Violet “Sis” Mae Coleman Harris passed away on Saturday, October 13, 2012, two days before she would have turned 89. Sis was a born and raised, lifelong Kent Islander from Chester, the daughter of Ellison Coleman and Sarah Rebecca Brown Coleman. My grandmother, Ella Coleman Lewis, was Sis’s father’s sister.
Sis married another island resident, William “Billy’ Harris right after graduating high school in 1941, and six years later the couple bought a small oyster packing house on the northeastern side of Kent Narrows. Success followed hard work and innovation. Sis served as secretary and treasurer of W. H. Harris Seafood Inc until retiring in 1984.
I was fortunate to have an opportunity to interview Capt. Billy a couple times before his death in 2006. Sis would never sit with me for an interview. She preferred to sit in the other room and make sure her husband and I were getting the story straight. On tape, Sis’s strong disembodied voice pitches in whenever there’s uncertainty, hesitancy, or a little fudging for the sake of a good story. Capt. Billy was a great storyteller. Sis was an even better fact checker. This is part of what I wrote back then:
Born here in 1922, William Harris was the first of two children born to Holton & Viola Harris. Sis, his wife of 65 years, was from another prominent local family, the Colemans. Billy and Sis have lived in their current home for over half a century. They’re proud of his close-knit relationships with their children, grandchildren and great grand-children. Their family restaurant, Harris Crab House & Restaurant, is one of the Chesapeake Bay region’s favorite dining establishments.
When Billy was little, his grandfather, J.W. Taylor owned a general store in Chester. The store was an unofficial meeting place where members of the community would congregate. Billy recalls listening to baseball games and early radio shows on his grandfather’s radio, one of the first around. His face lights up with the memory of his favorite adventure program Jack Armstrong, All American Boy. “That’s the first time I come up with the name since I was maybe eight or ten years old.”
As a young man, Billy chose working for himself on the water instead of being a hired hand on someone’s farm. He says, “When you’re getting fifty cents a day or ten cents an hour, you start to look around.”
During World War, II Billy served in the Army. The young Kent Islander found himself performing his duties in far-off Hawaii. This was no paradise of current day travel brochures, but more like an outpost on the fringe of the world. When he came home, Billy followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and opened his own general store. He and Sis ran the store for two or three years before moving on.
Billy’s father owned a Kent Narrows shucking house. “My father, he came to see me one evening and told me that the place I have now, it was a shack really, but it was going to be sold. He asked me did I want it, and I told him “Well, dad, let me sleep on it.” So the next day when I come in from oystering, I said ‘Yes, I would like to have it’.
Running the oyster shucking business was a tough challenge. Billy worried about his young family and found himself “wondering if I was going to make it.”
His father ran business in the established fashion. The local shucking houses would sell oysters to the big distributors in five gallon cans. In Capt. Billy’s mind there was a different way to do things. Billy “made it a goal for myself to get to know people throughout the country and Canada.” Selling direct was a shrewd business move that paid off. Billy Harris opened markets that hadn’t existed prior and at one time his was probably the largest oyster business in Maryland.
Oysters weren’t all W. H. Harris Seafood was buying and selling. Eels, clams, shrimp – if it came out of the bay there was market for it somewhere. If there wasn’t on any particular day, Capt. Billy would freeze the product until there was. He had special one gallon bags made for freezing shucked oysters.
His son, Jerry, joined him in the 1960’s during the heyday of their seafood business. Daughter Karen came onboard in 1972.
Capt. Billy continues, “Where my oyster house is now, I started picking crabs. I saw all those people coming down that marina and I said “I’m going to try something.” May not work, but I’m going to try it. So I built a place, a restaurant right on the water, next to my oyster house, and man, those people…” He remembers his customers with a fond smile. “I used to serve crabs, steamed, soft crab sandwiches, and crabcake sandwiches. Everything originated around here. Man, people loved it. Every once in a while, we’d have a high tide, damned if they still wouldn’t wade around in there in their shoes.”
Even Capt. Billy was surprised by the restaurant‘s success. “The second summer it outgrew itself.” By the mid-eighties the original operation needed expansion. “There wasn’t nothing else to do, only tear the old oyster house, the one that was my father’s, tear it down, and put up what you see today.” Billy speaks a simple philosophy when he looks back on his business successes, “When you think about something, if you don’t do it, you’ll never know.”
Wrapping up our interview, Capt. Billy Harris ponders his life’s fondest memories. The day he and Sis married tops the list. “Sis was seventeen. I was nineteen.” The emotion that fills Billy fills the room. He takes a moment to gather himself before finishing. “And I have to say – every day since has been the happiest days of my life.”