By Richard LaMotte
On a quiet island, just steps from the Chesapeake Bay, the locals are welcoming a new resident—one with treasures from around the world that washed up on distant shores. Much anticipated, this new museum finally has a permanent home. Inside its sturdy walls rest extraordinary sea glass and beachcombed artifacts from near and far. From fossils to fulgurites, antique stoppers to wedding cake toppers, its opening this September was decades in the making.
Peaceful Tilghman Island, located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is the site of The Beachcombing Center, which is open and ready to welcome visitors of all ages. The relics are housed within a historic bank, restored to last another one hundred years, now with unique assets steeped in history.
Where did this all begin? Back in October of 2004, the first sea glass festival was hosted in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The event brought several hundred beachcombers together for the only known gathering of its kind in the world. The host, Joanne Schreiber, began making plans for her 2005 event but succumbed to cancer before she could finish. A year later, the North American Sea Glass Association was formed and launched the first national sea glass festival in Santa Cruz, California. A few years later, sea and beach glass festivals were being held coast to coast, in Canada, and along the Great Lakes. The passion of beachcombers for this once private, yet cherished collectible, skyrocketed.
Ten years after that first sea glass festival in Gloucester, two sisters were putting the final touches on an international sea glass museum, a short drive north of Gloucester. Danielle Perreault and her sister Aimee Thorman had been assembling an extraordinary collection of sea glass to create “The Sea Glass Center” in Kennebunk, Maine. By 2016, their goal was to create a traveling exhibit, and the duo established a 501(c)(3) organization to help educate and inform beachcombing enthusiasts. The collection resided in Maine for several years as an extension of Danielle’s sea glass arts shop, The Deep Blue.
In Maine, the number of sea glass collectors per capita is rather high. So donations of rare finds came in swiftly, and during that time they amassed sea glass treasures from a number of other countries including Scotland, Italy, Australia, and Bermuda as well as Puerto Rico and several Caribbean islands. One special collection of sea glass was donated by former U.S. first lady Barbara Bush, gathered by family at her Maine home on Walker’s Point. Since Danielle had been collecting for 40 years, she had her own special pieces to add. As the collection grew, it required more space to host visitors, so in late 2019, she decided the Sea Glass Center needed a new location where it could be the featured attraction.
There has been a long tradition of beachcombers from Massachusetts to the Outer Banks with the same enthusiasm for locating frosted gems along the shore. One of the most passionate collectors in the Mid-Atlantic is undoubtedly Mary McCarthy, who lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Like many in the region, she has combed the beaches of the Chesapeake Bay for years. As a teacher and writer, whose enthusiasm for beachcombing borders on “harmonious passion,” she accepted the task of finding a permanent location for a museum.
Following the initial fundraising campaign, an exhaustive search for an ideal location finally ended on Tilghman Island in Maryland. It was the perfect place—a retired bank, complete with its own vault and 100-year-old décor. The dark vault now protects a special assemblage of glowing UV glass from years prior to World War II when uranium was used to colorize decorative tableware. The former bank has been outfitted with display cases and custom shelves hewn from driftwood found on local shores.
For Mary, opening the doors of the museum in September 2021 is the culmination of years of dedicated, tireless efforts, and dreams to make sure many forms of beachcombing treasures are included in the exhibits. From rare fossils, shells, and Native American artifacts gleaned from domestic shores, to those extraordinary sea glass finds that hold secrets from the past—their stories will be told well into the future.
“We are collectors of broken things and we collectively find beauty in imperfection, it’s what we share in common as an international Beachcombing community,” said Mary, who is the Executive Director of The Beachcombing Center. “This place is a celebration of the joy of discovery we all find on shorelines worldwide.”
Along with historical relics are unique pieces of art created with beachcombed baubles. Beyond jewelry, there is a dress, made entirely from 40 pounds of sea glass, and a sea glass slipper. The exhibition focuses a great deal on education—the “Origins” display shows how certain items looked before they spent 50 to 100 years being tossed along the shoreline. On an opposing wall is an enormous mural of the continents titled “Around the World,” with locations pinned where donated items originated.
A unique display in the museum is dedicated to a collector from the Outer Banks of North Carolina—one who began combing beaches daily in the early 1900s. Nellie Myrtle Pridgen’s massive collection, spanning more than six decades, became a museum of its own in southern Nags Head, earning a listing on the National Register. The stories of this lifetime collector, along with her special finds, make a visit to this exceptional museum a memorable experience.
“We would love to have folks contribute either a marble to help fill up our gumball machine collection (right), or a piece of UV glass for our UV jar in the vault!” said Mary. “We also accept donations of shells and ‘finished’ beach glass for the perpetual beachcombing boat. Our blog lists the international sand samples we have so far, so if you are near a beach that’s not on the list, we’d love to have you send a teaspoon of sand from your local beach. Danielle, founder of The Sea Glass Center, has always said, ‘If everyone donated one great find, imagine the collection we would have.’ This is a place for all of us in the community to enjoy, we would love for everyone to be a part of it.” If you have a donation for The Beachcombing Center, please contact Mary through the website and she can let you know the best way to get your donation to the museum.
“The Beach Bank” building houses the Beachcombing Center museum, along with a gift shop and the studio for Mary’s business, When’s Low Tide. Visitors should allow ample time to read the carefully numbered references next to many of the items. While there, be sure to search for a special photo surrounded by signatures. It is the only one of its kind and features a small group of exhibitors surrounding the late Joanne Schreiber at that first ever sea glass festival in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
For more information, visit beachcombingcenter.org
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2021 issue.