Museum of Chincoteague Opens with Heritage Day Celebration


The Museum is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.  (Closed Mondays and on July 4) For more information, visit the site here.

By Misty Thornton

Editor, Wild Pony Tales

When you step into the doorway of the Museum of Chincoteague you have gone through a gateway into the past of the storied islands of Chincoteague and Assateague on the East Coast of Virginia.

The museum opened March 22 with its second Heritage Day Celebration that brought old timers and other visitors together.

They had plenty of memories to share.

Once through the entrance is an exhibit dedicated to the historic watermen and their ways of life displayed through stories, quotes, and pictures titled, “When the Marsh Seemed Endless.” This exhibit was due to change March 23.

Newly designed exhibits revealing stories and artifacts from the 1800’s to present day line every corner, nook and cranny. Each exhibit is sponsored by  families and businesses throughout the island.

The museum, located at 7125 Maddox Boulevard, holds many new exhibits with more in the works. In an earlier interview, John Jester, chairman of the museum board, said the museum would include some things for young people to feel and touch, such as an old fire hose.

Members of the board of directors who also did most of the creative and construction work on the new museum are: Mr. Jester, president, William Spann, vice president,  H. Baxter Brasure, Kelly Conklin, Deborah Betts Bender, Lyn Cannon, Jack Tarr, Ellen Richardson, Christian Young, Scott Chesson, and J. Holt Shotwell. The executive director is William Borges.

William Spann and Bill Borges, had experience in setting up antique shows and  the skills from that work enabled them to take on the detailed work in setting up the museum exhibits. They tackled one of the biggest tasks of making frames and presentations for hundreds of photographs. Among these photographs are a large number of donated vintage photos from resident Dino Johnson.

Inside the entrance way sits one of the first illuminating bulbs Assateague Lighthouse ever cast out among the waters. The illuminating apparatus was adjusted and the light from the new Assateague Lighthouse first shone over the channel on Oct. 1, 1867. The Fresnel Lens enabled mariners to see it from a distance of 19 miles in all directions using three 100 watt light bulbs. To read more on the Assateague Lighthouse, visit: /archives/417

Beyond the Fresnel Lens exhibit sits an area dedicated to the different types of boats that were used in the early 1900’s. Museum visitors can only imagine the hard work and way of life the watermen lived on these boats.  While some watermen still work on boats in Chincoteague and Assateague waters, most of the bounty from the sea is now taken by larger boats that go many miles into the Atlantic Ocean.

A small gift shop is located by the service desk at the front main entrance. T-shirts and mugs, along with other souvenirs are available. Across from the gift shop sits a short hallway-like area leading into a maze of entertaining and historical exhibits.

In the center of that area sits a life size Punt Gun. A punt gun is a type of extremely large shotgun used in the 19th and early 20th centuries for shooting large numbers of waterfowl for commercial harvesting operations and private sport. Hunters would have to maneuver the whole boat to face the target using just about anything for ammunition, nuts, bolts, shots, glass, nails and screws in any combination. Firing the gun would often propel the boat backwards several inches or more. By the 1860’s, most states had banned the practice.

To the left of the Punt Gun, along the wall, are pictures and documentations of the present day accomplishments in fishing, transportation and island access, and a few pictures of the famous Chincoteague wild ponies. This exhibit was constructed to show the way life has changed drastically over the course of time.

Looking to the right of the Punt Gun, stands a shelf –like exhibit with fossils found on the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague. Some fossils are of extinct animals, arrowheads and rocks dating back centuries ago. Arrowheads are still found throughout the islands today.

The oyster business was established on the island by John W. Whealton, the island's first millionaire. Mr. Whealton owned what became the largest store on the Eastern Shore and opened the Whealton Oyster Company. Through Mr. Whealton's strong leadership, the island's seafood industry was allowed to operate during the Civil War.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the island a grant with gratitude for aligning with the Confederacy during the war. The grant enabled boat captains from Chincoteague free trade with northern ports and provided them with naval protection. With this, Chincoteague's reputation and seafood industry sky rocketed and continued to for decades.

A Shanty Boat, a boat used for gunning, was widely popular in the Mid-Atlantic region from the 1880’s to the turn of the 20th century. All shared the characteristic flat bottom and rectangular structure on deck. Every picture of a marsh area had small dots marking where shanty boats were located. These boats were used for fishing, bird hunting and crabbing. The Shanty Boat was built with a large frame and a house type room where the watermen could relax, plan, eat and sleep. They were often seen with water fowl strung along the sides of the boats.

Just past and to the right is a small room where movie programs are played throughout each day with various topics about the islands and its history.  This exhibit will be visible at the museum until the end of April.

“Nearly all the work it has taken to plan and develop the new museum was done by the board members who are all retired,” said Mr. Jester in a previous interview. “It just happened that among them, they had a combination of talents to do the various jobs.”

A large colorful quilt is displayed toward the back of the building with 780 names on it. The historical quilt was a fund raiser for the fire bucket brigade of the time. Getting your name on the quilt cost 10 cents in 1918.

Visitors may also see a stained glass window from the D.J. Whealton house and an extensive collection of boat models including a large model of the Manzanita which was built by Herb Jester and is on loan from the Leonard family of Chincoteague.

The Manzanita, the famous ferry boat that carried passengers and mail from Chincoteague to Franklin City on the mainland where they could board a train for points north. It was a 25 minute ride across the water. Ferry service was stopped when the new bridge and causeway were opened about 1922.

Also on display is a Dragger named the “Captain Oliver” donated to the museum by native islander Parker Selby and an 1880 hand pumper from the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, purchased in 1905 for $25.

More exhibits include a large collection of Native American artifacts from the “Gingoteagues” who are a part of the Nanticoke Nation. Also on display is the community bell which Mr. Jester remembers ringing when he was a child.

An old Shipmate cook stove is also on exhibit. A Shipmate is a wood stove which was used to create warmth and cook food on the “Down the Bay” boats of years gone by. Loaves of bread were actually baked in these tiny stoves by the watermen themselves.

Near the cook stove is a small scale exhibit of what a fish trap looked like and an oyster shucking station.

The Museum of Chincoteague Island is accepting contributions. If you have something you are willing to share, you may contact the Exhibits and Collections Committee at 757-336-6117. You may call the same number to inquire about exhibits, hours and admission fees.

Upcoming exhibits this year include:

“1900-1910…A Decade of Change”- March 23 to May 5 – This exhibit has been developed with support from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. At the beginning of the twentieth century the Town of Chincoteague Island was going through rapid change. In 1900, Chincoteague was a small fishing village; by 1910 the island had modern amenities and a bustling economy.


“CHINCO DE MAYO CELEBRATION” - May 4 – 5 p.m. – Join the festivities at the Museum that begin just as the island’s famous Seafood Festival is winding down. This evening features a sale of artworks that are all 5 inches X 5 inches. They are all priced at $55. The celebration starts at 5 p.m., and the actual sale will begin at 5:55 p.m. Admission is $5 with all drinks priced at $5.

“Beebe Ranch Exhibit” - May 9 to September 2 – This exhibit features “Misty” and “Stormy” the legendary ponies that are part of Marguerite Henry’s famous children’s classics. A rare collection of memorabilia helps to tell the story of the wild pony herds of Chincoteague and Assateague Islands.

“Architecture of the Island” - May 24 to September 2 -– Although Chincoteague Island is relatively small, its architecture is very diverse. This exhibit will feature many of the styles of residential architecture that can be found on the island. Some of the featured homes will be catalog homes purchased from Sears and Roebuck as kits and other homes that were brought to the island by barge from Assateague.

“Pony Penning Week” - July 19 to July 28 – Special activities, lectures, and displays will take place at the museum. Visit with members of the Beebe Family as they remember their days growing up on the Beebe Ranch.

“African-American Teaguers” - September 21 to October 28 – The Museum of Chincoteague Island will mark the 150thanniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with an exhibit that provides insight into the African-American experience on the island.

“HOLIDAY GALA” - November 8 – A festive event to start the holiday season with an exhibit of antique and vintage Christmas decorations and ornaments, an “Over the Top” Christmas Sweater contest, a silent auction and holiday food and drink.

Tickets: $30, go on sale at the museum starting on June 1.

“Old-Time Christmas” - November 9 to November 24 - An exhibit of Christmas decorations and ornaments from Victorian times to the 1950s from private collections. The museum store will be stocked with items for gift-giving.       



%d bloggers like this: