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Urbanna native, historian, civic leader named Oyster Festival grand marshal

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Larry Chowning of Urbanna is the 2017 Urbanna Oyster Festival Grand Marshal.
(Photo by Tom Chillemi)

by Tom Chillemi

Looking at Larry Chowning’s desk at the Southside Sentinel you might think he’s unorganized. You’d be wrong. In his files, and piles of papers, are decades of historical photos and documents discovered during his 40 years of digging up the past.

Chowning will be honored as grand marshal of the 2017 Urbanna Oyster Festival on Friday and Saturday, November 3-4.

Many local folks know to bring historical papers and items to Chowning for evaluation and so they can be shared with other history buffs through his writings. Many of his historical stories have appeared in the Southside Sentinel, where Chowning started as a reporter in 1981.

Chowning has been compared with John Boy of “The Walton’s” TV show. Like Walton, Chowning has written about the community in which he grew up, although many of his childhood memories have only been shared orally.

However, he has written extensively about the ways of watermen through five books on the Chesapeake Bay. Chowning’s 1990 book, “Harvesting the Chesapeake: Tools and Traditions,” preserved in print the ways of watermen, documenting how to splice rope, make a corn stalk broom, mend a net and much more. It was followed by “Chesapeake Legacy: Tools & Traditions.”

“Marsh rabbit”
His firsthand experiences add authenticity to his writing. For a time, Chowning tried harvesting from the water. He fished for eels and trapped muskrats in marshes. He’s written a story about how to cook muskrat as told by an old-timer who said a more appetizing name for the creature is “marsh rabbit.”

Chowning is at ease talking with folks who live close to the land and water, and speaking to groups such as museum patrons, history buffs, and historical organizations in Virginia and Maryland. He even was picked to exhibit on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for the National Folklife Festival.

Chowning is a storyteller. On a recent trolley tour during the Urbanna Founders Day Celebration, Chowning wowed the audience with his casual and humorous style. 

His list of accomplishments is long and one story could not cover them all. But remember this: no one in Middlesex County knows more about its history than Larry S. Chowning.

Early days
Chowning’s writing goes back to at least 1965. As a 15-year-old aspiring writer, he was a “stringer” reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which paid him a nickel a word. He covered the Middlesex Board of Supervisors, which was composed of three men who met in Urbanna.

Even then Chowning knew to capture the essence of a story. At one meeting, a supervisor called someone “a dirty rotten skunk” and Chowning quoted him.

When Chowning went to the next board meeting, the sheriff was waiting for him and, at the direction of the supervisors, the wide-eyed fledgling reporter was removed and banned from future meetings. (Those were the days of “smokey back rooms” and before Virginia adopted the Freedom of Information Act.)

National Fisherman Magazine
A field editor for the trade publication National Fisherman Magazine since 1980, Chowning is known and respected by those who make a living from the water. He continues to travel the region finding stories to further catalog the ever-changing ways that people make a living from the Chesapeake Bay.

Chowning’s books, which he sells, include “Barcat Skipper: Tales of a Tangier Island Waterman”;“Harvesting the Chesapeake: Tools and Traditions”;“Chesapeake Legacy: Tools & Traditions”; “Soldiers at the Doorstep: Civil War Lore”; “Chesapeake Bay Buyboats”; “Deadrise and Cross-Planked”; “Signatures In Time: A Living History of Middlesex County, Virginia”; “Urbanna (Images of America)”; and “Deltaville (Images of America).”

He’s currently working on his 11th book—another one about Middlesex.

Oyster Festival
Chowning and John England founded “Education Day,” which is held annually as part of the Urbanna Oyster Festival, then guided it for eight more years. Its mission is to bring an understanding of the Chesapeake Bay ecology, history, heritage and future to students and the public. Under the auspices of the Oyster Festival, it is now known as the Marine Science Legacy Program and Oyster Festival Education Day.

Chowning has served on the Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation Board and is currently serving his fourth term on the Urbanna Town Council. (He served two terms in the late 1970s and early 1980s.)

Family
Chowning and his wife Dee, who enjoys gardening, live in Urbanna in the home his great-grandfather built after returning home from soldiering in the Civil War. They are owners of Make Thyme, a garden and gift shop in Urbanna, and are members of Urbanna United Methodist Church. They have been married for 44 years and have three children, Damon, Peyton and Hannah, and six grandchildren.

Joe Heyman, chair of the Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation, said Larry Chowning has been an advocate for the Oyster Festival through the years. “Probably no one has done as much on the history of oyster culture through his research and writing. And, he took a major role in creating the recent oyster history display at the Urbanna Visitor’s Center and Museum.”

“Larry is a well-respected community leader,” said Heyman. 

Chowning said this week, “I want to thank the Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation for selecting me grand marshal. The festival is one of the most well-known festival events in Virginia and has, for a long time, played a positive economic role in the life of our county.

“It is much more than that for me though. My grandfather and grandmother, Raymond and Minnie Blake, and their ancestors before them, relied on the oyster beds of the Rappahannock for sustenance and as a way to earn money to live. The oyster greatly enhanced my mother’s family’s way of life and that of so many other families in Middlesex,” Chowning said.

“The festival is a tribute and a symbol of what the oyster has meant to our area and what it means today. Since our beginning, the one natural resource we have in Middlesex that has been generationally constant is our rivers, creeks and bay. A product of that, the Rappahannock and Piankatank river oysters, have helped, and are helping us today, to grow and prosper as a community. A positive byproduct of that is the Urbanna Oyster Festival,” he said. 

“Finally, I want to thank the hundreds of festival volunteers. The festival is 60 years old this year and throughout it there have been hundreds of extremely dedicated volunteers. Thank you all!” Chowning said.

posted 08.16.2017

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