Finalist for Nicest Place in America: Rock Hall, Maryland
Kathi DoneganYou wake up in a picturesque seaside town. It’s a beautiful day and you decide to go for a stroll. The first person you see on the street waves at you like they know you. Do you know them? You don’t think so. You move on. Then another person waves and smiles at you. Then another, and another after that. You’re pretty sure you don’t know any of them.
No, you’re not in an episode of Black Mirror. You’re in Rock Hall, Maryland, where everyone waves and smiles. Locals call it the “Rock Hall wave,” and it helps give this tiny hamlet its quintessential small-town feel.
Rock Hall is an historical harbor town, with roughly one-quarter of the residents earning their living on the water. Independent commercial fishermen, known as “watermen,” troll for crabs, oysters and more in all kinds of weather.
Kathi Donegan“I call them the last cowboys on the Chesapeake Bay,” says Rock Hall resident Tom McHugh.
Although watermen may look tough, they’re just as friendly as everyone else in Rock Hall.
“The watermen have one hand down watching for crabs, and the other hand automatically goes up as you go by,” says McHugh. “It’s an identifying part of Rock Hall friendliness, no matter where you are.”
“It’s a very tight-knit, welcoming community,” says McHugh. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a pickup truck or a Bentley—you just wave.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a pickup truck or a Bentley—you just wave.”
At first, this precious local custom confuses people, but soon, even most short-term visitors begin to return the favor.
“Most people wave back,” says Rock Hill Mayor Brian Jones. “It’s really unique, the friendliness. It’s a signature thing in Rock Hall.”
The Dog That Got Her Own Bank Account
Roughly 1,300 friendly people live in this 310-year-old harbor town on the Chesapeake Bay. The town motto says it all: “Nice people live here.” Rock Hall residents welcome visitors and treat their community like family—and everyone is part of the family, even pets.
For years, Rock Hall resident Benny Gerlock drove a big rig on long hauls and brought his beloved dog Holly along for the ride. Gerlock died in a trucking accident in Dallas in 2013, but Holly, a Chesapeake Bay retriever, survived. When Gerlock’s Rock Hall friends heard the news, they knew they had to bring Holly back from Dallas. Kelley Reuwer, Gerlock’s neighbor, had promised to take care of Holly if anything ever happened to the trucker, and she planned to keep that promise.
Two of Gerlock’s best friends wanted to make the trip, but there was the matter of food, gas and lodging to contend with. Luckily, people in Rock Hall wanted to help.
“I went to the local bank—there’s only one bank in town—and found out that people were wanting to donate for Holly and didn’t know what to do, so they said to open a bank account and start socking money into it,” Reuwer says. “It’s a small town, so rumor got out that Holly got a bank account. We called it ‘Help for Holly.’
Town residents anonymously donated more than $3,000 so that Gerlock’s friends could make the 2,800-mile round-trip drive to bring Holly home.
“They took Benny’s truck, so when they put Holly in the truck, she’d have some sense of Benny being there,” Jones says.
Town officials and fire department were waiting with flashing engine lights and a “Welcome Home” sign to meet the rescue party upon Holly’s return.
“We had a big impromptu celebration,” Reuwer says. “She was so happy to get home and see familiar faces—she was overjoyed. There were a lot of tears that night.”
Holly has won a place in everyone’s heart. She’s become the town mascot, and this year, she’ll ride in the Fourth of July parade.
Looking Out for Their Own
Kathi DoneganRock Hall has always looked after their own. And no one epitomizes this more than resident Kathi Donegan, who keeps tabs on the 98-year-old woman who lives across the street.
“If I see her lights on after midnight, I call her up right away to make sure everything’s OK,” Donegan says. “Her son, who lives in Virginia Beach, tells everyone she’s living in assisted living, since our entire town assists with her living.”
Love for your neighbor is everywhere you look in Rock Hall. When a young boy in town needed cancer treatment, everyone put red cancer-awareness bows on their mailboxes and doors, then sent donations to the family to help cover the cost of his care. When a local house painter contractor died of a heart attack, leaving his wife and children without a provider, everyone in town hired from his company, knowing the money would go back to his family.
“Anything that happens in Rock Hall, the community rallies together,” Jones says. “Everyone supports each other during a time of need.”
Each June, when athletes descend on Rock Hall for an annual triathlon. residents far and wide scurry to help.
They volunteer with directing traffic, providing water stations,” Jones says. “If the course goes past their houses, there are local people with garden hoses to cool them off. It’s cool to see the engagement of the local people.”