Surrounded by farmland in rural Dorchester County, the Bucktown Village Store looks much like it did nearly two centuries ago.
A mutt named Chevy lies on the porch. Inside, groceries like soap, tea and baking powder line the shelves. And on a hot summer morning, Jay Meredith, whose family has owned the property for generations, smiles widely as he walks through the door.
The small, yellow structure at the corner of Bucktown and Greenbrier roads was a critical resource for local residents as far back as the 1820s. Today, the store serves as an important historic landmark on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway, a 125-mile stretch named for the Dorchester County native who led approximately 70 enslaved people to freedom and helped free hundreds more over the course of her life.
“What you see is probably pretty similar to what you’d see when Harriet Tubman was here,” said Meredith, who also serves as District Engineer for the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA). “So much of this landscape is unchanged.”
That authenticity has made the store a popular stop on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway, one of 18 Scenic Byways across the state. The routes cover 2,487 miles from the mountains of Western Maryland to the farmlands of the Eastern Shore.
As the COVID-19 public health emergency continues, the byways serve as a safe alternative for families looking to get out of the house, state tourism officials said.
“What’s really great about Scenic Byways are they’re always open, they’re always free, they’re fun and exciting, and you never know what you’re going to see along the way,” said Marci Ross, Senior Assistant Director for Tourism Development at the Maryland Department of Commerce’s Office of Tourism.
The current iteration of the Scenic Byways program launched in 2000. While a similar version of the program existed previously, the current version includes routes that cover some of the state’s most picturesque roadways, along with a few urban and suburban landscapes that feature sites of historical significance.
Byways must exhibit certain characteristics – scenery, history, culture, recreation, archaeology or nature – to be included in the program. Most of the routes are found predominantly on state roads. MDOT SHA creates and maintains the signs that guide visitors.
In Southern Maryland, motorists can follow the escape route set 150-plus years ago by John Wilkes Booth, who fled after assassinating President Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C. There’s also the Religious Freedom and Roots & Tides byways.
About a half-dozen of the state’s byways have received national recognition for their beauty, historic value or other features, including the Tubman route.
The byway approximates the same route the famed abolitionist traveled as she led enslaved people north toward freedom on the so-called “Underground Railroad.” Later, Tubman helped free hundreds more enslaved people while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War.
The byway also marks sites that were significant in Tubman’s earlier years. The Bucktown Village Store, for instance, was the scene of Tubman’s first act of defiance and would affect her throughout her life. An audio tour shares Tubman’s experiences with visitors along the way.
Byways bring tourists, business to local shops
Peering over the land around the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center, a few miles up the road from the Village Store, Maryland Department of Natural Resources Park Manager Dana Paterra said the area looks much like it did when Tubman worked the fields and trapped muskrats in local waterways. That’s part of the reason the Visitor Center site was chosen.
While the facility is closed temporarily due to COVID-19, it will give visitors a comprehensive look at Tubman’s life whenever it reopens, just as it has since 2017. The center has hosted more than 250,000 visitors from all 50 states and 60 countries in the three years since it opened.
Paterra regularly highlights the byway for visitors and urges them to take in other sites, like Meredith’s store. Meredith urges visitors to tour other sites on the byway as well.
“That is our responsibility: to connect people to places along the byway,” Paterra said. “We really appreciate having dedicated partners.”
While Meredith’s store isn’t selling goods these days – his family opens it for tours by appointment only – the economic impact of byway visitors is substantial. Travelers spend money on food, fuel, lodgings and other items.
An international study, published in 2018, showed road trip spending the previous year topped $50 billion nationwide, with the top expenditures going toward lodging (34 percent), transportation (25 percent) and food and beverages (20 percent). Maryland’s byways help keep road–trippers in the state longer, Ross said, leading them to spend more money.
State and local officials are in the process of performing an economic impact study of the Tubman byway. In the meantime, locals attest that the byway has brought them more customers.
“The byway definitely has an impact on business,” said Hope Kraus, who helps run her family’s produce stand near Denton in Caroline County. “It brings in people from across the (Bay) Bridge, even from Delaware, all over the place come here to our produce stand. I think it really helps.”
It’s not all business on the byways, though. State tourism officials encourage travelers to explore and turn their journeys into good old-fashioned family road trips.
“The journey can be the destination,” said Anne Kyle, Product Development Manager for the Maryland Department of Commerce’s Office of Tourism.
On the Tubman byway, travelers encounter historic homes, churches and museums spread out among quaint small towns and sprawling farmland. There are country stores and produce stands along with seafood companies and other small businesses. That’s on top of the natural landscape.
Cheryl Ladota, MDOT SHA’s Recreational Trails and Scenic Byways Program Manager, said the byways have a way of bringing out a side of visitors they may not have known existed.
“I never thought of myself as a ‘history buff,’ but going out and doing the Civil War byways, it really does suck you in,” Ladota said.
Ladota especially enjoys the routes in Western Maryland, with their rolling farmlands and mountainous terrain.
“It’s very easy to travel out there,” she said. “It’s not so congested and it’s a part of Maryland a lot of people don’t always think about. It’s scenic and there are a lot of hidden gems.”
While each byway has designated sites – featured on maps and programs travelers can use – there are also plenty of other destinations along the way that motorists can stumble upon. Those spontaneous stops add to the road trip experience, Kyle said.
“Even though we try to help people plan ahead … it’s not the same as going out there and experiencing it,” Kyle said. “There’s some sort of freedom people feel on the road during a road trip. It can be fun to travel along and play your tunes with the windows down.”
MDOT Secretary Greg Slater worked 22 years for MDOT SHA and is intimately familiar with the state’s byways.
“Maryland’s Scenic Byways program is a testament to the power of partnerships and collaboration,” Secretary Slater said. “Together, multiple agencies have worked hard to show off Maryland’s history and natural resources, much to the benefit of our businesses, residents and visitors.”
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