The Chesapeake Bay offers much in the way of bounty, but I consider the oyster, the blue crab, and the rockfish the trinity of Chesapeake Bay seafood. Oyster season starts today and that got me thinking…
Melvin Clark once told me, “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. Jim Cockey built boats and made tong shafts in Stevensville. I worked with him and learned my trade. Mr. Harper was the blacksmith. He made the heads.
“Contractors across the bridge liked to hire Eastern Shoremen because they knew they would work hard. Only problem was they knew they’d loose them in September come oyster season. Oystering got into your blood. You were independent. You could go out when you wanted and come in when you wanted. Nobody could tell you to do anything.”
Weldon (Guinea) Legg once told me, “If I had to do it all over again I’d rather oyster with hand tongs than anything.
“Most fellows who make tongs today make them like real tongs but don’t build them to suit, what a pair of tongs is really supposed to be. Some of them are beautiful. Carry them out there and they couldn’t scratch my butt. It’s not about how they look. You have to know what to look for. Have to make sure the bottom of your tongs is made from the butt of the tree. You don’t want them upside down. Have to know your grains. Some of that wood is like a sponge as soon as they hit the water. You could work the tops and the bottoms wouldn’t really move. Heads last a lifetime. Dan Crouch was a Kent Island blacksmith and was supposed to have made good heads. I have a pair Bobby Aaron made me and they’re just as good as any I ever had.
“Electronics changed the business. With depth finders, GPS, watermen don’t have to learn everything. I tell my grandchildren, you can’t be an oysterman until you learn the water out there like the palm of your hand. You’ve got to know where you are in daylight; you’ve got to know in the dark. You’ve got to know.”
Capt. Billy Harris once told me, “When I was a boy, oysters were 25 cents a bushel. Three men in a boat could catch 75 to 100 bushels a day. November 1 was the start of dredging season. There’d be 100 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. There were 15 oyster houses at Kent Narrows. When I started, a gallon of oysters was $2.50. In his day, my father sold a gallon for 59 cents.”
Gordon Crouch once told me, “The packing house (at Little Creek) was in our family from 1929 until I retired and sold it around 1990. My grandfather ran the packing house; my father had a store and bar down there. We mainly catered to watermen, sold beer, lunchmeat, and some groceries. I started working there when I was about 12 years old. Daddy used to have a truck that would come up from St. Michael’s with oysters. We’d be up before school shoveling those oysters. Back then, you could run the whole operation on $200 or $300 per week. Everything – buying oysters, paying shuckers, and we had a houseful of shuckers. After I got out of the service I went to work for the state. I was working part-time for my father but that arrangement didn’t last long. He couldn’t get help. He just handed me the keys. My state job lasted nine months. I ran the packing house for about 29 years.
“Back then a lot of oystermen didn’t do anything all summer. They’d hang their tongs up and be done until fall. In the old days I heard of men who quit oystering with $25 and lived on it all summer. Of course, back then everybody had hogs, chicken and eggs, a garden. About all you’d need would be a barrel of flour.
“At one time the oyster business used to be big on Kent Island. Right here in Little Creek there were six packing houses. There were two or three more up the creek. Started dropping off in the 1970’s, after Hurricane Agnes or one of those big storms. We were the last ones to close. It was the end of an era.”
That’s what those Eastern Shoremen once told me.