A recent visitor to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s St. Michaels campus stops in front of the rotting hulk of a once-proud skipjack and asks, “What in the world is that?”
“It’s the Rosie Parks, one of the fastest skipjacks to sail the Bay,” she is told.
“It’s a mess,” she says.
She is right. The old oyster dredger seems to be melting.
Other visitors quietly mount the steps to the viewing platform alongside the Rosie and pause to take in the long decks that are caving in. They have a somber look as if peering into an open coffin.
But thanks to a gift made years ago to the Museum by a generous donor who once sailed aboard the Rosie Parks, and a new fund-raising campaign, she’ll be back in the water, good as new.
“It will take about three years, but we want to get her sailing again,” says Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Boat Yard Manager Rich Scofield. “She will be historically accurate and that will make her one of the last remaining skipjacks with traditional construction.”
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum President Langley Shook says almost $200,000 to start the rebuilding came from the estate of Richard H. Grant Jr., a Dayton, Ohio business executive who had a home in the Easton area and was a friend of the Museum.
“This will jumpstart the project,” Shook says. “It’s Rich’s job to rebuild the Rosie. It is my job to find the rest of the money.”
Scofield says it will take about $500,000 to complete the rebuild and another $500,000 to fund long-term maintenance. He says he plans to hire a project manager and two apprentices to work full time on the job that will start in the spring.
Her original owner, veteran waterman Orville Parks, sold the Rosie Parks to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in 1974. Parks had worked the water since he was 13 and at age 79, his doctor told him to go ashore. When he signed the Rosie over to the Museum, she was valued at $25,000. Parks passed away from a heart attack within a year of parting with his prized vessel.
Until then, he had been her only owner. She was always well maintained in an oystering fleet that was known for showing as much rust as paint. And she was fast, frequently taking honors in skipjack races around the Bay.
But Rosie was 20 years old when she joined the Museum’s floating fleet. That was well past middle age for a craft that typically lasted only 30 years before it had to be retired. Scofield says the Boat Yard crew kept Rosie in shape for several years, sailing her as a roving ambassador around the Bay to show the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum flag at festivals and watermen contests.
“The last time she sailed was in the mid to late 1990s,” he says.
By 2000, Rosie was dock-bound and demoted to being a stage for dockside programs for school groups. Her sails were raised as a demonstration exercise, but she did not slip her mooring lines.
A log of the repairs done to keep Rosie afloat lists a plank-by-plank process over the next 25 years. But it became clear that the repairs would not stop the decay. Rosie’s decks became unsafe and the dockside classes were stopped. Rosie was dying.
A 2002 entry reads, “Rosie sinks dockside while moored.”
Extra pumps were added, but Rosie became a filter for Bay water as her old seams opened and her loblolly skin sloughed away.
In 2006, the decision was made to pull Rosie out of the water to save what was left. Once on land, several of her bottom planks fell off. Water pressure had been the only force keeping them in place.
Scofield did not give up on Rosie. While others questioned the decision to keep her under a tent behind the Boat Shop, he held out hopes. Rosie was a skipjack, not the Space Shuttle. She was a simple boat made with local wood by craftsmen who worked with hand tools.
Also, Rosie has a special pedigree and place in Eastern Shore history.
She is a Bronza Parks boat.
While no longer a household name, in the mid-1950s Bronza “Bronzie” Parks was a well-known boat builder, popular community leader and political candidate in Dorchester County. He was also the victim of one of the more sensational murders on the Eastern Shore.
As a boat builder, Parks earned the reputation for excellence that spread far from his home in the fishing hamlet of Wingate.
A 1955 Baltimore Sun article described the assembly line he had set up to build three skipjacks at one time. The Rosie Parks was built for his brother Orville and named for their mother. The Martha Lewis was built for his brother-in-law, James Lewis, and named for his mother, and Lady Katie was named for Bronza’s wife.
Parks’ boat yard was not on the water, so when the boats were completed, they were loaded on a long, big-wheeled cart and towed to the launch site a quarter mile away on the Honga River.
Although the basic skipjack design was more than 75 years old by that time, there was still a demand for the sailing vessels. Maryland law required that dredging oyster bars in the Bay had to be done under sail.
Parks, the Sun reported, started working the water when he was sixteen and was not impressed with the handling of the boats on which he served. He began building a crabbing skiff for himself but before he could finish it, another waterman bought it from him. Thus began a career that would turn out more than 400 boats.
In 1958, Bronza Parks was hired to build an 18-foot skiff by Willis C. Rowe of Silver Spring, MD. Rowe was a lawyer, researcher and writer for the U.S. News and World Report magazine. On May 13, 1958, Rowe asked another legendary Eastern Shore boat builder, Captain Jim Richardson of the Neck District west of Cambridge, to go with him to Parks’ boat shop and inspect the skiff, according to original press reports researched by Dorchester County writer Hal Roth. Richardson later testified in court that he waited outside the shop while Rowe went in to talk to Parks about payment. Three shots rang out. Richardson told a jury he reentered the shop and saw Parks on the floor, dead, and Rowe holding a revolver. Rowe was taken to Cambridge by the sheriff as a crowd of about 150 Wingate residents gathered around the Parks shop. A mysterious fire destroyed the skiff.
Rowe was held in state mental facilities for almost five years. In 1963, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 18 years in prison. The case was overturned by Maryland’s Court of Appeals because the jury found Rowe was sane when he shot Parks, but insane when he stood trial. He was retried and convicted in 1965.
Scofield says one of the goals of rebuilding the Rosie is to return her to the status of roving ambassador for the Museum. The skipjack represents a key part of the history of the Bay. The lines for the Rosie were lifted in the late 1970s and the museum has plans and dimensions to help with the reconstruction. Scofield says parts of the original keel, the transom and the stem will be used.
“We hope to involve area school children in the project,” he says. “I can see Tuesday and Thursday mornings working with kids on specific jobs.”
Pres Harding, Bronza Parks’ grandson and a Chestertown-based musician, says the family is very excited about the project. “I was a young boy when those boats were built, but I remember all three of them in the yard,” he says.
Harding’s musical group has performed at Museum events over the last two years. “I have to say, I was pretty shocked when I saw the condition Rosie is in,” he says. “This is a really good thing for the family and the Museum.”
Three generations of the Parks family were at the Museum when the rebuilding project was formally announced on November 6. Now deceased, Bronza was married to Katie Lewis and had five daughters – Lucille, Irene, twins Mary and Martha, and Joyce.
Shook says he envisions the project as an ongoing exhibit.
“Visitors will be able to return several times and watch the progress.”
Photos from the Museum files show the skipjack in her prime. She is under sail, cutting through the water as white foam rushes from her stern. It is a majestic sight, a glimpse of the past and a look into the future when Rosie Parks returns, rebuilt and ready to rejoin the Bay’s skipjack fleet.
– Dick Cooper
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dick Cooper is a Pulitzer Prize winning career journalist with more than 35 years of daily newspaper experience. He was a reporter and editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer for 28 years before moving to St. Michaels, MD.