Local legends brew into Chestertown tradition


Maryland is very aware of its British heritage (looking at you, state flag!), and Chestertown is particularly proud of its colonial heritage. George Washington slept here at least once, and lent his name and some money to the Washington College.

With colonial pride comes the Chestertown Tea Party Festival, and yes, it was inspired by Boston. After a two-year hiatus, the annual festival returns to the streets and brick sidewalks of Chestertown on May 27 to 29.

“We’re back! If you want something fun to do on Memorial Day Weekend that’s not the beach, you can head in the opposite direction and come to Chestertown,” said Thomas Hayman, festival president.

Local legend says that, in response to British Parliament’s closing of the port of Boston, the citizens of Chestertown met in May of 1774 and set forth “Resolves,” forbidding the importing, selling or consuming of British tea in Chestertown. Then, an angry group (mob?) of residents allegedly gathered, marched down High Street and onto the brigantine Geddes, anchored in the Chester River, and tossed her cargo of tea overboard. Today, the annual reenactment is the festival’s highlight attraction.

Day trippers and weekenders have always enjoyed this small, elegant river town. “Walking downtown, you have historic feel already, but [Tea Party] just brings more events,” said Hayman. “Basically, the historic district downtown is closed off” for pedestrians only.

“There’s something for everybody. We have bands on the main stage, wandering performers, games and face painting for kids, wine tastings and the beer fest, the raft racing — whatever you like, you can find it at Tea Party Festival,” Hayman said.

Friday night kicks off with a street party at the foot of High Street, by the small public dock (sponsored by Main Street Chestertown). Guests can enjoy a live band, food trucks and beer.

Saturday is the big festival day, starting with the colonial parade at 10 a.m.: classic costumes, local groups, colonial militia reenactors, horses and no motorized vehicles.

The reenactment starts with a reading of the Chestertown Resolves at the main stage across from White Swan Tavern, then migrating down the street to the ship (and yes, boxes and possibly a few British officials will go overboard).

On Saturday, all food is sold by regional nonprofits, many of whom earn most of their operating budgets from fried clam strips, crabcakes, barbecue ribs and more. Artisan vendors will set up along the streets. New this year is a pyromusical fireworks display on Saturday night — the rockets are launched in time with music.

On Sunday the festival shifts to Wilmer Park from noon to 4 p.m., with food, artisans, a homemade raft race and a wine and beer tasting festival (one of the few ticketed events — order early!).

Although British and colonial soldiers never actually skirmished in the streets of Chestertown, a small enactment will take place.

The Heritage Village immerses people in 18th-century life, with demonstrations of colonial cooking, sewing, woodworking, blacksmithing and more, including the role of slaves and African-Americans in colonial history. Past exhibits have ranged from clothing and old fossils to colonial dance, a Punch & Judy show and more.

The old Tea Party tradition became an annual event in the 1970s. “Some nonprofits get their annual budget from Tea Party. So it makes sense to have it every year,” said Hayman, estimating between 5,000 and 15,000 annual visitors, depending on the weather.

Some historians point out that the Geddes did dock at Chestertown in May of 1774, no historical records of a tea-based revolt have been found. “The earliest mention of the Chestertown Tea Party occurs in an 1899 booklet Gem City on the Chester. The author, local newspaper editor Frederick G. Usilton, was known to exaggerate facts for a good story,” according to the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History & Culture.

So did the original Tea Party really happen in 1774? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Chestertown celebrates the end of British colonialism reminds us that every small town played a role in the new country.

“It’s like a tradition. People who grew up in Kent County will come back for Tea Party weekend. When I lived on High Street, there was always something popular each year … you always hear them talking about the neat things down there to buy. It’s Memorial Day Weekend, and if you don’t like sitting at the crowded beach, Chestertown a great place to hang out.”

Downtown parking may be a challenge, so free shuttles will carry people from+ several major parking areas throughout town. Town ordinance prohibits pet dogs at the festival.

Learn more at www.chestertownteaparty.org or Facebook and Instagram.

Members and subscribers make this story possible.
You can help support non-partisan, community journalism.