The history of the Castle in the Sand hotel on 37th street in Ocean City reaches back more than 400 years to an Eastern Shore land grant during the colonial reign of Benedict Calvert, a child of eight whom served as the Fourth Lord Baltimore.
It winds from the late 17th Century, long before Worcester County was carved out of Somerset County, down to Adam Showell, whose forebears were among the handful of families who founded Ocean City not long after the Civil War.
[In honor of the family’s early history, Adam’s sister and former partner, the late Ann Showell Mariner, belonged to the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. She died at age 66 in January, 2013.]
Showell, 55, tells stories of what used to be – some he lived through, others he’s only heard or read about – in his office at the Castle surrounded by old maps, family obituaries and photographs of the days when a road trip to the shore was a lark most folks only read about in magazines.
“Our family goes back to 1683, the land grant was north of Berlin,” said Showell, now holding the reins of those who came before him. “My ancestors did very well. They became successful farmers, sending crops and lumber to Philadelphia and Baltimore.”
Said a cousin, Ocean City attorney Harold “Chip” Gordy, 68, “We are merchants by birth. It’s in our blood.
Ocean City was founded in 1875 and incorporated in 1880. The unincorporated Worcester county town of Showell, just east of Route 113 and north of the Route 90 approach to Ocean City, was originally known as St. Martin’s in connection to the nearby river.
About five miles north of Berlin, the community was renamed in honor of the colonel – once believed to be the richest man in Worcester County before a reversal of fortune – in the late 19th century. In 2013, it had a population of less than 100.
The Showells moved to Ocean City in 1896. The Castle in the Sand has been the marquee business since Adam’s parents – John Dale Showell III and the former Ann Lockhart, both deceased – opened the hotel in 1960.
But long before that – since ancestor Colonel Lemuel Showell [1825-to-1902] funded and ran the Wicomico and Pocomoke Railroad that first brought tourists to the Maryland seashore after the last spike was driven in 1876 – the family owned some of the most fabled attractions in Ocean City.
Most memorable of the family’s beach holdings was the “Showell block” at the Boardwalk and Division Street: a big chunk of oceanfront anchored by a bathhouse (where late 19th and early 20th century bathers rented swim suits for a quarter); a salt water pool filled via a pipe that went out into the surf; a duckpin bowling alley where Chip Gordy filled in sometimes as a pin setter and soda fountain.
“A lot of people didn’t know how to swim back then,” said Adam of folks who rode the old W&P rail for daytrips to the shore. “They’d rent a bathing suit, hold onto the rope and wade into the water …”
Nearby, the Showells owned an arcade and a movie theater where Adam’s mother, Ann Lockhart Showell [1924-to-2010] sold tickets not long after marrying John Dale Showell III [a Marine in World War II] in 1947.
Eras change distinctly about every generation or so. From the days of tentative bathers holding onto a heavy rope bolted to the boardwalk – as they did in front of the Showell beach house in the Roaring 20s – through the great storm of 1933 that cut an “inlet” between the barrier island and the mainland to create a sport fishing bonanza before a golden age of prosperity development in the 1950s and ‘60s of which Adam Showell’s parents were principals.
Upon Ann Showell’s death [almost a decade after her husband], longtime friend and newspaperman John M. Purnell said: “Mrs. Showell was the last survivor from the glam era of old Ocean City …
“She was a glamorous and posh lady who always lived well. She was always stylishly dressed, and you never saw her in a pair of jeans unless she was gardening …”
In the days when the resort only operated in the summer months – about 12 short weeks during which a year’s income had to be made – Ocean City’s prominent families would hold end-of-the-season parties in their homes.
Young Adam and his older siblings – John Dale Showell IV and Sarah Elizabeth Showell along with Ann – grew up in the midst of bay front soirees reminiscent of Gatsby. At their parents’ West Ocean City estate, sold in 2011, they saw great lawn parties of roast beef and oysters and champagne.
At one time, “John Dale” (as Adam’s father was known) owned the former state yacht- 118 feet, steel-hulled – Maryland Lady.
Now in the prime of his middle-age (having expanded the business with his sister Ann in 2004 with the purchase of the Green Turtle Club resort in the Bahamas), Adam Showell is old enough to remember the days just before the federal government bought all 37 miles of Assateague Island in 1965; back when men from the old Ocean City families kept hunting and fishing and carousing cabins there.
“I grew up with a rowboat and then a little motor boat,” said Showell of his Huckleberry Finn childhood. “I’d just go exploring around and it was a big adventure in my life when I made it across the Wire Pond to this island where I built a fort and camped out.”
Today, Adam camps out in a little cottage off of Coastal Highway and 37 former boarding house called the Teresita that his folks bought from George Morse in the early 1970s. There, he keeps the Showell name percolating in business deals, connected to the kin that came before him.
“People love Ocean City,” he said, “because their childhoods were spent here.”
Next: Part Two – the building of the Castle and the 1960s.