure as their forebears, still persist around the watershed: Union Hotel on the lower Susquehanna above Port Deposit, Middleton’s Inn at Annapolis, Gadsby’s at Alexandria on the Potomac, Port Royal Inn on the Rappahannock, Sewell’s Ordinary near Gloucester Point on the York. But all are only modern restaurants which trade, to some extent, on memories from the past.

Up the Patuxent River, about 17 miles from its mouth at Solomons Island, lies the small Charles County hamlet of Benedict. This settlement was the western terminus for a ferry between Charles County and Hallowing, or “hollering” Point in Calvert County. (The Patuxent was about a half-nautical-mile wide at that point, and one would holler for the ferry, thereby avoiding a horse or wagon ride of about 52 miles up to Hills Bridge [now Route 4] and back down to Benedict.) The ferry deposited its passengers on a road that eventually passed through Bladensburg and onto Washington, D.C. Benedict figured briefly in history as landing site for the British expeditionary force that marched on and burned Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812.

In the early 1930s, the Chappelear family, which had followed the water from Benedict for two generations, opened a small restaurant on the Patuxent riverfront. Francis and Tom Chappelear were watermen until they and their triplet sisters enlisted in the Army during World War II.

When Francis returned from duty in the Pacific Theater, he was offered a job at the Washington Navy Yard. Three weeks there in a structured work situation was all too reminiscent of the military, and he returned to follow his true love, the river.

In the mid-1940s, he met a pretty waitress named Katherine at New Market in nearby St. Mary’s County. They were soon married and had a son. In 1951, their first daughter, Ruth Ann, was born.

The year 1951 was also a special year for Benedict; pressure for easier automobile access to Southern Maryland led to the opening of a toll bridge to Hallowing Point. For a dollar a trip (very pricey in those days), motorists no longer waited for the single-car barge ferry.

A number of Benedict residents followed the water, gill-netting rockfish, taking white and yellow perch, and oystering on productive beds opposite the town. The bridge also enabled these Patuxent watermen to transport their seafood more easily to larger markets.

Families, such as the Messicks, Welches and Shorters, stayed in the business for decades.

Chappelear’s restaurant—where some sandwiches cost just 10 cents—prospered until 1954, when Hurricane Hazel swept up the Patuxent and put them out of business.

Nearby Hughesville was a center for Southern Maryland’s annual tobacco auction, its warehouses accepting thousands of tons of “prized” (tobacco that is pressed and tightly packed) leaf for grading and public auction throughout most of the 20th century.

Many of the tobacco buyers stayed in a row of tiny cabins, set about 15 feet above the river on its terrace at Benedict during the auction time. Capt. Harry Shorter, who owned an old wooden frame hotel nearby, built these for visiting anglers and hunters, but the tobacco clientele had money—even during during hard economic times—and these cabins were eventually known as the “tobacco shacks.”

Captain Harry and his son Harry Junior, later put up a two-story brick motel, offering slightly more modern accommodations. They also managed a popular restaurant on the water—with slot machines in the early years.

The Shorters opened a small oyster packing plant with a walk-in refrigerator set on pilings over the water’s edge, filling it with shellfish they had either harvested themselves or bought from local hand tongers. Shorter’s and Chappelear’s Patuxent River oysters had a good reputation among the scores of brands then competing for market share around the Chesapeake Bay.

Francis and Katherine Chappelear decided the economy could support another restaurant and about 1956 built Chappelear’s Place, which was raised on pilings half out over the river. Although it was across the street from their dwelling, Ruth Ann says the restaurant was more of a home than the family house for her and younger sister, Betty Mae. Katherine cooked all of the family meals there and the kids would do their homework in the kitchen while the business prospered in the adjacent rooms.

In the early 1960s, the Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCo) announced plans to construct a large power plant on the Patuxent at Chalk Point, a few miles upstream from Benedict.

Construction workers and their families moved to Benedict, a short commute from the power plant location. Properties were snapped up all over the region as highly paid workers flooded in to meet the proposed plant’s construction schedule. Chappelear’s little restaurant, offering wholesome food at modest prices in a friendly atmosphere, prospered.

In 1963, PEPCo retained Dr. Ruth Patrick, director in the Department of Limnology at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, to look at potential environmental effects on the Patuxent. She rented part of Shorter’s motel, turning it into a small field laboratory. That small laboratory, soon two then three, then eight persons strong, grew over the next decade into the Benedict Estuarine Research Laboratory with 20 scientific staff. These included a plankton biologist hired right out of graduate school in 1971 named Kent Mountford.
The laboratory was next door to Chappelear’s Place and their prices were so modest, it was just not worth packing a lunch most days. A bowl of homemade ham and bean soup, a grilled cheese sandwich and iced tea cost all of $1.85. (In 2003 the soup alone, still a Chappelear’s tradition, was $3.50…C’est la vie!). My staff and I got to know the town through this little restaurant.

By this time, Chappelear’s was sustained by regulars coming in at lunchtime from Prince Frederick, Calvert County’s seat.

Their catch-of-the-day fish sandwich was a popular lunch item, and the river still supplied plenty of peelers for soft-crab sandwiches. The picked crab meat went into their Maryland crab soup.

Katherine—a lovely woman, vivacious and younger than her years—was the real force behind the restaurant. She was always generous to young lab staffers who ran short of cash between paychecks. She allowed them to simply put a guest-check under a box by the register and run up a tab until they had the money. A few left their jobs and did not own up, so the lab director made it a part of each employee’s “check out” to touch base with Chappelear’s Place.

There was also a well-patronized bar, which Francis tended, with regular clientele stopping after work to tip a glass and talk with him. Francis was always there, it seemed, smiling behind the bar. Some suggested that if he’d not been there holding it up from his traditional and comfortable position, the end of the bar would have collapsed.

Waitresses were perennials from the surrounding area, and a cook who had worked there for 40 years was succeeded by her own daughter.

The family had an old dog, Jake. Although Jake had lost one of his front legs in an unsuccessful contest with someone’s car, he still got around pretty well, and was sometimes known as Tripod. The dog, who was unfriendly with strangers, was loyal to Francis, and would bounce along on that one front paw, following him out to the dock, or across to the house. He lay most of the time by the restaurant door, sleeping in the dust and heat of Maryland summer, awaiting his master’s pleasure.

Francis, a gentle, quiet man, put out fish on his dock and slowly tamed one of the resident great blue herons. Almost a family pet, it was named Johnny. The bird would walk, carefully picking his way and placing each step on the planks, almost to the restaurant to get a share of leftover food. Fransis took great satisfaction in that trust. Some fool, probably drunk, shot Johnny and he flew off wounded, and was not seen for a long time. Eventually he returned but would never approach closely again. The trust was broken.

Benedict lies on an exposed shoreline beaten by gales from both the northeast and southeast. Over the years, there were major storms that destroyed boats and damaged houses. Ruth Ann said that every half-decade or so, the restaurant would sustain damage—mostly to the pier—from one of these gales. Most recently in October 1996, a storm from the southeast forced them to close until New Year’s Day, 1997.

I left Benedict in 1978 and did not return until April 2000, when the EPA assigned me as on-site science coordinator in its effort to contain and clean up a huge oil-spill on the Patuxent near the Chalk Point Power Plant.

It offered an opportunity to visit Chappelear’s again. It took Katherine awhile to remember me after 20 years, but soon her smile spread, “Oh! Now I remember.” The bean soup and grilled cheese were as good as ever. Francis, who was sick, was not there.

A stray cat, Clyde, had adopted Francis and was his favored companion, dining exclusively on fresh Patuxent River fish. He was very distressed in August 2000 when Francis died. But Katherine took Clyde under her wing, continuing his special diet, until her health failed and she passed on in December 2002.

The family tradition was to continue. Ownership stayed in the Chappelear family, with a lovely granddaughter of the founder serving lunches and one daughter—Ruth Ann—continuing as co-owner. “We just loved the people.” she said. Meanwhile, Barbara Jean Cullember, the cook who had succeeded her mother, continued to put out classic local cuisine for 25 years.

With rockfish back in abundance around the Chesapeake, Chappelear’s two-fillet fish sandwiches were described as “monstrous.” While prices had risen over the years—the top of the menu was $17—there was still an entree for $2.75!

Chappelear’s Place seemed on the verge of a new lease. On Aug. 22, 2003, the headline over “Around Town,” a column in the Prince Frederick Recorder, read: Chappelear’s: 75 years of very delicious dining delights.

Only 26 days later, on Sept. 18, Hurricane Isabel swept across the Chesapeake. Tides were very high; plus, the winds swung around into the southerly quadrant and redoubled in force. In southerly winds, the Patuxent offers a long fetch for wave heights to build; virtually all of the 13 miles from Point Patience. Waves normally measured in inches rose to destructive heights measured in feet.

Ruth Ann said friends gathered as light faded that September afternoon, bringing in lumber to stiffen the old place and helping to carry some memorabilia up to the family house on higher ground. They cooked a big dinner in the restaurant for all who helped that evening. They left at 7 p.m., carrying Clyde with them, when water began coming over the floors.

As the river rose under Benedict’s many docks, waves pounding from below delivered blows stout as sledgehammers. Nails pulled and boards were stripped away by the thousands. The boards that came up at Chappelear’s Place were the floor of the restaurant; its chairs, tables, serving counters, the underpinnings of sinks, refrigerator and bar were heaved up, spouting saltwater into what had been comfortable, familiar rooms.

When Ruth Ann checked about 8 p.m., water had risen to the height of the windows. Things rolled and tumbled, dropped into the water, and were swept out of the restaurant. Electrical outlets were submerged and ruined in the salt water.

When she attempted to return about 10 p.m., trees had blown across the road and she had to detour to reach the village. Water was over the windows, one wing of the building distorted; windows burst from the torque, spilling broken glass into the melee. Upright support for the roof and walls wavered, and when the front collapsed, twisting down with rending of wood and metal, shingle and siding, Ruth Ann knew Clyde had had the last of his fresh-fish diet. Order was reduced to ruin, and Chappelear’s Place was dead.

Isabel was destructive Baywide. Thousands of trees, some dating from the 19th century, were felled and killed. Hundreds of millions of dollars of damage was inflicted on homes, piers and boats. But as damages were repaired, the storm passed into memory, and attention shifted to a severe winter, school closings and ice on the tributaries.

Now that the spring winds again come up the Patuxent, and gray forest twigs and branches burgeon misty green across Maryland woodlands, there are many who wish that it could all go back to a time before this great storm, and that Chappelear’s Place could again make noon time and evening a special homegrown treat in little waterfront Benedict.

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About Kent Mountford

Dr. Kent Mountford is senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kent Mountford

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