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Cheering goes on for Deltaville deadrises

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Willard Norris, right, and Grover Lee Owens of Deltaville were honored during the Harborfest 2013 festivities for their careers as Deltaville boatbuilders. They are two of the last traditional wooden boatbuilders left and their boats can be found all over the Chesapeake Bay area and beyond. (Courtesy of Willard Norris)

by Larry Chowning

Several months ago, Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, had Eugene Evans of Crisfield, Maryland, fiberglass the hull of his wooden work boat.

When Brown brought the boat to Evans, the longtime boatbuilder and former waterman looked at it and said under his breath, “That’s a Maylon Green boat.” He recognized Green’s boatbuilding style immediately because the first wooden deadrise Evans owned was built in Deltaville by Green.

Another Deltaville boat has been recently spotted by Urbanna resident Bill Hight of the Chesapeake Bay Buyboat Association. Hight found the Virginia Estelle, built in 1931 by Linwood Price, still alive and active. She is now named the Mary Jemison and is owned by the Corn Hill Navigation Foundation in Rochester, New York. The vessel was converted to a cruise/education vessel and is currently for sale, said Hight.

“We are finding more and more Deltaville boats alive and working,” said Hight. “Part of the goal of the Chesapeake Bay Buyboat Association is to find and track buyboats that are still active.”

A buyboat is the largest of the deadrise style boats (ranging from 50-to-90-feet long) and was used to purchase oysters, crabs, and fish from watermen working in smaller deadrise boats on the fishing grounds. There are approximately 45 still alive. There were about 2,000 buyboats in existence during their heyday from the 1920s to 1950s.

During the evolution of wooden deadrise construction on the Chesapeake Bay, Deltaville boatbuilders perfected a style that became known as the Deltaville deadrise. The deadrise boats ranged from 12-foot skiffs to the 100-foot Marydel, built by Price in 1927 on Fishing Bay. It was the largest wooden deadrise ever built on the bay.

Deltaville-built boats went up and down the East Coast and the community was known far and wide as a center of wooden boatbuilding. Although Deltaville’s early boatbuilding culture has for the most part passed on with time, other regions still recognize the significance of the area’s boatbuilding heritage.

Last summer, Deltaville boatbuilders Willard Norris and Grover Lee Owens were honored for their longtime dedication to building wooden boats when the communities of Norfolk and Poquoson recognized their accomplishments.

Both men were awarded plaques in June at the 37th annual Norfolk Harborfest and Workboat Races, and in September Norris was recognized at the Poquoson Seafood Festival and Workboat Races.

At the races, Rainbow Chaser, a Norris 42-footer built in 1974, won in both Norfolk and Poquoson. Several of Owens’ boats were finalists in the races.

“They really let us know how much they appreciated wooden boats,” said Norris. “There were fiberglass and wooden deadrises running together but most of the people were cheering for the wooden boats.”

Read the rest of this story in this week’s Southside Sentinel at newstands throughout the county, or sign up here to receive a print and/or electronic pdf subscription.

posted 01.29.2014

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