For the 37th year in a row, the Crisfield Chamber of Commerce in Somerset County, Maryland will host thousands of people for the annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake. It’s all you can eat – steamed Maryland blue crabs, steamed clams, fresh fish, corn-on-the-cob, watermelon, fries, soda and beer. But it’s also a time when the Maryland politicians choose to be seen, to network, to rally their supporters and gather support for upcoming elections. The politicians who attend have included Maryland Governors, Comptrollers, Senators, Delegates, Congressman(women) and local council-people. The Clambake is the place to be seen if you’re running in an upcoming Maryland election.
So how could a little seafood festival in a tiny town at the end of an 18 mile road to nowhere draw such a crowd and so many politician? You’d have to understand who J. Millard Tawes was.
J. Millard Tawes was born in Crisfield in 1894 and grew up as most boys did in a waterman’s town famous for its seafood harvesting, processing and exports. He married young, and started his adult life early, but didn’t have much luck in business. He ran for Somerset County Clerk of the Court at age 36 and won, and this began a successful career in politics that ended when he was 81 years old (45 years). He was elected to Maryland State Comptroller, Treasurer and Governor – the only person in Maryland’s history to occupy all three seats in State’s Board of Public Works. Additionally he started the formation of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and served as its Secretary and Chairman, and made improvements to Maryland’s educational system including establishing the Community College system.
So Millard was a Maryland hometown boy, born to a simple, rural life who managed to make a big difference in Maryland serving as a politician. Crisfielders hold him in high regard mostly saying that he was a humble man who was approachable, he represented every Marylander – not just one party, he cared deeply about Maryland’s natural resources, and never forgot where he came from.
That was J. Millard Tawes’ legacy.
Now, add the Crisfield legacy to that. Crisfield was boom town at the turn of the 20th century acting as the second largest port in Maryland behind the Port of Baltimore. The watermen brought their catches into the port and the Buy Boats and seafood processors purchased the harvest, while the railroad moved seafood and produce up to the northeastern markets. This is what elevated Crisfield in the world of commerce and helped it earn its nickname as “Seafood Capital of the World.”
Today, the railroad is gone, the Buy Boats are gone, the watermen are few and the Chesapeake Bay has been over harvested and polluted. So seafood production is down in Crisfield, but it certainly isn’t out. Crisfield is still famous for crabs – the Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs – and oysters, clams and fish. While oysters, clams and fish are served many ways, we mostly prefer our crabs steamed with lots of Old Bay (a spice created and manufactured in Maryland – originally for steamed Blue Crabs), unless the crab is a softshell, then we like them fried. Of course the other best way to eat crab is served up in a broiled (or fried) crabcake with very little filler and lots of backfin lump.
37th Annual Clambake is Today!
Crisfield so loved Millard Tawes that it named a seafood festival after him and invited others to celebrate his contribution to Maryland’s political leadership. It was Millard’s legacy along with Maryland’s seafood legacy (particularly crabs) and the idea of the good-ol-summertime on the Chesapeake Bay that draws thousands of people to Maryland’s southern-most town to celebrate seafood, politics and each other.
The J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clambake (it’s official name) occurs every year on the third Wednesday of July. Out-of-towners call it the Tawes Festival or just “Tawes.” Most of the locals just call it The Clambake. And though it happens inevitably on the hottest day of the year, I wouldn’t miss it. There’s just too much going on – too many friends to see – too many new people to meet – too many crabs and clams to eat – and too much fun to be had. I have great memories of Clambakes past.