There's no real town called Guinea, VA. There's just a
vast stretch of marshes, a misty history, and a community
of people who live a singular life on the Bay. [October 2004]
by Paul Clancy
photographs by Starke Jett
A combined thousand yards of net rattles off the decks of the two old Chesapeake dead-rises as they move away from each other. Now half a mile apart, the boats rumble through the summer night, hauling the long seine net in a wide arc. Phosphorus flashes in the water seem to reflect light from the stars. Aboard one of the boats, Dorothy K, Raymond Kellum—known to all around here as Kennyman—glances over his shoulder from his place at the helm and watches as a blood-red three-quarter moon rises over the wooden boat's stern. "You know," he says, "people live a lifetime and never see that."
In his 65 years, Kennyman (it comes from his middle name, Kenneth) has seen it a thousand times, maybe more. And, the good Lord willin', he'll keep seeing it as he lives out his days doing exactly what he and his daddy and granddaddy have done—coaxing fish out of the waters near the Guinea Marshes in the southern Bay.
Over the next couple of hours on this hot, airless August night, he and his crew, and the crew on their partner boat, will shorten the nets and draw them into a circle. Then they'll get a few hours of sleep and, at first light tomorrow, with the tide at its ebb, get into the water in waders, force what they hope will be several thousand pounds of fish into an even-smaller "pocket," and haul the catch onboard.
Kennyman and his associates are known hereabouts as Guineamen: tough, proud, independent watermen from way back who have given their section of Gloucester County, Va., a spice as sharp as Old Bay seasoning. They have a reputation for being insular, hard-living and combative people, with a dialect that defies understanding. But after several days in their company, I beg to differ with these stereotypes.
To start with, if they were all that standoffish, why would he and his friends agree to put up with me during a long night on the water? Why would they allow me into what is an almost sacred world few are privileged to see? And why would the others—the seafood dealers, the shopkeepers, the marina owners, the fellow watermen—be willing to share their stories with a total stranger?
Well, maybe, darlin'—as they don't mind calling just about everyone—it is to lift the curtain just a little bit.
I sailed here from Norfolk—about 30 miles as the gull flies—and approached from the York River side, sliding into the Perrin River and a slip at Cook's Landing Marina. It was a good choice for my purposes; it's right at the center of seafood operations for Guineamen and other local watermen. Workboats hug the piers right next door. But it's not as if you can come here and stroll into downtown Guinea. Guinea is vast, sprawling over thousands of acres of marsh, with a couple of small crossroads villages, so I've made a couple of land trips, too, to fill in the gaps.
In fact, finding the real Guinea is next to impossible. There is no actual town of that name, just a section of Gloucester County known as Guinea Neck. And there's Guinea Road, the two-lane thoroughfare that connects this otherwise isolated peninsula between the York and the Severn rivers. No one seems to know, or perhaps they just won't admit knowing, where the real Guinea begins. They'll say it's just down the road a little farther, even if you've already gone down that road.
Even the name is blurred by the mists of time—and historians have pretty much given up trying to explain it. Guinea? Are we talking the coast of West Africa or the former British gold coin once minted from African gold? Well, apparently both. A favorite theory is that the first white settlers were Revolutionary War British army deserters who hoarded the coins and, long after the war, used them to pay taxes. Thus, the name Guineamen. Another is that they were former slave traders who brought slaves to Virginia from Guinea.
In either case, one thing is clear: The inhabitants of the region, especially the Guinea Marshes—the islands at the easternmost part of the neck—were isolated. While Gloucester, the county seat to the west, shared the tobacco wealth of the earliest colonies, giving birth to plantations and private estates, these hardscrabble watermen had little contact with the rest of the world. They tended to marry within their own people and nourish their own language, not unlike the folks on Tangier Island. Scratch a Guineaman and he'll tell you he wouldn't give an inch of the Big Island (one of the eastern marsh islands that was home for generations of families) for New York City.
The only place I found a sign saying "Guinea, Va.," was over the door of Haywood Seafood Company way out on the edge of the marshes. It had no official standing, though, no post office to support its name. Instead, Phillip Haywood Jr., son of the owner, calls Guinea "a state of mind."
One thing it most certainly is not is Gloucester Point, home of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, a division of the College of William & Mary that studies the marine environment, or Sarah Creek, the home of upscale York River Yacht Haven. There could not be a sharper contrast, in fact, between the yachties there and their deadrise-driving next-door neighbors. You can see a marked difference, too, between the plantation-style houses in Sarah Creek subdivisions and the down-home cottages just across that imaginary, state-of-mind boundary down the road a piece.
One thing for sure, though. By the time you reach Bena, a tiny crossroads town with two general stores, a post office and barbershop, you're in Guinea. By sheer luck, I pull up to C.B. Rowe & Son general store. Buck Rowe, the owner for more than half a century and called the "Mayor of Guinea" by some, is on the porch sipping from a cup and watching the traffic go by. He seems an elf of a man, but with a strong, assertive voice and inquisitive green eyes. In 84 years he's seen it all and doesn't mind letting you know that fact.
Rowe kind of converses with the traffic as it goes by, some vehicles turning left toward the next town of Achilles, some bearing right toward the York River. "I got 'em covered. Police and fire, they can't get by me," he declares. A Buddy's Seafood truck goes by. "He's loaded with crabs going to northern markets. Yes, sir," he barks, pinching my elbow, "food for the nourishment of your body. Natural resources is the answer to it all, the land and the sea."
"Back it in there! Back it in!" he calls over to the volunteer firefighters maneuvering their truck into the firehouse across the road. "That's the best volunteer fire department you've ever seen in your life."
The red-painted general store was built in 1920, as a boat-style signboard on the door proclaims. Rowe came back from island-hopping in the Pacific during World War II and went right into business with his father. The counters are worn smooth and nails are beginning to work their way up through the floor. The store offers some of the basics—cans of this and jars of that—but what it is gradually turning into is a museum for the Guinea Heritage Association, as he calls it. There are oyster shucking knives, crab pots, pieces of fish net, photos of old churches and high school graduating classes, an antique phonograph with records, a pickle jar, a whiskey jug and stacks of store account books. There's something vanishing here that Rowe is trying to hold on to. It's more than just artifacts, but a way of life. "We've got the best people in the world here," he says. "Everybody that comes by treats you like their own."
The fact is, if you're from Guinea, you probably are family to half the community. I have only to walk across the street to see that this is so.
That's where I meet Wilbur Templeman, in his barbershop, a little freestanding white building, where E.H. "Ham" Williams has come in to have his flat-top lowered. Williams has identified 17,200 individuals for his family tree, almost all of them from Guinea, he says. Included are two uncles, a "good uncle" and "bad uncle" who had stores across the street from each other. At least, that is, until the latter, hot about a rumor of his reputation being besmirched, filled the former with buckshot where he sat on his porch.
For exactly half a century, Williams, a ship designer in Newport News, has entrusted his horizontal top to Templeman's shears, and he isn't about to change the habit, or any other he can think of. There's something powerful about close family ties and friendships that drew both of his daughters back home after college, Williams says. He and his wife, Lucy, recently bought a home in Mathews, but then they decided not to move. "Why in the autumn of life would you want to start something new?" he asks rhetorically. "And besides, Wilbur is here, and I don't know what I'd do without a barber."
Templeman dusts the chair. "I can be replaced so easy," he reminds his friend. Templeman, born and raised in Guinea, got out of the service about the same time as Buck Rowe did. Now almost 80, he's been cutting hair on the same spot for 56 years. "I haven't decided whether I'm going to make a career out of it," he says, with only the hint of a smile.
If roots run deep, they also run strong. Just ask Bennie Belvin, a former pound-netter who owns Belvin Seafood across the creek from Cook's Landing. "I don't think I've seen anyone yet that was born and raised and left here that he didn't always come back before it was over with," he tells me.
Partial proof is his daughter, Myron Hall. She works full time at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., but she's there at her father's side most days a week, even though she has no desire to take over the business. "I'll help Daddy as long as he wants to do it, but it's a man's world," she says. Still, there's a strong pull. Every time she drives across the Coleman Bridge spanning the York River, she feels it. "When you get on top of that bridge, there's something about going down: You're home."
More than a dozen cats laze about the premises, licking their paws and rubbing against visitors' pant legs. A boat calledKatie Maypulls up with about 20 bushels of crabs.
"How you doin', darlin'?" Hall says. Workers unload the catch. Belvin picks up the filled bushel baskets with a forklift and drives them over to a waiting truck, "Crab Express," that speeds them off to market. Belvin started his seafood business in 1967, and before that he and his father worked pound nets for 15 years. "You never retire from this business," he says. "You might die, and that's the only way to retire."
The watermen, especially those in Guinea, cling to the old ways. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which issues licenses for commercial fishing, says the number of licenses has held steady at about 3,100 in Virginia, though increasingly these represent part-time watermen. The Gloucester-Guinea area is one of the few that has held its own in the number of full-timers. The average age is about 50, with a few of the old-timers still around working alongside their sons, but even that seems to be falling off as fewer of the younger generation follow the water. There's a freeze on certain new licenses, like those for crabs, so that's no longer a sure source of revenue. And Guinea itself is changing, with high-end development sprouting up on once-rural land. From 1992 to 1997, Gloucester County as a whole lost two percent of its natural habitat while gaining 116 percent in developed land, according to a study by William & Mary.
But change is slow. It seemed especially that way on a ferociously hot August day when
Kennyman fired up the powerful Chevy Crusader engine on his 25-year-old wooden boat,Dorothy K, and eased her out of Rowes Creek and into the Severn. In a ritual almost as old as his profession, he was to meet up with the crew of a second boat; they would move crab pots out of the area they'd be sweeping, raft up, have a quick dinner and then, as the tide rolled in, put their nets over and sleep a few hours. Then at first light tomorrow, with the tide then at its ebb, they would haul in their catch.
Kennyman (his aunt gave him the nickname when he was a child; almost everyone around here goes by a nickname) is a tall man, sun-baked, with a big chest and comfortable girth. He has a big, hearty laugh that draws you into his company. He points out settlements along the shoreline where his father, his grandmother, his wife were born and raised—and where they now live. "We don't go very far," he says.
We near Myrtle Point Narrows, a cluster of islands just around the corner from the York on Mobjack Bay, and that's where he spots his partners and their boat,Jennifer L, named for Billy Lett's daughter. Billy's onboard, along with Mike Deal and Ray McElligott, and Billy's 10-year-old son, B.J. They raft up together and I get my first taste of the real Guineaman dialect. It's a challenge to understand, but here, with apologies, is what Ray had to say:
Speaking of his friend Andrew who had a little beagle hound, he said, "Weh, ystde ah ws ovah hees hose sittin' in mah truk an ah luked an ah seen a rabbut, a liddle teeny baby rabbut bout dat lowng, [the dog] chased him doun, ya know, an' tossed him, ya know. So ah chased him doun an got de rabbut away, he dropt de rabbut . . . [Later] Ah sayed to Andrew, ah sayed, man, why done you get ridda dat ole dowg? Well, ah be damd somebody kilt him dis mownin'. I felt bad abute it cuz ah tole him to get rid a him.
Not only are the words clipped, sometimes at both ends—so they slide together easily—they're spoken at about 90 miles an hour. Kennyman says the problem isn't that Guineamen speak fast, but that others just listen too slow.
I ask him about the Guineamen's reputation for fighting and he acknowledges that used to be a problem. "On a Saturday night, man, that's the roughest place you ever seen in your life. There wasn't a Saturday night come when somebody didn't get shot or cut. They'd fight you at the drop of a hat—and say, here, let me take off my hat and drop it." Those days are gone, he says. "I guarantee you can go to anybody around here now, a true Guineaman, he'll do a favor for you as quick as anybody in the world."
Kennyman is easier to understand than some of the others, but when he gets going, he slides into Guinea talk. "My daddy was the kind of a man, doun care who he was or what color he was, if you came to he's doah and knocked on he's doah, and he was eatin' brakfast, dinnah or suppah, the first thing he'd tell him: Come on in, darlin', have somethin' to eat."
After running about two hours, Kennyman and Ray in his boat and Billy and Mike in the other begin shortening the net. They let the boats drift back as they each haul in a section, deposit the net back on the deck of their boats, shaking off the dogfish—miniature sharks—that have gotten entangled. All the while, Kennyman is whistling. What's the tune, I ask. " 'Because He Lives,' " he tells me, and begins singing it, "Because He lives, I can face tomorrow . . ."
They creep forward again and repeat the process, until the net is much shorter than before. Now they bring the boats together, drawing the net closed. The circle is about the size of an Olympic swimming pool. It's about 1:30 a.m. when we anchor, time for a quick ham sandwich and then bed. I crawl on top of the cabin with my sleeping bag. There's a breeze now and a gentle rocking. The moon dominates the hazy night sky.
Just before dawn, Kennyman and Ray don chest waders and pull up anchor. Pelicans are dive-bombing inside their big circle, harvesting some of the catch. Haze on the land means a hot day, but a cold front is due tonight. No time to waste.
In a ballet of maneuvers, they use the two skiffs they have trailed behind Billy's boat to close the net even tighter. They get in the water and, with pointed stakes and a separate net, fashion a corral (the "pound") with a wing that will force the fish into it. More closing, until the fish—you can now see them bunched up in a swirling mass—are drawn into the pound and the net is drawn shut. Now, with the help of a motorized winch and a net with a bottom that pulls open, about 8,000 pounds of wriggling fish—spot, croaker and pan trout—are deposited in the hold of Billy's boat. There's a distinctive low roar from the croakers—hence the name. The boats part company, one heading for a fish house on Sarah Creek, the other going home.
This is a tough life, a "dowg's life," as Ray puts it on the way back to Rowes Creek. But neither he nor any of the other watermen would give it up. "I'm my own boss," says Kennyman, laughing at the wonder of that fact. "I was out in the York River one time, shad fishin'. I was off there all by myself, you know, puttin' the nets down, doin' all kinds of stuff. And singin' along. All at once I stopped and I looked all around, and I said to myself, there are millions and millions and billions of people in the world—and I'm the only one out here."
The sun is well up now. Rough weather is headed our way. But right now, this world, this enduring way of life, seems flooded with peace.
Cruiser's Digest: Guinea, Va.
The approach to Cook's Landing Marina (804-642-6177) is straightforward from the York River, beginning with the flashing red-green "PR" (for Perrin River). There seems to be plenty of depth all the way. There's a large fishing shack at the entrance to the river and several deadrise fishing boats beside it, followed by the marina piers. The cost is $1 per foot. They have diesel and gas.
Frankly, there's not much to do once you get there, unless you have access to a car or carry bicycles. There is a pool, and that seemed popular when I was there. There are no nearby restaurants or shops. After sailing there and back home, I went by car and checked out some of the rest of Guinea, centered in the two little towns of Bena and Achilles. In September every year they have the Guinea Jubilee, a celebration of the local waterman's life. I drove to Virginia Route 17, the main highway through Gloucester, and discovered at the corner of Tide Mill Road, Sweet Madeleine's Restaurant (804-642-1780). The apple caramel-bourbon bread pudding is worth the whole trip to the region.
Around on the Severn River are other possible approaches to Guinea. Holiday Marina (804-642-2528) on Rowes Creek, where mostly fishing boats lie, is still slowly recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Isabel, but a few slips might be available by now.
Sketching a Life
Across from Buck Rowe's store and next to Wilbur Templeman's barbershop is the former Bena Country Store, now named "Mo Stuff," after its owners Bill and Ellen Mosely. After Bill retired from the Air Force, they found the building, then vacant, and began the business selling country gifts, candles and art supplies. Upstairs, Bill has opened a framing studio.
One of the striking things about the store is a nice collection of original sketches by local artists, especially by Harriet Cowen. Turns out she lives right down the street. Ellen calls her and within minutes the artist is there. Harriet grew up on a family farm in Maine. Her parents steered her into music. She took up the violin, served as concert mistress of a local orchestra and studied at the New England Conservatory. She gravitated to Wichita, Kansas, as a music teacher and a member of the symphony there. It was there that she met and married her husband. But it turns out that music wasn't her first love, and she began art classes, developing a talent for pen-and-ink drawings with watercolor washes. With great attention to detail, she has brought to life scenes of ordinary life from Guinea and the surrounding area, including old post offices, churches and lighthouses.
"This is what I like to do, local scenes," she says, pointing to the wall of her works. "Everywhere I turn I see so many places that just would make great pictures. This is art that people relate to.
"I'm trying to capture things before they go away--and they go away in a hurry sometimes."
With the help of a daughter who lives in the D.C. area, she found a home on the water near Bena. "They've put up with me since 1989," she says with a deep laugh. "They're great people who take us just like we are. And I fit into that just fine."