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Reflecting on the golden age of watermen

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Ron Fithian on 'Those Were the Days'

Ron Fithian, Rock Hall town manager, Kent County Commissioner and former waterman, discusses changes to the seafood industry in the Chesapeake Bay May 10 at the Chestertown branch of the Kent County Public Library. He along with Tom McHugh recently released a documentary of interviews with men and women who worked on the water between 1945 and 1972 called “Those Were the Days: The Golden Age of Rock Hall Watermen.”

CHESTERTOWN — Working on the water is a way of life for many people living on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

After Hurricane Agnes hit in 1972, though, pollution levels led to a decrease in the Chesapeake Bay’s health and all but ended the “golden age” of the waterman.

In an effort to preserve details about the lifestyle of watermen, Tom McHugh, director emeritus of the Mainstay in Rock Hall, and Ron Fithian, Rock Hall town manager, Kent County Commissioner and former waterman, interviewed 18 watermen and women from Rock Hall and created a documentary.

“For years, and I mean going back eight or nine years, Ron Fithian and I would sit and talk about the need to get somehow recorded these people who were in what we call the golden age of Rock Hall and working the water,” McHugh said.

McHugh and Fithian shared a few clips from their documentary “Those Were the Days: The Golden Age of Rock Hall Watermen” May 10 at the Chestertown branch of the Kent County Public Library.

“The intent is to get down what was different about that period of time compared to this period of time,” McHugh said. “And by watching even a few samples of these men and women talking, you get a sense of what those differences were.”

The full documentary features the 18 interviews conducted with men and women who worked on the water between 1945 and 1972. McHugh and Fithian originally had the idea to start the project after discussing the need to document the lifestyle of watermen before it disappears completely.

“I can remember at the height of the seafood business, that probably I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said 75 to 80 percent of the people in Rock Hall made their living working on the water,” Fithian said.

McHugh produced the documentary with Fithian conducting the majority of the interviews and the late Clarence Hawkins conducting a few. Fithian’s experience on the water helped facilitate the flow of the interviews.

Their first attempt at obtaining a grant from Eastern Shore Heritage Inc. was unsuccessful, but on their second try, they received the grant and were able to hire a cinematographer and began conducting interviews.

“The story Tom is trying to tell is how much different it is than it was then and as to where it is now,” Fithian said.

In the documentary, those interviewed tell their stories of working on the water including what type of fishing they did and where. The stories vary from the work of oyster shuckers to chasing rockfish up the Bay.

During the presentation, Fithian and McHugh showed a few minutes of interviews with Larry Simns, James “Pork Chop” Manley, Glenwood Thomas, Syriva Johnson and Jean Sisco. Afterward, Fithian spoke about his time on the water and his outlook on if watermen, and the seafood industry on the Bay, can make a comeback.

“When I first got out of school, a lot of kids sit around and talk about how they don’t know what to do, I knew exactly what I was going to do. I was going to go work on the water,” Fithian said.

Fithian reflected on the changes the seafood industry has gone through including losing the entirety of the soft shell clamming. Fithian said there was a time when the Bay supplied all of New England’s soft shell clams, but when they spontaneously died out in the mid 1980s the business disappeared.

He also spoke on the ups and downs of the oyster business and if the seafood business in the Bay can eventually return to what it was given conservation efforts.

“So there’s been some real big changes. Will we ever see it come back? I’m not sure about that. I have my doubts to be quite honest with you because it’s changed so much,” Fithian said.

He said it was damage from Hurricane Agnes and the subsequent flooding from the Conowingo Dam after the hurricane that effectively lead to the decline of watermen.

As to how to help the Bay, Fithian said people have a lot to gain from hearing the stories of those who worked on the water and made a living out of it.

“I think that sometimes a little more attention has to be paid to those who lived their life there,” Fithian said.

“Those Were the Days” was shown as part of “The Way We Worked,” the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibit. It is available at all Kent County Public Library locations.

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