The Cook Shop
The year is 1941. Picture yourself seated at a long table in a lively two-room restaurant, surrounded by friends and fellow workers. The red checkered tablecloth in the longer room is set with a small flower vase and well-loved dishware. A jukebox and lunch counter fill one end of the room, and a piano occupies the other end. A bright red Coca-Cola machine offers chilled drinks. World War II has created turmoil around the world, but for now this homey eatery is cozy and warm.
The clamor of skillets and the chatter of the cooks resonate from the kitchen, where steam rises and lunch sizzles. The delicious aromas of fried chicken, ham, oysters, and crab cakes mix with the scents of hot coffee, freshly baked bread, and homemade desserts.
Maybe you consider trying a slice of freshly baked 7-Up pound cake or sweet potato pie. But first, you ask the server for a full meal, which sets you back just 25 cents. Around you, people laugh and tell stories over the noonday meal, making the most of their lunch breaks before heading back to work, perhaps as oyster shuckers and canners at the nearby Woodfield Fish & Oyster Company or F.&H. Benning Company.
You’re seated in Margaret Crowner’s Cook Shop, a tiny restaurant that opened in 1941 to serve primarily the African American community in Galesville, Maryland. Jump to today, the year 2021, and it seems to me that a place like this is exactly what we all need right about now—a neighborhood gathering place that offers the warmth of a giving community, an open door, and a shared meal.
Welcome to Historic Galesville
Galesville lies on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay’s scenic West River. Established circa 1652, Galesville evolved first as an agricultural shipping port and later as a center for seafood packing, boat building, and farming. Today’s Galesville is a nostalgic haven for families, small farmers, sailors, and boatyard workers. The town’s welcome sign message spans the centuries: “Galesville, Where the Past Meets the Present with a Promise.”
In the decades after the Civil War, many African American families purchased lots and built their homes around Galesville’s West Benning Road, the neighborhood in which the Cook Shop stood. Residents of this historically black neighborhood worked mostly as watermen, farmhands, and seafood packers.
The Cook Shop at 954 West Benning Road was built in 1941 by Margaret Crowner’s husband Benjamin Crowner, Sr. with help from neighbors. The restaurant remained in business for 28 years, operated by Margaret and later by her daughter. The restaurant structure fell into disrepair and was torn down by family members in 1994, but the restaurant’s spirit lives on.
Margaret and Benjamin supplied the restaurant through fishing and working their backyard vegetable gardens, fruit trees, livestock, and smokehouse. The Crowners even made a little dandelion wine from time to time. Things weren’t easy early on, because all the water used in the restaurant had to be pumped by hand from a well and carried to the kitchen.
The Cook Shop was a Gathering Place
The restaurant was a community meeting place during segregation and afterward, sometimes serving as a venue for conversations about the civil rights movement. African American food traditions were perpetuated and shared. Restaurant patrons included neighborhood residents, seafood workers at the nearby processing houses, employees of the Upper Marlboro tobacco warehouses, and baseball players on the Galesville Hot Sox team.
For regulars, the Cook Shop was a home away from home, where they stopped on the way to and from work to eat and socialize or just hang out on the front stoop. Children could visit on the way home from school for a warm place to do their homework. Sundays at the Cook Shop were set aside for family prayer and scripture reading, followed by a delicious meal.
On Wednesday evenings, the tables were moved aside and chairs were set up for movie viewing, with the screen on one end of the room and the projector on the other. After the movie, the children knew their job was to move the tables back to ready the restaurant for breakfast the next morning. On other evenings, the Cook Shop served as the venue for bingo, dances, parties, and other entertainment. The jukebox or a live band provided the music for the dances, which were well attended by Galesville residents and visitors arriving by boat or car from Shady Side and the surrounding area.
The Cook Shop’s Spirit Lives On
Although the Cook Shop is gone and the village economy has changed over the decades, Galesville still offers plenty of history and modern-day interest for visiting diners, tourists, and boaters. The West Benning Road Historic District has been surveyed by the Maryland Historical Trust and is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The neighborhood today includes historical sites such as the Galesville Rosenwald School (c.1929), the Hot Sox Baseball field (c.1915), and the Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church (c.1880).
You can witness history through a recent video program interviewing three Crowner family members about their firsthand memories of the Cook Shop’s early days. Learn about life at the restaurant and how Margaret and Benjamin Crowner’s work ethic, family values, and morals shaped the community and their own descendants. The video program also includes a cooking demonstration.
Watch the video here: Facebook Galesville Community Center Organization
The program is sponsored by the Galesville Community Center Organization, Lost Towns Project, Arts Council of Anne Arundel County, Preservation Maryland, Maryland Historical Trust, and Maryland Humanities. For more information about Galesville history, visit: Galesville Community Center (historicgalesville.org)
Read more about efforts to document African American heritage sites in Anne Arundel County here: African American Heritage.
Find the African American Heritage Trail here: African American Voices, Memories and Places: A Chesapeake Crossroads Heritage Trail.
Read a Guide to local African American History and Culture at: African_American_Heritage_Guide.pdf