The author heads to the Captain Avery Museum for Maryland Day to learn couples who make their living on the Bay.

by Jody Argo Schroath
map courtesy NV Charts

I am coming clean right up front: I went to the Captain Avery Museum in Shady Side, Md., in a Volvo station wagon rather than a boat. Call me a wimp, but it was cold, dark and threatening rain and snow. Besides, I’ve been in and out of the West River dozens of times, so it’s not as if I’ve never been there . . . sorta. I’d been wanting to visit the museum, anyway, but had never got around to it. So when I read about their Maryland Day program on March 24, I decided to go, even if it meant traveling on four radial all-weather tires rather than two hulls, twin diesels and a couple of sails. 

The museum, established by the Shady Side Rural Heritage Society, sits on what used to be called the Swamp, between Parish Creek and McKinley Point near the wide open mouth of the West River. The oldest part of the building was the home of Captain Salem Avery, a displaced New England waterman who had followed the oyster supply south to the Chesapeake, married a local woman and in 1860 built a home in the Swamp. There the couple raised seven children as Avery worked the water until his death in 1890. One of the Avery sons and his family lived in the home until 1920. Then it was purchased by a group of Jewish Masons from Washington, D.C., who used it as a summer retreat for their families, and built a large addition in place of the old kitchen annex. In 1989 it was purchased by the Shady Side Rural heritage Society and turned into a museum that celebrates local history and the lives of those who earn their living from the Bay. Which brings me, the long way around, to the Maryland Day program that attracted my interest: “Catch of the Bay: A Waterman’s Journey.” The museum had invited three local couples who work together on the water. Each spoke in turn to a full house gathered in the Masons’ addition.

Bill Cheatham began working on the Bay at 16 and has done so now for 44 years, he told his audience. His wife Sue started fishing and crabbing on Back Creek out of Eastport in the early 1990s. The two met, married and have been making their sole living from clamming every since, traveling many miles out and back each day in their 41-foot boat Sue. Their clamming rig uses water pressure to loosen the bottom, which is then suctioned up, and the clams—if any—extracted. Naturally, they bring up a lot of things that are not clams, Sue says, “like rocks, purses and Christmas trees.”

Clams are a relatively new fishery for the Chesapeake, Bill explained. The first clammers were licensed in Anne Arundel in 1959. In the decades immediately following that, there were a lot of licensed clammers on the Bay. Those were the days when good-eating soft-shell clams (also called steamers and long-necks) were abundant. “It was a big business then,” Bill said, “it provided a lot of income for a lot of people.” Now there are only two licensed clammers left in the county. And they are harvesting not soft-shell clams, but razor clams, which are sold for bait rather than the dinner table. These days, even the razor clams are getting scarce, Bill said. “It’s a dying way of life,” he continued. Last year, the Cheathams’ fuel cost alone was $20,000. Bill Cheatham blames the dwindling supply of clams on the boom in population along the Bay’s waterfront, which destroys the natural buffer for runoff and instead adds sediment and pollution from lawn chemicals. 

John and Kathy Galloway, who have been oystering together for 17 years, agree with Cheatham’s assessment. “If we had clean water, we could produce plenty of seafood,” John tells the audience. His family has been working on the Bay since the late 1800s, he explains. This oyster season, the Galloways have been driving every day to their boat, Fran and Peg, on Tilghman Island to dredge the rich oyster beds that have been developed in that area. They have been so impressed with their catch—especially at the opening of the season—and with the friendliness of the watermen there, that they are considering a move from Shady Side. “One captain even put his mate on our boat the first day to show us around,” John said. 

Their boat uses patent tongs with a power dredge that runs licks of about seven minutes each before being hauled out and dumped on the table for culling. The shells and oysters smaller than three inches go back into the water, while the Galloways—usually Kathy, who has a “3-inch eye,” cleans the shells of the legal-sized oysters and tosses them into plastic bushels. They work until they’ve got their limit and then drive them all the way back across the Bay and down to Chesapeake Bounty in St. Leonard, Md. “It makes for a long day,” Kathy Galloway says with a sizeable amount of understatement.

The program’s final speaker was crabber Rob Howe. Unlike the others, Howe has a full-time job away from the water. He rises at 4 a.m. and tends his crab pots before returning home and getting ready for work. His wife Julia then sells the day’s catch from their home. Howe, a Shady Side native, started on the water at 8, going out with his grandfather, and had his own boat and a crabbing license at 11. “We do well with the crabbing, but when we add it up, there’s no way we can pay the mortgage and bills without that 9-to-5 job,” Howe said. Unlike the others, though, he can reach his first pot within 10 minutes of leaving the dock.

After everyone was through talking, I grabbed a cookie from the refreshment table and wandered outside to look around. In a boat shed behind the museum I stopped to admire a lovely “stick-up” crabbing skiff, built by Reuel Parker in 1998 (because there were none left and he really wanted to sail one.) This type of skiff got its name because it was easy to “stick up” the spars. Closer to the water I found another interesting boat, though under wraps. It was the locally famous Vanity, designed in the 1930s by American Cup designer Charles Mowes. From 1934 to 1938, Vanity won every Open 20 race on the river, until local boatbuilding legend Dick Hartge finally found a design that could beat her. Hartge’s design became the classic Chesapeake 20.

Finally, I walked out on the pier and tried to imagine the river as it had been in Captain Avery’s day, when the land stretched out 200 feet farther and the opposite shore too was significantly closer. The spot where the house first stood is now well offshore. Over the years, the house has been moved inland several times. And the river has become more and more exposed. On that day, certainly, there was nothing to block the cold north wind that found every chink in my winter-wear armor. It was time for me to move inland, as well, so I walked back to the parking lot and pulled the Volvo out of its slip and headed home. This time, I didn’t even regret not traveling by boat. 

[5.13 issue]