New Mural Tells Stories of Tilghman Island

This column visits the faces of those who have benefited from the generous and tireless work of the nonprofits on the Mid Shore. Perhaps unknown to many of us, these individuals have had their lives transformed by the missions of these organizations and are giving back in unique ways to better our world. Amelia Blades Steward has been a freelance writer in our community for more than 20 years and offers a glimpse into the lives of residents on the Mid Shore whom she has met along the way.

About a year ago, to celebrate the unique heritage of Tilghman Island along with its new growth and diversity, Ginny Cornwell, Founder and Emeritus of the Tilghman Area Youth Association, was furiously fundraising for a mural that would have been affixed to the Knapp’s Narrows Bridge counterweight on Tilghman Island this year. The mural was to be designed by nationally known mural artist Michael Rosato of Cambridge, who specializes in designing and painting large-scale murals for public and private spaces. He is recognized for the recently completed Harriet Tubman Mural, part of the Chesapeake Mural Trail in Dorchester County, and other murals throughout the Eastern Shore and will soon be a part of a Frederick Douglass mural in Easton.

Attending the mural unveiling were Chuck Callahan (left), Talbot County Council President; Nick Hargrove, new owner of Tilghman Wharf and Wittman Wharf Seafood; Jeannie Haddaway Riccio, Secretary of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources; Senator Addie Eckardt, Jeff Harrison, President of the Talbot Watermen’s Association, Michael Rosato, mural artist, Ginny Cornwell, Founder and Emeritus of the Tilghman Area Youth Association and local organizer; Delegate Johnny Mautz, Pete Lesher, Talbot County Councilman and Chief Curator at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum; Cassandra Vanhooser, director of the Talbot County Department of Economic Development and Tourism; and Mike Arntz from Congressman Andy Harris’ office.

Although Ginny’s plans for the mural’s location changed due to federal restrictions against placing the artwork on the Knapp’s Narrows Bridge, it was installed this spring and recently celebrated by a large crowd at its new location at Tilghman Wharf, the former Phillips Wharf Environmental Center building in Tilghman, now owned by Wittman Wharf Seafood.

Michael Rosato signs copies depicting the mural just installed on Tilghman Island. Photographs courtesy of Amelia B. Steward.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the mural on May 7, Ginny thanked the large crowd in attendance, stating, “All of you have contributed in one way or another whether through encouragement, kind words, enthusiasm, or through your donations.”

“Some of you may be wondering why the mural is on this building instead of the bridge counterweight. It’s an awfully long story, but in the final hours we were not able to get the federal government to approve the location. However, serendipitously, we found, and we firmly believe, a better place for this lovely artwork in a partnership with Nick Hargrove of Wittman Wharf Seafood, who recently acquired the Phillips Wharf Environmental Center property.”

Ginny explained the mural came at a critical time in Tilghman’s recovery from the downturn in the economy. She credited Tim Fluharty, who formed a group called the Tilghman Action Committee, which tackled the island’s economic development and tourism issues one by one. She also thanked Cassandra Vanhooser, director of the Talbot County Department of Economic Development and Tourism, with offering her support, which included introducing her to artist Michael Rosato.

Ginny reflected, “When we first met, it took him no time at all to envision something special. And folks, this mural is special! I think most will agree that the mural is a detailed work of art and window into Tilghman’s way of life.”

Michael commented, “Number one, thanks to the community – your support, and obviously everything that you talk about gave me inspiration to paint this painting. I really appreciate what a tight community that you have.”

“When I tell these stories about all the little areas that I’ve been doing for less than five years, every little town has something to be proud of. . . I mean this is just a remarkable neck of the woods. And so, thank you again, it’s been an honor to represent you.”

Pete Lesher, Chief Curator at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, spoke next, saying, “Of course this is an island, and by definition it is surrounded by water, but these are no ordinary waters. The waterborne commerce that passes through Knapp’s Narrows year-round makes this the busiest drawbridge east of the Rocky Mountains, measured by number of openings – over 10,000 per year. Although the island supported just a few farms in the early 1800s, after the Civil War it grew to support several villages of waterman.”

He added that to support these watermen, Tilghman also sprouted a thriving boat building industry. The waters around the island developed into an equally rich area for charter and recreational fishing. He shared that the seafood packing industry followed in the late 1800s, employing large volumes of workers seasonally. In its peak years in the 1950s, the Tilghman Packing Company, the largest business on the island, processed millions of pounds of fish, oysters, hard crabs and softshell crabs, and breaded shrimp and clams.

“Tilghman Island has given many great leaders to this region and to this community,” Pete continued. “And tragically, we lost one of them just recently – Kelley Cox, founder of the Phillips Wharf Environmental Center on this island and a member of its Tilghman Island watermen’s family. . . Her legacy, in part, lives on in the thousands of students that she touched and inspired to better understand this place, and therefore, to become better stewards. And here we are dedicating this mural on the exact former site of Phillips Wharf.”

The bottom portion of the new mural shows the diversity of seafood being unloaded at the docks – baskets filled with oysters and crabs – with a can from the Tilghman Packing Company in the foreground. A workboat with a waterman and his dog onboard is also in the foreground. The background includes skipjacks lined up at the docks outside the packing houses that were on the wharf.

After the ceremony, artist Michael Rosato signed two different sized posters depicting the mural that are available for sale from Proceeds will be used for the mural upkeep and interpretive signage about the mural.

The Tilghman Island mural was funded by a grant from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, Stories of the Chesapeake, as well as private donations.

Ginny concludes, “We hope that by displaying this mural dedicated to Tilghman Island’s roots, we can continue to stimulate and grow the Tilghman economy.

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