Kent Narrows, the body of water that separates Kent Island, Maryland, from the mainland Eastern Shore, and the Chester River from the Eastern Bay, was once a hub of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood industry, with as many as 15 seafood processing, or packing, houses operating along the Narrows’ eastern marshlands.
W.H. Harris Seafood, the last operating packing house at Kent Narrows, and the last full time shucking house in the state, will be celebrating their 70th year in business this coming December.
Before he passed away, I spoke with Harris Seafood founder Captain Billy Harris.
As a young man growing up during the Great Depression, William Holton Harris, born in 1922, chose working on the water instead of getting hired to labor on someone’s farm. Considering the going rate for farmhands, Capt. Billy told me, “When you’re getting fifty cents a day or ten cents an hour, you start to look around.”
Violet “Sis” Mae Coleman Sis, like Billy Harris, was Kent Island born and raised, the daughter of Ellison Coleman and Sarah Rebecca Brown Coleman. My grandmother, Ella Coleman Lewis, was Sis’s paternal aunt. Sis married Billy right after her graduating high school in 1941.
During World War II Billy served in the Army, and when he came home, he followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, J.W.Taylor, and opened his own general store. Billy and Sis ran the store for three years.
Billy’s father, Holton Harris, owned an oyster shucking house on the northeastern side of Kent Narrows. In 2005, Capt. Billy told me “My father, he came to see me one evening and told me that (the packing house next to his) 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 came in from oystering, I said, yes, I would like to have it.” His father loaned him the $4,000 needed to make the deal possible.
Billy and Sis took ownership on Christmas Eve, 1947.
Running the oyster shucking business was a challenge. Billy worried about his young family, Sis and their children, Jerry and Karen, and often found himself “wondering if I was going to make it.” Both Billy and his dad ran a seasonal operation. They oversaw the oyster house in winter and fished crab pot rigs on the bay in the summer.
Courtesy The Bay Times
Success followed through hard work and innovation. Oysters weren’t the only product 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 market on any particular day, Capt. Billy would freeze the product until there was. He had special one gallon bags made for freezing shucked oysters. He invented chipper, an oyster shucking tool designed for ease and speed.
At one point, Billy had an opportunity to purchase the parcel of land where Mears Point Marina now sits. The owner was an old man without heirs, and he lived out on the point in a shack. Billy and Sis cared for him. Fed him, got him medical care when he needed it. Billy’s son Jerry told me, “I think his name was Haddaway. Dad was offered all of it around 1951. He could have bought all that property for $1,250. His father talked him out of it, he said, “Son, what are you going to do with that piece of marsh but pay taxes on it?”
That “piece of marsh” is now assessed at over $8,600,000 without improvements.
“Don’t forget,” Jerry’s sister Karen reminded us, “Daddy and Pop had come out of the Depression. They’d been hit hard. Back then, owning property was a liability. If you owned property and couldn’t pay the taxes on your property it was taken from you.”
Billy was cautious in business but willing to take risks when they made sense to him. Early on, the local shucking houses, including Billy’s and his dad’s, sold oysters to the big distributors in five gallon cans. In Billy’s mind there was a different way to do things. Billy “made it a goal for myself to get to know people…”
ebay -$25.00 in 2015
Preaching the gospel of the bay oyster, Billy traveled coast to coast and from Florida to Canada making friends and opening new markets.
“Dad went out,” says Jerry Harris, “on the open market. New York State. Minnesota. Illinois. There were so many people in those places in the oyster business back then.”
Selling direct proved to be a shrewd move.
At the height of the Kent Narrows seafood business in the 1960s, Harris Seafood employed hundreds of shuckers, was buying 2,000 to 2,500 bushels of oysters a day, and packing 6,000-7,000 gallons of product every week.
“I remember,” says Jerry, “around Thanksgiving and Christmas, my father sent out 14,000 gallons of oysters in a week sometimes.”
Courtesy Harris family
Captain Billy Harris died in 2006.
Sis Harris served as secretary and treasurer of W. H. Harris Seafood from its beginning in 1937 until 1984. Sis passed away on in 2012, two days before she would have turned 89.
Wrapping up one of our 2005 talks, Capt. Billy pondered his life’s fondest memories. The day he and Sis married tops the list. “Sis was seventeen. I was nineteen.” The emotion that filled Billy that day filled the room. He took a moment to gather himself before finishing. “And I have to say – every day since has been the happiest days of my life.”
Courtesy Harris family
Karen Harris Oertel and Jerry Harris will be participating in the Watermen’s Story Swap on Friday night, February 24th at Grasonville VFW Post 7464.