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Sibleys to be captains of Urbanna Oyster Festival

Barbara and Alvin Sibley of Locust Hill
Each year the Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation honors certain individuals who have contributed to the local seafood industry—an industry that has played a vital role in the economic life of Middlesex County for centuries.

This year, Alvin and Barbara Sibley of Locust Hill will be so honored by serving as Captains of the 52nd Annual Urbanna Oyster Festival, which is set for Friday and Saturday, November 6-7.

The Sibleys married in 1950 and their union blended Barbara’s Deltaville boatbuilding heritage and Alvin’s family association with the Rappahannock River oyster fishery.

Barbara is the daughter of the late Johnny “Crab” Weston, a Deltaville boatbuilder and waterman, and Mollie “Crab” Weston. Johnny got his nickname “Johnny Crab” because of his proficiency in catching hard-shell crabs in pots.

Mollie got her nickname “Mollie Crab” from her husband, but her ability to build “good catching” crab pots also played a part.

Alvin’s father, Norman Sibley, and grandfather, Ned Sibley, were both oystermen/farmers. Alvin grew up on a 50-acre farm near where Middlesex Elementary School is today. His father worked the land, growing cucumbers, tomatoes and corn, and worked the water as an oysterman. 

Alvin’s first river job was culling oysters on the family oyster boat. The family worked the fertile grounds of the Rappahannock River and moored their boat on Whitings Creek near Locust Hill.
In 1957, Alvin and Barbara bought what is today J&M Marina on Broad Creek in Deltaville. They built both the marina and boatbuilding/repair shop. The Sibleys built their first deadrise boat to sell in 1961.

“Barbara helped me build boats,” said Alvin. “The first four boats we built we didn’t have to pay a dime for labor. They were 40-footers and used as pleasure craft.”

Today, people know Alvin as a master wooden boatbuilder—a man who has built 96 deadrise boats and who has repaired 10 times that many.

The blending of their boatbuilding and oystering skills has given the Sibleys a good life. Truth be known, Alvin and Barbara made as much money over the years working in the winter oyster fishery as they did in the summer marina and boatbuilding business. 

In the early 1980s, when diseases led to a decline in the bay’s oyster population, Alvin turned his focus back to boatbuilding. 

Several years ago Alvin was diagnosed with cancer. The Sibleys sold the marina and concentrated on repairing boats. Alvin gained a reputation as a master carpenter. He and his son Chris would go from boatyard to boatyard repairing old wooden boats. 

His battle with cancer has been ongoing, but Alvin keeps on working. He has slowed down, but still does some repair work. 

Alvin recently built several motorized models of deadrise boats to pass the time.

When asked what he enjoyed most—being a boatbuilder or a waterman—he quickly answered, “boatbuilder! When you finish a day’s work and sell your catch, there is nothing left of that day but a few dollars, and they go away quickly. But when you finish a boat, it’s around for a long, long time.

“I probably made more money catching oysters, but when people ask my occupation, I say, ‘I’m a wooden boatbuilder.’ ”

Charles Bristow, a longtime member of the Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation board of directors, said, “It wasn’t too many years ago that the lifeblood of this county was the oysters being caught in that river. Barbara and Alvin were part of that extraordinary culture, and we are honored that they are our Oyster Festival Captains this year.”

posted 09.09.2009

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