Seasons of the Waterman

Seasons of the Waterman (HM2EEH)

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N 38° 50.956', W 76° 30.71'

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A bad day on the water is better than the best day on land.
— J.R. Gross, age 32 (2000)

To make a living, a waterman thinks not in terms of weekly paychecks but rather, how much his family will bring in during the different seasons of the year.

If the oyster harvest is low in the winter, the waterman will hope to make up for it in crabs in summer. Most watermen carry out a mix of occupations over the course of a year. In the early 20th century, a growing population of summer vacationers in Shady Side brought more work for the community. Many watermen did carpentry work on summer cottages, took out fishing parties, built work and pleasure boats, farmed, and took on other jobs to make ends meet. At the close of oystering season, local African-American watermen often ventured north to the Delaware Bay to crew on large dredge boats, and were away from home for two months at a time.

Even in the 19th century heyday of oystering, most watermen earned a living on the water in the winter and the land in the summer. Captain Salem Avery was no exception. He was a buy boat captain and a farmer with two farms, the "Avery Farm" here at the family home, and "Swamp Farm" on property near Shady Side's modern day post office.

Summer's Work

In the early 20th century,

Shady Side was a popular summer destination. Watermen supplemented their income by taking out fishing parties — $5 was the going rate during the Depression. Entertaining the vacationers involved the whole family! Watermen's wives fed them lunch, clearing out the family's furniture to set up tables for dining. The children caught crabs for them to eat.

Daddy's fishing parties would say, 'Have me a bushel of crabs when I get back.' In those days, you go down to the pier, you catch a bushel of crabs in an hour-and-a-half or two hours, didn't take any time to catch them. Mother used to steam them with red pepper, and they'd always pay me pretty good for them. And then, next time they'd come, they'd bring me a doll baby with long curls.
— George Mauk, age 72 (1991)

Families worried when fishing parties went out in bad weather.

I would see my mother stand at the door and cry when he left in the morning...storms, hailing, lightning shooting everywheres...but that bunch from Washington, they wanted to go so he took them.
— George Mauk

Winter's Work

Oystering in the ice was dangerous work. Ice could cut through a wooden hull like a razor. Watermen covered the bottom of their workboats with copper sheathing to protect them and occasionally moved their boats to Annapolis in the winter, where constant ferry traffic kept the harbor ice-free and safe for oystering.

That way they could go out and work. A lot of times they had to stay up there all week and just sleep aboard the boat — no heat. As a kid, I used to do that too. I'd crawl up in the stern of the boat and sleep with my clothes on — because we couldn't get home.
— Jack Nieman

We'd be out on the water to about three, somethin' like that. Then we'd head back in. When we got in, we'd wash the boat up and go over it to make sure it was ready for tomorrow. Get our fuel and oil in the evening. Most of the time it was dark before we got home. We'd shower, eat — Daddy's read the Annapolis paper — and go to bed by nine. It was hard, cold work, and we'd be really tired.
— Jimmy Lerch Crandall, age 53 (1998)

A Waterman's Life Is Measured in Seasons Rather than Weeks

Tar the pound net
Fish with drift nets

Fish (shad and herring)
Drive in pound net stakes
Mend nets
Plant oysters

Fish (alewives, weak fish, and hardhead)
Paint and carpentry work
Make tongs

Prepare for oystering
Make tongs
Fish (rockfish)

My father was an oysterman. He was a junk collector, he was a painter, he was a crabber in the summer, but, with six children, I guess that you had to have that many jobs.
— Emma Knopp, age 72 (1984)

That's My Living — Following the Water
Placed ByChesapeake Bay Gateways Network
Marker ConditionNo reports yet
Date Added Monday, February 18th, 2019 at 1:03pm PST -08:00
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Locationbig map
UTM (WGS84 Datum)18S E 368807 N 4301135
Decimal Degrees38.84926667, -76.51183333
Degrees and Decimal MinutesN 38° 50.956', W 76° 30.71'
Degrees, Minutes and Seconds38° 50' 57.36" N, 76° 30' 42.6" W
Driving DirectionsGoogle Maps
Which side of the road?Marker is on the right when traveling North
Closest Postal AddressAt or near , ,
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