The Chesapeake Bay gave Kelley Phillips Cox a childhood of unlocked doors and bare feet. As a young girl growing up on Tilghman Island, it enveloped her in a tight community where the men hunted Chesapeake seafood and the women gathered to pick the Bay’s famous crabs. It introduced her to the sensation of mud under her feet, the thrill of seeing a crab skitter away, the marvel of watching a peeler crab shed for the first time. It inspired her to become a marine biologist, earn her captain’s license and commit herself to restoring the Bay’s waters and preserving her island’s heritage.

But the Chesapeake also took. In 1979, it took her father, beloved waterman Garland Phillips. He and four other family members perished during an ice storm while netting for rockfish. In the 1980s and 1990s, it took away livelihoods, as diseases depleted the Bay’s once-bounteous oyster beds. And in 2003, Tropical Storm Isabel destroyed her dock.

Yet Cox never turned her back on the Bay. Instead, she recommitted herself to sharing her up-close-and-personal experiences with the Chesapeake and its critters with the wider world. In 2005, she and her husband, Capt. Jerry Cox, decided to transform their property on Chicken Point Road into a small environmental center.

Over the last seven years, thousands of children have visited, sticking their hands in white tanks to touch horseshoe crabs and muddy oysters. Inside the small center, Cox has thoughtful exhibits about what happens to trash when it gets in the water, as well as tanks filled with fish and turtles. At the end of her small dock, she keeps several cages of oysters to show visitors. Her center’s Fishmobile — a refurbished Bookmobile filled with aquarium tanks — is parked on the small lot, ready to take the animals to schools and other places that can’t easily send students to Tilghman.

She also makes arrangements for children to meet watermen, board their boats and learn firsthand about the animals they catch. Her fans include locals as well as the educators at the National Aquarium, who visit frequently from Baltimore with inner city kids who have often never held a crab or oyster.

“We’re trying to get the kids out on the water, which is something we can’t do — even though we’re the National Aquarium,” said Maria Madero, an aquarium education specialist. “Kelley has a lot of resources and connections that we just don’t have. It’s fantastic as an educator to take a step back and watch these kids do things they would never be able to do without coming here.”

Now, Cox has the chance to share her exhibits with a much wider audience, and in the process help keep alive the heritage of her beloved island home. The Phillips Wharf Environmental Center is in negotiations to buy the Harrison Oyster House at the foot of Knapps Narrows Bridge, the gateway to the small Eastern Shore island.

Cox’s plan is five-fold: To re-open the oyster house as a shucking house, lease it to a seafood buyer and allow visitors to buy fresh oysters right on site; to move all of the center’s marine animals and their tanks to the site; to begin a conservation landscape program focusing on wetland plants and marsh grasses and their connection to the Bay’s critters; to tell the story of the island, particularly of the women who supported their husbands and picked the crabmeat; and to offer high-school students an opportunity to practice aquaculture so they have more options should they choose to graduate and work on the water.

For a center that has a shoestring budget and only 100 members, it’s a big dream. Harrison’s is going to cost $450,000. Phillips Wharf has raised only half of that — and they have to come up with the rest by October.

But Phillips Wharf Environmental Center Vice President Gary Crawford said he wouldn’t bet against Cox.

“She works very hard,” he said. “She doesn’t let anything daunt her.”

Seeds planted

Cox’s dream to honor the Bay and its heritage comes in part from her father. Garland Phillips was a waterman’s waterman, one of the Chesapeake’s very best. He crabbed, clammed, dredged for oysters, netted rockfish. But he worried deeply about the next generation. He was concerned not only about new regulations and dwindling resources, but also about business practices. How could watermen access government programs to help pay for boats and gear? How should they handle their taxes and write-offs? Phillips urged local high schools to teach vo-tech programs that would address those matters, as well as vessel safety. And he worked with his friend Don Webster, an aquaculture specialist with Maryland Sea Grant, to try to make those programs successful.

Phillips and Webster were in the midst of those efforts in February of 1979. Webster had planned to go out to catch rockfish with Phillips and his crew aboard the Hayruss IV, but Webster didn’t make the trip because one of his sons was sick. So Phillips and the other four men set out from Tilghman to the heart of the Chesapeake, near False Channel.

Those were the years of terrible ice conditions in the Chesapeake, Webster recalled. A storm rolled in. The gill net holding the rockfish became heavy. The boat was loaded down with ice. Suddenly, it took on water. There was nothing the crew could do to save themselves.

In one night, at age 16, Cox lost her father, an uncle and three cousins. To talk about Garland Phillips on Tilghman Island is to realize that time doesn’t heal all wounds. Even Crawford, who moved to Tilghman part-time in 1980 and never knew him, was hesitant to discuss the accident.

“After 33 years here,” Crawford said, “you still share a lot of that pain.”

For Kelley Cox, the years after her father’s death were filled with unspeakable loneliness. Her only sibling, a sister, was 10 years older, married and living off the island. She’d spent her childhood helping her father and hanging around the docks. But after Garland Phillips was gone, she felt she had to leave.

Cox went to the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, figuring she could find the same satisfaction studying ocean creatures — without the painful memories. But the work didn’t captivate her.

“I had to come back. I knew the Bay. I knew the animals in the Bay,” Cox said. “When I came home for Easter, I told my mom I wanted to be back.”

Cox finished her degree at Salisbury University and remained on the island. She trained at Horn Point’s oyster hatchery, raised fish at labs in Benedict and on Solomons Island, and performed water-quality testing with the health department. She also earned her captain’s license. For a time, she was a park ranger at Point Lookout State Park. But her great love was oyster restoration. It was on an oyster survey boat that she met Jerry Cox. Eventually, the husband-and-wife team came to own a charter crabbing and tour business.

The center begins

The Phillips property on Chicken Point Road was a well-known gathering spot for crabbers and oystermen, who would pull in and sell their catch. When Isabel destroyed it in 2003, the couple took out a loan to rebuild the business. But they decided instead to put in a small environmental center. It would be free, and open to the public, and Cox would manage it in her spare time.

Soon, Cox began the painstaking process of incorporating Phillips Wharf as a nonprofit. She established a board of directors, which includes islanders, scientists and local real estate professionals. And she began, ever so gingerly, to seek grants, donations from the public and in-kind contributions of sweat equity — such as the help she got bringing her $5,000 fishmobile north from South Carolina.

Then, two years ago, Cox drove by Harrison’s and saw the “For Sale” sign.

“It was like I was stabbed in the heart,” she said. “That is a piece of our heritage. I couldn’t let it go.”

Getting the property would not be easy. Harrison’s owner is Levin Faulkner Harrison III, better known as Captain Buddy. Now 80 years old, Harrison is one of a long line of Harrisons that has run an oyster house, hotel and charter fishing business on Tilghman Island for more than a century. He is mostly known for his colorful style — a camouflage Hummer, Rolex watches, snakeskin boots, and a record of violating fishing and hunting laws.

Harrison, now 80, needed the money that would come from the sale of the packing house. He had a buyer interested. But when Cox approached him, she found that the man famous for his gold chains and bikini blondes had a sentimental side. He knew Garland Phillips. He knew his daughter. With each passing year, he saw the island changing — more retirees, fewer watermen — and he worried about what was being lost. He agreed to give her an option on the property — even though it meant waiting at least a year to be paid.

A way of life preserved

“If we sold it to someone else, there’d probably be an ugly development there, or a hotel, but with Kelley, it’ll be a way of life preserved,” Harrison said. “I grew up here, my sons grew up here, my grandsons did — so I’m looking forward to maintaining a way of life here. If she doesn’t get it, there will be a way of life gone from Tilghman Island.”

That Cox was able to persuade Harrison to sell to her speaks volumes about the currents running through a place like Tilghman, said Phillips Wharf board member Eric Schott.

“This wouldn’t be possible if Kelley didn’t have the deep roots that she has,” said Schott, a molecular biologist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “The Harrison family is really, really supportive of this. The vision of this really appealed to them. They really get it.”

The vision appeals to Schott, too, who has worked with many watermen through his research into crab viruses and oyster diseases. The Chesapeake is home to many marine laboratories, several maritime museums and dozens of watermen memorials and heritage tourism sites. But, Schott said, there has never been a place to tie that vision together the way Phillips Wharf will.

“They are kind of ‘siloed’ from each other — watermen and conservationists. Just by having the two things in your view at once — the need to provide people a living, and also ecological services — I think that’s a pretty powerful combination,” he said. “I expect that, as we go forward, the tensions between watermen and conservationists, they will still exist, but we’ll come up with interesting solutions by having those together.”

Webster, who thinks often of his friend Garland Phillips, said Cox’s plan dovetails with the work he’s been doing to teach watermen how to grow oysters. Since 2009, when the state law changed to allow more aquaculture in Maryland, dozens of watermen have applied for bottom-culture leases.

“If you can direct education at watermen’s kids, and change the next generation,” Webster said, “it would be a very good thing to do.”

Cox knows Harrison’s patience will not last forever, and she acknowledged that she and her board were “caught somewhat flat-footed” when confronted with raising such a large sum of money. She said the center has asked for donations from its 100 members and is continuing to apply for grants. It even has come up with a slogan: Inform, inspire, involve. She hopes it resonates.

“We have a passion for the Bay, and we’d like to pass on our stewardship,” Cox said. “But if we can’t come up with this money, it will go back on the market. We’ve been very quiet up until now, so now we’re trying to be very, very noisy.”

To donate to the Phillips Wharf project, visit