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Retired VMRC oyster inspector is Urbanna Oyster Festival captain

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Richard Haynes (above) of Urbanna is this year’s Urbanna Oyster Festival Captain. The boat compass Haynes is holding above belonged to his grandfather, Johnny “Crab” Weston of Deltaville. Haynes was a VMRC oyster inspector for nearly 26 years. (Photo by Larry Chowning)

by Larry Chowning

Richard Haynes of Urbanna, a retired Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) oyster inspector, has been named 2013 Urbanna Oyster Festival Captain by the Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation.

Haynes worked out of Urbanna Creek as an oyster inspector for most of the 26 years he was employed by VMRC. He started as a mate aboard the 38-foot wooden deadrise oyster inspection boat James River and worked his way up to captain of the fiberglass VMRC boat Virginian. He retired in 2005. 

Haynes’ water roots run deep. His maternal grandfather and grandmother, Johnny “Crab” and Molly “Crab” Weston, were well-known waterfolk in the Deltaville community. Johnny was a boatbuilder, oysterman and, as his name indicates, a successful commercial crabber. The “Crab” in Molly Crab was taken from her husband’s nickname, but she was known for being an expert crab-pot maker and built at least one deadrise boat when her husband was disabled.

The Westons’ home was on Horseshoe Bend in Deltaville. “I can remember going down there and they’d have a boat under construction in the backyard that my grandfather was working on and a yard full of crab pots that my grandmother had made,” said Haynes.

Haynes grew up in Saluda, graduated from Middlesex High School in 1969 and from the University of Virginia in 1973 with a degree in history. After graduation, he worked at the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant in Louisa County for several years before being transferred to a similar facility in upstate New York.

“I guess I had been there about three months when some friends and I went to a restaurant-hotel on Lake Ontario,” he said. “It reminded me so much of the old Stingray Point Hotel that I got real homesick.”

A few weeks later, Haynes came home and got a job with the Virginia Department of Transportation. That lasted a few months and in 1979 he accepted an inspector’s job with VMRC.

“We were part of the Virginia Oyster Navy, the oldest law enforcement agency in Virginia,” he said. “It was founded in 1890 as a way to keep peace (during the oyster wars) among oyster growers and oyster harvesters.

“When I first started there were some amazing sights on the water,” he said. “I started in the late 1970s and the Virginia oyster fleet was big then. I guess there were 150 boats working the Rappahannock. Urbanna had oyster boats rafted halfway across the creek and was one of the main oyster ports on the river and in the state.

“The oystermen from Guinea (Gloucester County) were the best oystermen,” Haynes said. “They caught the most in a day and they used the longest shafts on their hand tongs. It proves how generational working the water is.

“I’ve seen oystermen out there when it was so cold that we had to break the ice with the fiberglass hull of the Virginian on Urbanna Creek to make a path in order for the wooden deadrise boats to get out of the creek,” he said. “I’ve seen watermen out there with icicles hanging from their beards and hats.”

Haynes inspected oysters on the entire river. “I got so I could look at an oyster and tell you whether or not it came from Water View or Deltaville,” he said. “The upriver oysters are rounder with a deep cup. The watermen would say the meat stands up in the shell. Oysters from upriver at Water View and Butylo were the slowest growing because there was more fresh water, but they had the fattest meats and often brought the highest price.”

Oysters at the mouth of the river grew faster but the meat often did not keep up with the shell, Haynes added. “Sometimes oysters looked mature but had small meats inside. They were called water culls by oystermen.”

Haynes also has the distinction of being the first Eagle Boy Scout in Middlesex County history. He earned the award in 1966. There had been a Boy Scout troop in Middlesex since 1922.

Charles Bristow, a member of the Urbanna Oyster Festival Board of Directors, said that oyster inspectors played an important role in Virginia’s oyster culture. “Richard was dedicated to his work and respected by all,” Bristow said. “We are delighted that he is going to be our captain this year.”

Haynes will be honored at the Oyster Festival by riding in the Firemen’s Parade on Friday evening and in the main parade on Saturday afternoon.

The 2013 Urbanna Oyster Festival will be held Friday and Saturday, November 1-2.

posted 10.02.2013

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