October 23, 2017

Memories of Maritime Village of Wynne

Slackwater Wynne

The SlackWater Center at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is a consortium of students, faculty, and community members documenting and interpreting the region’s changing landscapes. Oral histories are at the core of the center, which encourages students to explore the region through historical documents, images, literature, and scientific and environmental evidence. Some of this work is published in the print journal SlackWater, some of which is online and some published here. The work below was first published in spring 2004.

slackwater logoBy Anne Grulich

Wynne Road runs two miles southwesterly from Route 5 down the length of a peninsula barely a mile wide. Its one brief hill flattens suddenly into barely perkable, barely farmable bottomland. The road passes entrances to Fox Harbor, and Jutland and Smith creeks before dead-ending into the mouth of Smith’s Creek where it joins the St. Mary’s River and Calvert Bay, once among the most prolific oyster bottoms in the region.

In 1980, after serving in Vietnam and with a lifetime of experience on the water in Wynne, Thomas Courtney purchased the three acres of land jutting into Smith Creek that had been home to generations of seafood industry merchants. Stanley Raley ran the Captain’s Table Restaurant there before Tom renamed it Courtney’s Seafood Restaurant. Two 200-foot long warehouses, with large circular vents dominating their peaked roofs, remain as relics of the old Charles Davis Seafood Company which operated on the point from 1945-1960. Today, these white elephants house Tom Courtney’s pound nets and sundry water gear. For decades before Charles Davis’s tenure, Rob Lewis ran the Potomac View Seafood Company here. In 1896 Sam Raleigh built Benville’s wharf on this point, where a steam saw, gristmill, and canning factory once operated.

Hard work on the water and its periphery framed decades of Wynne days during the first half of the twentieth century. As the demand for oysters rose steadily as an American delicacy, Wynne’s watermen tonged and shucked to feed the insatiable market. With the exception of the eighteenth century Woodlawn estate, the Wynne peninsula was a ramshackle landscape of modest homes and farmhouses, with attendant outbuildings, outhouses, barns, fences, wharves, shucking houses, and dirt and oyster shell roads. The business of life, be it land- or water-related, was conducted in the yards. A knock on the store door, a crow of the cock, the crack of dawn, or a full moon set old and young in motion. People slaughtered their own hogs and heifers, milked their own cows, salted their fish, built their own houses, and cleaned their wounds with turpentine. It was a vigorous life for a self-reliant community dependent on the fecundity if its creek and fields.

At mid-century, Charlie Davis was one of Wynne’s most industrious residents. He employed the second largest work force in St. Mary’s County. Only the Navy base had more workers. In 1945, after a decade of hauling freight in his own trucks, Davis bought out his employer. He purchased Rob Lewis’s farm and icehouse, store, oyster shucking and packing plant. He bought out Charles Newbert’s oyster shucking business and combined the two seafood enterprises. Over time, he bought Fred Dunbar’s farm and home, then Captain Douley Wood’s Trimble Farm, and part of the Woodlawn farm acres. In 2004, his heirs sit on 171 acres of his Wynne legacy.

Despite a seemingly remote location, Wynne’s watermen didn’t operate in a vacuum. Their world was connected by steamboat to the nation’s railways, and the local store was the hub of exchange. Rob Lewis’s brother, Charles, owned the Potomac Store Company at the Millers Wharfs Road intersection where a small, white washed board and batten warehouse now stands. Alice Cullison Taylor grew up working in her grandfather’s store, and took over the business during World War II. “The store was my baby,” says Taylor. “Joe, my husband, had nothing to do with it.”

The store was there when Alice was born. Her grandfather sold homegrown asparagus and strawberries, as well as imported terrapins. “They came on steamboats,” she recalled. “He had them shipped in and they came in great big wooden boxes in dirt.” Her grandfather also had a little barbershop at one time, which became the post office, wired off into a little area separate from the rest of the store, where people were handed their mail through a slot. A high counter followed the square shape of the room and that’s where you kept medicine and salves, hardware and nails. Canned goods and flour sat on shelves. Underneath the counter was a big desk where Taylor’s family did all the bookkeeping. “We bought eggs from country people and they traded for groceries.”

Taylor recalls selling hunks of cheese from an open container, as well as bacon, fatback and some meats. “Most people killed their own pigs and heifers. People killed their beef. Liver pudding, I remember we sold that. It was put in square pans and we cut off a piece and sold it by the pound.” Bread was eight cents a loaf, and there was an ice cream bar, and beer, and cookies and crackers. “In fact, you could buy almost anything you want except good cuts of meat.”

The family lived in a long room behind the store, and opened the shop up when the first knock on the door came. They closed it at night when the last person left. People sat on big wooden nail kegs around a big country stove right by the front door. “If somebody wanted nails and you were sitting there, you had to lift that seat up. We had spittoons. We had to, we sold chewing tobacco.”

Will Pratt walked a mile and a half every Saturday across the swamp with his grocery list and big white sack. Alice filled his order and he’d put it across his back and walk homeward. Mrs. Charlie Wood walked every day to the store, arriving an hour and a half before 11:00 mail delivery “and would just talk to everybody and enjoy it. I guess that’s the only place she ever went.” Mr. Klotz was an old, well-educated bachelor just happy to be alone. Captain Jack Poe would come in and sit and tell stories like a lot of other people. Youngsters met for ice cream. “You grew up with these people, and you accepted them just like they accepted you.” And the telephone was at the store. “Back in those days, telephones weren’t private. If you picked up the receiver and somebody was talking, you didn’t ring the telephone. If you kept real quiet, you listened in. That was another way of getting a lot of news. Everybody did it.”

In the wintertime watermen from Smith Island would meet and shop at the Potomac Store and harbor there overnight. “One time I had fifteen hundred hens. After a hen stopped laying, we’d sell it for fifty cents. The watermen would take a crate of them home, and they used to laugh about going home because the hens wouldn’t lay eggs for us, but they said when they got them on the rough water, taking them back to Smith Island, they always had eggs in the crate.

“During the Depression,” Taylor explained, “people just didn’t have anything. As for money at the store, you gave them credit. If a man didn’t pay you this week, he’s pay you when he got it.” Barter was always a pillar of this society.

“My father was a waterman. He crabbed and oystered. When he was sixteen years old, he was going out in the boat. Everybody took a gun when they went out because of getting geese. We lived a lot on waterfowl and things we’d kill ourselves. He didn’t know the gun was loaded, put it in the boat, and it went off and shot him in the temple. He was sixteen when it happened. He was rushed to Baltimore on the steamboat, and the doctor kept him there for three years. He lived in the doctor’s home. My grandparents paid the doctor by shipping oysters and crabs to his family – even apples, anything they could send by steamboat. When he got back down here, he still couldn’t talk. He had a plate in here (points to her head). Gradually he got back so that he could talk, but he always talked with a hesitation.”

SlackWater WynneFrom 1931-1940, Alice Taylor’s parents ran the J.H. Cullison boarding house at the creek end of Miller’s Wharf Road, complete with slot machines on the front porch. Alice and her sister cleaned and prepared the twelve rooms, and met some interesting guests. When Alice was 10 or 11, she remembers Captain Gus and the crew of the Wild Rose staying over summers. The Wild Rose was tucked away  in one of the deeper coves of Smith Creek, behind Jutland Neck. A powerful boat allegedly with two Palmer engines, it was used to run bootleg whiskey. Captain Gus and his crew had their own rooms and slept during the day. Alice used to make sandwiches for them.

The Wild Rose was a rumrummer. They just called them that. It was a black, long boat, about forty feet. The whole top of it was flat, except for a little place that Captain Gus would see through. It wasn’t furnished. I don’t think they even had bunks because the boat just went on business and it came back. They had an airplane, and if they needed parts or something, the airplane landed in the field over there and brought supplies and a mechanic to get it running. There were some nights they were shot at and they’d come in and have to call the mechanic to come and patch up the boat and get it ready for the next run. They had huge engines. When boats are riding on a plane, it looks like they’re hardly touching the water. They’d take off and all of a sudden these motors would kick in. It had to move because they went out into the Bay and into the ocean to meet boats that they picked the booze up off of. That’s a right good little trip, and it would have to be done all in the dark. I stood on that wharf and watched that boat go out and cried. It was so beautiful. I’d just never seen anything like that.”

Anne Grulich is deeple indebted to Jamie Manfuso, who conducted the interviews with Alice Taylor and other Wynne residents in 1995 for a longer work called, “The Water Life.”

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