It’s been 20 years since my last visit to Onancock. As I drive into this picturesque Virginia town low on the Delmarva Peninsula, its historic homes and tidy steeples surprise me once again. How did it spring up here in the first place?
Water, of course. Running four miles from the Chesapeake Bay, the deep, brackish waters of Onancock Creek attracted Colonial settlers. Incorporated by the British in 1682 as a port of entry for Accomack County, Onancock has provided a safe harbor for centuries.
This time around I’m traveling with my friend Jan, and our first stop is for doughnuts at the Corner Bakery on Market Street, where the light and luscious éclairs cost 83 cents apiece. Between bites we ask for visitor tips. “You want to see Danny’s gallery,” the woman behind the counter advises. “It’s open…sometimes.”
As luck would have it, Danny Doughty, a self-described visionary artist, just happens to be in his gallery across the street, a welcoming, second-story space lined with bright canvases and marked by cozy sofas and chairs and Oriental rugs. Raised on the Eastern Shore, Doughty says he grew up in poverty and had a tough childhood. Now 59, he paints what he describes as the best part of his upbringing—the vibrant African American women in the community who sustained and nurtured him when no one else could.
After ducking into a few other shops, Jan and I mosey down streets of well-kept Queen Anne, Federal and Victorian-style homes before meeting our kayak guide, Will Cumming, from SouthEast Expeditions, at the town dock.
We spend the next two hours paddling the creek’s many branches, past the piers and lawns of gorgeous homes, while Cumming shares local lore. The Battle of Kedges Straits—the last naval engagement of the Revolutionary War, which occurred after British Gen. Charles Cornwallis’ surrender and resulted in high casualties—took place nearby in the bay. Its leader, Commodore Zedechiah Whaley, recruited volunteers from here and is buried in town.
Onancock, which is a roughly 190-mile drive from Bethesda, has known both boom and bust. Virginia’s Eastern Shore was remote, rural and mostly inaccessible, except by boat, until 1884, when the Pennsylvania Railroad extended its line down the peninsula, prompting an economic boom. White and sweet potatoes, strawberries, lumber and seafood zipped northward to consumers.
“In 1910 Accomack enjoyed the highest per capita income of any non-urban county in the United States, and in 1919 [nearby] Northampton and Accomack led all American counties in value of crop per acre,” says an article inSouthern Spaces, a peer-reviewed academic journal out of Emory University. Then came overfishing, water pollution from agricultural runoff, competition and the Great Depression.
These days, the peninsula has some of the lowest median household incomes in the Commonwealth, though Onancock thrives on tourism, well-off retirees and second-home owners.
Cumming leads us to a cove where a pair of kingfishers chatter and circle above our kayaks. We spy egrets, herons and an osprey before heading back to nest in our own lodgings overlooking a lovely expanse of the creek outside town.