Oscar ‘Sonny’ Schulz was 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.
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 was always ambitious. “I’ll never forget the first day I made five dollars,” he once told me. “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, by the time he was 12 years old, 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 said, “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. Winter’s 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 the United States Army during the Korean War.
“Went over, came back, and wasn’t twenty one years old,” he told me.
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 saw 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 thought about that for a moment, and added, “We burned down December 23rd, 1980. That was a bad Christmas.”
We left here a little after ten,” he said. “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.
Local politics beckoned in the late 1970’s and early 80’s when Stevensville merchant and civic booster Julius Grollman encouraged Kent Islanders to get more involved with their government. Power was historically based up-county, in Centreville and Sudlersville. “Little people didn’t have much of a chance of getting involved,” Sonny said. But the Bay Bridge changed things. More people were settling on Kent Island, supporting businesses and increasing the tax base.
Established area leadership resisted the young Kent Island upstarts and wouldn’t allow them on the party ticket. “So we started a new ticket. Got enough signatures on a petition to get on the general election. Next year the state legislature passed a bill you couldn’t do that anymore.”
“None of us got elected,” he continued. “But later, next four years, Jules got elected. I was treasurer for eight years and county commissioner for eight years.”
By this time, Betty and Sonny’s three boys, Andy, Jody and Tracy were grown. They inherited the family’s gene for hard work and took more responsibility in the business.
Sonny Schulz was a community leader. He was a past president and 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 remembered 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 Sonny could always help those who never lived then and there to imagine what that Kent Island, that Eastern Shore, was like.
It also reminds you that there’s always more to everybody‘s story.
Even those stories you think you already know.
Carlene Jones, Shirley Thompson, Jean Golt, Elizabeth Marshall, June Nash
Sonny Boy Hampton, Elsie Marshall, Tini Baxter, Jean Tolson, Joyce Thomas, Lorraine Kelley
Gordon Crouch, Bunky Severa, John Thompson, Shorty Thomas, Bobby Sewell, Stanley Clark, Nip Legg,
Sonny Golt, Dan Schuyler, Sonny Schulz, Frankie Taylor, Lummie Thomas, Wiliam Austin & my dad, Joe Lewis
Me and Sonny