Water­man’s Story Swap draws stand­ing-roomonly crowd

Record Observer - - Front Page - By DOUG BISHOP dbishop@kibay­times.com

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 hand­blown 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, pro­pel­lor­driven 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.”


These nine lo­cal wa­ter­men told sto­ries of their per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences on the wa­ters of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay. From the left, Joey Hor­ney, Charles Bryan, Lewis Carter, John Thomas, Jerry Har­ris, Mon­tro Wright, La­mont Wright, George O’Don­nell and Michael Ruth. The event was spon­sored by the Queen Anne’s County Water­man’s As­so­ci­a­tion, and or­ga­nized by Water­man’s As­so­ci­a­tion Pres­i­dent Troy Wilkins and lo­cal au­thor Brent Lewis.

From the left, na­tive Kent Is­land water­man Harry David­son, 87, sang water­man songs he had com­posed to the gui­tar ac­com­pa­ni­ment of Shea Springer of Eas­ton be­fore other lo­cal wa­ter­men spoke about their per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences har­vest­ing seafood from the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay. David­son’s songs, ti­tled “Long John” (for the late John Peet), and “But­ter­ball” for the But­ter­ball Thomp­son, were a trib­ute to the lo­cal lore and her­itage of the water­man’s culture of the area. His singing was rem­i­nis­cent of an early Bob Dy­lan folk style.

Part of the more than 200 peo­ple who turned out for the Water­man’s Story Swap Fri­day evening, Feb. 24, at the VFW in Gra­sonville. The crowd in the pavil­ion was stand­ing room only.


Lo­cal water­man David Bax­ter of Queen­stown holds one of his old­est ar­ti­facts, a pot­tery bot­tle he es­ti­mates was made around “the 1770s” and lost in the wa­ters of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay. He re­trieved it while oys­ter­ing.

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