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Rivah Visitor's Guide

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The treasure of Gwynn’s Island


by Tom Chillemi

There is so much to see at the Gwynn’s Island Museum you will probably want to come back again and again.

While walking on a Gwynn’s Island beach in the late 1970s, Jean Tanner found a pre-historic stone arrowhead. Little did she dream this isolated find would shape the creation of the Gwynn’s Island Museum.

Stone points show stages of development.

The museum started in 1991 with four cases. Today it occupies two floors in the former Odd Fellows Lodge at 1775 Old Ferry Road in Mathews County.

One of the most striking exhibits is that of a replica of a stone tool known as the “Cinmar Blade.” The original is on display in the Smithsonian Institution and is the oldest known manmade stone tool found in the Americas and is 20,000 years old. It was dredged from 240 feet of water, about 40 miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean by Mathews County scallop boat captain Thurston Shawn in 1970.

In one particular dredge haul, Shawn found a wooly mammoth ivory tusk and molar, and the stone knife blade, which would become known as the Cinmar Blade. It was named for the boat that dredged the artifacts.

The original blade was on display at the Gwynn’s Island Museum until a Smithsonian curator saw it. Through testing, scientists were able to estimate the age of the molar and tusk (and thus, the Cinmar Blade) at about 20,000 years—nearly 8,000 years older than what was previously the oldest known manmade tool found in the Americas.

The stone tool is featured in the book “Across Atlantic Ice,” which delves into the origin of stone tools in the Americas.

Gwynn’s Island Museum
1775 Old Ferry Road, Gwynn
Open: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 1–5 p.m. from May through October; and by appointment year around. Call director Jean Tanner at 725-7949, or Pat Kurovics at 725-9611.
Admission: free, but donations are appreciated.

After just a few minutes in the museum, one’s attention is drawn to curious objects, such as a 100-plus-year-old corn sheller with original red paint and name on its side, and a hand-operated wooden washing machine.

On display is one of the largest collections of Indian artifacts and fossils in the area. Stone mortar and pestles once used to grind grain into flour reflect how hard it was in “olden times” to get enough to eat.

A Bryozoan fossil (similar to coral) that was found at Hill’s Creek was identified by the Smithsonian Institution to be about 400 million years old.

In the eyeglass exhibit is a pair of homemade frames. In days past, traveling peddlers would sell eyeglasses. Someone who probably could not afford ready-made eyeglass frames stitched a pair of lenses into a leather frame, which resembled goggles.

This vintage washing machine used a round “washboard.”

Among other displays is an antique “Prairie Point” quilt, a Civil War-era sewing machine, a spinning wheel, and a circa 1800s yarn winder and “weasel.” The weasel was used to measure loose yarn to skein. A clicker would sound at 40 turns. The clicking mechanism is called a weasel, and at a predetermined point causes a loud warning pop as in “Pop goes the Weasel.”

There also is a wicker baby carriage that is over 100 years old.

Numerous old photos adorn the walls, including one of Gilbert T. Spears (1863-1950), a waterman by well known Baltimore Sun photographer A. Aubrey Bodine.

The research library is steadily growing with memorabilia of early Gwynn’s Island family histories. Visitors can find books on maritime history, archaeology, census records, family Bibles and scrapbooks. 

Battle of Cricket Hill
Gwynn’s Island earned its place in history in 1776 when Virginia forces drove the last royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, from its shores. Dunmore had retreated to Gwynn’s Island. During the Battle of Cricket Hill, his camp and ships were damaged by cannon fire, which forced him to evacuate.

An exhibit depicting a scene from the battle is on the first floor of the museum along with a display of related memorabilia collected by local residents.

Civil War memorabilia includes the Civil War diary of Mary Edwards, a handmade crutch found in the wall of an old house, and a display case of rifles. Included in this display is a French Flintlock holster pistol, circa 1790-1820, made in Normandy.

WWI and WWII memorabilia, which include uniforms, photos, medals, books, personal histories and more, line the back walls of the second floor.

There is a genealogical library and gift shop.

A section is devoted to military items.

Also on display are items relating to prehistoric Native Americans, and an extensive history on the life of Captain John Smith and his connection to Gwynn’s Island.

Additional exhibits
Other exhibits include a pre-Civil War Wheeler and Wilson sewing machine and a tableaux depicting the legend of Col. Hugh Gwynn accepting what is now called Gwynn’s Island from Princess Pocahontas in gratitude for saving her life when she fell from her canoe.

Also featured is memorabilia from the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, an extensive display of antique spectacles collected by the late Dr. Wm. H. Gatten, and artifacts from a mid-18th century home.

There is a large collection of antique medical instruments from the estate of the late Mathews physician, Dr. James Warren Dorsey Haynes, and the old Grimstead Post Office.

The museum is open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 1-5 p.m. May through October and is open by appointment year round. Call director Jean Tanner at 725-7949, or Pat Kurovics at 725-9611. Visit

Admission is free; but donations are appreciated.

Sue Wither of Queenland, Austrailia, summed up the museum this way when she signed the guest book. “I love the way America maintains and honors its history. The best museum I’ve ever seen.”

posted 04.30.2014

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