By Michelle Larkin
It was a welcomed crisp, fall morning after many days of premature frost. The bright sun reflected off the placid waters of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal as I arrived in Chesapeake City, Maryland. The historic town’s 19th century homes were decked out in eerie Halloween decorations clearly displaying the town’s love of the holiday. Ghosts and monsters donned every building in sight, and locals were preparing for the evening’s frightening Halloween festivities.
Visitors wandered in and out of homes from the 1800s turned to gift shops, searching for local treasures from their journey to bring home. One store in particular, The Old Gray Mare, drew me in with its spooky scarecrows, ghosts, and other Halloween ornaments creeping quietly on the front porch. The store was built in 1831 and originally served as a small home and then later as the local cobbler’s shop. The old shopkeeper, Ms. Bonnie Shiles’ short, silver hair glistened from the morning sun pouring in the front window. She uses the old fixtures from the house to carefully display the keepsakes for sale. The stovetop of the antique oven held figurines of pumpkins and witches, and the old, rickety staircase led to an attic filled with handmade rugs that, to my surprise, cost up to $500. Ms. Shiles welcomed me into her store where each item was meticulously placed in order to keep the integrity of the old building. After purchasing a book by local author, David Healey, Ms. Shiles gave me maps and brochures to insure I saw everything Chesapeake City has to offer. She sent me on my way, feeling confident, and wished me a beautiful day.
As I left the Old Gray Mare, a black cat skittered past me while I stood on the front steps. My superstitious side warned me I better be careful during the remainder of my stay; black cats are bad luck after all. I tried not to think much of it, and headed to another small store, Thyme in the Garden. I assumed it was going to be a gardening store, but found it held antique furniture, unique gifts, and locally made fudge and candies. The delicious-looking fudge was tempting to buy, but I decided to save my appetite for dinner. The most interesting aspect of the store lay hidden in the farthest room of the shop, and wasn’t for sale. I found a plump, gray Tabby cat snoozing on a yellow, antique chair. He turned out to be one of the friendliest cats I’ve ever met. He started purring and licking my fingers like we had been old friends. The cat and I bonded in the back room among the antiques, and I was wishing I could take him home with me. The owner finally came back to see why I had been back there so long; I’m sure he thought I was up to no good. When he saw me, he exclaimed, “I see you found Mr. Kitty! He just loves everyone. With all the lickin’, he’ll have you cleaned up in no time!” After being caught petting the cat, I decided I better say goodbye and be on my way. After all, I don’t think Mr. Kitty would fit in my purse.
I started noticing something strange about this small town; everywhere I turned, there were even more cats. I walked past a small photography studio, and a large, heather gray Persian lay basking in the afternoon sun. I went in another antique store to find yet another cat, this time a calico, sleeping his day away. Things really started getting strange, though, when I stepped foot into a store called Neil’s Art.
The sign reading “Meow” above the door should have been an omen of what I would find inside, but I never could have anticipated what happened next. When I opened the door, two excited cats came sprinting right to me. I exclaimed, “More cats!” and the reserved, old man inside, and Neil’s Art’s namesake, seemed alarmed. I wandered his packed store and admired his many watercolor paintings of Chesapeake City, while his small black cat enthusiastically followed me around.
She was small with a few white markings on her paws, and all she wanted was to be petted the entire time I was there. The tiny cat kept rubbing her head against my ankles, hoping I would reach down and give her a pat. Her owner, Mr. Neil Snodgrass, was a quiet man who spoke softly, slowly, and deliberately. He clearly didn’t like to waste his words on chitchat.
When asked about his art, he didn’t have much to say, but when asked about his cats, Mr. Snodgrass’ eyes lit up. He declared, “Well, these aren’t my only cats—have a look around the corner.” In a room not open to shoppers, lay six more sleeping kittens. I ran in the room excitedly to give each kitten a pet, and began to wonder about Neil and his pack of cats. He explained that his son’s cat had them, but he couldn’t take care of them anymore, so Neil took them in. He said that all the cats are “nice company” for him and his art shop. I left Neil’s art with more questions than answers, and began pondering why there are an abundance of cats in Chesapeake City.
Cats have been a focus of folklore for thousands of years. Maria Nikolajeva’s Devils, Demons, Familiars, and Friends: Toward a Semitics of Literary Cats explores the many interpretations of cats throughout history. The ancient Egyptians viewed felines as the highest gods, and they were depicted in Chinese folktales as healing and fortune-telling animals. In addition, before cats were common in Europe, they appeared in stories with other creatures like dragons and unicorns, believing that cats were equally mythical and magical. The looming holiday of Halloween made me disregard these lovely tales of magical cats and dig deeper into their more sinister side. The Europeans during the Middle Ages believed cats were aligned with Satan. Cats were believed to be witches’ companions, and some witches even turned into cats themselves. People were so worried of cats during that time, that when a person was found guilty of being a witch, their cat was also burned at the stake.
Was Neil Snodgrass a modern witch, or rather, warlock, in disguise? His quiet demeanor and odd mannerisms made me question whether he was hiding something deep within. Perhaps Neil was alarmed when I went in his back room because that’s where he keeps his cauldron, along with his eight cats – all tools of his trade in magical arts.
Not convinced that reserved Neil could really be hiding magic in his art store, I explored further into the Chesapeake City cats’ real story. All the delightful cats I had met didn’t seem soulless enough to be associated with the devil. As the classic myth goes, cats have nine lives. If this is true, what history have the Chesapeake City cats seen during their nine lives?
The light of the day cast an orange, autumn glow on the city as I daydreamed about the same cats wandering the cobblestone streets alongside the horse drawn carriages of yesterday. I decided the cats must have witnessed Chesapeake City’s founder, Augustine Herman, map the Chesapeake region for the first time in 1670, and watched the town transform as the 14-mile, hand-dug Chesapeake & Delaware Canal opened in 1829.
Perhaps the cats watched as the oldest building in Chesapeake City, the Bayard House, change through the years. The Bayard House dates back to the early 1780s and just oozes with history. Having many owners over the years, William Harriott in 1899 stands out the most. Then called the Harriott Hotel, the building was an inn and tavern during prohibition in 1919 and the Great Depression. Although alcohol was outlawed during prohibition, the Harriott Hotel continued to sell whiskey in secret through a hole in a wall to townsfolk who were missing their spirits.
I decided to venture into the old building, now back to being called the Bayard House to see the history myself. The restaurant features the appropriately named Hole in the Wall bar in the basement of the building, which is where I had dinner that brisk evening. While sitting at the bar, I read on the back of the menu that Mr. Harriott, affected by the Great Depression, had hung himself right there in the hotel. As I read this dreadful information, the festive Halloween banner fell down over the bar, and an overwhelming coldness came over me as a chill ran down my spine. I imagined the same cheerful, happy-go-lucky cats I met today witnessing the despair of Mr. Harriott and his final act in life.
The Hole in the Wall bar was celebrating Halloween that Saturday, and there was an array of characters coming in and out of the bar. The tavern gives off a disquieting old-timey feel with a round bar top and a redbrick backdrop. Two men with jack-o-lanterns on their heads and a bartender who dressed and even looked exactly like Mr. Clean were just a few of the eclectic people in the tavern. Mr. Clean told me he could never truly leave Chesapeake City for it’s the place he has always considered as home. “I’ve been here for 40 years. I lived in California for 12, but the I had to come back,” he explained. There was certainly a magnetic draw to the city that pulls everyone in, and has kept the Chesapeake City cats there for all nine of their lives.
For the past 17 years, Chesapeake City has hosted the annual Ghost Walk. A Halloween tradition, the Ghost Walk was a small-scale theatre-like production that featured a spooky yet family-focused story and multiple scenes scattered through the city. Led by two Grim Reapers, the Ghost Walk told the fictional story of a brutal pirate, Captain Galway. The temperature had dropped from earlier in the day, and I had to bundle up for the Ghost Walk, adding to the eerie feeling of Halloween. I imagined the Chesapeake City cats skipping the Ghost Walk in favor of a warm, comfortable house to snuggle up in.
The Ghost Walk featured local actors and writers that were primarily from Cecil County, and was not a typical Halloween haunted trail. There were no chainsaws, blood, guts, or gore, but there was a tale of a pirate falling in love with a voodoo priestess and her never-ending quest to find his hidden treasure. This imaginative Halloween tradition showed the people of Chesapeake City’s attention to detail and their love of spooky stories. Clearly, the townsfolk put a lot of time and effort into the Ghost Walk, and spectators could easily appreciate it.
If my speculation about Neil Snodgrass being a warlock were correct, I imagine I would have seen him out celebrating Halloween since it’s the one day he would have blended in with all the creepy costumes. He could have dug out his darkest cloak and conjured a spell to make him even older and creepier to disguise his real face. Although I saw many witches, pirates, and superheroes, I didn’t see Neil out that night. I suspect he was also enjoying his warm, comfortable home with the company of his many cats.
After I left Chesapeake City, and I was in my own warm home with my own Tabby cat, I realized maybe the people of Chesapeake City just have a passion for cats. Like Neil said, they make great company. In fact, my two run-ins with black cats didn’t produce any bad luck while in Chesapeake City. Maybe I was overthinking the relationship Chesapeake City has with cats, but it’s hard to disregard all the tales of cats when they have suddenly surrounded you on each and every corner. Cats don’t always have the best reputation anyway.
Small, historic towns during the Halloween season often convey that ominous feeling that the ghosts of the past are all around you. I believe if you look closely, you can actually see that The Chesapeake City cats may have played an integral role in history throughout their nine lives. A cat may have been present during each stage the city went through until now. The cats helped me see the city’s history and feel what the people of the past may have gone through.
It’s possible the cats feel at ease now that Chesapeake City is settled as a charming and quaint tourist destination where one can simply enjoy the beautiful sights and sounds that Chesapeake City has to offer. At rest now, the cats enjoy the comforts of a domestic, modern housecat, and reminisce of the adventures of their past nine lives while snoozing in the warm gift shops of Chesapeake City. Who knows what the young kittens found in Neil’s Art will see in their next nine lives.