A summer Saturday morning in Onancock might go like this:
Stand in line for donuts at the Corner Bakery, pick up peaches at the farmers market and swap stories of the community’s colorful past at one of the local museums.
A town of 1,215 residents might seem an unlikely place for one museum — let alone three. But Onancock is home of the Eastern Shore Watermen’s Museum and Research Center as well as Ker Place, a Federal-style mansion built from 1799 to 1801, and Hopkins and Bro. Store, which operated from 1842 to 1966.
As economic mainstays agriculture and seafood fade from the shore — replaced by tourism, poultry factories, government and the service industry — more communities off the beaten path want to capture their memories and heritage before they are lost forever.
Museums have popped up in tourist favorites Cape Charles, Chincoteague and Tangier Island, but also in Eastville, Harborton, Locustville, Machipongo, Parksley and Saxis. A tractor museum in Nassawadox is open by appointment.
The watermen’s museum at Historic Onancock School — an old high school turned into a community center — preserves the stories of generations of local men who made their living harvesting fish, crabs, clams and oysters.
Less than 5% of jobs on Virginia’s Eastern Shore are still in agriculture, forestry, fishing or hunting, according to state figures.
“It’s a dying way of life,” said Paul L. Ewell, the museum’s executive director, told me, adding, “We’re telling a story no one had told, and no one was telling.”
Last Saturday, Lucy Shea, who was about to turn 86, brought in photos of her father in his boat, the Lucy Irene, and her grandfather’s boat, the Hattie B, for Ewell to scan into the museum’s growing digital collection.
“I’m just so glad they started this,” Shea said. “I’m so interested in the past now —so many things I wish I’d asked my daddy and my grandfather.”
Ewell will be the first to say, “We’re not the Smithsonian. We’re you.”
The museum — two rooms in the basement — includes photos of watermen and their vessels, vintage equipment and oyster cans, boat models, old signs, newspaper and magazine clippings, and other memorabilia.
A third room houses the office of the Watermen’s Heritage Foundation of Virginia’s Eastern Shore and some of the 900 books donated for a used bookstore aimed at helping support the foundation.
Ewells settled on the Eastern Shore in 1639. Growing up, Ewell loved working on the water with his dad and brother, even though it was hard physical labor. But he chose a different career.
The first in his family to go to college, he earned a Ph.D. and is chairman of the department of management, business and economics as well as dean of the University College at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach.
But Ewell, 53, also keeps his waterman’s licenses up to date and drives 75 miles to the shore weekly to welcome folks to the museum, open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.
When John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, he raved about the bountiful waters. By the early 19th century, many creeks on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a 70-mile peninsula that adjoins Maryland, had communities with a Methodist church, a store and families who worked on the water.
The railroad came in the 1880s, and by the 1910s watermen and farmers grew rich selling seafood, potatoes and other produce to cities on the East Coast and beyond.
Among the bustling towns on the rail line was Parksley, with Victorian homes on streets named after executives of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
But the rise of trucking and other factors took a toll. Today the two Eastern Shore counties — Accomack and Northampton — are among the poorest in Virginia. Freight trains no longer rumble on the shore, and the tracks could be pulled up for a rails-to-trails path.
Parksley remembers its glory days with the Eastern Shore Railway Museum, which includes exhibits and a 1927 Diplomat parlor car, a 1949 caboose and a 1950 sleeper car.
In Onancock, Ewell said, “We’re all about keeping it real. Our stories are real. Our history is real. You won’t see dinosaurs here to draw the kids.”
On a Saturday morning, you will see local moms and dads, often with grown children and grandchildren who have moved away, poring over exhibits, telling stories — and proving museums in small towns keep history alive.