Mathews is a hard place to leave
by Tom Chillemi
Some places are famous for what they have. Mathews County is known for what it doesn’t have—a stoplight or four-lane highway.
The business district, known as Mathews Court House, is not on the way to anywhere. You have to want to go there. And there are a lot of reasons to visit Mathews. It’s the kind of place where cars stop for pedestrians, people hold the door, and you get a “How ya doin’ “ when you pass someone on the sidewalk.
On Main Street cars still park diagonally, the way they have since cars came around.
They say it’s hard to get lost in Mathews because most roads end at the water. Located on a peninsula, Mathews is Virginia’s second smallest county (86 square miles), but has over 350 miles of shoreline, the most of any county on Chesapeake Bay. And, there are 16 public access points to peaceful waters.
There are no stoplights or four lane highways because the hustle of “civilization” has not caught up to Mathews. Among the locals you’ll find none of the attitude that comes with these symbols of traffic congestion. There’s not enough traffic to warrant a stop light.
Sibley’s Store, built in 1898, stands at the heart of Main Street. It’s now the Mathews County Visitor Information Center and the place to start your visit.
Furniture on the front porch invites visitors to relax and practice the lost art of “porch sitting.” From this vantage point at the downtown intersection, you can watch the world go by . . . slowly. Stay here long enough and you’ll probably see all 8,700 residents.
Mathews County’s population has been declining. It was almost 9,300 in 2001. Lack of “growth” worries some folks. But many don’t see it as a problem. A third of the population is over 65. With their working days behind them, a trip to town is a social event, with time to chat.
If you want to get outdoors to pedal a bike on the flat back roads, go birding, or rent a kayak or boat, the visitor’s center is the right place to pick up touring pamphlets complete with a map and information about Mathews’ many features.
You can find out about the “Pearls of the Chesapeake,” such as the 1805 New Point Comfort Lighthouse, third oldest lighthouse on the Bay; and Wolf Trap Lighthouse, a huge red caisson lighthouse with living quarters (it’s for sale).
Don’t worry that you’ll miss something; chances are you’ll come back to Mathews.
An area barely two blocks in size is a trip back in time. A three-story brick building on the corner of Main and Church streets across from the visitor’s center was once Foster’s Department Store, with a roller skating rink on the top floor.
Visit two art galleries or just stroll around town. Visit Ben Richardson on Main Street. You’ll find him carving birds and minding his shop that exhibits the works of several artists seven days a week.
It’s easy to imagine horses and buggies tied up at the Historic Courthouse Green, where the Farmers Market is held Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. May through October.
Businesses in Mathews provide the things you really need—groceries, your favorite spirit, or a good meal… economy or first class with great local seafood.
Richardson’s Cafe makes real milk shakes served in a thick glass, with a cherry on top, to go with your meal.
Around the corner is Southwind Pizza, with live music, pizza and more.
If you’re in the mood for pancakes, Mexican or Chinese food, downtown Mathews has you covered.
But there’s more, including a most unusual library. Housed in a former bank with grande architecture, the Mathews Memorial Library was named America’s best rural library in 2005 by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
There also is Moughon’s Hardware. If they don’t have it, you probably don’t need it. They even sell old fashion hand-powered water pumps. Be sure to go to the back loading dock, where they store the feeds, for a sweet smell of an almost bygone era.
A trio of “resale shops” are in town, with four more scattered about the county. They are fun to poke through; you never know what you’ll find.
Faulkner and Son Appliances, across from Food Lion, has a marvelous collection of old washing machines, refrigerators and appliances, some are more than 80 years old. Or, just walk around and marvel at the architecture.
If you’re here on Saturday night, July 21, plan on making it to the Li’l Ole Opry (Donk’s) by 8 p.m. for live music held in the Mathews High School auditorium. There is one show a month through December.
Behind Sibley’s Store is Thomas James Store—circa 1820. Once disguised as an old outbuilding, James Store was rediscovered not long ago and is being preserved.
Tompkins Cottage on Brickbat Road houses an exhibit on Captain Sally Tompkins, the first American woman officer. It’s open 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
The Mathews Maritime Museum, on Route 14 just south of the business district, is open Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 725-4444.
Don’t miss the Gwynn’s Island Museum, open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 1-5 p.m. April-October. 725-5022. (See the museums listing in this issue of the Rivah.)
Cricket Hill, near Gwynn’s Island, was the site of one of the last naval engagements of the Revolutionary War. In June 1776, Continental forces bombarded the British fleet and encampment on Gwynn’s Island. Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor, was driven from the colony, ending British rule in Virginia. A reenactment is planned for July 7. (See upcoming events in this issue of the Rivah.)
South of Mathews Courthouse, at the end of Route 14 is the Bayside Landing, with a picnic pavilion and with views of Mobjack Bay and New Point Comfort Lighthouse. Follow Route 14 south until the stop sign at the end. Turn left and take the first right to a quiet natural setting.
Go just a little further to the observation walkway at New Point Comfort Preserve with kiosks depicting the 55-foot tall lighthouse surrounded by land. There once was 200 acres. The August 1933 storm took away most of it. The relentless tide constantly chews away at the sandy beaches.
Water access east of Mathews Court House, on the Chesapeake Bay side, include Bethel Beach Nature Preserve, which is a birding beach; and Haven Beach, better for cooling off in shallow water.
Williams Wharf, a few miles south of town, was a major port of entry for nearly 200 years. Take in East River views, while you fish from the pier. The water is 20 feet deep near the pier and passenger and freight carrying boats stopped here until the late 1940s. Today, a steamboat museum is housed in the former B. Williams and Company Store built in 1869, located on the property.
Launch your wind or muscle powered watercraft from here.
Mathews has 16 small boat launch sites.
If you’re looking for somewhere off the beaten path, look at Mathews.
The New Point Comfort Lighthouse at the southern most point in Mathews stands as a monument where 200-plus acres have disappeared back into the waters.
A kiosk map at the New Point Comfort Preserve walkway shows where a developer in 1904 thought he could put cottage lots around the lighthouse. That land is long gone. Kayaks are one way to get closer, or boat trips are available. The land near the lighthouse is a popular boating destination, especially on weekends. Visit during the week for a serene experience. If there’s a nicer place on the Bay, I haven’t found it yet.
As you look at the lighthouse, land came down from the left and formed a hook-shaped peninsula in the shape of a “J.” Pilings 500 yards east mark a steamboat dock.
Some say that Matthews is getting smaller every day as wind and waves never stop stirring sand, moving it someplace else. These shallow waters are buffers for the land. The wave energy is absorbed as it hits the bottom and dissipates slowly.
Stay here where the Chesapeake meets the Mobjack Bay as long as you can, because when you get back in your car you will be heading back to where you came from, and what you came here to lose.
Mathews is a hard place to leave.