The Holly Run to Tangier
How the kindness of one man, Cambridge lawyer, philanthropist, and speed boat racer Ed Nabb, started a tradition

By Mac McMahon

As seen in the museum on Tangier Island



“Eight four one zero whiskey is abeam the north beach”
“Can you see Santa Claus, Mac?”
“I think that’s him on final”
“Can’t wait to see the look on those kid’s faces when he comes through the door”
With that the last of the twelve planes landed at Tangier on December 1, 2007 loaded with holly and Christmas presents and continuing a tradition that began with Ed Nabb 39 years earlier. 

Tangier Island, about 12 miles off the Eastern Shore, was discovered by Captain John Smith in 1607, and so named because it reminded him of that island off the coast of Africa.  But as with so many facts about the Eastern Shore, there is even dispute about this naming.Smith noted that the island was covered in pine trees and green even in winter but time and strong storms have eliminated the greenery and the island is bare and brown in the winter.In 1967 a runway was constructed by the Federal Government as an emergency landing strip for the Patuxent Naval Air Station.  Small general aviation aircraft were banned from using the strip but they managed to sneak in anyway.  That’s at least what local lore has it.  In fact, if you talk to the pilots at Patuxent they just laugh at the thought of it being their emergency strip because they know of no aircraft flying from their base that could land at Tangier.  Turns out the runway was constructed by the Virginia Department of Aviation for the use of small general aviation aircraft. 

Ed Nabb, in his green and white 1946 Ercoupe, was among the first pilots to land at Tangier.  It was in the winter of 1968 that he stopped in for lunch at his favorite sandwich shop.  Then, in the words of Virginia Marshall, a Tangier native who has met every Holly Run since day one, “he talked with my daughter, Lorraine, who at the time worked as a waitress in a local restaurant.  When he walked around he saw that we had no holly trees.  From then on, he would fly here, always on a Saturday or Sunday, depending on the weather, to bring holly to us before Christmas”.The first Holly Run was in December 1968 when Ed Nabb arrived with two bags of holly and gave one to the Swain Memorial Methodist Church and the other to the New Testament Church.  But a problem arose over the lack of support in the Bible for decorating the church.  It was clearly a pagan custom and it gave the church fathers some pause. However after discussion it was decided that the spirit of the gesture should be the guiding force and the holly was accepted.Mrs. Marshall continues, “After receiving the holly, we would take it and drape it around the altar in the church but the children would take the berries off when they were having their Christmas program.  They would become distracted and forget their lines.  So now we place the holly in the church windows and in two white urns outside the church”. 

In the ensuing years word spread among the pilot communities around the Chesapeake and the one-man show started to look more like a small squadron of little planes.  By 1975 the group had grown to seven planes carrying the big plastic bags full of holly.  That year was also the first time Santa Claus came along for the ride, impersonated by Mike A. Wingo, a Cambridge radio announcer.  As the year went by the size of the group grew and in one year 41 planes made the trip from Cambridge to Tangier.

The event is usually scheduled for the first Saturday in December with the following Saturday being used if the weather is bad.  Dozens of pilots fly into Cambridge Airport around 10 am for free coffee and donuts and to renew old friendships.  In the past the mayor of Cambridge would address the group, welcoming them to Cambridge and providing a short synopsis of the day’s schedule.  Then Ed Nabb would address the group, giving a short history of the holly run and would explain the departure sequence: “First the slower planes will depart, and then the faster ones and the faster ones will pass the slower ones and land first.  We’ll put Santa Claus in one of the faster planes so he can get to Tangier first.”  The takeoff can take a while because of the sheer number of planes involved but fortunately there has never been an accident or incident associated with the holly run. 

After all the planes arrive at Tangier and are tied down, Mrs. Virginia Marshall greets the group (as she has done since the first holly run with the exception of a few years when she took care of her ailing husband and Mrs. Hattie Bowden greeted the pilots) and Santa and his gigantic bag are loaded in a golf cart for the short trip to the community room at the church where Mrs. Marshall has all the young children of the island waiting.  The look on those children’s faces as Santa comes through the door is something to behold and has had more than one pilot to say what an excellent way to start the holiday season!  While Santa hands out the presents and after the pilots are treated to coffee, hot chocolate, and home made cookies (rumors are that lately they are store bought) they wend their way to the Swain Methodist Church for what, for many of us, is the best part of the trip—a discussion of life on Tangier led by Mrs. Marshall and several of her friends.   

Most of the pilots know the short version of the history of Tangier.  After its discovery by Captain John Smith in 1607 not much happened until it was purchased from the Indians in 1666 by a Mr. West from the Mainland for “two overcoats”.  Twenty years later West sold part of it to John Crockett, said to be kin to Davy Crockett of Tennessee.  By 1900 the population was nearly 1200, one-third of whom were Crocketts.  Until recently it was tradition that the Mayor was a Crockett. With no police, courts, or municipal system, the mayor was the final authority on the island and was capable of banishing any immoral person from this God-fearing congregation. The island gained some fame during the War of 1812 when it served as a British naval base.  The islanders were mostly Tories and were hospitable to the soldiers who took some pain to not offend or abuse them.  The older people can remember their grandparents tell of the soldiers walking single file through the corn to reach the well.  They avoided damaging the corn.  Prior to their departure for the attack on Fort McHenry outside Baltimore (where the words to the Star Spangled Banner were written) the soldiers received a strong sermon from a native preacher named Joshua Thomas (who was Mrs. Marshall’s great grandfather).  He is said to have forecast their defeat at Fort McHenry. 

There has never been any established industry on the island; most of the population makes a living from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.  As the quality and quantity of oysters and crabs has declined in the Bay, so too has the population.  From a high of about 1200 in 1900 it has declined to about 600 today.  And as the population has declined, so has the size of the island as the waters of the Chesapeake rise.  Some estimates put the loss at about 25 feet a year on the western part of the island.  With the decline in fishing some islanders have turned to the tourist industry which is fed by daily boat service from Crisfield and Reidsville.  In addition, some wealthy Mainlanders have chosen to retire on the island which, needless to say, has caused some concern among the native population.

This is the background against which the pilots assemble in the Swain Methodist Church every December to hear how the people are coping with these difficult issues which come on top of the challenges of living in an isolated community.  The gathering ends with singing of Christmas carols and a reciting of the Pilot’s Prayer: 

                        Lord guard and guide the men who fly

                        Through the great spaces of the sky

                        Be with them traversing the air

                        In darkening storms or sunshine fair

                        Aloft in solitudes of space

                        Uphold them with thy saving grace

                        O God protect the men who fly

                        Through lonely ways beneath the sky.  Amen 

Isolation presents its own set of challenges.  The mail arrives daily from Crisfield and this boat takes islanders to the Mainland where many have cars parked to take them shopping or to visit friends. A doctor in Reidsville comes every Thursday for routine medical services.  The doctor is extremely conscientious and has both a plane and a boat to make the crossing. For medical emergencies a helicopter is available to take patients to either Reidsville or Massaponx Hospitals.  Fog is the big enemy of easy transport to the Mainland and, in that case, the islanders rely on the Coast Guard. 

Ed Nabb Jr. tells the humorous story of how the school got built. “Years ago, the mainland government, which administers Tangier, decided it was time to build a new school.  The natives visited the county seat and requested that the money budgeted for construction be turned over to them.  The result was a school three times as large as a contractor would have provided.  The school system goes through high school and the teachers are natives.  The Tangier school system has the highest evaluations of any community on Delmarva.”

There is serious drug and alcohol abuse especially among the young people who frequently don’t have much to do.  In years past the fishing was good and young people were trained by their fathers for that business.  There was little free time to get into trouble.  Now the business is slack and the young folks have time on their hands. Many of the young people leave the island to seek jobs in Crisfield and Reidsville.  They frequently take jobs running tug boats for two weeks at a time and gradually get used to living off the island.  This provides a transition to longer periods away from the island.

The tourist industry is growing and is providing opportunities for some in the community.  Hilda Crockett’s restaurant and B&B has long been a gathering place for tourists who make it one day trip.  But some are starting to stay overnight to catch the magical beauty of the sunsets on Tangier.  As you can imagine, not everyone in the community is pleased with the growth in tourism, seeing it as a sort of corruption of the traditional values associated with a hard-working fishing community.

Some might think that such isolation would cause inbreeding problems but as Ed Nabb Jr. points out, “the people of Tangier are large, strong, and handsome people.  You will see children with tan hair, tan eyes, and white skin—just as you would see in any village in Devon.  Her sister will be a blonde, blue-eyed Scandinavian, and her brother will have high cheekbones, straight black hair and the ruddy complexion of an American Indian.” 

The man who started all of this, Ed Nabb Sr., was very much a product of what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation”.  Ed, a practicing attorney, never went to college.  After serving in the Army in both World War II and Korea, he returned to Cambridge and read law in an office the old fashioned way—the way Abe Lincoln did.  Although known mostly as a prominent Cambridge attorney, he was better known as a fearless speed boat racer and aircraft pilot.  He also wrote articles on marine engines for several boating magazines from the 1940’s to the 1970’s.  He was elected to the Marine Racing Hall of Fame in 1947. Ed was president of the Nathan Foundation for more than 20 years and gave more than $700,000 in scholarships during that time.  Ed believed in giving his money away while he was still alive.  He used to say, “I never saw a hearse followed by a Mayflower moving truck.”

Ed was also known as a great story teller.  “A good old Eastern shore boy” as one of his friends put it.  He had traced his family history to the Eastern shore in the early 18th century as indentured servants a records show his forbearer Edward Nabb came to the Eastern shore in 1716.  He would say, “Let’s face it, the Chesapeake Bay region is where the U.S. began and there should be a repository here for that information.”  To that end, Ed endowed a research center at Salisbury University in the sum of $500,000 now called the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture.  The Center has many invaluable historical documents and oral histories of the old days on the Eastern shore.  For example, the Center has copies of the oldest sets of court house records in the Continental U.S. dating back to 1632.

Ed died on June 2nd, 2002.  I am sure he would be pleased if folks visited his center and fell in love with the lore of the Eastern shore much as he did. 

Santa Claus

The idea of adding a Santa Claus to the mix came late in the history of the run.  Initially one of the participants would wear a Santa Claus hat and drive around the island handing out candy canes to the young ones.  Then enter James Schultz of Ocean City.  Jim is the spitting image of what we think Santa Claus should look like and he needs no props to achieve this effect.  This natural “talent” undoubtedly led him to be the Santa in the Ocean City Christmas parade for many years.  Unfortunately for the folks of Ocean City, the city fathers decided that the Christmas theme violated their concept of separation of church and state.  Unfortunate for them but fortunate for those of us involved in the Holly Run.  Jim volunteered to be the Holly Run Santa Claus with the condition that he be allowed to buy presents for the children out of his own pocket.  Jim—Santa Claus—brightens up the children as he enters the room with a big sack of toys like no one else.  And the toys are of exceptional quality.  Jim’s helper is Al Snyder of Selbyville.  Jim can be reached at 13707 Fiesta Way, Ocean City, Maryland 21842.

If You Go

Tangier Island is accessible by boat from Crisfield, Maryland and Reedville, Virginia from mid-May through mid-October.  The trip runs an hour and 15 minutes from Crisfield and an hour and a half from Reedville.  Fare is approximately $25 for an adult each way.  The Crisfield departure is 12:30 PM with return at 4:00 PM.  The Reedville schedule is 10:00 AM departure and return at 2:00 PM.  Overnight accommodations are available at Hilda Crockett’s B&B from May through October.  All year round accommodations are available at the Bay View Inn B&B and the Sunset Inn B&B.  Further information is available at the Tangier Island website: