My dad was a waterman.
All my life, I’ve been listening to watermen talk.
On Thursday, January 11, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum will provide an opportunity for the public to join in on the listening by hosting a Waterman’s Story Swap from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in the Van Lennep Auditorium.
This presentation will feature a panel of Eastern Shore watermen, representing different generations, locations, and fisheries, ready to share with an audience experiences from their decades of harvesting the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. I’ll have the honor of emceeing the proceedings.
For about a decade, I helped conduct an oral histories program sponsored by the Kent Island Heritage Society. Around the time I began to focus on other projects, the KIHS hosted a panel honoring Queen Anne’s County watermen at the Chesapeake Heritage and Visitors Center in Kent Narrows. A success in every regard, the event seemed like something that could perhaps be expanded upon.
In 2016, I was asked to moderate a session at the first Chesapeake Storytelling Festival. I, in turn, asked a small group of watermen to join me for an hour of storytelling. In 2017, with the cooperation of the Queen Anne’s County Watermen’s Association, we sat a larger panel for a program at the Grasonville VFW Post 7464. The community support was immense. We were asked back to Chesapeake College for the 2017 Storytelling Festival and held another successful event at the VFW in 2018. After these presentations it seemed like time to think about ways to broaden the scope of any future Story Swaps.
The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum stepped in to help make that expansion happen. Over this past summer, with the support of CBMM’s Upper Shore Regional Folklife Center under the Maryland Traditions program of the Maryland State Arts Council, my friend, collaborator, and videographer Josh Willis and I interviewed ten different active and retired watermen in an attempt to preserve a representative collection of diverse life stories from as many industry perspectives as possible. Along with the Maritime Museum, Josh and I undertook this project because we believe that unless an effort is made to record them in some manner, once a person is gone, all their stories go with them.
And that feels like a shame.
Past Watermen’s Story Swap and Oral History participants who are no longer with us include Kent Islander Melvin Clark (1922-2008) who once told me during an interview how “Oystering got into your blood. Back in the old days you were either a waterman or a farmer. There was an abundance of oysters but no money. We’d sell to the shucking houses and sometimes you’d sell two bushels for a quarter just to get rid of them. Contractors across the bridge liked to hire Eastern Shore (construction workers) because they knew they would work hard. Only problem was they knew they’d lose them in September come oyster season.”
Capt. Bill Harris (1922-2006), an entrepreneurial trailblazer and the founder of Harris Seafood and Harris Crab House and Seafood Restaurant once told me that when he was a boy, “Three men in a boat could catch 75 to 100 bushels a day. November 1 was the start of dredging season. There’d be a hundred dredge boats off Love Point catching 300 to 500 bushels a day. Back in my grandfather’s time, in the 1800s, they said if you caught four bushels that was a good day’s work. When I started, a gallon of oysters was $2.50. My father had sold that gallon for fifty-nine cents.”
Oystermen back then started young and were expected to work like grown men. The well-known Fisherman’s Inn restaurateur and county commissioner Sonny Schulz (1933-2018) told one of our audiences this story: “I fell overboard once when I was about fifteen years old. I was working down Eastern Bay with Teeny (Jones) and Robert (Horney). It was cold and there was ice all around. I was up on the bow washing the boat and getting ready to go home. That (cleaning) water froze and I slipped. It’s a damn good thing I came up next to the boat because those two were laughing so hard they wouldn’t even help me. We had a few oysters, and the boat was low, so I was able to climb back in. I went in the cabin, there was this little old stove, and everything I had was wet – long drawers, boots, two or three pair of socks, two pairs of pants, and I didn’t know it until I got home, but backing up so close to that little cabin stove, I’d burned my tail. Teeny had an old World War One overcoat and that’s what I wore while we unloaded. He wouldn’t let me go home until we’d unloaded.”
Captain Warren Butler (b.1929-2021), a lifelong Eastern Shoreman, remembered that when he was a child the local crabbers would load their daily catch on trains that took them to Love Point to be shipped out on steamboats. Capt. Butler started his career after serving in the Army during the Korean War and worked primarily as an oysterman and fishing party captain. “One time I was oystering next to Teeny Jones down at Crab Alley,” Captain Butler told one of our audiences. “It was a couple days before Christmas and it was so cold icicles were hanging from the culling board to the water. Teeny said, “Hey, Warren, let’s go home. What difference does it make whether we starve to death or freeze to death? At least if we starve it’ll take a little longer, if we stay out here we won’t make it through the day!”
One of the panelists scheduled to attend the January 11 presentation is Calvert ‘Butterball’ Thompson. Butterball participated in a 2023 interview, has spent his life around the water, and is recognized as a champion competitive anchor thrower. Known as much for his kind heart as his strength and hard work, Butterball, like every waterman worth his salt, has a number of scary weather stories worth sharing. One time he was crab potting down near the mouth of the Chesapeake when an unexpected squall erupted. “It’s deep there,” Butterball will tell you. “You can’t see land in any direction. We were working when a thunderstorm came up really, really fast. You could feel the electricity. The hair on your arm stood right straight up. Lightning struck our antenna and blew it right off the boat. And as fast as (the storm) came up it was over. But” he assures, “that’s a long fifteen minutes.”
The history and culture of the communities of our region are woven together through stories like these. For a lively ninety minutes of storytelling that promises to go by quickly, please join us on January 11 at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Seating is limited but can be reserved by registering at https://cbmm.org/event/watermens-story-swap/.