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Charter boat veteran honored

by Larry S. Chowning

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John Dabney Miller, a retired waterman and charter boat captain, is the Captain of the Urbanna Oyster Festival.
John Dabney Miller of Locust Hill has been named Captain of the 51st Annual Urbanna Oyster Festival.

Miller has a long heritage with the Town of Urbanna, oysters, and the Rappahannock River. Most people know Miller as much by his boat as by his name. His 42-foot Chesapeake Bay deadrise workboat “John Boy” was a mainstay in the bay and river charter boat industry for decades. Miller worked mainly out of Broad Creek in Deltaville.

Miller grew up in Urbanna, attended Urbanna School, and as a boy worked with his father and brothers on his father’s charter boat in the warm weather months, and then oystered from the boat in the cold weather months.

He went into the service in World War II, and when he got out in 1946 he worked with his father Baynard and brother Dink hand-tonging for clean cull oysters in the Rapphannock and seed oysters in the James River.

When they worked out of Urbanna, the Millers sold their catch to oyster buyer Randolph Ashburn, who had a shucking house at the foot of Watling Street in town.  “I can remember three oyster shucking houses in town, and a smaller one up the creek,” said Miller.

In 1952, Miller left the water and went to work at the Naval Mine Depot in Yorktown. After he retired, the river called him home once again. 

He had Deltaville boatbuilder Paul Green build “John Boy” in 1976 and he returned to charter boat fishing.

This was his fourth wooden deadrise boat, and this one was built to last the duration, said Miller. Last year, after working the Chesapeake Bay for over 30 years, he sold “John Boy” and retired. 

“Since I was 18 years old I’ve had a captain’s license, and this year I let it expire,” he said with some sadness in his voice. “I hated to get rid of the boat but when you get old you’ve got to stop sometime.”

Miller is a typical Tidewater Virginia seaman. He still has a pair of oyster tongs close at hand in his garage. “It used to be when everything else was done, you could count on the oysters to be there,” he said.  “When my daddy and grandfather got old they had a pair of tongs around, and I guess that’s part of the reason I keep mine. I had to get rid of my boat, but I don’t have to get rid of my tongs.”

Charles Bristow, president of the Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation, said Miller was selected Captain of this year’s festival because he symbolizes the seafood heritage and culture of the Urbanna community in the days when making a living meant working the water.

“In the wintertime, oysters were what kept food on the table and money in the bank for most Urbanna families,” said Bristow. “John Dabney worked the water in those times and we are so very proud he is our Festival Captain this year.”

posted 10.08.2008

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