I love the change of seasons and my favorite season of all is fall. Just to shuffle your feet through the leaves and smell the crisp air after a long summer is invigorating. When the kids were little, we’d make an annual fall pilgrimage from the Jersey shore down to St Michaels, Maryland, and spend the weekend with Esse, my old sixth-grade schoolteacher. Esse was a remarkable woman and really made a difference in my life and the lives of many others and we became fast friends.
We would begin the trip driving down the shore to Cape May and taking the car ferry over to Lewes, Delaware, then drive cross-country over to the Chesapeake. We probably could have saved a half-hour by taking the Jersey Turnpike to the interstate, but the ferry ride was well worth it. Not only would we enjoy a nice sea voyage, but we could stretch our legs halfway through the journey. The kids would save up all the stale bread for a week to toss to the seagulls who would glide and soar in the slipstream following the ferry looking for handouts. It was amazing the way the gulls would catch the pieces in midair and squabble over them.
Saturday was always spent at the Tilghman Island Day Festival, a fundraiser for the local volunteer fire department. Tilghman Island is the center of the Maryland oyster industry. On that one day a year, the firehouse turned into an eclectic cafeteria where you could get the freshest oyster stew, oyster cakes, oyster fritters, steamed oysters, roasted oysters, and, oh yes, even plain raw oysters on the half shell! They also had succulent steamed crabs, crab cakes, crab soup soft crabs, and fried clams along with fried chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries, cold beer, and soft drinks.
All-day live bands would play at the local park and there were demonstrations of clamming, oystering, crab picking, and oyster shucking. Other exhibits included local artisans such as a genuine blacksmith, using his coal-fired forge, bellows, and anvil. There was also a Nautical Yard Sale/Swap Meet where you could find all sorts of rare bargains. However, the most interesting to me was the sailboat racing.
Now Tilghman Island is the home of the last commercial sailing fleet in the country. According to state law, you can dredge oysters under power only on certain days of the week, but you can do it under sail anytime. Therefore, the ancient Chesapeake Bay “Skipjack” and “Bugeye” are still around. Some of which are 60 or 70 feet long with masts and booms the size of telephone poles! These classics haven’t changed in over 150 years and still sail the bay dragging their rakes along the bottom and making a livelihood for countless watermen.
In reality, whenever there are two or more of these old beauties within sight of each other, there is a race. However, once a year on Tilghman Island Day, an “official” race is scheduled, and the winner has bragging rights for the rest of the year. It’s a real thrill to see these hard-working giants take a day off from work and go through the same motions that countless of us here on Lake Lanier go through each weekend!
By far the most fun I had was at the commercial oyster plant, where they shuck oysters by hand and package them for sale all over the country. Imagine a well-lighted cinder block building with a concrete workbench running the length of one wall, and a conveyor belt running along the back. The belt runs constantly and disappears through a hole in the wall where it empties the oyster shells into a dump truck. Standing at the bench are about a dozen or so people wearing heavy rubber gloves and aprons and armed with shucking knives.
Bushels of oysters come in through a big door at one end of the building and are dumped onto the workbench where the “shuckers” pry the oysters out of the shell, put them into quart stainless steel measuring cups, and drop the empty shells onto the conveyor belt, where they eventually wind-up paving driveways or parking lots all over the Eastern Shore.
At the entranceway was a fellow shucking oysters for the visitors to sample. He gave me one and I pulled a bottle of “Texas Pete Hot Sauce” out of my pocket, put a drop on the oyster, and slurped it. He cracked up. Then I pulled a beer out of another pocket and popped the top. He thought this was even funnier, so I offered him a beer, he accepted, and I pulled out another one. Then he really lost it! He said this was the best thing he had seen all day!
I introduced myself and he told me he was Sidney, and that his brother owned the plant. When it was open to tourists, he volunteered to shuck oysters because the people who worked there got paid by how many containers they filled at the end of the day, and it wouldn’t be fair to ask them to do it. I asked if he had a tip jar and he said no so I said, “How about a coffee cup?” He gave me one and I rinsed it out, put a couple of dollars in it and as each group of sightseers came in, I explained that this was “Sidney, the World’s Greatest Oyster Shucker.” And that he was so good they wouldn’t allow him to compete in any of the contests, so he volunteered to do it for the visitors. He doesn’t get paid, but tips are appreciated.
Pretty soon there was a fistful of cash in the jar. I took some cash, crossed the street to the liquor store and came back with a case of beer which I distributed to all the workers. Needless to say, each year when I would go back, I’d walk into the plant, and Sidney would call out “Vinnie, My Man!” I’d respond “Sidney, My Man!” We’d hug then he’d open me an oyster, I’d hand him a beer and we’d play the scene all over.
Sunday morning Esse would always start with a gigantic “Eastern Shore Farm Breakfast” and a tour of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, but that’s a story for another day.
Our trip home always included a stop at a pumpkin farm about halfway across Delaware. Not only did they have some of the biggest pumpkins I had ever seen, but they had a corral of “Ugly Pumpkins – All You Can Carry For $5.” The kids would load my arms up until I was about to collapse, and I would stagger over to the cash register and pay for them. I’d also buy a gigantic pumpkin to carve up specially. (As a kid I grew up on Charlie Brown Comics and the “Great Pumpkin” looms large in my childhood memories.)
The kids are grown now, but as the weather changes, we still fondly recall those trips to visit Esse in Maryland each October and I’m still carving giant pumpkins. (My favorite is Garfield, who’s always a crowd-pleaser).
In Memoriam: Esse Merrill, 1921-1991.