March 28, 2012

It was not uncommon for people on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to make a living off of the water.  As a peninsula, the Eastern Shore is surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean with miles of rivers and streams in between.   Many people still make a living off of the water and many local watermen have carried on a family business for more than 4 generations!  As I had mentioned before, my grandfather’s family grew up on a farm on the Nanticoke River.  Aside from farming, they too were watermen who utilized the Chesapeake Bay watershed as a source of income.  My grandfather’s dad and grandpa, whom he called ‘Pa’ both oystered- but had two completely different styles.  The photos below are a pair of their old oyster tongs and some old bushel baskets I found in the barn.  The tongs are massive!  The wooden handles stood 14 feet tall and the the claws at the base had huge metal teeth (they almost look like a giant pair of scissors).  Watermen would stand at the edge of their work boat with the a wooden handle in each hand.  They would lower the claw into the water until it hit the bottom of the sand.  Then, they’d close the claw shut and scoop up any oysters laying on the bottom.

Pa had a rowboat and oystered on a smaller scale dealing with local individuals whereas my grandfather’s dad, Fred, would oyster on a workboat that was kept at the Wetipquin Wharf and sold his catch to oyster houses located in Tyaskin, Bivalve and Nanticoke.  “My dad (Fred) would leave before daylight and wouldn’t come home til dark sometimes,” said my grandfather.  “We ate oysters and fish 2 or 3 times a week.”  I found my great-grandfather Fred’s old operating license below.  Check out the date! :) Also, there is a photo of Fred with other local watermen standing on the Tyaskin Wharf.

My great-great grandfather (Pa) had row boats instead of a workboat.  He kept these rowboats right on the farm tied up on wooden posts he put out in the water in front of the old house. “He’d take one of those out everyday and row up to an oyster rock where they accumulated naturally and would collect about 3 bushels and then head on back to shore,” Pop Pop explained.  “He’d take orders for the week or if someone said they wanted a bushel for the weekend, he’d go out and get them.”  Pa also had about 5 rowboats that he rented out by the day.  People would rent them for fishing, crabbing, joyrides, etc.  He’d take out fishing parties and get paid a little more to give a tour- he even had people from Pennsylvania come down on the weekends!  Below is a photo of Pa and his rowboats that I photographed in the same spot where the original photo was taken.   A lot of the sand has eroded over the past 80 years, but you can still see some of the wooden posts he tied his boats up to in the background. :)

Did you see what he charged?!  In the 1930′s you could rent a boat all day for a quarter!  He increased his prices to $1.00 a day in the 50′s.  I guess it was similar to our modern day paddle boats!  Below is a photo of what remains of Pa’s rowboats.

Aside from oysetering, they both were fishermen.  “During the Depression, it was hard to come by extra money.  Dad needed a net for when he dredged but it was hard to come up with an extra 25 cents.  A gentleman from Baltimore that went by the name, Grim, set up a deal with the local fishermen and would purchase them their net from the city and they could sell him back their catch and he’d take it off what they owed him until they paid him back completely, ” Pop Pop said.  “Grim took the fish back to Baltimore.  You just sold him the fish and he had to take care of cleaning and filleting them.  He could sell the catfish livers for more than the actual fish up in the city.”  He said that rock fish sold for about 12 cents a pound, perch sold for about 9 and herring were a half cent a piece. :)  (Fred is sitting in the photo below and Pa is standing)