by Jody Argo Schroath
Time moves quickly, and some things are forgotten that should be remembered. That's the way it is with fishing arks, or at least the way they were used on the Chesapeake--as temporary housing for watermen. It's true they were only used this way for about 50 years--very roughly from the 1880s to the 1930s. And it's true the fishing ark was purely utilitarian--as un-nautical, unbeautiful and unwieldy as a heiffer on water skis. Yet it was an ingenious solution to a logistical problem, and as such it was as much a part of the Bay's heritage as the skipjack, crab skiff and buyboat. Though named for Noah's ultra-roomy flood-resistant vessel, these arks had no divinely ordered dimensions. And clearly there was no Nat Herreshoff at the drawing board. In fact, there were rarely boatbuilders involved at all. Arks were generally knocked together in the backyard by watermen using inexpensive housing materials. Instructions: Top one flatbed scow with one simple shanty; add water. No two were the same. Big, small, one room, two room, round roof, gabled roof. Take your pick.
To be honest, arks weren't even universally called arks. In Chestertown, Md., they might have been called fishing arks, but a few miles away in Rock Hall they were fishing shanties or shantyboats. And just up the road in Betteron, they were often called houseboats. Go figure.
Even the word "ark" meant different things to different people, even on the Chesapeake. A Potomac ark, for example, was more likely to house a business, like a barber, a bar or, you know, brothel. On the other hand, a Susquehanna ark was an altogether bigger critter, a kind of floating beast of burden. Other arks served seasonal workers as mobile homes as they followed the growing season from North Carolina to New Jersey. While all these other kinds of arks have interesting stories too, it is the fishing arks that predominated among the watermen of the Eastern Shore that are our focus. These hold a special place in the history of the Bay for the way they were once intricately woven into the fabric of the watermen's life. But wait . . . let us tell you the story of one Eastern Shore ark to help you understand all such arks a little better.
Meet Captain Johnny Dickerson, a man of few words and many children. A hard-working waterman, resourceful and self-reliant. Medium height with beard and mustache. Maybe he was smarter than others, maybe not, but in any case a good man, however stern of countenance and quick of temper. When his first wife died in childbirth, leaving him with two children, he boarded a steamboat for Baltimore in search of a second. In the city he found, courted and eventually won the heart of a young woman named Carrie. Her last name is lost to history, but we do know she worked as a nurse and was the daughter of German immigrants. Captain Johnny brought Carrie back to the Eastern Shore, to Cliffs Landing on the Chester River, where he made his living. She was quiet, hardworking and a voracious reader. Likely she was smarter than some others, but maybe not. She too was resourceful and self-reliant. Had to be. Together this quiet hardworking couple produced 15 children and raised them along with the two from Johnny's first wife, as well as two grandchildren who came under their care because of another untimely death. Not uncommon. The family lived comfortably but frugally in the way people did in those days. Nice family.
Wait, you are saying, are you making this up? Or is reality TV older than we thought? Neither. Thanks to a couple of newspaper articles in the 1960s, when some of the family was still around, and to transcripts of interviews with other family members in the 1990s by Marty King of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Md., we know a lot about the Dickerson family. Here's some more:
Now about Captain Johnny's ark. As happens with things generally, the best fishing, oystering or crabbing is not often found just outside one's door. For watermen on the Eastern Shore, as for watermen in many other parts of the Bay, if you wanted a good catch, you had to travel some way to get it--often too far in the days of sail and then one-lung motors to make the round trip back home every day. So the watermen devised several ways of dealing with this problem. On the Western Shore of the middle and lower Bay, for example, they often built or rented terrestrial shanties near known fishing areas. They would live in the shanties for the duration of the shad or rockfish run or the oyster season and then return home. On the Eastern Shore, however, and particularly on the Chester and Sassafras rivers, with their endless creeks and coves, different seasons required different locations, and for them the fishing ark was just the ticket.
So right about the turn of the 20th century, Captain Johnny Dickerson, like many before and after him, took it upon himself to build an ark. Because he was hardworking, self-reliant and frugal, he didn't go to a boatbuilder; he did it himself. On the shore of Cliffs Landing, about a mile from his home, he first knocked together a simple scow, 12 by 8 feet, built with 5/4-inch lumber planked crosswise on the bottom. He used no caulk--nobody did on a fishing ark. On top of the 19-inch-high scow he erected a single-room shanty, 10 by 8 feet, placed at one end so that the two extra feet of the scow's deck would form a small entry platform on the door end. For the roof, he departed from the typical arch shape and built instead one with a shallow gable and a small overhang. This he covered with black tar paper, the standard roofing material of the day for houses. Inside, the cabin had 59 inches of headroom at the center; 51 inches at the sides. For the walls, Dickerson used another construction standard, horizontal overlapping weatherboard, leaving cutouts for two windows, one to a side. Inside he built small cabinets, a sandbox for the stove to sit in, two bunks across the far end and two drop-leaf tables, one under each window. There it was. A Chesapeake fishing ark. Add some food, bedding and a change of clothes, fishing or oystering gear--depending on the season--a gun for hunting, a deck of cards for bad weather, and you were ready to go.
September, early in the morning, any year before 1935. "Philemon, Benjamin, come on and get up. It's clear as a bell!" Phil and Ben Dickerson's baby sister Edith recalled many years later that this was always the call. The two youngsters (Phil was only nine the first time his call came) pulled themselves out of bed and followed their father in the early light across the fields to the river, where the ark and the family's two-log canoe C. Russel waited. They'd hoisted the sails on the C. Russel and, with the ark trailing along behind, headed out onto the river--toward the rich oyster grounds of Durdin Creek on Eastern Neck Island, some six miles away. Once there, Captain Johnny would guide the ark up into the shallows and put out planks to make it easy to walk ashore dry-shod. He cut a sapling for an anchor post for the ark and drove it into the shallows. Not all fishing arks stayed in the water. Many were rolled up on the shore for the duration and then set back in the water a day or two before the trip home to swell the uncaulked planks. On others, the boards were kept wet all the while it was out of the water. In any case, with no caulk, bailing was a perennial exercise.
At Durdin Creek, Phil, Ben and Captain Johnny made themselves at home. There they would stay for the oystering season--September, October, November, December--returning home on C. Russel only on weekends. As the winter deepened, the days got colder, the storms got rougher. All day long out on C. Russel, the boys would cull oysters, standing on boxes at the culling table until they were tall enough to reach it on their own. It was bone-hard work in the icy wind and spray. Benjamin loved the water. Philemon hated it. At night the heat of the stove shrank the weatherboards, opening up spaces that let the wind howl through. Captain Johnny and Benjamin got the bunks. Philemon got the floor. Sometimes they would be joined in the ark by Captain Johnny's brothers, Captains William and Benny Dickerson. Always room for one more. In bad weather, the card games lasted all day.
Finally, as the frost settled in and Christmas neared, Captain Johnny and the boys would pack up their things, lash the ark to the C. Russel and make their slow way back home. Until March. In March, the fish runs would begin, and Captain Johnny and the boys would tow the ark all the way across the Bay to the marsh behind Miller's Island (now Hart-Miller Island) some 25 miles to the northwest.
The Dickersons' ark would have been just one of dozens--maybe even hundreds--on the move each fall and spring. In some places, like Still Pond Creek, they congregated in "villages" of as many as 25 arks. Many were occupied solely by watermen, but others included whole families. It was never a problem to find a place to pull up an ark because nobody on shore minded. Sometimes it was at a farm. Sometimes it was near a wharf, which was convenient for shipping off the day's catch. Sometimes there would even be an agent on shore who would keep up with the prices in Baltimore and Washington and ship to the one paying the best. Sometimes there were buyboats to offload the catch on the water.
Wherever the arks gathered, they were welcomed by the locals, especially the neighbor-hood children, because the visitors provided a happy diversion to an isolated life. And the temporary residents were considered good citizens. In 1961, Evelyn Harris, whose family owned Harris's Wharf on Still Pond Creek, recalled that as soon as the arks arrived, "little housekeeping touches went up quickly." Clotheslines, washtubs, places for mending and drying nets. There would be children playing under the trees and music in the evenings. Plenty of work. Plenty of fun. By the first of June, with the fish runs petering out, it would be over. Back the arks would go into the water.
Early in the 1900s, sails began to give way to small motors, and the C. Russel's sails were stowed permanently when she too gained a small motor. A few years later, however, the C. Russel and all of Captain Johnny's fishing gear disappeared from the riverbank near the Dickerson house. Stolen! So Silverheels, a more commodius 5-log canoe with a small motor of her own, soon took its place and the rhythm of the Dickersons' lives continued. Tow the ark out in late fall. Tow it back around Christmas. Tow it out in March. Tow it back in early June.
The early years of the century passed quietly. More children were born to Johnny and Carrie Dickerson. Life on the water was hard but good. At home, Carrie did her chores, gardened, cooked, raised the children and read . . . and read. Overseas, World War I came and went. The Twenties arrived, and for watermen on the Bay good times continued. But oh, those Thirties! Troubles by the score. The Great Depression. Plummeting prices. No work. Even Mother Nature threw a few punches. First there was the Great Chesapeake Bay Hurricane of 1933 and its nine-foot storm surge. Then, just two years later, the floodwaters rose again on the Eastern Shore, this time creating havoc among the hundreds of vessels tied up along the Chester River, smashing some against the shore and sinking others. Captain Johnny's ark was torn from its anchorage at the Ray Startt farm, between Cliffs Landing and Comegys Bight, and was carried well inland, coming to rest in a marshy grove. After the floodwaters had subsided, Captain Johnny, Benjamin and Philemon hitched up their ark and towed it to a vacant piece of county property, near a boat-launching ramp. They pulled it up between two pine trees. And then they just walked away.
The days of the Chesapeake fishing ark were all but over. Motors were getting more powerful and more efficient, able to push boats along smartly--smartly enough to get the men out to the fishing grounds every morning and back home every night. Even by the 1920s, arks were becoming superfluous. Oh, they still had their uses, but now more often as retirement homes for widower watermen and seamen or--more ignominiously--as storage sheds and meat lockers ashore. Eastern Shore poet laureate Gilbert Byron on several occasions described his grandfather's happy old age in a grounded fishing ark, where he continued to carry on his trade as shoemaker and avocation as fisherman. A few arks even became quirky appendages to cottages in waterfront towns, but most just quietly decomposed where they had been pulled ashore or were scavenged for new projects.
For 30 years, Captain Johnny's ark sat next to the boat launch and fell slowly apart. Captain Johnny died sometime later. Benjamin and Philemon went on to other pursuits, and the ark sat moldering under the trees. But time softens the sharp edges of memory. In the 1960s, Philemon, now the sole surviving Dickerson brother, gave the ark (or what remained of it) and Silverheels to Robert Hewes III, his employer and now owner of the property where the ark had been left. Hewes in turn asked Phil to restore the ark. And this he happily did, his life and hard times on the ark having by now become a cherished memory. (Oyster pie and fried fish never tasted so good, he recalled back then.) In 1967 the restored ark was taken to Chestertown for the town's annual Tea Party. Not long afterward it was trucked to the Kent County Museum where it became an outdoor display.
And here's the ironic and sad part; after all that, Captain Johnny's ark fell victim to yet another storm, this one in 1994, reduced the ark to a jumble of splintered wood. Workmen cleared it away along with the rest of the debris. Sigh.
But take heart, a handful of old Chesapeake fishing arks do survive. Here are four that we know about.
In St. Michaels, Md., thousands of visitors to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum have seen a tiny fishing ark tucked into the reeds. We don't know much of its history, but we do know that this former Rock Hall fishing ark was rescued from a second career as a meat locker. Now it represents its mostly vanished genre for visitors to the museum. Inside the tiny ark are items left over from those days of shanty-boat life. In its outside setting, it resembles just another ark pulled ashore, awaiting a tow out for the next shad run or oyster season.
An ark known as "Captain Carter's fishing shanty" today sits at the busy intersection of Rock Hall Avenue and Main Street in the center of Rock Hall, that quintessential Eastern Shore waterman's town. This ark was pulled back from the brink of oblivion after local historian Audrey Johnson brought it to the attention of Kate Johnson and John Timlin in 1988 when the couple bought property once owned by the superbly named Captain American Carter. The ark was restored by well known Eastern Shore boatwright Stanley F. VanSant. It was presented to the town in 1990 and dedicated to VanSant in 1993.
More recently, another master boatwright, John Swain of Chestertown, was given the job of restoring the bigger, better Betterton ark. Bigger and better? Yes. This ark has sleeping space for four, rather than the usual two, and its construction is more sophisticated than most of its fellows. It has a platform at both ends and a door out from each end of the cabin. At 24 feet, its scow bottom is considerably larger than the others, too, as is the cabin, which is 20 feet. There's more headroom too--as much as 6 feet 5 inches in some places. The hull itself is flared so that it will ride more easily on the water. Do you sense the presence of a boatbuilder rather than a waterman? Yup, that's very likely, says Swain. We don't know who the boatbuilder might have been or even quite when he built it, though it was probably sometime in the early 1920s. All that's known is that it was owned and used by the Leigh family of Betterton, and that it was on their property on Idlewilde Avenue, along the Sassafras River, that the ark remained until it was taken to Swain's workshop for restoration.
In Betterton, as elsewhere, arks were used by watermen in the winter and the spring. But here, during the summer, they were also pulled up on the beach and rented out as tourist cottages. Well known decoy maker Charles "Speed" Joiner, who was born in 1921, remembers visiting the Leigh ark as a youth. He remembers that one of the windows could be pulled out in the winter to let the stove pipe come through.
Joiner was also around to help when it came time to raise the money to restore the ark, putting his famous skill as a decoy carver to work. Artist Linda Hall helped too, as did her husband Larry Crew and the whole of the Betterton Community Development Corporation with their Save the Betterton Ark! project. Crew has a connection of his own with arks. Crew's great-grandfather Caldwell and great-uncle Lewis had a large three-window ark, which they towed with a gilling skiff.
The Betterton ark, now fully restored, painted bright white with dark green trim and sitting safely under cover in a modern barn, it's a beaut. In fact, with her nautical-looking curves, she's about as good-looking as a Chesapeake fishing ark was going to get.
That's not to say that the ark at Rock Hall Yacht Club is any slouch. Far from it. The ark's cabin is only a couple of inches shorter than the Betterton ark, and it's a two-roomer, with a living area and a sleeping area divided by a bead-board wall. The inside of the ark is also finished with double beaded narrow tongue-and-groove boards, presumably for extra warmth. Each side has three windows. Pretty swish. This one is known as the Mench ark, not for the family that built it and used it, but for the family that owned the Chestertown property it had been found on in the mid-1980s, when the Maryland Historic Trust conducted a survey of arks. The property, near the south end of Water Street, had been a railroad wharf in 1929, the year the ark was built by Will Malin, a house carpenter, and Charles Capel for waterman Jack Johnson. It was from here, according to the historical trust survey, that Johnson and his two brothers towed the ark each fall for several years to creeks a few miles below Chestertown. After Johnson was done with it, he sold it to waterman Elmer Batchelor, who pulled it ashore near the railroad wharf, blocked it up and rented it out as a house. Three or four such arks were said to be in use here at the same time, one of them--maybe even this one--by Gilbert Byron's grandfather. In any case, this is the one that survived. Its scow end was sawn off and it was jammed between two buildings and used as a storage room.
Here's how it was saved. Reporter Craig O'Donnell of the Kent County Record was covering a Chestertown Council meeting one evening when a condominium builder said that the ark would be in the way of progress unless someone got it out. O'Donnell asked a friend of his, Chuck Parry, if he would rescue it. Parry, who himself has built a number of boats, said yes. He found a man with a flatbed roll-off car trailer, extracted the arc from its resting place of many years and moved it down the road--losing a few pieces as it went--to the Rock Hall Yacht Club, where he happened to be commodore at the time. Over the following winter Parry spent hundreds of hours putting the ark back together, finishing it off with a nice coat of dark green paint. It looks mighty good. Then he tried to give it away to somebody, like a museum. No takers. So now it's a decorative feature on the yacht club grounds.
And that's pretty much it for fishing arks on the Chesapeake. Once plentiful, they were never built to last. They served their purpose well, then were abandoned as time and technology passed them by. Same old story. In some ways, it's remarkable there are any left at all. And yet . . . there is the haunting notion that there must be more arks out there yet to be discovered. We know that there are a few still in use as homes--with added-on rooms and porches. Perhaps there are more being used as storage sheds--with sawn-off front ends and deeper doors. The amateur detective can always deduce the ark's true identity by the telltale shape of its old scow base and its up-curved ends. A dead giveaway. Where else would an ark sleuth search? Elementary. The back corners of old boatyards, where the superfluous and antiquated have been set aside indefinitely. Or the fields and woods near the old homes of watermen families, where brambles have won out over lawn. Or on the outer edges and neighborhoods of old marinas long used by watermen. No doubt there are other good places to look, as well. It just needs a little good detective work to discover the next Captain Johnny's ark.