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Deltaville boatbuilder named Oyster Festival Captain

Deltaville boatbuilder Willard Norris (above) has been named Captain of the 54th Urbanna Oyster Festival. (Photo by Larry Chowning)

by Larry Chowning

Willard Norris of Deltaville has built wooden boats all his life and also was an oyster inspector with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC).

Because of lifelong work with boats and oysters, the Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation has named Norris the Captain of the 54th annual Urbanna Oyster Festival on November 4-5.

Norris can’t recall the first time he wheeled a foot adz to build a boat, but he knows he was mighty young. In 1927, Norris was born to a boatbuilding family in his grandfather’s home in Deltaville. In fact, he had boatwrights on both sides of his family.

His grandfather, Ed Deagle, built deadrise style boats on the shoreline in front of his Deltaville house, the house Willard was born in. His uncle, Pete Deagle, specialized in repair of Chesapeake Bay log canoes and worked right next door. Another uncle, Alfred Norris, built deadrise boats on Lover’s Lane.

“A many a time, I’ve watched my Uncle Pete haul a log canoe up at high tide on two logs and put chunks (logs) in it,” said Norris.

“I used to walk down the road when I was a child and watch [boatbuilder] John Wright build 65-foot-long boats with nothing but hand tools—a foot adz, hand planes, rip-saws—and that was it,” said Norris.

“I can take you right down the street and tell you who built boats where. “John, Ladd, Tom and Lewis Wright, Rob Dudley, Hugh Norris, Willie Marchant, Alfred Norris, all built boats right here on Lovers Lane.”

Norris and his wife Shirley live on Lovers Lane in Deltaville.

Norris learned a great deal about boatbuilding from his uncle Alfred Norris, whom he would help after school.

When he was 16 years old, Norris went to work in the summer for his uncle Lee Deagle who owned Deagle and Son Marine Railway, one of the largest railways in the area.

“There were so many woodworkers there in those days and they were all willing to give you a tip on this and that.” — Willard Norris

“I learned to set up and build a boat from my Uncle Alfred but I learned a great deal about working with wood at Uncle Lee’s,” said Norris. “There were so many woodworkers there in those days and they were all willing to give you a tip on this and that.”

Willard got married when he was 18 years old and the first thing he did was build himself a round-stern boat to go patent-tonging for oysters. “I started the boat in my backyard with no shed or anything,” he said. “John Wright was old then and his wife Blanche was my wife’s aunt, so he’d come by every morning and help me out.

“I laid the boat out the way I was taught but didn’t think the stern looked just right, so I asked Mr. Wright what he thought,” said Norris. “John Wright said, ‘Let me tell you something, you do it the way you think is right and if you need to change it, you can do it on the next one. But if everybody tells you how to build that boat, it’s going to be a damn mess.’ ”

In the 1960s, Norris went to work for VMRC but kept building boats at night.

Over 20 years ago Norris came down with pancreatic cancer and doctors gave him only months to live. Even when he was sick, he went to the boatshed and started building a skiff. “I couldn’t stop and then, when I beat the odds (of surviving cancer), I wasn’t strong enough for a long time to build anything but a skiff.”

In 2001, Norris decided to build one more deadrise and he turned out a 32-footer that he named “The Last One.”

Norris’ boatshed is the last active old-style backyard boatshop in Deltaville. Inside his shop, he has old wooden hand working tools that he has picked up at yard sales and others he has gotten from older builders in retirement. A block and tackle is attached to the rafters for hoisting and flipping hulls. Out back is the community boat trailer.

When boatbuilding was flourishing, several builders in Deltaville got together and had a trailer built to haul finished boats to the creek. It is complete with a V-cut into a wooden brace across the front axle to slip the deadrise bow into.

“When I needed the trailer I’d go to the last builder who used it and bring it to my place, haul my boat, and then store it behind my shed until somebody else needed it,” said Norris. “Nobody comes for the trailer any more. I guess I’m the last one.”

Foundation board member Charles Bristow said, “The Oyster Festival Captain is selected annually to honor the heritage and culture of the area’s oyster industry. The wooden boatbuilding industry was an important part of our oyster heritage. We are honored to have a true Deltaville boatbuilder, like Willard, as our captain.”

Norris said, “I want to thank the foundation for selecting me. I feel there are others more worthy but I’m honored to be a part of the Oyster Festival.”

posted 09.28.2011

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