Oscar ‘Sonny’ Schulz is a prominent Maryland businessman (the patriarch of the Fisherman’s Inn restaurant family), a longtime regional civic leader, the proud dad of three sons, and a granddad to seven.
But before all that, beginning when he was 12 years old, Sonny worked on the water.
Sonny was born on Kent Island on June 25th, 1933. His parents, Oscar and Maude, had two children before Sonny. A sister, Charlotta, died at the age of four after eating a peach poisoned by an arsenic spray. Brother John was much older than Sonny. He died at age fifty. Sonny’s father was an oysterman and a carpenter who struggled with his health. In World War I he’d survived a mustard gas attack, the long term effects of which were progressively debilitating. Sonny was eleven when his father died.
Sonny has always been ambitious. “I’ll never forget the first day I made five dollars,” he says. “Billy Schulz, my cousin, had a bicycle he was going to sell because he bought a car. He wanted five dollars for it. So mother said whatever I made that day I could put toward the bicycle. I picked a hundred bushels of tomatoes. Made five dollars.”
A short time later, Sonny was culling oysters out on the Chesapeake Bay and was being mentored by some of the best, and toughest, watermen in the business.
Sonny: “I fell overboard once when I was about fifteen years old. I was working down Eastern Bay with Teeny (Jones) and Robert (Horney). It was cold and there was ice all around. I was up on the bow washing the boat and getting ready to go home. That (cleaning) water froze and I slipped. It’s a damn good thing I came up next to the boat because those two were laughing so hard they wouldn’t even help me. We had a few oysters, and the boat was low, so I was able to climb back in. I went in the cabin, there was this little old stove, and everything I had was wet – long drawers, boots, two or three pair of socks, two pairs of pants, and I didn’t know it until I got home, but backing up so close to that little cabin stove, I ‘d burned my tail.
“Teeny had an old WW1 overcoat and that’s what I wore while we unloaded. He wouldn’t let me go home until we’d unloaded.”
An entrepreneur from the beginning, Sonny says, “I bought my first boat in high school. I didn’t have any money – I needed a boat because I wanted to go oystering. I’d been working, culling, for Teeny and Robert. I went to a Mr. Marshall down to Wittman (in Talbot County) and had a boat built. She was 34’ long and with the motor it cost me $1800. I had a little money and went down to (Kent Island’s) Mr. Roy Golt to borrow the rest of it. At two percent interest, I paid him back by Christmas. He said Sonny you better keep this money you might need it. Winters coming. I said if I do, I’ll come back and ask you for it again.”
Despite the financial challenges he and his mother faced, Sonny graduated high school, a feat not necessarily common for farm-boys and the sons of watermen.
Watermen’s Story Swap at the Chesapeake Storytelling Festival 2016 – Joey Horney, Charles Bryan, Troy Wilkins, Billy Benton & Sonny Schulz
Sonny served in Korea. “Went over, came back, and wasn’t twenty one years old,” he says
When he returned to Kent Island, Sonny went right back to work. Oystering. Road construction. Painting. Chartering fishing parties. Whatever it took to make a buck.
Mother Maude Schulz was industrious, too. She was employed by the Thomas family. The Thomas’ owned a little business at Kent Narrows. Downstairs was a restaurant. Upstairs were four guest rooms. They called the place Fisherman’s Inn.
Betty Thomas worked there too, for her parents. She and Sonny married in 1956.
Betty stayed involved with her family business while Sonny worked on the water. Eventually, her father divided his Kent Narrows property between Betty and her brother. Sonny remembers that, “traffic was increasing eight to ten percent a year and business wasn’t increasing at all. We decided in 1969 to take a chance and build a new restaurant.
“We opened the Monday after Mother’s Day 1971.”
Sonny thinks about that for a moment, and adds, “We burned down December 23rd, 1980. That was a bad Christmas.”
We left here a little after ten,” he says. “When the alarm went off around midnight, we came back down. It was so cold the (fire department’s) ladder truck froze. When they made a hole in the roof, the windows exploded. A week later we had to burn it down again to finish the job. We hauled out 90 truckloads of debris.”
Reconstruction started the first of February, 1981 and Fisherman’s Inn reopened a short five months later.
Sonny is a past president and active board member of the Maryland Restaurant Association, and the past president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association. He was instrumental in starting the county’s first tourist board and has won awards for his successes in economic development.
The philanthropic endeavors undertaken by the Sonny and his family are numerable.
Fisherman’s Village, which includes Fisherman’s Inn, the Crab Deck, and Seafood Market employee about 200 people during the summer. The weekly payroll is in the tens of thousands of dollars. That’s a lot of money generated into the community from what was once a little family business.
Sonny Schulz remembers a Kent Island that provided “a free life.” A Kent Island of vegetable gardens and soft crabs and hen houses. A place where young men shot marbles and wore old hand-me down Pittsburgh Pirates baseball uniforms – “I could wrap it around me three times.” Where locals would spend pretty Sundays on the hill at Matapeake watching the ferries come and go, observing people, and looking for faraway license plates. “Cars would back up from Matapeake to Bill Denny’s (in Stevensville). That’s how the firehouse got started, selling sandwiches and soda to people down there.”
Talking to people like Sonny can help those who never lived then and there to imagine what that Kent Island was like.
It also reminds you that there’s always more to everybody‘s story.
Even those stories you think you already know.
Sonny and I, along with the other participating watermen and storytellers, hope to see you at the Watermen’s Story Swap on April 20th!
Donations to Queen Anne’s County Watermen’s Association accepted!
Books by Brent Lewis are available on Amazon.com
Remembering Kent Island: Stories from the Chesapeake and A History of the Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department published by Arcadia Publishing & The History Press: