Issue: 31





 Greenbackville Crabber

Original Watercolor, 15" x 22"

$1,400 with custom frame



Greenbackville  ...

  small town, big influence

                          by Bill Hudson

During the last few years I've spent a lot of time reflecting on life .... the people, lessons, events, places, and decisions which bump or pull one along life's course. Once in a while something special happens when you're young that affects the remainder of your life. For me, that something special was Greenbackville, Virginia. And now, as an artist and senior citizen, every time I do a maritime painting, I still think of my days in Greenbackville.



Grandmom & Grandpop's house on the left
Greenbackville as viewed from Franklin City in 2008


I was born and raised in Baltimore and moved to Bel Air, Maryland for my high school and college years. But my fondest memories are from the summers that I lived with my grandparents in Greenbackville, a very small fishing community built on the Chincoteague Bay marshlands. During the 1950's, nearly all 300 residents were the families of watermen who fished, oystered, and crabbed the bay. Greenbackville was only 130 miles from downtown Baltimore, but going to the Eastern Shore of Virginia was like travel in a time machine. Many homes including my Grandpop's had no indoor plumbing, only outhouses. Honey pots were in each bedroom. Fresh water came from a hand pump. And you had better fill the priming jar with water before you stopped pumping. People in Greenback talked different. It was fast, very southern, difficult to understand, but fun to listen to. They call it "Tidewater English." I always looked forward to being with my three cousins Bonnie, Gayle, and Gloria who were nearly the same age as me and my brother Ernie. I didn't understand much of what they said at the start of the summer, but we were always laughing. And after a month-long visit I found myself talking just like them and enjoying the simple things of this small town. Things like watching Grandmom with her outdoor bonnet, prepare Sunday chicken dinner by starting with a live chicken and a hatchet. One quick whack on the chopping block and the headless chicken would jump around in front of us for its finale.





   Pop's Store as seen in 2008. In 1955, there

   was a storage building in the back and

   another to the right with an outhouse adjacent

   to it. The porch was not enclosed ... just wide

   open with a couple of benches.







There have never been stop lights in Greenbackville. In the 50's, there were only a few people who ever owned a car. On the main street were two stores, and a barber shop. But for me the big attraction was the canal ... a man-made, L-shaped harbor for the boats of watermen. My dad was once a waterman there. So was Grandpop. But by the mid-fifties, Grandpop had stopped working on the water and became the owner of "The Store" which was at the dock on Harbor Drive at the entrance to the canal. It was there solely for the watermen. Pop got there at 3am every weekday morning and cut pig skin baits for the trotliners. These were crabbers who preferred the long bottom-resting "trotlines" with many baits rather than using the newer crab pots. As the line was pulled into the boat over a roller, the crabs were scooped up with a dip net. Pop also sold Atlantic gas for all the crabbing boats. From 10am to 1pm the crabbers began returning to weigh their wooden barrels full of blue crabs at Pop's dock where a commercial truck waited for the daily catch.


After unloading, each waterman would dock his boat back in the canal and come sit in Pop's tiny store (which measured maybe 15' x 30' including the front porch). They'd grab a Nehi or Yoohoo soda from Pop's cooler, open a pack of Nabs (orange peanut-butter crackers), sit down with their rubber boots folded over at the knees, and start telling great stories. I sat there, with my daily lunch of a black-strap molasses sandwich, a can of Vienna sausage, and a moonpie listening to these guys like they were Mark Twain. Their stories were about the yearly "Pony Penning" on Chincoteague Island, or how the blue fish were running, hunting, how they had to tend their soft crab floats, or how Fish-and-Game had outlawed throwing corn in the fields to attract geese. Then they smiled and told how that just challenged them to figure another way to outsmart the law. They simply fed the corn to their animals who eventually crapped and did the corn spreading for them. The geese still came; and there was still dinner.


I remember clearly when "Mr. Crowley" told a story about how, in the ole days, he killed 50 ducks with just one shot at night from a "punt gun." I remembered this story for the rest of my life because I thought he was exaggerating for my benefit. But when I visited the "Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum" in St. Michaels, Maryland a short while back, there it was. A huge, 13-foot long 2-gauge shot gun, weighing 150 pounds, with a bore diameter larger than 2 inches, securely and horizontally mounted on a small flat-bottom punt boat. The article told how a waterman would row out to where the ducks had settled on the surface at night. One properly aimed blast could easily bring down 75 sitting ducks while propelling the punt boat backward with the recoil.


One day my Dad's Uncle Haywood came to the store and told everyone how he owned the dumbest two hunting dogs that God ever created. Of course someone asked how he knew. Then Haywood told the "story" of how he was out hunting rabbits. One dog started chasing a rabbit from Haywood's left side. The dog was bringing the rabbit around clockwise at full speed so Haywood could get a shot. At precisely the same time, the other dog flushed a rabbit out on Haywood's right side and was chasing him around counter-clockwise also at full throttle. Both rabbits were on a collision course as they approached each other with the dogs on their tails. So just before the moment of impact, the rabbits, being small but intelligent, crisscrossed. The dogs, being larger and well ... Haywood's dogs, hit head on, going as fast as they could run, knocking each other out cold. "True story" Uncle Haywood said.


It was customary that each waterman had earned himself a permanent nickname of sometimes obvious significance. I recall Boney (my Grandpop), Churney, Speckle, Spurge, Skinny, and Hotcha Baby. There were many more. These guys worked hard for little pay. They crabbed in the summer and oystered in the cold months. Many of the wives worked as crab pickers and oyster shuckers in the packing house near the elbow in the canal. My Grandmom was one.


On my first summer in Greenback, I found a derelict row boat partly buried in the beach at the mouth of the canal about 100 yards from Pop's Store. I dug it out of the sand and filled cracks with some rope-like caulk that Pop gave me. I got it to float, but Pop thought it was still unsafe for two reasons. One, the wood was rotted and two, I couldn't swim. So Pop taught me how. He tied a rope around my waist and threw me overboard from the dock in front of the store. Now I knew that Grandpop couldn't swim either (even though he spent most of his life on the water). Remarkably, that was not uncommon with some of those watermen. So I asked Pop, "What happens if the rope breaks?" He had a puzzled look to that question, so I was quickly dog-paddling. With only a couple of these lessons, Pop said I was OK to go swimming in the canal with the rest of the boys my age.


Grandpop let me fish all day from his dock. I liked bringing in big eels and tried to avoid oyster toads (a fish with a mouth full of teeth perfectly designed to crack oysters.) I had a dip net handy for scooping up an occasional crab and I'd wing an oyster shell at any terrapin that bobbed its head out of water. Since Grandmom and Grandpop liked all seafood, Pop showed me how to make an eel pot that speeded up the catch process and automatically culled out the small eels. It just meant Pop had to skin more eels.


Once Pop knew I could swim, he let me go out before sun up in the boats of the watermen to "help" bring in a day's catch. I think that is when I seriously caught it ... "crabbing fever." I loved it then and have ever since. Pop recognized my infatuation with crabbing and that's when he gave me a "boy's greatest gift." One morning I came to the store and Pop said, "Look out at the dock Billy. That white one's yours." It was a row boat and a good sized one. It held me, my brother Ernie, and cousins Bonnie, Gayle, and Gloria all at once with ease. I was in business within a day or two. Watermen gave me some of their discard pots. For bait I used my eels or some menhaden delivered early each morning to the dock by the commercial bait truck. I rowed out into The Chincoteague Bay every morning to empty my pots and rebait. Then I'd row out again around noon and maybe move them to another spot. I proudly brought home blue crabs every day for Grandmom to cook.


I quickly learned the differences between the male or "Jimmy" crab and the immature female "she-crab" and mature "sook" and "sponge" crabs. However, I could never recognize the "peeler" crab in any of its pre-moulting stages. That was a science crucial to watermen who delivered the highly prized "soft crabs" to markets. Crabbers must know the signs indicating a blue crab is about to shed its hard exterior shell to accommodate future growth. Immediately after moulting the new skin is very soft, "but if left in the water, that skin hardens rapidly. It becomes a "paper shell" or slightly stiff in twelve hours, "buckram" or crinkly hard in twenty-four, and hard in seventy-two."(1) The watermen need to carefully watch the shedding process. It is time critical to get the soft crabs out of water, and sent to market. The soft crab business was the reason that areas of the canal were filled with wooden "shedding floats" that the men tended round the clock with care.


Even as a 10 year old kid I wondered how people settled here and why they called it "Greenbackville." It sits right on the marsh, thick with mosquitos and no one appears financially wealthy although they all seem very content with their endless work. I also wondered why, just a few hundred yards away was another street with a few homes that people referred to as "Franklin City." One of those homes was where my dad was born. The short answer to my questions turned out to be .... OYSTERS !


"Around 1850 a wealthy businessman from New York anchored his schooner off the coast of an estate just south of Greenbackville owned by a prominent farmer named Henry Clay Lindsay. That night the New Yorker scraped the bottom of the bay to check the water's depth and came up with the biggest oysters he had ever seen. He offered Lindsay $1.35 a bushel (or twice the going rate) for as many as he could ship to New York City. As good as the offer was, Lindsay needed workers and there was the problem. Virginia law made it illegal to harvest oysters until you owned and occupied land in the state for one year.


Being resourceful, Lindsay subdivided his marshland into 1-acre plots that he sold for $100 each to future oystermen. As Greenbackville was growing with cheap land and plenty of oysters, Judge John R. Franklin, who owned the immediately adjacent marshland began selling similar but smaller lots for only $25 each. And as the landowners and oysters started pouring in, Franklin influenced the Washington & Atlantic Railroad to add a spur going right through his property and on to his marsh town now named "Franklin City." Soon there was a commercial pier, oyster packing houses, a barrel factory, a hotel, a Methodist church, and a store built in Franklin City alone. By 1890, there were two trains per day (with 1,600 bushels of oysters in each) shipping seafood from both Greenbackville and Franklin City directly to the big cities of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. "(2)


Within a decade, however, things changed. In 1896 a large fire nearly destroyed Franklin City. Oyster supplies had diminished from over-fishing and bivalve diseases. Severe storms had destroyed properties that were never rebuilt. But the fatal blow was the opening of the Chincoteague Causeway in 1922 which allowed cars and trucks direct access to the seafood of Chincoteague Island, particularly the world famous "Tom's Cove Oysters."


The steam train still ran daily to Franklin City when I was a 10 year old kid in 1954; but steam was being replaced by diesel and the train itself was barely needed since most of the seafood was being trucked directly out of Chincoteague. Still, one of my greatest memories was hearing that steam engine coming down the track very slowly, belching smoke and hissing steam past Pop's house next to the tracks. It was going another mile to the Franklin City dock. When I was lucky, I'd stand by the track and the engineer would stop the train and pick me up. He'd sometimes let me throw some coal in the boiler and blow the whistle as we traveled to the dock. I'd either walk back to Pop's or hitch that same ride. But either way I was as black as that coal.


I stopped spending summers in Greenbackville as I got into my teens and Grandpop retired completely. I learned a lot about life and a lot about myself during those summers. I drove my own family back there a couple of times when my children were young. I had hoped they might enjoy similar memories. But it was on those visits that I realized a big part of Greenbackville was gone when my grandparents had died and others had also moved on. The people are what make a place truly memorable. It was those people, that place, at that time, as seen through the eyes of a young boy that made a lasting influence on my life ... particularly as an artist. Greenbackville never left me and it is part of every painting. In honor of Greenbackville and the people who live there, I named my small art business Watermen Art. My last visit was six years ago with my wife Ellie and my little sister Kathy. I'll get back there again soon.


References:     1. Beautiful Swimmers, William H. Warner, Copyright 1976, 1994

                          2. Voices of the Chincoteague, Memories of Greenbackville and Franklin City, Martha A. Burns and Linda

                               S. Hartsock, Copyright 2007   Note: Given to me by my cousin Bonnie



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