GRASONVILLE — The Queen Anne’s County Waterman’s Association sponsored an entertaining and educational event, the Waterman’s Story Swap, Friday evening, Feb. 24, where more than 200 people attended in the pavilion at VFW Post 7464 in Grasonville. The building was at capacity. Every seat was filled, and approximately 60 people were standing in the back when seats ran out.
Apparently, there was much anticipation for this event, where nine local waterman, born and raised in Queen Anne’s County, were scheduled to tell stories of their adventures harvesting seafood from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The nine watermen were, as seated, Joey Horney, Charles Bryan, Lewis Carter, John Thomas, Jerry Harris, Montro Wright, Lamont Wright, George O’Donnell and Michael Ruth. All had previously been interviewed by native Kent Islander Brent Lewis, local author and master of ceremonies.
Before the first speaker, longtime waterman, Kent Island native Harry Davidson sang folk style, accompanied by guitarist Shea Springer of Easton. Davidson, 87, sang two songs he wrote. One was titled “Long John — the Oyster Tonging Man” for the late Kent Island waterman John Peet. The other song, “Butterball” told the anchor throwing exploits of iconic waterman Calvert “Butterball” Thompson. The songs were performed by Davidson in an early Bob Dylan folk style.
First, Lewis invited Karen (Harris) Oertel, longtime owner of Harris Crab House and Harris Seafood Company, to speak about her family’s history in the seafood industry. Her father, the late William H. “Captain Bill” and mom, known as “Sis” Harris had purchased an oyster packing house at the Kent Narrows 70 years ago. Indeed, this year is the 70th anniversary of the Harris family’s venture into the seafood industry. Where more than 20 oyster packing houses once stood along the banks of the Narrows, Harris Seafood is today the last remaining, year-round packing house in Maryland still standing and functioning successfully.
Following Oertel, Lewis began inviting the watermen to share stories of their challenges and lessons learned in this often unpredictable profession. Several described purchasing their first boat, many of them, like Joey Horney, being as young as 12. Montro Wright described buying his first boat from Captain Warren Butler. Wright had to pawn his car to secure enough money to buy the boat more than 60 years ago. George O’Donnell said, “I bought my first boat in the parking lot here at the VFW.”
Stories of prices of seafood were wildly different back in the mid-1950s, a bushel of crabs, $8, a gallon of shucked oysters, $8.
Jerry Harris, Karen Oertel’s brother, said, “I learned to work from Billy Schulz, and I love that man to this day for the lessons he taught me. He taught me what work was!”
One of the waterman added, “This work (as watermen) was an investment of the willingness to work!”
Lamont Wright, Montro’s son, said, “I, at first, hated work on the water, but I did it. We went to work out on the water before school each day and made it back in before the school bus came.”
Lewis Carter was originally trained by Charles Bryan, beginning when Lewis was 12 years old. Bryan said, “I remember Lewis earned $3 a day.” Lewis Carter remembered that, too.
Brent Lewis mentioned that watermen go out on the water in almost any type of weather. Horney talked about getting trapped inside his boat when a 77 mile per hour wind came out of nowhere across the Bay, collapsing the top of his cabin on top of him. He was fortunate to escape. He added, “You have to respect the weather.”
Montro and Lamont Wright talked about taking a fishing party out on Labor Day 2006. Another high wind almost turned their boat over. Lamont said, “Our boat was leaning sideways. People became very scared. People were crying and actually down on their knees praying, that’s how scared they were.”
Charles Bryan’s son, Charlie, fell off his boat onto a large piece of ice during a very cold winter. “It was a large piece of ice you could stand on,” Bryan said. “The Lord was with us that day. Another waterman came by and my son was able to get off the ice with that waterman’s help.”
John Thomas held a picture of the first clam rig boat he invented back in 1953. The rig could harvest up to 250 bushels of clams per day (before clam harvesting limits were enforced).
Brent Lewis mentioned, “Watermen have often been called ‘Men of character.’ Some have also been known as ‘characters’.” He asked the watermen, “Do you know any stories about former watermen who were characters?” George O’Donnell quickly recalled a quote from the late Wes Thompson. George said, “Wes used to say, ‘If you don’t know how to cuss, buy a workboat and you learn real fast!’ “
Another story was shared about a late waterman who used to drive very fast, even when pulling a trailer full of crabs to market. This waterman was traveling fast when his trailer came unhitched. “The trailer overturned, end over end. When it came to rest, there were crabs even up in the trees!”
Montro Wright remembered swimming at the Narrows in his youth. “I was a good swimmer,” he said. “There were people who would throw coins into the water. I’d jump into the water and retrieve those coins, quarters, swimming after the money. Once when I went to the bottom to retrieve a quarter, I turned to come up and came face to face with a man’s face, a man who had drowned! To say the least, it scared me. I’ll never forget that.”
In closing, George O’Donnell, who retired as a waterman long ago, served as county commissioner and now is employed in customer relations, Fisheries Service, Department of Natural Resources, talked about how impressed he was with the turnout of people for the event. “The next time this event is held, we’re going to need to hold it in the auditorium at Kent Island High School,” he said.
Following the formal program, Brent Lewis recommended those in attendance look at the exhibits of artifacts that had been pulled up from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay over the many years of oystering. All types of items were on display — Native American stone tools, stone arrow and spear heads, colonial era clay pipes for smoking tobacco products, huge shark teeth, old hand-blown bottles from more than 200 years ago of all shapes and sizes. There was even a cracked water pitcher owned by waterman Billy Benton of Centreville, with the inscription SS Everett listed on the side of it.
Benton said, “I pulled this up from the Patapsco River. I don’t know anything about the SS Everett.”
Checking with local nautical historian and retired journalist Jack Shaum of Chester Harbor, Shaum said, “This ship was built in 1907 in Quincy, Massachuetts, was 373 feet long by 52 feet wide, propellor-driven steam powered freighter. It probably came in and out of Baltimore Harbor for years.”
Other watermen with artifacts of interest included David Baxter of Queenstown and Dickie Coursey of Centreville.
In addition to Lewis, local authors Mark Lidinsky and Nick Hoxter were present selling books.
Of the watermen’s event, Lewis was pleased. He said, “I never imagined we’d have this big a turnout. It was great! There was a lot of preparation with our watermen who shared their stories. I had spoken with all of them individually beforehand, and I knew what questions I wanted them to ask them. Troy Wilkins, president of the Queen Anne’s County Waterman’s Association had a lot to do with helping make the evening possible.”